After the big rains, a prodigious paint bulge in the vaulted ceiling plus rain gutters filled with shingle grit prompted a roof inspection, and revealed the need for a new roof. A herd of elephants, it seemed, started tromping overhead at 6:00 a.m., shoveling the 25-year-old shingles to the ground and driveway dumpster below. Somehow Dad managed to sleep through the racket—not Mom and me. The crew covered the curtilage with tarps, protecting the bushes and shrubs, and catching shingles and nails. The sun heated the tarps to such a degree that they burnt to brown the tops of every bush—Dad cut off the dead tops with his electric hedge trimmer. Mom and Dad instructed the roofers remove the old, ineffectual attic vents and fan, which they replaced with a ridgeline vent that looks like thicker shingles. The job was done in a single long day. The vent requires cutting an inch or two in the ridgeline plywood—the vent would not work without it. I poked my head into the attic to verify the cut was there—it was. Not thinking to wear a mask, my throat scratched for hours with insulation dust. Years before, Dad had installed a heat cable to prevent ice buildup on the eves. The roofers tore off and threw away the heat cable with the old shingles, except for two downspout heating elements left dangling from their outlets. The roofing company manager said he would have a new cable installed before Dad paid the bill. I was worried about the company taking advantage of my elderly parents, but the cost was in line with what the neighbors paid for their new roof. Now we can get the paint bubble repaired. Mom and Dad are proud of their home and have worked hard to keep it in excellent condition. They have faced life together in this home, and overcome. Here they have gathered their posterity to celebrate and mourn and strengthen. Sometimes, in the evening, we dawdle around to admire the beautiful yard. Sometimes we sit in the driveway watching the sun set and waving at the neighbors walking by with their dogs. Sometimes we sit on the back patio and stare at the imposing Wasatch mountains, where the mountain maple and gambel oak leaves are turning red. And we listen to the crimson-headed finches sing.
I have been thinking about marriage, that it is perhaps the most challenging of all human relationships. There is so much at stake, from our personal happiness, our financial security, our sense of place and purpose in the world, to our having a posterity to love and be loved by. Marriage is at once difficult and instructional. Marriage requires consecration and sacrifice, a constant negotiation toward a healthy and fluid balance of power, a vigilance for the welfare of another over the self, and a give-all commitment by both partners to the covenantal promise. I have been thinking that no relationship will teach us more about how to be human, and how to be divine. In marriage is the likelihood of experiencing life’s greatest pains of spirit and mind, and the possibility of life’s greatest joys, and very probably both. I think marriage generally works either to wonderful or to catastrophic effect. I have observed many successful and failed marriages, but none so carefully as Mom’s and Dad’s marriage, now in its 60th year. They shoulder every burden together. They discuss every problem and plan and posterity. They cry and plan and laugh and laugh. They are not two identical halves, by any means, but two congruent complementary components forming an entity complete. Dad does most of the talking, and Mom all the needlepoint. Dad calls “Lucille” throughout the day, telling her his every thought and impression. Mom at times snaps in exasperation, then rebounds with affectionate pats on his hand. Though my own marriage experience cannot emulate theirs, still I feel proud of my parents for sticking with it, for keeping the covenant, for showing the way. For my own part, the continuing opportunity is to keep my covenant with God, with my children, and with the broader family, and to lead a purposeful, contributing life. That is sufficient.
I live my days on the edge of anxiety, tense, waiting for the next unexplained bump or clang, in fear of the next fall, tense, nodding with sleep at my desk but ready to jump into action at the slightest premonition. The garage door opens, and I start at the sound, knowing Dad has ventured into the yard to clip or rake or hoe or mow or fertilize, and the temperature is 95 degrees, the sky cloudless, tool handles too hot to touch, the grass rotting and pungent in the can. My personal spiritual pursuit is to cultivate trust, a trust that life is beautiful and good, a trust that I can improve my character and mind, a trust that truth and goodness will prevail as often as possible, a trust that God is real and loves infinitely and actively, that he redeems and pays personal attention and dispenses mercy abundantly to all who want it. That is my labor. I feel tired. I’m going to go check on Dad.
