This pictorial post is about two things: being alive and thank God for it; and my youngest daughter celebrating her birthday. It’s the 37th one for her today. Yes, how swift is time’s passing…and how wonderful to have A. in our lives more since she and her husband moved from the Monterey-Carmel area (California) back to Portland (Oregon). I think it brave of her to leave a good position in order to live, play and further her career in the Northwest, closer to family.
I am allowed to post a few pictures of her that are already public, taken during her work at Sunset Center in Carmel-by-the Sea. It could seem a bit glamorous at times! It is in a performing arts center; she worked in management doing publicity/marketing and community/educational development. Arts management/administration remains her line of work.
But first, an old, not too clear “actual snapshot” of her: the summer before kindergarten, age 4 and a half. She was a tiny gal for a few years due to a medical condition, but she had a large store of verve and curiosity and could charm a dour stranger in the grocery, a passerby on the street. That vivacious spirit remains in full force.
At that time we lived in a spacious, enjoyable A-frame house on a lovely acre in Tennessee. There remain some good recollections of the seven of us living there despite being Northerners in the South where Confederate flags were yet flown–and likely still are. (I’ve written a post or two on our unusual move to Tennessee–we didn’t live in a house when we first arrived!– if you care to do a search on this blog.)
On the left, A. is in the center with the wine red dress; on right, giving a speech at an event. A parent cannot foretell exactly what or where one’s children will end up doing or being but I imagined the arts would figure prominently when she was a dancing, singing toddler. Suffice it to say: I am rooting for her, I believe in her and love her dearly. And she believes in and loves her Mom back. Lucky me to have such caring kids (adult kids, that is–sort of forget this reality, some moments).
(I would love to show family pictures, but she prefers more privacy.)
Now for the next topic, if you will bear with my randomness today. It connects to the first half in that my very life is predicated in large part on love of family and others, this beleaguered, breathtaking earth, creative expression and the numinosity of God.
For those readers who may not have read many posts, I manage–like too many–the condition of heart disease. And this past week-end marked the 16th year since my heart lurched and squeezed so hard I could barely breathe, then toppled me to my knees when hiking in the Columbia Gorge. I always make the trek out to Bridal Veil Falls. It is within the historic Gorge that is carved, in large part, by the mighty Columbia River, amid the Cascade Mountains.
Diagnosed with aggressive coronary artery disease at 51, two stent implants saved the day. In time–a year or so–I returned to active engagement in life. I did not hike that area for a few years, however, perhaps out of fear and also due to tricky cardiac rhythms. So it is always a relief to be able to go back now each year, the scene of the event and attendant new challenges. It is not a totally easy hike in to the waterfalls. So I deeply feel the victory in it, a blessing and a sign of hope, a balm for my older but still raring-to-go body. To go out into the world and especially into nature using legs and eyes; nose and ears; mind, heart and soul– this superbly designed vehicle within which we carry ourselves–is such a gift I can barely express its worth to me. I will let the pictures speak.
My spouse, Marc, and I paused at a viewpoint at Portland Women’s Forum State Park to take in the expansive scenes of Columbia River Gorge. The domed, interior marble-clad building is Vista House, completed in 1918. It sits atop a basalt promontory of Crown Point, approximately 740 feet above the river. The building was designed as a memorial for the pioneers of the 1800s who made their treacherous way across Oregon, hewing trails in the mountainous forests as they went. The haze is due to smoke from wildfires in the Cascade Mountains. It can be blown about everywhere, of course, even into Portland. The Oregon Department of Forestry notes that there have been 754 fires as of this date since January 2017. Lightning strikes have ignited about 28,000 acres; humans have caused fires on about 5000 acres at this time. This is a lot of acreage scoured by fire; we have had unusually sustained high temperatures in the state this summer, with precious little rain for three months. The dryness is worrisome as we hike in all areas.
Climbing the narrow road to our hiking spots.
Evidence of the dry terrain.
Climbing via vehicle on narrow roads to our hiking spots on left; on right, evidence of the extremely dry terrain.
We first stopped at Horsetail Falls, a favorite but partly to escape heat that had followed us into the mountains. Once outdoors and hiking the air was transformed, refreshingly cool.
Moving on past several other waterfalls, we arrived at our destination, Bridal Veil Falls and began the descent, then ascent. The slideshow shows our arrival, beginning at the empty bridge. (Marc was caught gazing pensively over a gate at the end of a forestry service road.)
It was a joy to complete this small, private pilgrimage again. At the 15 year (2016) mark and still managing heart disease well enough, I felt like falling to my knees and hands again to “kiss” the good earth in thanksgiving–and did so. This year it was enough to take in the bounties of nature, at peace deep in blood and marrow. We never know when what we love might be impossible to wholly embrace, so it is best to unite one’s self with every good and gracious moment.
