Archive for the 'Family' Category

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 1: The Ocean

One of the reasons I have posted so infrequently this year is that my little nuclear unit have been busy adventuring and having fun every weekend for as long as I can remember. Millie’s developmental leap out of diapers and her ability to travel further by car without getting crabby (I actually have trouble with this myself) — along with our dedication to living life NOW in light of unsolicited reminders from the universe in the past two years that life is shockingly short and precious — resulted in a spring, summer and fall in which we seemed to spend every free moment doing something fun, new, or family-centric or all three.

It’s too much for the full Just Wondering narrative treatment, but it all strikes me as worth recapping, and because I know that even as a recap it will be a monster by the time I’m done with it, we’re going to take it one adventure at a time and it will take as long as it takes. So here’s the first installment:

Long Beach

We used to go to Oregon to visit the Pacific Coast, but it proved to be too long a drive with infants, so we started looking at beaches closer to home and found that Washington beaches have their charm, even if it’s not particularly sophisticated charm (like other rural areas Long Beach is a bit depressed, and the city of Long Beach has had a lot of high profile methamphetamine and other drug arrests in recent years, though we didn’t see any overt signs of that), and folks was mighty friendly. We’ve now been to Long Beach a number of times. This was a spur of the moment trip that Angela cooked up in March. No one is better than she at short-notice logistics. I had just started a new job and was not yet eligible for vacation, so my boss and I feigned my illness. We stayed in a cute rustic motel just a short walk from the beach. Mara rode a horse — Cisco — without being led by a biped for the very first time, and I put my foot in the stirrup for the first time since I left the ranch in Ohio 22 years ago. 

Our year of adventures started in mid-March at Long Beach, Washington.

Our year of adventures started in mid-March at Long Beach, Washington.

Pedaling around the old neighborhood.

Pedaling around the old neighborhood.

We didn't hurry in this surrey...and it had no fringe on the top.

We didn’t hurry in this surrey…and it had no fringe on the top.

The Magnificent Four. I'm on Brassy, Mara Cisco, and Angela and Millie Doogan (sp?).

The Magnificent Four. I’m on Brassy, Mara’s on Cisco, and Angela and Millie are on Doogan (sp?).

Messing about in books

Mara did not jump into a love of reading at an early age. Being read to, sure, and being told stories…always and without end. But not reading on her own. This is something I’ve had to work hard to accept as a parent, and especially as a parent who, in the days before dishes and laundry whelmed my life o’er, was once an avid reader. Mara can read very well when she wants to, and in the two or three months since Angela gave her a booklight her normal bedtime behavior after lights out has gradually shifted from playing in the dark with dolls and horses to reading books. It’s so quiet in there we think she’s fallen asleep, but she’s reading. At various times in the past she has occupied herself in bed with books, but mostly it was looking at pictures. She never liked slogging through big blocks of text. Her favorite books were the critically acclaimed graphic novel series, Bone, by Jeff Smith. Lots of evocative imagery (much of it rather scary for a seven- or eight-year-old, I’d have thought), and minimal text, all of it dialog. While the Bone books will always occupy a revered place on our bookshelf (I fell in love with them after an initial revulsion based on a quick flip-through), Mara has lately moved on to Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones and other text-heavier books.

One day recently I felt like sitting and relaxing. I considered checking my social pipeline — email and facebook, blogs — because it’s easy and it’s what I do almost without thinking. Then I thought, my daughters almost never see me sit and read during the day, during their day, when they are awake and busy and in the house. There is probably not a picture in their heads of “dad reading a book”, even though the image of “dad’s attention being sucked up by the computer or the smart phone” is doubtless permanently branded on their brains.  How will they ever develop a love of just sitting down with a good book if they never see what that might look like?

Mara was working on her new Ravensburger 300-piece puzzle of puppies, kittens and hamsters. Miji (yes, Emilia’s nickname continues to evolve) was at her Legos on the floor. Angela was busy answering work emails. I went and fetched Timothy Egan’s biography of photographer Edward Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, one of the books I’ve been picking at for months, and settled onto the couch for a spot of good old-fashioned reading. In a trice, Mara left her puzzle, fetched her copy of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid*, and cozied up next to me. Angela was quick with the camera. It was a moment that I’ve waited for for a long time.

A little parallel book time on the couch

A little parallel book time on the couch.

Mara may not become one of those teenagers that’s always slouched in a chair upside down reading a book, or one of those people who read while walking along sidewalks and crossing busy streets. That’s okay with me. She’s not playing computer games all day or watching TV. She likes to run, climb and hang from things. She’s a healthy kid in all ways. But sitting there side by side, I reading my biography of Curtis and my daughter reading (silently, not sounding out words or whispering or mumbling, which would have been okay, too) about the travails of the wimpy kid… well it just felt like a little piece of heaven.

*I actually disenjoy some of the attitudes expressed in the Wimpy Kid books, such as references to certain boys “getting all the girls”, which, when I was reading out loud to Mara, forced us to stop and have a conversation about what she thought that might mean and whether or not that was a constructive way to approach society. Nevertheless, the books have the right picture/text ratio and Mara seems engaged by the protagonist’s plight, and anyway I prefer discussion over outright censorship, which is not to say that I don’t reserve the right to exercise the latter at any time and without having to justify myself. Selah.