Mom received a letter that Dad’s urologist had retired, and to call for an appointment with the new urologist. She called in July for an appointment in September. Arriving home late from work, I saw immediately how exhausted Mom and Dad both were after their appointment. They told me they had waited for over an hour to be seen by the doctor. I felt immediately furious that people who were old and feeble and sick were made to wait an hour past their scheduled time. The exertion of waiting, compounding the exertion of getting to and from the office, left them spent and sick. I sent a complaint to the practice, telling them it is negligent to make such patients wait so long to be seen, the wait itself worsening their conditions. I have prevailed upon Mom to make future appointments for a day and time when I can take them. I am going to have to demand they be seen promptly and not made to wait. Being fragile, the last thing they need is the irony of their care providers jeopardizing their patients by leaving them waiting in exhaustion for their care. I am curious to see if the practice will be defensive or will acknowledge they could have and should have done better, and will do better next time. Fortunately, the care they finally received was acceptable. And a next time may not be necessary. The doctor said to Dad, “Look, you’re 86. If you don’t have prostate cancer by now, you never will. You don’t need to see me again unless something changes.” He renewed Dad’s prescription in perpetuity. True to their character, Mom and Dad did not complain but graciously accepted the blessing of that being Dad’s last visit to the urologist.
Roger to his neurologist ten years ago: “I had a brain MRI two years ago.”
Neurologist to Roger: “Really? What did it show?”
Neurologist: “Really?! Well, I’m sure it showed that you have a brain!”
Roger, soto voce, Oh, you are just so clever, aren’t you?
Mom describes her brain MRI as a horrifying experience, one of the worst experiences of her life. And this from a woman who had her childhood cavities filled without Novocain. Despite the standard-issue ear plugs, the rhythmic clanging banging of the MRI machine smashed past the plugs and into her cranium and rattled around tortuously. While I fell asleep during my last MRI, she did not know if she would survive hers. She was so spent and disoriented after the scan, she found walking implausible and opted for a wheelchair, and was never happier to be home in her recliner. I will see to it that her next MRI is preceded by a dose of valium.
Her MRI report has come in, with its “supratentorial” this and its “intraparenchymal” that, showing conditions “not unexpected for age” but otherwise “normal in appearance.” No signs of stroke. No tracks of tumor. No inklings of inflammation. Mom wanted to jump for joy, but settled for a grinning cheer and a shaking of upraised hands. She felt so relieved! So did I. But the mystery of fainting and abrupt general decline remains. Still, with nothing now to fear, Mom has resolved to resume exercising on the stationary bicycle and walking to the mailbox and back. Get well cards arriving by U.S. mail all look forward to her quick and total recovery. And her name is being uttered in many a fervent prayer.
Dad’s hobby is reading. He is the smartest man I know, reading biography, theology, philosophy, history, fiction, science, etc. He indulges his hobby from 10:30 p.m. until at least 2:00 a.m., every night. One night’s literary fare may be the Book of Mormon, the Bible, or other scripture. Another night may be The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels or Rumpole of the Bailey stories. Often he reads the World Book Encyclopedia, the next day telling me everything he learned during the night. Did you know nectarines spontaneously appeared on a peach tree in China over two millennia ago? Other days he reads books his children gave him for his birthday or Christmas, when book gifts are a sure thing. During those late-night reading hours, Dad listens to the music of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, particularly his Bachianas Brasileiras (my translation: Brazilian musical pieces after the manner of Johann Sebastian Bach). Having been a missionary, post-graduate student, minister, and international lawyer in Brazil, he loves Brazilian music. And he loves the Brazilian people. In 1971, while finishing the sweat equity on the new Baker house in New Jersey, a cassette tape of the Bachianas kept him company. At a particular point in Bachiana No. 7, an electrifying sensation suddenly swept through him, a visit from a spiritual plane, and he knew somehow that he would be asked the following year to take his family to Brazil to oversee the Church’s missionary work. The impression came to pass, and our little family went to Brazil for three years— I was eight years old. I, too, love the Brazilian people, and the food, and the language, and the music. Villa-Lobos—what a cool-sounding name—and it has a fun meaning as well: city of wolves. Heitor City of Wolves. Bachiana No. 7—at counter 16:55 in the Tocata/Desafio. World Book Encyclopedia: N for Nectarine. Two a.m. and all is well.