They had spotted it from the first hilltop. Ed was breathless from another climb followed by a steep descent. His shoulders were hunched forward in muted excitement. Layla had fallen behind though she was supposed to lead the way. She knew how to get to her own house, didn’t she? The vicinity, overgrown as it was, became more familiar with each step. The trouble was, her legs didn’t want to carry her further, nor did her mind. What they had seen was both so familiar and foreign that she balked at the idea, after all. In fact, her entire being recoiled.
It had come up at the twenty year class reunion last night, of course. Miller had accosted Layla with two drinks in hand, waving them at her as if he was selling something she needed. Perhaps she did; Ed was preoccupied at another table, easy Ed, always a friend to anyone who talked back. She appreciated his outgoing nature–it had made the reunion easier so far–but now she wished he’d look her way.
It was not an event she had willingly attended. They’d been getting ready to have a real vacation in the mountains when he’d convinced her it would be a good thing to do this year.
“For me to see what your roots were. For you to wish old friends good stuff and share a couple of laughs. And put it all of it behind you once and for all.”
Why had she listened to him?
Miller bent over her (had he been so tall in high school? sweaty? and had they really dated a whole six months?); his cologne and the alcohol draped over her. Layla coughed.
He muttered, “Not what you’d expect, eh, Layla? All of us much older and more tired than we’d planned! Present company excluded, of course.” He’d handed her a glass and grinned at her in the same way he had in tenth grade, all teeth and rotten heart. “Have you anything to say for yourself, girl?”
Of course she did but she held her tongue. “Well, this was a stopover, soon we’ll be languishing in a mountain lodge eating salmon and strawberries and all will be forgotten. You?”
“I make these every ten years. There are cousins and old buddies to drink with, there are basketball trophies to recall, there are some very lovely women.” He lifted his glass to her and drank. “I got out, you got out–among a half dozen others. Who has the better tale?”
“Please tell me, Miller, I always knew you had a mini-spark of genius…”
“Well, what could I do with a lawyer father and an author mother? Fail? Indeed not. I own a tech company, TorchWare .”
“Sounds like a program for arson. Good for you, gives an outlet for that wayward bent.”
“Yes, it illuminates everything simply and well for those in dire need. And I reap fine benefits. And you? You got into Seattle University, didn’t you? English major, was it?”
His small teeth glinted at her. He breathed heavily; she recalled that he’d always had an inhaler at the ready. Or was that ill-placed lust?
“Funny you’d recall that. Yes, and also met Ed.” She pointed at her chatty husband at a nearby table. You’d have thought it was his reunion. “But I turned into a ceramicist and am unexpectedly good at it, while he teaches engineering at U of W.”
Miller lifted scraggly eyebrows and sipped. “How’s all that working out for you–I mean, as a pretty but shy daughter of a rather derelict lumberjack father and a nurse, fortunately, for a mother? Though you sure speak up now! Don’t get me wrong, my own parents weren’t all that honorable despite impeccable appearances…”
“You know, I think I’ll use my big new voice to finally let you know–”
“Quite well, I’d say, it is all working perfectly. Wouldn’t you agree, Layla?” Ed said as he took her elbow and started to steer her away.
“He wasn’t derelict, you fool, he was ill–now dead from MS complications, Miller. Haven’t you learned basic human decency or even good manners yet?”
Miller snorted. “Everyone said he accidentally burned down the house to collect on insurance. It didn’t work as you well know. In fact, it’s still standing. Barely, I suppose.”
“Not worth it, darlin’.” Ed grabbed her wrist just as she lifted her half-full glass to douse Miller who, shaking his head as if in pity, walked away.
The drink spilled on her new navy pumps and she glared at him.
“The house, he had to mention Dad and the house. Do you see now why I never come to these? The villains still wait around to attack the unsuspecting and weaker.”
“Except you are not weak. You’re a bit tipsy, I think, and tired of being here. Let’s say goodbye to the ones we do like before I go punch the fool–then let’s make a run for it.”
Layla put her drink on a table, wrapped her arms around him and squeezed tight. “Good plan, smart guy.”
“You and all the smart guys…I see them looking your way.”
“Yeah, but you won out and you’re a good guy, too, so lucky me.”
“Ed, this is not a great idea.”
He turned to her, held out his hand. “You’re the one who says that if there’s a noise in the dark you need to get up to check it out. This has been bumping every night in your adult life. Time to take a look.”
She grabbed the proffered hand but pulled him back a little. “There’s nothing much to see, just rotting wood. You know I came back for Dad’s funeral before we got married. Mom left town that very night. No one was interested in the property, not even to tear it down. I took a quick look from the hilltop then. It just emanated all their miserable life. Our life.”
Ed studied her face, how tight the petal soft jaw, how pale her pressed lips, eyes narrowed against whatever might be seen. His throat constricted; he had to look into treetops, reassure himself the blue sky was up there; they’d get done with this. Maybe he had made a mistake insisting they come. But then she started to walk and he right along with her, down another hill, across the gravel road, right to the property line, if there was one. The lot was so overgrown with tangles of blackberries, spindly weeds and hulking bushes that nothing could have made its way to the front door except for the creatures. Foxes, mice, snakes or insects, whatever had claimed it and moved in.