The u-fish were biting

Just past Issaquah on Interstate 90, where the old highway curves up into the hills on its way east to Preston, a train trestle used to pass over the road. I don’t recall ever seeing a train on it, but the bridge was there until 1975, my thirteenth year, when it was removed so that the highway could be widened into a freeway. A few yards east of where this trestle was the highway crossed the East Fork Issaquah Creek, which drains Tiger and Taylor mountains, two of the ancient mountains that the sylvanophile and hiking-book author Harvey Manning named the Issaquah Alps.

The Northern Pacific Railway using its trestle in 1955.

“Northern Pacific Railway’s North Bend Local at Issaquah, 1955″. To reach our fishing hole we parked right about where this photo was taken about a dozen years earlier.

It is certainly dangerous and probably illegal now to pull off the freeway unless smoke is coming out from under your hood or your tire is flat, but in those days a man might without worry pull his old but well-cared-for ’57 Chevy wagon over to the side of the highway early on a Saturday morning and leave it there, leading his young son a few yards through the damp understory of salal and sword fern to the creek’s edge, where the bespectacled and fretful lad would have a hard time casting his fishing line into that deeper, darker water just behind big boulders, which is where — his father said — the fish were resting on their journey upstream. I don’t know how many times we fished there, but my memory of the place seems to encompass multiple events. I also don’t know whether or not it was my first fishing experience. I think not. At least, I think it was not the first place I caught a fish, because there is a very clearly tagged memory in my head of a place — God only knows where, now — called Helen’s Cove, a place of morning sun on the shore of what I remember as a good-sized lake, where there was a fishing dock, and where my sister Jeni and I fished side by side under my father’s tutelage, and where for the first time in my life I saw my pole, which was not in my hand because I was jumping around on the dock at that moment, I saw my pole begin to wiggle and the red and white plastic bobber out in the lake to dip under the surface of the water, and my father shouted to me that I had a fish on and told me to reel him in, and I did, and it was a perch, and it was the first fish I ever caught. “Perch”. I never forgot that word or that fish. I believe that the morning I’m thinking of now was sometime after that sunny morning at Helen’s Cove, and I believe we caught some trout this time.

I remember the fact that the highway crossed the creek because I remember being almost directly underneath the bridge, standing on wet pebbles reflecting a grey sky, when my father kneeling at my side showed me how to smack the fish’ head smartly against a rock so as to kill it quickly. I don’t know that dispatching the fish like that bothered me much at the time, but I do know that I have never forgotten that moment.

I thought of this a few weekends ago. Mara, who is now eight, has told me once or twice that she wanted me to take her fishing. While looking for a fun weekend thing to do on a Saturday morning that promised to warm into one of the last beautiful Saturdays before the darkening of the season, I found Old McDebbie’s Farm and Jim’s U-Fish online. Old McDebbie’s was a petting farm in Spanaway where kids could ride ponies and feed pigs and goats and donkeys (and a camel), and hang out in the barn petting kittens. There was also a pond there stocked with rainbow trout. We piled into the car.

It turned out to be the perfect place.

It turned out to be the perfect place.

Spanaway is south of Seattle an hour and a half or so depending on traffic, and the farm was a little further south, just off Highway 7. It wasn’t so much a farm — no agriculture was being undertaken there that we could see — as someone’s 10-acre rural backyard, into which every rural or outside activity a kid might like to engage in had been provided for. At first blush it seemed a little cheesy for a farm — a putt-putt golf course would not have looked terribly out of place here. Fun, jokey signs and decorations were everywhere, and there were picnic tables and benches here and there around the spacious lawn, which was green and lush. A fountain feature burbled into one of the two ponds at the back of the property near the woods. There was a playground with swings and a play structure, and there were lots of outside games around, like bean bag tosses and hula hoops and the thing where you toss two bolo’ed balls at a ladder of horizontal bars in hopes of wrapping the balls around the highest bar. Angela and I looked at each other a little dubiously; we tend to value authenticity highly, sometimes perhaps too highly for our own good, and we were expecting more of a working farm that happened to have also some accommodation for little people. The carnival atmosphere made our artistes’ hearts quail for a moment.

But the girls loved it and they loved it immediately. It turned out to be the perfect adventure. A fin gets you in, no matter your age, and although almost everything you do costs extra, I considered it a good value because the place was such a rich condensation of fun and hands-on furry activity for the kids (note: there’s no food concession here, so bring your own picnic lunch unless you want to eat candy). Both girls took a pony ride (another $5 each), Mara on Dotty and Millie on Henry, once around the ponds led by one of the helpers there. We fed the animals in the barn ($3/bag of scraps), which was kinda scary. The larger donkey bruised my thumb trying to chomp the stick of celery that I was feeding to the smaller one. One little girl got bit by a pony. In the barn at least, the farm experience was authentic. Millie sensed the potential danger and didn’t want to feed anything larger than a hamster. Mara bonded with some of the barn cats over the course of the several hours we were there. A baby pig was penned in a little circle of fence right in the middle of the yard, with a little umbrella for shade and a sleeping black rabbit for company, and small children who might be intimidated by the full-size pigs in the barn were invited to get inside this pen and pet the piglet.

A responsible child leads Millie around the pond on Henry.

The responsible child leads Millie around the pond on Henry.

In the end, Millie was more interested in the bunny.

In the pigpen.