Music is always playing at Mom’s house. As a boy, I awoke on Sunday mornings to the sounds of Bach and Brahms and Beethoven filling the house. I associated music with Mom, and with home. On my 15th Christmas, she introduced me to Aaron Copland, whose music was the first to stir my soul in otherworldly ways. I learned to change out dull needles and set the stylus on the vinyl track I wanted to hear. Now, instead of one side of an LP, she places five CDs in the player, and pushes play for five concert hours. I hear the bossa nova of António Carlos Jobim, Von Williams’ Fantasy on Greensleeves, the symphonies of Mahler and Janáček, Copland’s quintessentially American ballet scores, Bartok’s concerto for orchestra, Barber’s concerto for violin, the virtuosic guitar suites of Villa-Lobos, Arty Shaw’s swinging clarinet, Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. . . . I love them all. Her collection has inspired my musical loves, and I have lately expanded her eclecticism with Ceumar, Tó Brandileone, and Cainã Cavalcante, brilliant contemporary Brazilian artists. Music has some mysterious power to move us and to fill the corners of the spirit reason alone cannot seem to reach.
Dad’s daily lunch fare is—gasp—onion sandwich. (I do not like raw onions in any form or food.) He insists on the large Wala Wala or Vidalia mild sweet onions. With the onion cut in two, an inserted fork keeps one half in place while he cuts a large sandwich slice, which goes on multi-grain bread with a slathering of mayonnaise and spicy mustard, a slice of tomato, a square of Swiss cheese, and leaves of lettuce, with potato chips on the side and a cold Diet Coke for refreshment. Dad keeps telling me how delicious his onion sandwiches are, and I keep telling him I will try one someday. I don’t know that I will.
I was in a hotel elevator, at a conference on domestic violence prosecution, in Provo, Utah, when I learned of the attacks on the Twin Towers. The scheduled speakers yielded to the television screens as we watched, stunned and horrified. Twenty years later, I walked amidst 2,977 American flags planted in a field, a Healing Field, in my new residence city of Sandy. Each flag had a tag with a name and a story of where he worked, how she was loved by family and friends, what their hobbies were, their age, their loved ones, and the location of their death: World Trade Center; Pentagon; Flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field near Shanksville. I read a hundred or so tags on flags flying for the people who died on 9/11/2001. I had dressed in a jacket and tie, thinking it fitting. The next day I drove Mom and Dad slowly around the field, twice, because they couldn’t walk, but they wanted to see, they wanted to honor, and I told them about the persons I had read about—the Flight 93 pilot, the World Trade Center trader, the Pentagon general, the child traveling with her mother, the secretary, the cook. And the next day I descended on the field with 300 other volunteers to remove the tags, roll up the flags, and yank the three-foot rebar from the ground, one each for 2,977 persons, including 411 first responders, whom we have promised to always remember. I rolled flags and yanked rebar with people aged from 10 to 80. One of the octogenarians poked me with the butt of a flag, and apologized, and I joked, “You know, I have always been told to watch out for pretty ladies rolling up American flags,” and she laughed. A small older man followed me and others as we pulled rebar from the ground, carrying heavy stacks of the stuff to the flatbed trailer. I called him “Rebar Man” but his real name was Ishmael Castillo, a brawny little man with a big soft heart who came to help. I thanked the organizer, and he gave me a 20-year commemorative bronze medallion. I saw the Alta High School NHS photographer looking in the now-empty field for his lost lens cap, and I asked him if he had received a 9/11/2021 medallion, and gave him mine, because I had bought one for myself on 9/11. “That is amazing,” he gasped his thanks. The empty field will endure, now, until 9/11/2022.