The front door was torn away under the sagging roof, she could see this through the brush and wondered where it was. Perhaps someone long ago needed a door. She remembered how she and her mother painted it fern green, the radio blaring from the living room, paint dripping, getting on them, her father in his wheel chair that day but directing them. The dirty white of the house seemed less an affront with that new door. The door might have burned. All windows were agape, of course, the fire ruined them, too. The moss overtook the shingles, weakening them, and the insects, took, must have lunched on many seedlings and the birds must have pecked away the bits they could. All like vultures tearing at a carcass. It looked hideous.
“I don’t like seeing all this, Ed.” She released him, though, and put up her hand to indicate she wanted to proceed a ways without him. He shifted from foot to foot as she waded through high grasses.
Layla worried that she’d be able to smell the smoke still, even after all the years. She’d been in college when she got the news from her mother, that the house had burned enough that it was not salvageable. So they had moved to an apartment right on Main Street, a better place than the house had been but small. It was an ancient kerosene lantern that toppled in the living room–her father had a thing for old stuff collected in younger years and he’d lit it and somehow knocked it off the table. Then he panicked and rolled his wheel chair into the yard.
It was pure luck that her mother had gotten home before the fire engines came, applied the fire extinguisher to wide swaths of area. But people talked because her father was not the most open or pleasant man, not even a reasonable man, they’d decided. He was hard on his wife and his daughter since MS had finally taken his legs and made things so taxing for them all. The truth was, he was never an easy man, one who could move through life on good will and a sense of hope. He had a hard edge to him that just got sharper as he got sicker.
But as Layla walked around the falling-down house she heard his voice wind through the place with a beckoning tone and stepped in at the back, the screen door hinges rusted and wrenched, the door nearly hanging to the dry dirt and brittle grass. Beer bottles and soda cans lay about, a torn and faded girlie magazine, a dirty plastic spoon and fork by a rank container, a torn up tennis shoe half chewed by perhaps a passing dog. Layla wished she had a trash bag but to what purpose? No one cared. Not even, really, herself.
But she stepped around the mess and indoors. She saw the living room, desolate, still filthy with fire’s carbon from so long ago, the wooden stairs having fallen down so she couldn’t go up to her room even if she had wanted to take a look. There was no parental bedroom; the wall had burned. The one third-charred kitchen with its stained farm sink was ruined, counters scratched and torn, even the walls though smudged by the fire seemed to be moldering in winter rains and summer heat. The appliances were long taken, maybe even sold as is. Fire had swirled through most of the lower level like a storm, then was defeated. But it was a bad omen. What was to come for her parents was worse than they’d known before.
But as she lingered she knew what lay beneath the rubble. Once this room had been almost cheery, yellow curtains with tiny green ferns on them; a ceramic rooster on the counter for cookies; a small oak table by a wall with convenient folding ends. They had enjoyed breakfast there, even Dad when he was up to it though he said little more than “Another day, damn it.” Each morning, before school and her mother’s work at the hospital, they had that half hour or more just to sit together, talk about the headlines or drink coffee without words uttered but the radio playing something tuneful and easy. It helped them, that music.
They could also see out the south side yard all the flowers her mother and she had planted and tended. Rose, irises and tulips, a few gladiolas, later the zinnias, geraniums and marigolds, three types of lavender, petunias and pansies, too, and more, so much she could not recall. They came to her as if someone threw back a curtain and she could see them: flashy and happy to be growing there. For the family of three. Even her father loved that garden, messy and simple as it was. But sometimes he became morose, lamented that he’d once been such a lumberman, how he missed the scents and feel of wood and dirt on his hands, the outdoors in his veins. Layla recalled him as he was once: standing so straight, barrel chest high and arms muscled. She had often wondered over his loss. And how it had hurt them all. How he felt so diminished it was a burrowing beast that dug deeper in him each year.
She decided one time–despite her mother’s warning look–to put into his unwilling palms a little pile of fresh soil and tender roots for him to close his big fist over and hold. He had wept a long moment. But it passed and he shook his head at her when she tried it another time. He just sat there each day he could manage it, after they rolled him out and let him be, and he read or drowsed or watched squirrels race about or listened to birds calling. Stellar jays, a favorite, and he always watched for deer at the far edge of the woods at dusk and called to his wife and daughter to see how they stood graceful, proud.
Did he long to be free like the creatures were? Did it anger him to see them work the garden? He was silent much of the time he wasn’t gritting his teeth or snarling. Her mother said once, “He loves me most, you know, when I am deep into gardening, my hair a mess, sweat ruining my shirt, my hands full of bugs and blossoms. I see it in his eyes. ”
And Layla could understand this, knew it meant more than most things to her, even his rough hug or kiss. He was not easy to love, and he was not gifted at it himself though her mother tried to show him and she, too, offered him her hugs that wanted to soothe him. Which he often pushed away. Maybe he knew things he taught her mother, too. They made what they had work; she stayed until he passed. But Layla wanted happiness, not just partnership.