The girls had a gas. They got to hear the donkey bray, which was a really unusual sound, and the goat kids bleat, which was another really unusual sound. I imagined that a lot of the sounds Millie has been told animals make in her books were that day realized in a new, first-hand way. I say “meh-eh-eh” when I’m reading her a book with goats in it, but the real thing is the real thing, and it’s easy for adults to forget that until you hear the real thing, you have not heard a goat bleat.

Then we fished. I rented poles from Debbie at the gift shack ($2 per pole includes one baited hook, which should do for several hours of fishing; additional bait extra) and we took the girls to the pond’s edge. Fish were jumping out of the water every minute or two, as though they had been trained. It seemed unreal. The hook came with a brightly colored green or orange ball on it, which was supposed to attract the fish, although I don’t know if it was actually food. The lines had no bobbers, which confused me at first. The girls could not cast the lines; I had to do it for them, and it took me an embarrassing dozen or so tries — during which both girls began to get bored — before I could successfully get that hook to sail out over the pond. Debbie had said that the fish liked to hang out in the cool water down deep, so let the hook sink a ways before reeling it in.

Millie's first fish.

Millie’s first fish. Fun, she’ll aver, except for the killin’ part.

So I cast out for each of the girls, then we let the lines sink before the girls began reeling them in. Bingo! Within about four casts, Millie caught a fish. Millie caught a fish! My three-year old daughter caught a fish! She was actually holding the pole when it bit, and Angela helped her land it on the grass. This was where things started getting sad. I got the hook out of the fish’ mouth pretty quickly, and lo, there was a large smooth rock protruding from the grass at my side, just begging for a fish to be brained on it. My impulse was to smack the fish quickly (as I had been taught by that venerable fisherman, my father), but the girls were right there and I had until then failed to consider how this execution might affect Millie. I asked Angela to take the girls away a few yards — a gross dereliction of duty on my part, I now realize, since it was hiding the truth — and I beaned the unhappy pond-dweller on the rock. It’s difficult to hold on tightly to a fish in any weather, but when you’re trying to swing it like a hammer it’s particularly challenging, thus I think I only stunned it the first time, so that its side fins fluttered like butterfly wings. It was over in a few seconds, but I felt like the suburban desk pilot that I am, and also a death-bringing ogre.

Mara's first fish.

Mara’s first fish. This one was still jumpy. If you look closely you can see the fishing line running into its mouth.

Angela took Millie to ask Old McDebbie what we should do with our fish, which I’d put in a bucket with some pondwater. We wanted to keep it so I could cook it up at home. The rule was you had to either take any fish you caught with you ($5) or donate it to charity via the farm (still $5). There was no throwing maimed fish back into the pond. I was worried Mara would feel left out if her little sister had caught a fish and she had not (this turns out to have been more my worry than Mara’s, as usual), so I kept casting Mara’s line out, and bam! it wasn’t more than three more minutes before Mara’s line dipped and she reeled her first fish in. I helped her land it, but the hook was deep and I couldn’t get it out because the pliars-like implement Debbie had given us would not close fully, and I didn’t want to whack the fish with the hook in — not only did it seem, well, not cricket somehow, but it also seemed dangerous, since the fish kept flopping in my hand and I didn’t want to get the hook through my palm. Eventually I carried the writhing fish and the line and the bucket with the other fish (the dead one) over to Debbie’s shack, where she removed the hook (with a better set of pliars), and after asking me whether I wanted to cook it with the head on or off, took the fish to an outdoor washtub and sliced off its head with a knife while it was still alive. I inwardly cringed. In another instant she had gutted it and scraped out its entrails. She was busy talking about the 10-year-old girl whom she had hired to help her that day, how the kid was better than any teenager you could hire; more responsible, more alert, better with the animals, better with the customers. I was thinking that by rights I should have cleaned the fish. In the tradition handed down to me (this part by another fisherman, my friend Jeff’s dad), you clean your own fish.

Angela is fond of old goats.

Angela is known to have a soft spot for an old goat. This is not that goat.

Angela was rather dismayed by the whole affair, and anyway didn’t want me to cook the fish in the same iron skillet I use to make Dad’s Sunday Morning French Toast. “Get another skillet for savory,” was all she said while making a face, and I could tell she’d have been content if the whole fish thing had never happened. The next day I bought another skillet, googled “how to cook trout in an iron skillet”, and went to it. Flour, butter, oregano, some dill, a squeeze of lemon, and the magic of hot iron. We thanked God for the fish and thanked the fish for laying its life down so we could eat, then tucked in. Angela and I agreed that our scaled friends made a good meal. Mara tried it and was not strongly put off, which is to say she ate more than her “no thank you bite.” Millie abstained entirely, and was later heard to say “I wish we didn’t have to kill the fish so we could eat,” this a delayed response to the conversation that Angela and I forced upon the girls about the uncomfortable truth that something — animal or vegetable — must perish in order for us to eat.

Here is one of the wishes I have that will remain an unfulfilled wish as long as I live: I wish that while my dad was alive I had asked him to tell me more details about the places where we fished, what fish we caught, and how we caught them. The business of teaching your children to fish, it strikes me now, is an enterprise to which you want to bring the full collective knowledge and traditions of your tribal ancestors. My dad’s fishing lore would have been a treasured link to my forebears, a bridge from the present to an eternal past. Its loss is like the pulling down of the old railroad trestle at Issaquah, which removed a historic path between two sides of a valley forever but escaped my notice until years later, when I peered out the back window of the family car and wondered what trick my mind was playing, whether this could really be the place I was thinking of.