The desk on which my computer sits and at which I sit to type these vignettes is not a desk at all. It is a repurposed kitchen table. In fact, it is the very first kitchen table my young wife and I bought for our very old new home. It was made of typical gold-colored pine slats with white-painted legs. That small table served our little family for years. When the little family became a big family, we needed a larger kitchen table. The old table was passed from room to room as a desk for various children. Erin stained the table top a darker brown and painted a green-and-maroon border, with blue flowers on vines in the center. I thought it was beautiful. During my six-month exile of separation, I took the table to my construction zone quarters as my writing desk. I had gathered notes and observations for nearly 20 years, determined to someday write my book. I had felt compelled for years to write it, but never made the time. But now a chiding thought nagged at me: You’ve always wanted to write your book. You will never have a better time to do it. Now is the time. So, I got to work. Nights and weekends I typed up my chicken scratch notes, many written as I walked on Rabbit Lane, elaborated my thoughts, printed and sorted and organized, reassembled and knitted together the stories in chapters, until the manuscript took its first breath as a real creature. I published the book in 2016, entitling it Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road. I felt better about this book than anything I had ever accomplished. I knew I had done it well and had made something beautiful and worthwhile. As we placed the old kitchen table turned writing desk into the moving truck last month to bring it to my new office at Mom’s and Dad’s house, a leg irreparably broke off. I was prepared to let the desk go, despite its sentimental value, but while I was at work Dad and a friend sank three long screws to repair the desk for my ongoing writing. I am hoping one day to prepare new manuscripts of which I can be equally proud. And I never see those blue flowers in the center of the table without remembering my daughter Erin and her beautiful artistic soul.
After a 30-year career in New Jersey, Mom and Dad retired to Utah, purchasing a home close to the Wasatch mountains. Loving the beautiful eastern forests, still they yearned to come back home to Rocky Mountain country. After dinner, Dad often retires to a chair on the back patio. Mom joins him there. They listen to the ebullient songs of finches and wonder at their happiness. They watch the mountains in all their moods, under sun, in storm, green with rain, dusted with snow, and desert dry. They remember old adventures: dragging a juniper root off Mount Timponogos and turning it into a red cedar lamp; hiking to Lone Peak with not quite enough food and water, and being aided by other hikers; the moose on the mountain trails; fly fishing for trout during a drizzle; boulder-hopping on the ridge to the Little Matterhorn; parties and picnics with children laughing. Such evenings are the perfect setting to remember good times, talk about how much we love our families, and listen to joyful birdsong.
Dad keeps his lawn green and trimmed and mowed. The lawn gets nourished monthly with the correct kind of fertilizer, and enjoys a haircut twice a week. Donning a straw hat against the sun and potential skin cancer, he drives his red riding mower, curving around the beds of bushes and flowers, happy to be in the saddle. A neighbor commented, “Nelson, you are the most determined man I’ve ever seen in caring for a yard.” One Friday night in spring, Dad asked me if I would fertilize the lawn first thing Saturday morning so that the coming snow would dissolve the fertilizer into the turf. Come morning, however, the lawn was buried in four inches of heavy wet snow. Not wanting Dad to be disappointed, I ventured to push the spreader anyway. With two wheels on the “ground” the spreader merely pushed against the snow. But with one wheel on the ground—the wheel geared to the spreader—and the other elevated, I made good progress. It is often hard to see where one has fertilized because the spreader swath is three feet on either side, and I lose track of where I’ve been. I did not have this problem now because the fertilizer sat on the surface of the snow. Unfortunately, the grains of this particular fertilizer were yellow, and now Dad’s entire yard was covered with yellow snow. Dad was astonished, having never seen fertilized snow. He commented, “Roger—it looks like the whole lawn was trampled by peeing deer.” Indeed, deer are frequent visitors, eating down spring’s lily shoots. Just yesterday I watched a nearby mule deer doe watching Dad as he string trimmed. Now, at summer’s end, the grass is green green. Dad cut the grass again last night. Now it’s my turn to do my job: take the push mower around the places where the riding mower can’t easily maneuver. And empty the bags of cut grass.
Arriving homing from work, I observed Mom ironing white linen handkerchiefs. Not knowing people who use handkerchiefs, let alone iron handkerchiefs, I inquired. She told me that when I was an infant in Brazil—(Dad was a post-graduate Fulbright law student at the University of São Paulo)—she would push me in the stroller down the noisy urban streets to the American consulate to retrieve their mail and to check out books from the consulate library. On occasion, just for the fun of exploring, she would board the street car and ride it to the “fim da linha,” the end of the line, to see what there was to see. Hearing of women who sewed lace, she rode to the fim da linha and walked to the little lace shop. Beautiful hand-sewn lace lined shelves and graced tables. With little money for nonessentials, she chose several thin white handkerchiefs into which were embroidered white vines and leaves and flowers. Nearly 60 years later, she held them with care and ironed them free of their wrinkles. Some of the stitching has come out, but still left are the needle holes and impression patters of where the lace used to be. Beautiful things made by beautiful people so long ago at the end of the street car line.