He taught Layla that if helplessness and disappointment seem like the toughest enemies, family and nature are balm. And she wished she could lay her head on his shoulder one more time. She might call her mother, set up a visit but she now lived in Boise with a man Layla found wanting.
She wandered out and around the corner of the house.
“Ed! Come here!”
He ran to find her, glad she called him, praying she had not found things to pain her more. He found her staring , mouth agape, at the end of the lot. Inside the leaning, towering trees, past broken branches and bushes out of control and wild grasses and blackberry vines, there was something more.
Layla pointed straight ahead. “Look!”
“What on earth…?”
The garden was still alive, and it was in summer’s peak bloom.
“It’s me,” said a small voice. “I done it when I could, hope that’s okay with you.”
She was bent over, nearly the size of a child, with wrinkled face and white hair that was piled atop her head with a pencil. A hunched back, as it always had been but worse.
“Mrs. Stanish!” Layla went to her and, bending over, put her arms about her. “You! But why? You and dad never got along too well, as I recall, he didn’t like your dogs getting into our yard and such.”
“Well, that’s so.” She patted Layla’s hand and nodded at Ed. “Your husband, I see. I saw the newspaper notice all those years ago. And your mother, she told me, too.”
He took her hand into both of his. “This is wonderful, really amazing.”
Mrs. Stanish walked into the garden with them. “Oh, he now and then could be sour. I understood sourness with my bad scoliosis. How much pain tries to ruin you, how nosey people think they know things they don’t. I said I’d tend their garden after the fire. If it survived, and it mostly has. Sorta. But never break a promise if you can help it.” She smiled up at them, deep blue eyes wreathed in folds of flesh.
They caught up some then shared brief hugs.
“Thank you for keeping it going, It means a great deal to me.”
Mrs. Stanish gave them a once over. “You see, life does as good as it can, we just got to help it along. You two be nice to each other.” And off she shuffled to her equally aged husband.
“I suspect they’re in their late eighties or early nineties now. Incredible,” Layla remarked.
Ed and she climbed back up the hill. She turned back a last time and he did, too.
“Incredible that they are still alive, married or maintaining the garden as promised? Or that you found a few good memories there?”
“Yes,” was all she said and waved goodbye to that old broken-down house, where once her family had worked, suffered, loved as they could. “Let’s get to the mountain paradise before the sun goes down.”
About the time you think you’ve taken in just
enough to sustain you, to fade ten more marks
left by the world and ease the daily ache
that lodges along the spine like a blunt knife
delved into the earth of your nerves and sinew,
and you admit it is this voyager body and dancer soul
that must hold more, bear and hope and give more–
then you pass the dining room table and see
four sweet fruits nestled beside one another
on a plate found and offered by a daughter
to be used whenever you may desire.
Everything loosens and reassembles
as if the heart’s flesh, tender and tight,
opens then closes around an obdurate core,
the love that will not be ruined,
never dismissed, will not sell its secrets
Coanes’ Cottages, the faded wood sign indicated, a dingy white arrow pointing the way. After a long car ride from mid-to-northern Michigan, I was ready to tumble out and gallop down the dirt path to the lake shore. Dad opened the trunk as Mom gathered up a few stragglers in the back seat. I deposited my suitcase at the door of our rental cottage and waited. Mr. and Mrs. Coanes emerged from their own cottage, dressed in the usual matching plaid shirts, greeting us with a flurry of welcoming talk. I said on cue, “Hello there, nice to be here, thank you for having us” and was thus briefly released from other required social duties.
I ran through long-limbed, shady trees and dry grass stubble, arms flailing, legs reaching, breath rushing though me until there was the same old dock before me. The lake spread out from the shore, a shimmering mirror on surface, deep and clear just below barest green-blue waves. It was rimmed by deciduous and pine trees standing close to one another, tight against gusty storms that often swept off mammoth Lake Michigan a few miles away and Canada beyond that. The calendar had already been turned from August to September so it was far quieter than summertime’s high season. A few diverse trees on the other side bore leaves in process of transformation, green to gold, red to orange. Just the way I liked it.
It was the time we tended to visit the Coanes’ Cottages, after their busy vacation season ended and kids were back in school. I vaguely recalled them from church; my parents had known well when they had still lived and worked in our hometown. And then they retired from “good jobs” as Mom indicated, and part-time pleasure became a full-time business. By early to late fall we could stay in an unclaimed (I guessed free to us) cottage which to me far better fit the description of a cabin. It seemed a kind of luxury to me to be there though I had stayed at other lakes, for other reasons (performing arts and church camps, friends’ summer homes). The homely but decent-sized cottage, cheerful fire in the fireplace when nights turned cool; the old log walls and wood floors emitting the musky smoky scent I loved–it was a fall reprieve from our already hectic city lives. The decor of the habitat was primitive and basic to me even as a young teen, but its simplicity soothed me, reassured me with its longevity and sameness.