Nowhere I can reach her

Sweet life’s a sparrow lost at sea,
In dark of night with far to go

– Tom Rush

I died, and behold I am alive forevermore…

– The Book of Revelation

My sister Jeni died in April. She died of complications from her third battle with a cancer that came upon her when she was in her early thirties. Needless to say… Well. There are so many things that are needless to say. Most everything I can think of to say is needless to say, which is why I’ve had trouble imagining how to write about this.

Jeni, under attack and bearing it with grace.

Jeni, under attack and bearing it with grace.

Jeni died suddenly, we felt, for we were not prepared for the precipitous downturn in her health and the failure of her liver, pretty much in a single day, after what seemed like a pesky imbalance in her body chemistry that simply needed correction and monitoring. We her family were caught off guard, though some friends were able to see that the battle had become very fierce in recent months and were very worried. She herself expected to come home from the hospital after a few days, and although she was uncomfortable and in some pain at times she did little complaining, focusing her energy instead on her work, which was as a piano accompanist for voice students at Seattle Pacific University. The thing that galled her the most was the occasions when she could not play piano because her fingers became bloated and painful and her fingernails turned black, or the drugs took away her energy. She wanted more than anything to continue to support her students.

My sister and I were not as close as many siblings are, but she mattered to me. It was important to me that she was there, that she was here, here in life with me and my brother and my parents, that she remain a living piece of the nuclear unit I was hatched into. And I also genuinely enjoyed her as a person — her sense of humor especially, and her generosity and her courage, and her willingness in later years to see things from other people’s points of view. We had very different experiences in our faith journeys and it was, all our adult lives, difficult and even uncomfortable for us to converse about those journeys. I am a person of doubt, she of certitude. My faith is an unquiet searching — a thrashing one might even say — in the face of enormous fears. The voice of God in my life is hard for me to discern because my ego, my lower power, makes so much racket. My sister Jeni’s faith was a serene confidence that the Wonderful Story that had been handed down to us was true, literally and absolutely, and though the cancer bared its teeth and gnashed at her for twenty years, which was surely terrifying for her, she spoke most often of God’s provision and God’s care and God’s mercy and God’s grace and God’s love, and of her certainty that she was in the palm of his hand no matter what happened. She gave the disease nothing but her body, which in her view was the least of her.

My sister playing piano and my brother-in-law Randy blissing in her presence.

My sister playing piano and my brother-in-law Randy adoring her.

The feeling was -- and remained -- mutual.

Some years go by. The feeling was — and remained — mutual.

Jeni asked God when the cancer first came if she could be allowed to see her children grow. The oldest of four was only eight or nine years old then. I was turning a spadeful of earth in my parents’ backyard when my mother came running out of the house through the sliding glass door that gave onto the brick patio under the old crabapple tree. She was gasping and sobbing, having just gotten the phone call from Jeni. At that time I could not imagine the fear that engulfed my mother because I was not yet a dad. But that was Jeni’s request, the prayer she prayed. And she did see them grow. She saw the three girls wed and her son affianced.

I wish to do honor to my sister and her world-view, to a faith that in large part I share with her, but the words I would use to describe what has befallen her and my family, and myself, are different words than she would use. She left behind an online journal that has become a permanent testimony to her courage and to what she would describe as God’s faithfulness. Many, many people, some fellow cancer patients and others not, have expressed what a blessing her candor and faith have been to them. But I am having a different experience of it all, and my faith is sore afflicted these days.

I, my sister Jeni, and my brother Ben.

With Jeni and my brother Ben.

 

Jeni's family in our parents' back yard.

Jeni’s family in our parents’ back yard.

The facts on this side of the veil are simple enough: she got breast cancer, she survived it, it went away for almost a decade, it came back again and she survived it again, even though it took an enormous toll on her physically, and then it came back a third time, and while doctors were trying to figure out the origin of a big bellyful of fluid that my sister in her wonderful phlegmatic way named Henrietta (her journal abounds with references to Henrietta’s waxing and waning and how uncomfortable life with Henrietta was), her liver just conked out.

It happened on the 3rd April. She had been in the hospital over Easter weekend because she had passed out at home. The doctors had found that her sodium levels were alarmingly low and her potassium high and couldn’t figure out why. My brother Ben talked to her Easter weekend and she said she was low on energy but was hoping to go home before Monday. He, a fireman, became alarmed when she was still in the hospital on Tuesday, and wondered whether the doctors weren’t saying how much trouble she might be in. I, swamped and mentally exhausted at my new job, did not even realize she had not gone home. Wednesday Angela called me in tears and said “Jeni is dying. She has a day or two.”

Four generations: My grandmother, my mother, my sister, my niece.

Four generations: My grandmother, my mother, my sister, my niece.