I am wallowing in self-reproach. Mom fell in the shower. She does not remember falling. She remembers only waking up on the floor, the water sprinkling down on her, the door flung open. And I did not know. And Dad did not know. I asked her at breakfast about the scratch on the bridge of her nose, but she did not know where it came from. As she sat in her Sunday dress, ready to go to church, Dad asked her how she felt. “Not so good,” she said, seeming very tired. I passed it off as a symptom of the sinus infection she is getting over. She told me later about her slumping from her chair. That morning I had awoken with a start when I thought I heard a bang. I could hear water tinkling. Remembering how the shower door clangs when it closes, I thought nothing more of it. We went to church like normal, moving a little slower. I cooked all afternoon to give Mom and Dad a nice Sunday dinner: tilapia poached in white wine with green onions, sauced with creamy mushroom-clam sauce. For dessert I made crepes stuffed with vanilla-cream sauced apples. It all tasted divine. But all I could think about as I cooked and ate and washed dishes was not being there when Mom needed me. I was there, in the same house, on the same floor, in the room next door, with Mom lying unconscious on the shower floor, being drizzled with warm water. But I was not there for her. I could have revived her, helped her up, given her care and attention. But I was not there. All this fancy French food and the effort it took and the palatable pleasure it brought meant nothing. What would have meant something was following through on the waking start and investigating assertively and helping my mother when she needed me. The bruise on her cheek bone is starting to show.
Dad loves his yard care tools, especially the power tools. The only power tool we owned growing up in East Brunswick, New Jersey was the push mower, with no power drive, for the half-acre corner lot at 2 Schindler Court (named by the developer-friend of Mr. Schindler of Schindler’s List). Now Dad enjoys a set of DeWalt battery-powered tools, including one of his favorites, the hedge trimmer. He often trims the bushes nicely round. But the trimmer cannot grab and cut the shoots along the ground, and bending and kneeling is out of the question. I, on the other hand, can (barely) bend and (barely) kneel, and I like the small hand pruner. So while Dad shapes the bushes, I kneel on a cushioned pad and reach under the bushes to cut their runners and shoots, leaving a collection of uniquely and pleasantly shaped orbs. The hard-to-get-to places are the ones longest neglected, but turning attention and effort to them yields pleasing results. There’s a metaphor there somewhere.
The negotiated terms of my ouster included me rescuing my children’s artwork from the attic storage closet. I wanted these paintings displayed and my children honored. They had made oil, acrylic, and collage paintings on old plywood, cardboard, canvas board, and posterboard. Many pieces were very good. Determined, I took a framing class at the Tooele Army Depot morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) facility. I learned to measure and cut the mats and the glass, assemble the frames, and apply the backing. I felt joyful and proud to hang these excellent art pieces on the walls of my apartment, which my father came to call my “art gallery.” They included scenes of Lisbon streetcars, Rio de Janeiro’s Cristo Redentor, the romantic streets of Paris, African villages, Korean dancers, and New York City street corners, plus a Panda Bear and a Great Blue Heron. The most venerable painting hanging on my apartment walls was an oil Dad painted in the 1950s of two children, a boy and a girl, walking hand-in-hand down a forest path. To move them safely, I wrapped these jewels in plastic and stacked them carefully in the Mom’s and Dad’s basement. After two weeks, I found myself ready to decorate my two rooms, too small to accommodate all the paintings I had framed. And I suddenly found that my connection to them was touched with old despair. For now, I will gently store them to await a time of greater healing and permanence, when I will take them out and again proudly display them. Now is not the time or the season. They are like so many priceless museum pieces wrapped in protecting plastic and stowed in crates, awaiting their grand retrospective. In the meantime, I have hung in my rooms several of Mom’s beautiful needlepoints, prints I bought on various trips, and the old oil of two children walking through the woods, holding hands.