My parents weren’t so much true outdoors people so much as general science lovers and nature admirers. Even Dad didn’t fish or boat much (he liked tennis and bike riding) though most other people came in droves to catch abundant bass, rainbow trout, perch, pike, whitefish and more. And also to go boating, swimming, windsurfing, water skiing, to name a few. And that was only in summer. Winter held plenty of attraction with fun activities like ice fishing and ice boating.
I understood that the Coanes were different from my parents’ other friends, and also my friend’s parents. They preferred a pared-down sort of life, in sync with the outdoors all year, a far more rugged life. Mrs. Coanes held me in thrall as I shyly observed her. She exhibited such energy and strength, a pervasive independent attitude. Though this was a bit like my mother, Mrs. Coanes routinely fished with success (we’d eaten the catch many times) and even hunted deer; she tackled the same heavy work as did her husband. They had ruddy cheeks and calloused hands. Mrs. Coanes didn’t fuss with make up or bother calming her curly, silvery-brown mop of hair. I thought it curious that she and her spouse dressed about the same–long sleeved, plaid flannel shirts, baggy jeans or old khakis, laced leather boots, even in summer. From a distance they were nearly interchangeable when they had their caps on. They seemed to be perpetually in a good mood, easy to be around and full of stories about game or fish they got, the customers they had met, the changing of the seasons–and good books they had read.
They also played bridge and knew much about science, art and history. After dinner we often hung out at their cabin or they came to ours. I skimmed my novels or the cottage’s crossword puzzle magazines while the four of them played bridge or Michigan Kitty or Scrabble or checkers (I might join in the last two). I listened to conversations about our town versus the lake life as well as my parents’ various engagements and our large family. They didn’t have children, an noteworthy fact to me, the youngest of five. I learned that they both had worked at Dow Chemical Company–it was the main employer of in Midland, Michigan and though they’d enjoyed being company scientists, they loved this life more.
I tried to imagine my parents owning such a place and failed–surely not Dad with his tuxedos as conductor for concerts or playing in string quartets, and Mom with attendant elegant dresses or her work as an elementary schoolteacher. But they had other sides to them. Mom had grown up on a farm and was not at all averse to physical work–her energy seemed indefatigable. Dad loved to tinker with cars and repair things. They both camped for many years with a pop-up camper and enjoyed the relaxation it brought.
But during lake visits and while staying with the Coanes, I saw them anew at times.
I learned Dad greatly enjoyed the water and loved to sail. He put on swim trunks and joined Mr. Coanes on the small sailboat buzzing with excitement.
Mom shouted after him, “Put a lifebelt on! You could capsize and drown! Don’t go out too long or far away– I want to be able to see you!” Her nerves were not hidden though her face appeared calm soon–or taut with anxiety just beneath the surface.
Mrs. Coanes tried to reassure her but it didn’t do the trick. Mom would jump up from her camp chair, walk along the muddy shoreline and flatten a hand against forehead to shield her eyes from sunlight. She tracked the sailboat’s progress.
I’d swim awhile, dog paddle deeper and be carried out by chilly, lapping wavelets to the floating dock. There I’d dive off the buoyant wooden square again and again. Pungent scents of lake; the sweet, crisp air of early fall! And Mom wasn’t worried about me. I was close enough, she knew I was a strong swimmer. But Dad was disappearing around a peninsula with Mr. Coanes, off on a small adventure.
“Why don’t you swim, Mom?” I asked.
It heretofore hadn’t occurred to me to ask. She was in her fifties and I somehow had assumed that, like most women of the times and that age, she just didn’t want to get into a suit and be sopping wet while in full view of the public.
“I don’t like water,” she said, scanning the distance. “Never have.”
I thought about that. She daily took baths, of course, fast ones it was true but she never had mentioned a dislike of water. She washed things, she watered the garden, she bathed us kids when we were little. Did she mean she didn’t actually like getting right into it awhile? Hard to avoid when bathing. I thought this most peculiar. And one thing I liked about being close to her was that she was the sweetest smelling person I knew, even her breath.
When Mrs. Coanes had gone elsewhere I got more nosy. “So–why?”
“I just don’t like how it feels, being doused. I never take showers, you know, a quick bath in tepid water. Or a sponge bath–don’t look at me like that, that is how it often was growing up! You recall I get up before you all do to get ready, and there is a line when I get out.”
“Well, so you feel you have to hurry?…but is there one real reason why? I mean, did something happen that was scary?”
“That’s the reason why: I don’t enjoy water,” she said with quiet exasperation and got up to pace the shoreline again, hands stuffed into pockets of her attractive Pendleton wool plaid jacket. I noted her sturdier casual shoes beneath a lighter tweedy skirt.