It seemed unreal. I wondered what to do. I went back to my desk to see how I could tidy up things so I could take a day off the next day and go to the hospital, but Angela called a while later and told me I needed to get on a bus to the hospital right away. It would not be days but hours. My new job is in Renton, which is a half-hour drive south of Seattle in good traffic, and I had no car because I ride in a carpool. My sister was in Bellevue at the hospital I was born in. I caught several buses and got to Overlake Hospital in time to join a growing circle of friends and family. Jeni’s husband was there and had been there since morning. My mother was there. Angela arrived with the girls shortly after I got there. Jeni’s son and youngest daughter were there. Her oldest daughter was flying with her husband from Minnesota, and her second oldest daughter, who had just landed with her husband in Japan for a visit with his family of origin, had turned right around and was trying to get a flight back home. Jeni was not lucid when I got there. Her eyes, her beautiful eyes that had such wit and humor in them, a readiness to be delighted, were open slightly as she labored to breathe, but she was unable to respond. We took turns holding her hand and stroking her arm and talking to her, and her husband Randy, a theologian, acknowledged that what he was hoping for now was an outright miraculous healing. But there was no reprieve this time. There came a point when the many church-friends that had gathered to support us moved out into the hall so that Randy and the kids and Angela and I and our girls and our mother could have a quiet moment. We did not want to acknowledge what we knew. My nephew Scott raised a piano concerto on his phone, something by Brahms that my sister loved, and it filled the room while we were quiet. I went out to text my cousin in California and some relatives on the East Coast, and when I opened the door to go back in she had slipped away and Randy was sobbing and holding onto her and saying her name over and over, and my family was bent inward around him like the petals of a flower closing at dusk.

Playing for family at my uncle's mansion on Cascadia Avenue, late '70s or early '80s.

Playing at my uncle’s mansion on Cascadia Avenue. For me, the sound of Jeni playing piano is the sound of family.

It all happened so fast. Not just her death, I mean, but her life. She was fifty-two, just sixteen months older than I. It will not be long at all before I reach an age that my older sister — she who came first and was always — never reached. A half-century and change. No time at all, really.

I think we are all still a little stunned. It was different with my father’s passing a year and a half ago. We had seen that coming, and he seemed like he wasn’t really looking forward to anything in particular anymore. He felt bad leaving my mom, he told me near the end, but they both knew he’d have been absolutely sunk if she’d gone first. So his breathing got more difficult and his energy waned and one day he went into a kind of dream state, where he was alternating between sleep and a fitful busy-ness with his arms, as though he were picking books off a shelf or dabbing at a painting or gathering pieces of yarn from a loom. He didn’t know he was doing it. Then he would suddenly see one of us and his face would light up in recognition, but only for a moment. He would say something incoherent and fall to dreaming again. Then he went into a coma, and it seemed strange but it wasn’t unexpected. He only lingered for two days. I was relieved. Although I’ve missed him a lot since, at the time it seemed like a mercy.

On our way to somewhere where dressy clothes are required.

On our way to somewhere with a dress code.

Up against the wood paneling for a picture.

It’s Easter. Up against the door, you two!

But my sister was so young. My poor mother must bear the unbearable anguish of burying a child — a weight I can’t even imagine bearing up under. Months later she cries every morning.

My sister died two months ago and she’s not here anymore. She’s not anywhere where I can reach her. That gone-ness is the part that keeps feeling so alien, and it scares me because it threatens to pull my feeble little faith into the rip in the cosmos that her death leaves, this gaping hole in the world that we’re all standing around. That dark hole she disappeared into forces me to ask myself what I believe about the Hereafter. It may be just a phase, but I don’t like the answers I’m coming up with.

Because our lives were both so busy in separate circles, I don’t miss her all through the day the way her children and husband do. It hits me out of the blue in moments when I have an impulse to share an idea with her, to call her up. Then I realize that I can’t do that. I’ll never be able to do that again. It is a sudden and permanent change in the configuration of the world I know. Or when I’m doing the dishes, sometimes it hits me that my sister’s life is a historical finality now, unlike mine. She was less than two years older, and yet while my life continues to have uncertainty, and choices, and joys and sorrows I have not yet foreseen — continues to “unfold” before me in time as I inhabit time — my sister’s life is a known span, a completed thing. Her life was a whirlwind of activity and learning and loving and growing and struggling and rejoicing and making music, but a whirlwind that people will speak of now in the past tense even as we struggle to hold her in the present. For a while there will be many of us who knew her and we will speak to each other about things she would have enjoyed or what she would have thought about something or things she used to say. Or we won’t speak but we will remember, each in our own eye, the look of her when she laughed, or hear in our ears the sound of her voice or her piano playing. Then there will be conversations with people who are very young now, like my daughters, and we’ll say “You remember Aunt Jeni. We used to go to her house at Thanksgiving.” And then we will say to friends we make in coming years, “Jeni was our sister, you never knew her,” and to those who have not yet been born we will someday say, “she died before you were born.” And when my children are grown they’ll say “Jeni was my dad’s sister. She played the piano.”  And when all of us have followed her into the Beyond there will be only photographs and stories handed down, maybe a recipe for a favorite family dish. Someday long decades or centuries from now she will be a name in a family tree, attended by two cold dates — 14 November 1960 and 3 April 2013 — whose life people may wonder about, and if they do they will imagine her incorrectly. But in some ways, my own life is exactly like that. All of our lives are like that. Already complete and finished and spinning away through the macrocosm like comets loosed from their orbits.

Whatever she figured out, I never quite got it.

!,?

I shrink from that thought, that we are nothing but cold stones in a vacuum, and what defeats the finality of that metaphor — at least for me, at least right now — is the same thing that defeats the finitude of death, whether we believe in a resurrection or not. It’s the bond between one life and another. The fact that we’re standing here stricken and knowing how stricken we are, knowing the fullness of our loss, the fact that we stop what we’re doing and come together celebrating the life and grieving the loss… that’s what tells us we are not just historic entries in a ledger, rocks tumbling through space. Yes, we will all eventually fade from the memory of earth and its inhabitants, but at the moment that we die we drag the hearts of our loved-ones to the edge of the abyss, stretching the bonds of a love loth to yield, and when the cord finally snaps we leave them there staring into the dark. The echo of the break whips into those left behind and ricochets through their souls. The wound proves the love and the love proves the life.