On the way home from work, I stopped to buy a big bottle of Round-Up herbicide. Those pesky weeds keep popping up in the shrub beds and under the pine trees. Virginia creeper seems impossible to extirpate. As a teen, Dad taught me to mix concentrated pesticides with water in a three-gallon pressurized spray tank. With rubber gloves and a long sleeve shirt, I mixed the poison and sprayed the fruit trees against aphids and borers. Dad strictly instructed me never to get the pesticide—especially the concentrate—on my skin, and if I did to wash immediately with soap and water. He told me how these chemicals had killed people who touched them, or breathed their vapor. I took his word for it and followed his instructions carefully. A decade later I came across a first edition of Rachel Carson’s 1962 masterpiece Silent Spring, and carried it around for another decade before reading it. The book exposed the pesticide and herbicide industries for the dangerous nature of these chemicals to humans, animals (think DDT and Bald Eagle eggs), and ecosystems. Of course, all those chemicals have since been banned for home use because they, in fact, killed people. I am still careful with Round-Up, not spraying on a windy day, and washing with soap after. How glad I am that sensitive, smart, and courageous persons like Rachel took on the industrial complex at great personal sacrifice to share messages of truth larger than themselves. To introduce my book Rabbit Lane: Memory of a Country Road, and in admiration for how Rachel changed the world, I wrote this poem, expressing my sentiments 50 years after she penned hers.
not silent quite.
the growing hum
The arctic willow bush tends to grow wildly, a thicket of unruly blue hair. And twigs die and turn brown in the midst, marring the uniform soft blue. Dad has always diligently pruned out the deadwood. This weekend he asked me if I would find that one elusive dead twig and cut it out. After a pine branch attacked me (see prior Pruning Pine Trees post), I wrestled my way into the willow tangle in search of brown. Like with the pine tree, once on the inside I found much invisible dead wood to cut out. I threw each brown branch onto the lawn, cut them up in short lengths, and filled an entire garbage can. Stepping back from the bush, there was that elusive brown twig still peeking through. Finally I found it. What a different removing the brown made to the quality of the blue. Nature is full of instructional principles, like how cutting out the dead keeps the living healthy and beautiful.
I have kept a journal since I was a teenager in the late 1970s. My journal isn’t a diary of daily occurrences, but a collection of documents containing my thoughts, insights, struggles, joys, accomplishments, activities, and feelings, and those of others with whom I am closely connected, mostly family. All these documents go into one-inch black three-ring binders, the dates printed on the spines, lined on my bookshelves. Continue reading
My son, Brian Wallace Baker, a recent MFA graduate in creative non-fiction and poetry, wrote this kind post as a gift to me. I am deeply touched and grateful. Brian’s post:
As a writer, I think a lot about other writers, how some get big book deals, big prizes, and how even these writers aren’t household names. And it’s rare for a writer, no matter how popular, to be remembered beyond their generation. Thinking about this has made me realize that fame and success have little to do with being a good writer. There are so many good books out there, and more being written and published all the time, and most of them will have relatively small audiences. And that’s okay. I’ve learned that good writing has a lot more to do with changing hearts than it does with seeking fame and fortune.
I highly recommend this book. Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road can be purchased here: Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.
Thank you, Brian.
(Photo by Brian Baker.)
With the plan in place, and the miracles having come about, the time to get to work had arrived. Boxing. Cleaning. Moving. Adjusting. Saying good-byes. And with that work came the second guessing. What was I thinking to invite this change? I am moving from my home, where I am comfortable and safe. I will be lengthening my commute from 3 miles to 53, from ten minutes to an hour, each way. I will be working day and night, six days a week. I will be living in someone else’s space. I will be giving up my solitary time for reading, writing, and film. Did I do the right thing? And yet, I know with a conviction, as powerful as any I ever received before, that this is the right thing to do. This is missionary work, and I have been called to this mission. I am holding on to that sure knowledge as I enter into a time of transition, a time of belonging neither in the old place nor in the new. I am holding onto that conviction and moving forward with faith, however weak.
A lion sits on my bed, a little lion, named Little Growler. He clambers onto my pillow each morning after I make the bed. Hello Little Growler, I say. He guards the small house all day. And he shuffles off to his secondary perch when I draw back the blankets at night. He does not demand anything of me. He does not growl or bark or mewl or drool. He does not whine or glare or fume. Little Growler came to stay when I moved away. She brought him with her one day and introduced us. She knew I was alone now. She was 9.
When she turned 10, Olaf skated home with us from Disney on Ice. He joins Little Growler with a grin that refuses to dim. Pooh Bear with his round rumbly tumbly completes the trio, wandering in from California when the girl was not quite 2 and we met a giant Pooh and a giant Tigger and they happily squeezed in with us in a photo of the family: together.