It made no sense; it bothered me. How could a person not like the way water slipped over skin, soft and smooth and refreshing? A bath was one thing but a lake….they were full of fascinating life. Viney weeds could suddenly wind around legs, true, and blood suckers met in the muck were gross. But toe-nibbling fish were okay. I knew Mom had a real appreciation of earth sciences, had studied them in college and often talked about geology and etymology. But she had never included water life in her enthusiastic fact-sharing, either. And I still didn’t quite know why.
“Hey Mom, stop worrying, Dad is a good swimmer and he’s with a veteran sailor.”
But she had to be afraid of water; she acted worried about his safety. I tended to find my mother fearless. Even if she hid a few anxieties, she tried to faced things head on. Perhaps that was what she was doing by letting him go ahead on the little boat each year, just staying watchful rather than becoming a little hysterical. My mind wandered–did someone she know actually drown? Did she come close to it? Did she get doused with water from a farm hose by one of her many mischievous, maybe sometimes mean brothers?
I felt as if I was seeing into their lives from a different angle, with more open eyes. And I also felt somehow less confined to childhood’s real with the bits of new knowledge. What else didn’t I know about them? I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready for much more.
Mom shrugged off my words, then tossed me a tolerant smile, as if I couldn’t begin to understand such things. Mrs. Coanes returned so I grabbed a towel, happy to get off on my own, to doze and dream, get a decent tan. Then Dad and Mr. Coanes edged back into view so I sat up again. Mom waved and jumped about as if she hadn’t seen them in days. I sat up. Dad was at the helm; he was sailing the boat by himself. Yes, it was a small boat but there was something about his hair ruffling in the wind, the honeyed sunshine on his elated face, arms and back strong and that easy joy so apparent. My father, set free awhile. Free from endless labors, from even family, from public expectations. It was Dad in the midst of water and wind as the boat skimmed the brilliant teal blue lake. He brought it in nicely.
Mom restrained herself as they finished up. She gave Dad a beach towel to dry off. He was alert, excited–my often taciturn, tired father was a joyously revised one. I congratulated him on his outing and Mr. and Mrs. Coanes noted what a natural he was at sailing. Mom, smiling easily once more, slipped her arm through the crook of his and they walked back up the small hill to the cottages.
I knew what I was going to do the next day: get my chance out there on that sailboat. I had had a taste of sailing at camps and longed to sail more, like Dad.
But that night as the adults played cards, I went down to the lake and sat on the end of the dock. The waves slapped against earth and dock in the sweetly comforting way I never failed to miss when back in the city. Frogs and crickets and birds sang and chirped. I listened for loons, those strange beauties. And an entire sky opened itself to me like a magic kingdom, moon like a beacon, even a harbinger of very good things to come. If I felt a passing pang of loneliness, I imagined another teen sitting across the water doing the same as I, feeling the same tender thrill, that sweet anticipation of an entire life ahead.
Those early autumn stars stirred and settled themselves in the swaths of another night and I imagined them like pinholes into heaven. I propped myself on forearms and tilted my head back to observe them in their true glory as twilight gathered more darkness. Such a perfect, confounding universe, so many questions to ask and answer. If there was one thing I knew for certain, it was that nature was my companion and would be my inspiration and solace my whole life long. I would never feel entirely bereft or lost with nature all about me.
I understood some of why the Coanes left our small city far behind, and why Mrs. Coanes simplified her life. Looking back she was a quiet pioneer, forging her own path in the early sixties when many women wouldn’t have dared–except perhaps, other outdoors women or athletes. How fortunate I was to have known them and to have enjoyed their hospitality. To learn a little about water’s powers and that far off country of grown up life and marriage.
It wasn’t my plan to stop at a neglected used book store but I needed a cooling breath or two and a drink from the water cooler. I’d been hurrying through a busy part of the city when I spotted it: Parson’s Bound Words and Fine Art the swinging wooden sign bragged, as if there were arcane, prized items beyond its dirty green door. It was proclaimed awkwardly, I thought, and it put me off but I noted a young woman and child appearing to enjoy heat relief as they browsed. I hesitated at the door. Perspiration made a beeline down back and chest. I turned the dented brass knob and went inside.
I had just been to lunch with Emory. It’s a date we manage every six months to keep a civil line open for our three adult children and six grandchildren. We don’t talk on the phone or, heaven forbid, text; Emory doesn’t believe either is good authentic communication and I can’t say I entirely disagree, at least in his case. Emory is not one who can grasp or respond well without the talking partner’s face providing constant and helpful clues. This was still true for us despite being married to one another for thirty-seven years. We’ve been divorced for ten. His need to clarify via constant overt signals might in part explain why we didn’t have patience enough to endure, much less fully enjoy each other, until death do us part. I don’t need to be duly examined, nor to regard another with full force in order to chat about an update on life. I don’t even need to be in the same rooms; I like to move about. Use your imagination, I used to urge him, listen to vocal inflections.