If each of our lives really is like that, I guess that’s okay. I mean it has to be, doesn’t it? And we won’t know until we don’t care. But maybe — I hope despite my extended moments of disbelief — maybe each flaming star of a life is also a sweet dream in the eye of a benevolent God, whom in my heresy or ignorance or willfulness I imagine to be grieving for us and with us…

The two who are gone.

Dad and Jeni. The two who are gone.

…and with us — in light of the beauty of each of the unnumbered lives it has created — capable of being startled by their brevity.

How the cautious child rolls

If we needed any more proof — and we didn’t — that Mara’s modus operandi in the face of new challenges and developmental steps is to observe for a long long time and then suddenly just do it, we got it this past summer.

We had already learned this about her. In walking, potty training, and other major milestones, Mara waited so long that we thought maybe she would never get going on it, and then one day she just did these things. She did not spend the time in cruising (walking while holding on to furniture) that most toddlers do before walking on their own; at a reception after a funeral in St. Louis for Angela’s brother-in-law, Mara left the security of my leg, which she’d been clutching, and set off across a room full of people to investigate a fake bird that had caught her eye in a floral arrangement. And she basically went from diapers to no diapers in a day, but only after we had begun to think she would wear diapers well after her third birthday.

What we learned was that while it seemed to the untrained eye that Mara was undriven, she was really watching adults and other children to see how things were done, and perfecting her plan mentally before taking the plunge. But when she did go, she always surprised us with her level of competence. It was as if she didn’t want to try something until she had worked in out in her mind and thought she could do it perfectly on the first try.

Mara had had a bicycle with training wheels for a long time, but for several reasons she never learned to ride it. Mostly it idled in the garage. The reasons are these: 1) we live on a steep hill that people bomb down in excess of posted speed limits on their way through to the freeway, and our driveway, while wide, is short and steep, so that the only paved, level, safe place for her to ride is a 3-foot wide concrete walkway at the side of the house which is bisected by a fence gate; 2) the only level spot in the neighborhood, the playground of the elementary school just up the hill from us, was fenced off and torn up for construction for the past several years; 3) the one time I drove her and her little bike to a school parking lot to help her get up to speed, it was an unpleasant experience for everyone; her bike had no place for me to put my hand to run along behind her and push by, and so I had to run fast while bending over and reaching underneath her seat to hold onto it; and she kept braking suddenly, which action had the results you might expect if you were paying any attention at all in your college physics survey course. Mass, momentum, velocity…you get the picture.

The problem with training wheels, of course, is that they don’t train kids how to balance a bike, they train kids to pedal very slowly while leaning severely to one side, as though they were on a sailboat on a tack. At turns or at unexpected jostling the bike’s frame jibes, throwing its weight onto the other training wheel, and the kid quickly has to lean the other way. They make small bikes for toddlers now that have no training wheels and no pedals — the youngsters merely sit on them and balance and push with their legs, like Fred Flintstone. At some point, they begin coasting, and once this balance is achieved they are ready to advance to a pedal bike, without ever having gone through this goofy leaning stage.

But Mara didn’t have a balance bike. Her bike was a cute little pedal bike. Pink. I had taken the training wheels off of it for her at one point and we had tried again on the walkway beside the house, she trying to balance and I running along holding her seat, wrenching my back. But the fence and gate made it impossible for me to stay with her for more than fifteen feet.

Meanwhile, Mara had bought a Razor, one of those metal scooters, with ten bucks of her own money at a yard sale a few years back. She had seen other kids with them and thought she wanted one. She was able to balance on the scooter almost immediately, but after the initial thrill she didn’t use it a lot.

Until this spring.

We started going up to the finished playground every evening after dinner earlier this year, Millie to practice her climbing on the play structures in the wood-chip-covered areas (more about that anon) and Mara to scoot around the pavement. I started to realize that she was becoming something of a speed demon on the scooter. She would crouch down and bend the onboard leg so that she could make the most of every thrust of the motor leg. Her hair, which is of a very thick, heavy warp, rose up behind her and began to flutter like a banner in the wind she created, and she began to lean into her turns as confidently as an Olympic skater.

The new bike.

One summer day I was standing out in front of the garage in the driveway, maybe sweeping it or something. Mara, with bike helmet on, had been scooting briskly back and forth in the cramped space and Millie was toddling around. Mara mentioned her old bike, which was now hideously small for her, and it occurred to me that now that she’d mastered balance so well on the scooter, she just might stand a better chance of learning to ride the bike. I said as much.

She disappeared for a moment into the garage, and while I was imagining the bruises and pulled muscles I would have to endure in the course of a revived Bike Riding Education Program, and wondering how long it would actually take, and whether it would be worth all the effort — my cajoling and her fearful declining, and the arguing, and my ego-driven frustration at having a daughter that still wouldn’t be able to ride a bike on her graduation day — I looked up and saw her careening out of the garage on her bike, wobbling through the narrow space between the car and a wall of storage boxes, and — once she cleared this canyon — pedaling up the few feet of steep driveway before putting her feet down to stop.

She had just ridden her bike. Just like that. Without any practice, without further trips with the bike to a schoolyard. Without coaching. Without the “don’t let go dad” at full speed down the middle of the street, when dad has already let go and is standing back at the house waving. Without any of that. She just got on the thing and started pedaling.