I wave to the threesome at night – company in the dark is comforting – and manage to smile and say Good night little friends and remember Hannah at 9 and 10 and 2 and know we have had some happy times and I am not irreparable and I am very much alive and moving into something mysterious and beautiful and that Little Growler will be perched on my pillow when I come home at night.
They Fell from the Sky
Hundreds of them. Eared Grebes. The birds precipitated from inside crystalline clouds where the sunlight flashed in an infinity of ice atoms swirling and refracting in a frozen explosion of brilliance, as if the sun raged coldly right there inside the clouds. The birds became utterly hopelessly disoriented in the icy intensity, blind, not knowing up from down. Hundreds of grebes dropped from the mists to bounce into buildings, cars, trees, yards, and parking lots. And there she stood, unmoving, in my parking space, her olive-brown feet stuck frozen to the ice. My office key made a crude chisel for chopping around her toes – they bled and flaked skin already. I wrapped her in my coat and sat her in a box by my desk, with cracker crumbs and a bowl of water.
The children begged to open the box and see what was scratching inside, and exhaled exclamations of wonder when they saw. What IS it? She’s an Eared Grebe. Look at her pointy black beak, her long flaring golden feathers that look like ears, and her crimson eyes. Do you know what you call a group of grebes? A Water Dance! Can’t you just picture the family flapping and paddling and splashing their delighted dance on the lake?
What are we going to do with her? Can we fill the bath tub? Our grebe paddled around with obvious enthusiasm. What are we going to feed her? How about fish! Tub-side with a bag of goldfish, the children clamored for the privilege of feeding their bird. Our compromise: eight hands held the bloated bag and poured. She darted after the fish in a flash of black and gold and red, a little paddling package of magnificence. Look at her feet – no webbing. Look at how her toes unhinge with little retractable paddles. Wow! came in whispers.
That needling question of what to do with the bird in the bathtub? We would try a nearby pond, and hope for the best. The children watched her swim away and they looked sad and happy and I sensed how singular a blessing to have welcomed that bit of living feathered grace into our human home, to release her willfully, to be moved by her wildness and beauty. And I hoped a small sliver of that exquisiteness would stay behind in memories of hinged toes and golden ears and red red eyes, and of creatures that dance on the water.
The Wrong Shade of Blue
On my desk stands an assortment of cheap pens, conference swag stamped with the names of cities and malls, colleges and garbage haulers, hospitals and law firms, architects and engineers and janitors. Some are fat and uncomfortable to grip, like writing with a broomstick. Some scratch the paper with stiff unrolling ball points. My favorite boasts a three-inch ruler, a level, and a screwdriver bit in the top: the engineer. The pens rise from a rough clay jar we turned so awkwardly on a wheel when we were together and laughing and making a memory – Continue reading
This was his modus operandi:
arriving at a mountain lake and settling the family with picnic baskets and chairs and tackle boxes and poles, our father walked the perimeter, heading off on a trail if there was a trail, through bushes and over-and-around tree trunks if there wasn’t, to scout the best fishing and to gather perspective of lake and forest and meadow and bog and picnicking family from every vantage point to find what he could find. He looked small on the opposite shore Continue reading
Curtains and Veils
Only a cloth curtain separated the little boy’s anticipation of surgery from my own. But he was only two and didn’t know what was coming and had two kind parents who spoke in cheerful optimistic soft voices and kind nurses and kind doctors who smiled and were soft and kind.
I am always very careful to say nothing when awaking Continue reading
A Tree to Remember
At the time, I felt proud and childlike and utterly cheerful to plug in the new two-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree with multi-colored lights pre-strung—just slide it out of the box and plug it in—and skirted with a checkered flannel pillowcase hiding three plastic feet. I hung fragile little ornaments I keep in an egg carton. This lighted loaded twig brightened my living room, a quiet understated new friend demanding nothing of me, content to glow and keep me company. Continue reading
That was the morning I awoke late and feeling groggy and foggy and depressed and sluggish, as in, like a slug. And I had been feeling so well. I will never take melatonin again at one o’clock in the morning, or for that matter at any other time of the day or night again ever. Which I also said the last time this happened. The tablets I have flung in the trash, and the bottle tossed into the recycling box for the next time I visit my parents, who have a giant green plastic recycling can the city empties Monday mornings. Saturday is a good day to do the laundry, I shrugged,