Still, we’ve somehow managed to talk without fisticuffs and it seems a useful meeting twice a year. Emory is not unpleasant from afar and close up he still looks pretty good. He says the same of me so that much we continue to agree upon. We each remain single. Just less complicated.
Although seeing him still can increase my blood pressure and thus, internal temperature, the city summer had already scorched us all. So that bookstore beckoned. I entered, the obligatory little bell on the top tinkling in a frenzy. A waft of cool air welcomed me immediately. Mr. Parson, I presumed, looked up from an opened notebook by the cash register, nodded, then returned to his writing or tallying. His black taped glasses perched on top of his head; he squinted at whatever was being entered in his own bound pages. He must have felt me staring at him–he was grizzled and rumpled but had a scholarly air about him, much like Emory. He looked up, tried on a smile with eyes that I suspected looked perpetually quizzical. He loved books, after all.
“May I help you this ghastly August afternoon?”
“Water first!–how generous of you to offer it– then to general browsing,” I said and headed to the cooler. He grunted in a congenial manner and let me be.
After a paper cone of lukewarm water was drunk, I glanced at section headings and went for visual arts, mostly because it was dimmer and farther back so perhaps cooler. There were three others besides the woman and child, each bent over a book in the aisles; I excused myself along the way. I pulled out a few art tomes and thumbed through the pages. Seen one, seen them all, I felt at the moment, though at home was a sagging shelf devoted to classic and contemporary painters and a collection each of Mexican and Native American potters. Bored with books that held little interest I moved on to two long shelves of photography, fingers slipping over smooth or cracking spines as I dallied.
Henri Cartier-Bresson–that name so renowned but it had been years since I had even glanced at his work. I contemplated a heavy-looking book and pulled it out. Parson was passing me and pointed at a table and chairs alongside a window.
“Take a seat, have at it,” he said, then disappeared through a swinging office door.
It was pleasant there despite the predictable dry, musty smell of aging, oft-handled bindings and pages. The book I held needed to lay flat to be appreciated and so I sat and opened to the first pages. Though I knew he had died in 2004, Cartier-Bresson meant something to me still.
During the onset of the 1970s I had studied photography, before Emory and the bit and bridle of married life, and had had the good fortune to spend a year in Paris. There I’d wanted to practice certain techniques, to at the least mimic the sort of spontaneous shots which made the master photographer famous. I shamelessly shot every place and person I could, trying to not provoke. It was a time of unfettered days and nights, made of dreams I’d held close until they had come true, time in Paris with camera in hand: the extraordinary light and shadow, charming scenes and grand old architecture, revelations of life unlike any I’d witnessed or even suspected before. I had grown up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and so embraced Paris with high expectations, a growing adoration.
I wished more than anything to become a female Henri Cartier-Bresson. I knew I had some basic talent but did I have the creative mind and eye it took to offer views that spoke volumes even remotely like the master’s? Roll after roll of film was shot, developed that year and so much of it was no good. But some of it was.
I turned more softly yellowed, slick pages, studied the pictures. Street life, fresh and fascinating. People paused to gaze into a long, bright alley; strolled hand in hand along the busy Seine; hunched over food at outdoor cafes or on a dock; loitered at street corners beneath glowing lamps; kissed in parks; toiled in the grime; dozed and gossiped on benches. The artist found the extraordinary in all that was ordinary, recorded subtle or dramatic changes in much of the world. Some of that time was mine, was where and when I lived.
I sighed, happy to have taken a few moments to come into the little dingy store. How could I have forgotten such treasures as these? I flipped through more pages, absorbing them with a flick of my eyes. I had to get home to feed Dana, my dachshund. The past only held so much magnetism for me, anymore. What had gone before was done. I hadn’t wasted time grieving over the cameras I put away, then sold; I had made a choice.
And as I about closed the book, I stopped.
There was a young man with aviator sunglasses, patterned bandanna snug about his forehead, books pushed aside as he lounged atop a ponderous stone wall, likely part of many steps to an immense building, his back to a pillar. Arms around a girl pressed deeply into the embrace, his fingers entwined for a stronger hold on her.
The boy was Phillipe and the girl he held was me, Natalie.
I gasped and my hand clasped my open mouth. The young woman with child looked at me with a small concern as she scooted around the table, hand clutching her daughter’s. But I just bent over the page and remembered.
How was that possible, to have had our picture taken and not know it, to never have seen it all these years? The thrill of this threatened to bring me to a faint and I took in and released long slow breaths. Parson walked by; I kept my eyes down. I couldn’t possibly inform a stranger that I was in a picture made by a famous photographer. Henri Cartier-Bresson had taken many thousands of photographs. We were just one more couple with a passerby eyeing us and perhaps disapproving on a sunny afternoon. We were in the master’s viewfinder, then he had moved on.