That’s our Mara.

I dropped the broom and ran into the house to fetch Angela, and Mara repeated her feat. And then we took the bike up to the playground, laughing and verbally reliving the amazement. She looked ridiculous on that bike. It had gotten so small over the years that she had to ride bowlegged just to keep her knees from getting fouled by the handlebars, and the back wheel was so close to the edge of her skirts that it pulled at them and smudged them. But she didn’t care. She was riding a bike, and she immediately took it to top speed. Within a few times around the playground she had the hang of the turns — which, as I recall, was the most terrifying part about learning to ride a bike — and pretty soon was racing in happy circles as though she had known how to ride for months.

We took her to get a new bike at the first opportunity, and as the summer waned we took her new ride up the hill every evening after supper and she rode like mad (and Millie rode a three-wheeled scooter we’d gotten her to satisfy her desire to go fast like her sister). Watching Mara, I thought about how worried I had been that she would never get it, that I would never be able to teach her, that there was no place with enough runway around here. And suddenly she was on the other side of that leap. A few days ago the world had been shaped in one way, and now it was shaped a different way.

A wise friend of mine is always saying to me about life, “don’t miss it!” Well, with Mara, we gotta keep our eyes open. The changes are sudden and unheralded. That’s how she rolls.

Glancing back forward

These are the good old days.”

–Carly Simon

A week or so ago, Emilia and I were outside in the early morning and that early morning sunlight was filling up the world around us as I watered the garden on the east side of the house. I grew up here, just across Lake Washington, and mornings like this touch a spot in my deep memory and feel very familiar, more familiar than the interminable cloudy cold days, so while I was watching Emilia give the plants an extra drink with her little yellow watering can I became a little lost in time.

What’s in a memory?

I can call up a goodly number of memories of just such mornings as this one from the mid to late ’60s, most of them not of discrete, specific moments but more like mosaics of moments similar enough in some aspect — maybe in the time of day or the time of year, or in emotional association, or in their events — that they have fused over time, the details having been extracted and perhaps sealed up in vaults that lie yet deeper in my memory (or discarded, who knows?) so that all that is left is an impression of light mixed with a feeling, and maybe the feeling is safety or contentment or wonder or perhaps even that unanguished boredom that kids get sometimes after doing everything they can think of and just before a burst of creativity that expands their world of play and exploration.

It occurred to me, standing there looking at Millie, that she was having an experience at that moment that may someday inform a similar kind of collage in her memory. Like Cindy Lou Who she is “not more than two”, and according to my understanding she is not yet forming the kinds of memories that will facilitate conscious recall of these specific, quiet moments, but some of the colors and tones and moods are making some imprints and might one day be enlisted in the assembly of some early, vaguely drawn memories of life outside in the garden at her first house.

And even if this moment does become a specific, tagged memory that she can recall in her minds eye, it will not look to her then the way it looks to her now, and certainly not the way it looks to me now. My mind observing her in this moment is full of the whole world of my experience, five decades in which I have been alive and doing things, feeling things, learning things, and not five decades worth of individual impressive moments connected backward through history, like postcards on a string receding in my memory, but fifty nonstop years of a continuum of existence, one moment blending into the next, my position in space and time always preceded so closely by my last position in space and time, my activity part of such an even flow of movement and being, that there can not really be said to be individual moments at all, nothing that you could tweeze out from other moments without pulling the whole fifty year string along with it, everything connected both fore and aft of it. My whole being and experience and who-ness, speaking of Whos, is here in this moment. But in Emilia’s memory none of all that will show in the frame — my worries, my satisfactions, my disappointments, my hopes yet for the future, my idea of myself, my idea of her. In fact I myself will only be hazily represented, if at all. I’ll just be this parental presence standing nearby, blank except for whatever good or ill associations she has so far formed of me — dadness — and my individual self in this particular moment may in fact be replaced by a similar memory of Angela, so that the picture evolves and morphs and becomes like the pictures I have in my own memory. Kaleidoscopes.

That was when I felt myself splintering into fractals, into tiny particles of light and shade and mood, whatever can be remembered finally to paint a memory with. It felt strange to look forward in time and back to this moment, seeing myself virtually disappearing into the future past, realizing that the clarity with which I am experiencing this instant — I am fully here with all of me — will be gone when Millie gets around to calling it back up as memory. It will all be so different, and yet, someday, what she remembers of this moment is all there will be.

The way this moment may look someday.

It made me think of all the memories I have now of days like this in my childhood. They seem such hazy, thin scenes so disconnected from other memories, but to the adults who shared those moments — my father holding my hand while I toddled or my mother keeping a watchful eye from the kitchen window while I played in the backyard — those moments were all part of their continuum. I ran right off the wharf at the Anacortes ferry terminal when I was very small. I myself have no recollection of the actual moment when my running back and forth ended in my shooting between the balusters and falling the few feet to the rocky beach just below (if it really was the wharf itself it must have been a part that was well back from the tideline). That part of the story I remember only as a story, one I’ve been told all my life. I do, however, have an image of a wooden deck awash in bright Pacific Northwest morning sunshine, and attached to this mental picture is a feeling of expectancy and excitement. I don’t know if it is an actual memory of the Anacortes wharf — it may be a memory of someplace that popped into my mind when I was first told the story and appended itself to the memory. In any case, my parents — who were as a rule very cautious and whose hearts leaped into their throats when they turned around after just a couple of seconds to discover that I was completely gone — brought the fullness of their histories to that moment in time, and none of that made any impression on the clear but very spartan memory that formed in my mind.

So it is now. I stand watching Millie with a brain absolutely stuffed with cellular networks representing arrangements of all the data I’ve taken in over my life, any combination of which could be assigned to the moment at hand as handles for me to make sense of it and give meaning to it, as I’m doing now. But none of it will become metadata for this image in her mind, which will over time simplify and merge with other images and probably lose some of its sharp edges, until it looks like an impressionist painting. In Millie’s experience, it’s just a sunny morning somewhere in time.

A momentary grammar

Our youngest daughter has been very vocal for the past couple of months and I’ve been meaning to write about it because she’s doing something that is, if not downright unusual, at least very interesting to me. She has developed her own method of saying two-syllable words.

I started noticing this with the words and names that she was very familiar with, like “cracker” and “apple” and “Togy” (our male cat), the words she was hearing all the time. But now she is doing it with any old word that reaches her ears on the wind, the very first time she hears it.

What’s fascinating to me is not simply the fact that Emilia is speaking words in a unique way — I guess every kid does at first — but that the simple grammatical rule she applies to the pronunciation of each word is so consistent. It’s such a reliable grammar that we can, when she says something we don’t understand, pause and reverse-engineer the word in our minds by applying her rule backwards.

Here’s the rule: say the first syllable twice and end with the most interesting consonant. In this grammar, “apple” becomes “ah-ahp”, “cracker” becomes “cah-cahk”, “Grandma” becomes “ga-gam”, “carrot” becomes “cah-cad”, “Togy” becomes “toh-toge”, “waffle” becomes “wah-waff” and my friend Jeremy is called “Je-jem”. “Mah-mok” is Millie’s word for “marker”, “teh-teb” is her word for “table”, and “be-beth” is how she refers to Jeremy’s wife Bethany.

A sunny morning brings new opportunities for saying exactly what she means.

Emilian grammar has a fine point or two. Her first syllable is always very simple even if the input is not. She does not pronounce the first ‘r’ in cracker or Grandma, and Jeremy and Bethany’s daughter Gwyneth is referred to as “gi-geth”, not “gwi-geth”. Angela notes that if she says “horse”, Millie will say “horse” too, but if she says “horsie” Millie says “hoh-horse”. The letter ‘l’ is altered; she does not pronounce our other cat Tillie’s name “ti-til” as you might expect, but simply “ti-di”. Also, the rule applies to the occasional three-syllable word, such as “ah-aff” for “elephant”.

Tonight we were watching a movie as a family and at one point I commented on the action, “here comes trouble”. Millie wasn’t even watching, she was playing on the floor and looking the other way but she absentmindedly and automatically applied her grammar to the last thing she heard. “Tuh-tub”.

The first word I noticed Millie’s grammar on was “coffee”, which of course came over as “cah-caff”. I heard it every morning when I sipped my joe and then started realizing that she used similar repetition with other words.

bunny = “buh-bun”
sippy = “si-sip”
diaper = “dah-dap”
pencil = “peh-pes”
tower = “tah-tow”

We have used this grammar to decode dozens of Emilia’s words, and it follows that you can even anticipate how she will say words of a certain kind. She would say “hah-ham” for “hammer”, I’m sure. The grammar also applies in the new two-word and three-word sentences she’s practicing. Yesterday we took the girls to Ravenna Park to play in the playground, and afterwards we set off up the trail that borders the restored creek running through the ravine. Angela cheerily announced “here we go on our nature walk!” and as Millie trotted after her I heard her say “neh-netch…wahk”.

The thought has crossed my mind to worry that this very durable grammar might be a kind of dyslexia, but I don’t really have any reason to believe that and I know how hyperactive my imagination can be when running in the shadows.

In any case, I find it not only adorable but also very helpful. If we hadn’t noticed this rule I’m sure we’d be missing a lot of what she’s saying. I don’t remember Mara using any such consistent rules, though she certainly had her own interesting turns of phrase and she used a wider vocabulary of signs before she had verbal language than did Millie, who still uses a few signs but never took to signing with the same enthusiasm.

Millie about to set out on a neh-netch walk.

This usage will vanish soon, which is why I wanted to write it down. Someday it will seem impossible, we will remember only the fact of it, not the actual sound of it in our ears, even though we will tell Millie years from now that she used to speak this way. Mara does not remember saying “paahtu” for “pasta”. She didn’t believe it until we showed her a movie clip of her as a toddler in which we asked her what her favorite food was.

To me there’s a sadness in this. There are so many things now that we ask Mara whether she remembers, things she used to do every day or things we used to do with her, how we used to play a chasing game we called Hunting Dog and how, when she was only three, she would study Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever in bed at night and fall asleep with the huge book over her head like a tent. When the answer is no, she doesn’t remember, we feel a little sting of melancholy, as though we had thought she were there with us and she wasn’t.

She has only our word that things really were that way, and that word is what is passed on, that’s what she’ll remember. For our daughters these things that we cherish from their earliest days become legends rather than memories. They become the family stories we tell, like a collection of shells on the mantel — no longer inhabited by the things that made them and gave them their original shapes, but imbued with a later, oral, assigned and handed-down magic and charged with the task of constituting and holding together our history as a family.


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