Phillipe was a student at the Sorbonne, studying philosophy and music. We had met at a cafe one afternoon when I was trying to not cry over my espresso, feeling homesick despite the wonders found, wishing for someone with whom to share it all. He’d picked up my sunglasses from the ground as he walked by; we began to chat. He, too, missed his small town of Ornans but said this lessened as his studies became more interesting. Phillipe was studying music theory and composition, was working on a piece. I’d felt relief and gratitude that he had taken an interest in me, a foreigner, and he’d shared his struggles adjusting to living on his own.
I racked my brain –where was that taken? What had we been up to? It was like any romantic afternoon we shared in Paris; it may have been at the university after he got out of class. But I knew Phillipe such a short time, only three and a half months, and time trickled away so fast I kept a diary of our stolen and intimate days and nights, our falling easily into a tender love. He, the romantic French boy I’d longed to know; I, the American student he found so open and independent. I was afraid no one would believe me, or that I would forget somehow, so I wrote it all down each day. And took some pictures of him.
Where did all that end up? Crammed into taped up boxes in the attic, no doubt. I was twenty-one then, now sixty-seven.
I smoothed the page, tapped his hands. Recalled the weight of my hair in summer warmth, how he loved to hold it to his face; the prickle of his stubbly cheeks against mine. The books we read to one another, my French just passable, his English better. The music he played for me, very good songs. But I soon came to the end of my stay, the end of money left me by a beloved uncle. Phillipe had to continue at the Sorbonne. His carefree lust and easy affection for me were nothing compared to his passion for music. And though I found his words and touch gentling as well as incendiary, I suspected photography would bring me great comfort long after he was gone.
Yet it had stung, how could it not in 1971 for a young woman in Paris studiously snapping pictures while seeking a soul mate? He had walked into my life, we’d clung to one another in a free-fall of delights, then simply parted.
I took a last look at his face. It was so long ago it seemed impossible. I slowly closed the book. Henri Cartier-Bresson had frozen for all time one ordinary Phillipe, one everyday Natalie.
“Find something interesting? I couldn’t help but notice…” Parson grasped the back of the wooden chair, leaned on it as he looked at me with interest.
I rolled hunched shoulders luxuriously–they needed a good stretch. “Oh, the past, it sneaks up on you at odd times. Or wallops you.”
“It can. May I ask–are you a photographer? I mean, since you poured over his work?” He patted the volume as if an object of his affection.
I considered the man. He was older than I, had a white trimmed beard and eyebrows that could scare you if he scowled. But he seemed more the benevolent sort. The poorly repaired glasses slid off his head, a hand catching them at the last moment. I wondered if he’d ever traveled or had only labored away in this little book shop all his life, an armchair sojourner. Did he like other things or only words and pictures he could catalog, keep handy in their places?
“I was once. At least thought so–or that I could be. I so admired Cartier-Bresson. I hoped to emulate his style. Then I stopped. You know, how we stop doing something because there seems no good reason to keep on? One thing just replaces another.”
He considered this, looking out the window. “Yes. I sailed and lived all over the world for over a decade and then I was done. Have not been on a boat since. I bought this store and stuck with it. Lately there are far fewer customers. But it’s what I enjoy still. For now.”
He acted as if he was about to pull out a chair and make himself comfortable, so I stood up. I had to feed Dana, it was getting late and I was tired out.
But Parson persisted. “What about your pictures–do you miss taking them?”
“I haven’t thought of it in a good long while. Until today. Perhaps I have, after all.” I started to move away from the table.
“Well,” he said, “maybe start again.”
I picked up the book and took it to the counter. “I for certain know I want to buy this.”
He grinned at me, crooked teeth homely but nice. “Good. Which one did you especially enjoy?
He turned to it, peered at it a bit. “A fine capture of young lovers, in Paris, perhaps.”
“That was me… and Phillipe,” I said to my surprise and sudden embarrassment.
Parson raised those big eyebrows and his eyes grew huge. “That right? That’s marvelous, then, isn’t it?”
I paid for the book, a lot more than I expected. “Yes, I guess it really is. Quite a good memory but I value it because it’s by my idol. Henri Cartier-Bresson.”
“As well you should, Ms….”
“Just Natalie.” I half-winked at him, I don’t know why but it just seemed the right thing after all that.
“As well you should, Natalie, a wonderful find.”
“Yes, I’m so glad I came in. It’s a good bookshop. Thanks, Parson.”
“Jack, and I thank you, too.”
He offered his hand and I took it, held it a second or two, his palm slim but firm if aging, fitting into my bony, aging one.
“Goodbye for now, Jack.”
“Come back any time.”
I closed the door behind me and was swathed in a blanket of humid heat. But I hugged the book all the way home. I felt quite lucky at times in my life. Even with Emory, who had been kind if quite hard to bear as well. Weren’t we all. I did wonder what I’d find next at that bookstore. First I wanted to buy a good, cheap camera. I might tell Emory about that. Or even Jack.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson