Our Continental Summers

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We were intending on staying for at least three weeks in the village outside Rome. My father had a work assignment in the city but always liked to situate us in out-of-the-way places when we traveled in Europe. He was a photographer, someone you might have heard of but only if you worked in scientific or industrial circles. He took pictures of things like cutting edge machinery or classified experiments or industrial construction that was controversial. Gerard and I thought he was a spy. Father found it amusing, said he was a boring documentarian.

We followed him all summer, and often for a month in winter when Chicago got too desperately cold for mother. He didn’t do glamorous work but he was expert at what he did and we got to be “semi-nomadic”, mother said with her airy laugh. He would be gone a couple of weeks to a couple of months, and we’d stay behind in a pensione or dusty hotel. He thought it better for the family than leaving us alone in a foreign metropolis. My mother shrugged; she was used to going anywhere on a moment’s notice and anywhere was better than nowhere. She was interested in meeting new people. If we got lucky, they might know someone who had a villa, and then my brother, Gerard, and I would be in heaven, scampering down the maze-like corridors, getting lost in the rooms that opened onto a large garden, splashing about in a spring-fed pool.

But this time, it was a small pensione that stood crumbling on a corner of the village. There was a swift, snaky river nearby. Gerard liked to explore things there and waited for some village boy to say hello. If that didn’t happen, he pestered me. I’m the elder by five years. I had no choice but to watch over him when mother was occupied, which was often. It wasn’t so hard.

Gerard was the sort of boy who, by age ten, had memorized several lengthy passages from books: Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, Bradbury. He said it was partly in case we couldn’t find libraries or book stores with English books–he could always entertain us with his oratory, a recitation of a sonnet or climactic scene. He also wrote poems occasionally. He was certain he would be a writer or actor. Mother found it so charming she would insist Gerard perform from time to time, which father found embarrassing for us all. Gerard didn’t mind much; it was a talent and he knew it. But the point is, he was a boy who found ways to entertain himself and when he didn’t, he found whatever you were doing entertaining, as well. I guess we had that in common.

But if Gerard loved living in his active mind, I loved paying attention to the world. I simply observed and sometimes took notes or pictures. It excited me. Father suggested I was like him but I wasn’t convinced. I can’t tell you why I had no real hobbies. I suppose it was because there was plenty happening wherever we were as well as within our family. I wasn’t distracted by boredom. I think Gerard saw much, but he was circumspect about his ideas and feelings, even then. Maybe he just wanted to keep them close. He would never point out weaknesses or mistakes of others without serious thought, and then felt the need to apologize in the telling. I watched, gathered data, and when I remarked on something it was given its due, at least to the extent of my understanding. I had a surfeit of opinions, mother said more than once, frowning.

“Nina? Hello? Where did you get that?”

I was on the dirty little terrace, sunbathing on a white towel. I had bought a new two piece suit, bright blue, modest enough and begging to be tried out. I wished we were near a pool or sea and wondered how clean the river was.

I lifted my sunglasses. “Gerard?”

“I found a puppy down by the creek and he just begs to hang out with me. I can’t get him to leave me alone.”

Gerard doesn’t like dogs. He likes undomesticated animals. We once had a Persian cat he half-admired but she made my father sneeze. Though he was gone a lot, off the kitty went, to my mother’s anger. There were long white cat hairs everywhere for weeks.

I sat up. “What’s he look like?”

“Maybe the kind that corrals sheep? I don’t care. But it’s black and white. It nips at my ankles which is annoying. It’s downstairs, I’m sure, waiting to pounce. Maybe we ought to find out whose it is?” He looked down into the piazza. “Mother looked busy.”

I, on the other hand, had been wanting a dog. Not that I could likely smuggle one across the continent but I could least make friends with a stray for a week or two. I put on my cover up and sandals, crossed the breezy rooms and followed him down the narrow stairwell.

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It ran right up to us. A border collie it was, splattered with black and white and very fuzzy. It had a collar but no helpful identification tags; many dogs in the village ran free. I knelt in the grass and it licked my face and yelped. I picked it up.

“Nina, don’t get cozy. Let’s find out whose it is. What else do you have to do but sunbathe? I avoid too much sun.” He pointed to baseball cap and sunscreen on his nose.

“That’s the point of summer! Lying in the sun and doing nothing. I like to glow; it takes sun. Not everyone feels compelled to be productive. Not even you, I noticed.”

“I was thinking all morning. About world building in sci fi novels.”

“Yes, well, thoughts are like air molecules to you. You might die if your mind went blank.” I put the puppy down and the three of us started off.

It was that time of summer where everything vibrated green. The trees were conversing with each other and the river was keeping company with children and old people. Two crude toy boats turned and bounced in the current. I spoke to shopkeepers to see if they had lost the puppy or if they knew anyone who had. My Italian was halting and basic; they often didn’t understand me until I pointed to the dog and mimed my question. A woman with huge dimples and crooked teeth who ran a small dress shop pointed us toward a cafe, whether to get a hand out for the puppy or to further inquire I wasn’t sure. The little dog greeted everyone, dashed off only to return to my heels. Looked up at me with happy eyes.

When we turned the corner and headed down the next alleyway I saw them at the end. I wasn’t surprised. Mother had been spending her mornings and some evenings with a small group of people, two from England, one from the village and another from France. I didn’t see the English couple, only the two men.

“I wonder what mother would say if I asked her if we could keep him awhile.” I scooped up the puppy and it laid his head on my shoulder. “This puppy is perfect.”

“Never. Father will be back in three weeks. Then we’re off to …?”

“Berlin, then the Netherlands, then Scotland for awhile. I think father will have more time to be with us then.”

“At least we can understand Scottish.”

“Don’t count on it, it will be taxing for us there, too,” I said, then slowed my pace, as did Gerard. I put my arm around his shoulders. When he saw mother he didn’t pull away.

She was drinking espresso with Jean-Charles and Roberto. They’d had dinner with us once. Mother had talked them into giving us a countryside tour the third day we were there. She was good at that. Jean-Charles was a businessman on holiday. Roberto had a villa three miles out; we had passed it on our tour.

If you had known mother you would have had to say she was beautiful. “Exquisite” is how our father put it when he saw her after being gone. She usually dressed up for him. Young for age thirty-eight, she laughed and talked to others easily, pulled people to her as though she was a radiant passion-flower in a field of clover. You couldn’t help but look at her, listen to her soft voice, her smart words. She knew all this but acted nonchalant. Maybe that was one reason people who stepped into her presence stayed there too long. Especially men.

It was part of my job to watch over her, too, for father. For the family. It was so easy for her to be taken away by the attention, to find hands on her hands a comfort, the gazes a delight, others’ conversation filling like a fine meal. I knew that. I missed our father, too, and wished we had him more. But I also knew she was foolish at times. Careless.

So when we saw Roberto lean forward and kiss her cheek, then lingering at her ear I walked right up to him.

“Anyone’s missing puppy sitting at this table?”

Roberto blinked and smiled at the puppy, then reached out and rubbed his ears. Mother looked away from me, past Jean-Charles who just have a little wave. Her face was pink from sun or being seen.

“I know I’m missing my mother so how about a swap? One great, available dog for our mother.”

“Nina,” mother said, her lips taut.

I dumped the puppy in Roberto’s lap and the Border collie immediately jumped up and licked the man’s face. I winced. Mother’s hand went to her throat and she started to say more, then got up. She thanked them for the espresso and left. We walked to the river. She talked to Gerard, asked him what he wanted for dinner, if there had been a poem written. I knew she felt sorry. But I kept hoping the puppy would find his way back to me. He did not.

Sometimes I knew I was good this, averting small disasters. Gerard agreed, sadly. I called my father. I whined about the boring village and why couldn’t we come to the city so we could visit museums and learn the history of Rome? He knew. He came. And that is why we left after only five days and got to see Rome. We had our father with us in every country that summer. But I still think of the puppy I lost.

St. Peters Basilica, Rome, Italy

Power of Place

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When I leave behind the congestion of the city and move into country stillness fills me inch by inch. There is an alertness coupled with serenity that blooms in my core. As Portland subsides with its array of tantalizing offerings and entertaining moments, it is like a long-held breath released, mind emptied of scattered thoughts, lists, a vagary of wants and needs. I begin to be at ease within the world again, and feel gentler towards self and others. Countryside affects me profoundly.

This is common for me and likely many people, though I have met those who prefer city’s jangle and jumble, its towering paeans to human progress and folly. They rarely leave it. I can’t imagine such reluctance. If I can’t find my way to less populated land regularly I feel less than content, full of longing. I am lonely for nature’s balm and beauties.

Place holds strong energy for me, be it human or not, constructed or deconstructed. I believe they are infused with remnants of past or present inhabitants’ and events. Buildings, houses, neighborhoods, parcels of land, anywhere there is or was life feels benignly neutral, compelling or repellant, with shades in between. I have felt this way all my life, impacted enough by it that my daily decisions are informed by it. I find it as natural a way of perceiving as with physical senses.

People are influenced, even if unconsciously, by intuitive responses. Think of real estate shows and how often folks reject or appreciate a house based on how it “feels.” It is a conscious experience for a great many people. Throughout our years of moving, I have chosen housing based on my internal perception of it far more than outward appearances. I intensely feel aftereffects of violence that has occurred, when great sorrow lingers, or if those who have inhabited it harbored various destructive behaviors. At times it seems like people have inserted their personalities and are still there. There have been many occasions I have driven up to a place and immediately left. Or knew instantly this was the place that would be home. I do not second-guess; I’ve learned it’s not worth it.

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I also am attuned when hiking, detouring when I feel unusually close to wild and possibly threatening creatures. There was the time in the Columbia Gorge that I knew bears were very near and I lagged behind my spouse. A few moments later I heard soft huffing sounds of cubs. Of course their mother kept an eye on things close by; they exchanged communications. I told my husband it was time to leave. And once hiking in a city forest something had created a wide swath of flattened grass and weeds where I was walking. My feet suddenly would not budge another step. I wasn’t certain yet what was near, only that it was wild, large and perhaps guarding or enjoying a meal. Despite my spouse’s stating it might be something but likely nothing, I turned and walked away, quietly calling him. At the nature center we were informed of a cougar’s recent sighting. Would we have been harmed either time? My instinct said “beware” and I don’t regret it.

We all have such guidance if we pay attention. It could be an angel or God or our own animal nature or all. We cross a street or become more guarded when we feel ill intention attached to a passerby. We have strong first impressions before we even know someone well; later we recall that first response. It isn’t the physical world we respond to but the inner one, the soul’s intention radiating outward. It is the measurable, palpable life energy of who we truly are. We can be as enchanted by one another or by a place as we are not. If warnings are given us, so are calls to come much closer.

We know people can inspire and draw us. So, too, places can move, heal, awaken and strengthen us. Think of a time you needed respite and found a spot where you felt deeply relieved, energized or calmed. Or when you needed hope and an experience of place gave you opportunities to release pain and embrace joy anew. Some people claim a spot and return to it always. Others search and discover them worldwide, like my family who regularly follow the call of unknown roads and the wilds.

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Just last Sunday some of us headed out to a Christmas tree farm. We had chosen a place new to us. As soon as we left the tangle of cars and houses and entered a misty, hilly terrain we knew we were onto something especially good. Foggy patches opened and closed about us, yet afternoon’s golden light brightened everything as though from inside out. The acreage stretched far and wide; the sky opened. We inhaled deeply the redolent, chilled air: damp earth and evergreen scents permeated all. The lots were overseen by a tall, burly man who was laughed readily, was helpful and liked to chat amiably. He seemed the quintessential lumberjack but he has a day job behind a desk. He loves this work on the side.

It took less than ten minutes to find what we wanted: a rotund, sturdy Douglas fir, straight of trunk. Nearby were equally lovely Nobles and Grand Firs. Every tree looked healthy and strong, showing off their needles of rich emerald or bluish-green. They cost a fraction of what we usually paid, as well. Our son cut it down quickly and his Noble, as well.

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We walked up the muddy road to the house and pole barn where attractive, fresh wreaths and coffee awaited. On the way we met sheep who mildly gazed back at us. Their thick wool, random voicings and gentle faces cheered us further. I gazed at the tree line against an alabaster and robin’s egg blue sky, heard brisk birdsong and wings caressing air, sheep baaaing and my family softly talking and laughing. A thick mist began to spread around trees and fields. We had stepped away from all the world and its worrisome matters, through a portal to a place where work built muscle and was valued; kindness thrived; peace prevailed. Though the cold increased I felt steady warmth gather within and around me.

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We met the owners, Tom and Harriet. They chatted easily with us. They had bought the land and house over twenty years prior; it called them. The older gentleman worked in the forestry service and worked the tree farm on his “off” hours. Impressive in their knowledge and congeniality, they are people one would like to have as neighbor, break bread with on a cold winter’s eve. We praised his trees and shared our city-folk love of their land.

“Every time I leave the city and country rolls around me, I feel all is aligned in the universe, and I’m happy,” I told Tom.

He smiled warmly. “Yes, that’s it.”

I was reluctant to leave. We all were. This was more than an exceptional business, it was a place of power, a spot of land where people, creatures and earth conspired to support and tend life together. Its magnificence was there long before it was settled but it had been respected and loved. It is still appreciated for the blessing it is. And it was shared with us, a gift we thankfully took home.

On the way back I saw the nearly full moon through a vaporous veil of fog and thought of Bethlehem. I wondered over the manger where animals surrounded an infant Jesus and his parents. The Wise Men and shepherds had travelled far from home to be part of a place and event of sacred power. What did they feel as they witnessed all? What was it like to stand beneath that star’s radiance as it fell upon them, obliterated darkness for a short while?

I hope for each of you that you claim your special place and moments of power are found this Christmas. Then share them with others. Count yourself fortunate to be able to be still and present, to acknowledge the perfect glory of God, the gifts of life now and through eternity.

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(All photographs taken by the author; please ask before using. Thanks!)

Christmas, Anyway

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Jasper Dye was not feeling benevolent toward Christmas and he didn’t apologize. The past five years he’d put up with it. Alright, he maybe liked it a bit once or twice but since the wife was gone he didn’t, of his own volition, choose to meet a decorated tree face-to-face. He had plenty of trees, right out back; they already had decorations courtesy of Mother Nature. He lived on more land than he now needed and could have made money if he sold off a few dozen white and jack pines or whatever people wanted. But he liked their company. Balsam fir, hemlock, black and white spruce, tamarack with some oaks and maples and birches thrown in: they all looked good around his farmhouse. Jasper found it a terrible waste to chop them down for a couple of weeks and then trash them.

His son, Shawn, threatened to oust him from his haven and drag him to Marionville where they could admire the goings on and spread great good wishes.

“Dad! It’s a couple weeks a year! You miss out when you hunker down and refuse all the cheer. You need to stop by our place and see the wreaths Olivia’s made. That woman has skills. Or we can go to her shop, then have lunch.”

Jasper grunted and poked at the crackling fire. Olivia was new to their realm. The way Shawn gushed about her craftiness you’d think he was a real art lover. She’d moved from “down below” and brought entrepreneurial spirit galore, just like other refuges from the cities. Jasper didn’t say it but she would never be enough north country for him. He worried Shawn had lost his sense thanks to her lively looks and ways with nature’s bounty.

“I’m not promising anything. You been ice fishing this week?” Jasper chatted another minute and hung up. He could see Shawn roll his eyes.

The next day he woke up and heard the silence, then saw the new snow. His acreage glistened and glittered like a carpet laid out for a Queen. It was a comfort to Jasper although he didn’t favor the cold like he used to. His wife would have put the suet up and her own quilted and bowed wreath at the door and there’d be fresh bread. They’d make brandy-soaked fruitcake together. He usually got out the wreath, but this year things felt hollowed out and useless. Big Yancy had died last winter around New Year’s yet Jasper still found himself commenting to the old mutt. Between the dog, Shawn and his wife–who had been sick too long then finally let go–he’d had it made once.

After breakfast, Jasper opened the door for a blast of Arctic air so his mind would clear. It felt like a big breath of life. He grabbed his coat and hat. He stepped out and walked down the slick pathway toward the road.

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Down beyond the road was the psychic’s place owned by Heaven Steele. He preferred to think of her as the artist and not mull over the rest too much. Heaven’s glass chimes were unique, melodious, and this time of year she’d reap the rewards of her work. Last summer his vote was still out on whether she was nuts or sort of special, dangerous or good-hearted. He’d determined she was reasonably talented with both her skills. When she’d made him her watchman, entrusting her property to him when she travelled, he slowly opened his mind. He even helped her out with a few cases when clients proved to be a handful for one reason or another. And they managed to save Riley, a young woman from town, from her monstrous father. That had done it; they had good teamwork.

Heaven’s house looked quiet. Her car was parked behind it, as usual, lately. He thought about her tea and company, so headed down the worn path, boots crunching on the snow, hat straps flapping in the wind. His nose ran and his cheeks were beet red by the time she opened a once-green but now yellow door. She’d added a different kind of wreath. Artists! He looked around to confirm it was her place.

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She nodded and let him in. He took in her wavy white hair and violet and brown eyes, all still a shock. She was probably twenty years younger yet beyond age. Jasper didn’t like to think about that. She was different enough.

“Jasper, good you came. I was about ready to go to town. Wait and I’ll get my coat. You’ll come along, of course.”

“Uh, no thanks, I’ll head back up and catch you later.”

But she left him, then returned with voluminous woolen cape and a heap of small boxes which she placed in his arms. She went to her studio again and came back with more in her tote bag. She gave him another bag to fill up.

He started to protest but he saw she could use his help. The bags were laden with her chimes, last minute orders to post.

“I have to send one to Iceland and two to France, can you imagine?”

Heaven unlocked the car doors, they put the bags in the back seat and were off.

Marionville shone like a giant necklace of rainbowed jewels as they entered town. Jasper squinted at the colored lights on buildings, at windows, around lamp posts and wished he’d brought sunglasses. Cherry bright flags were flying for an outdoor holiday market, and Lake Minnatchee was no longer an undulating swath of blue but a frozen playground. He counted twelve kids skating and a few adults. Traffic was dense and noisy, people were laden with bags bulging with trinkets no one could possibly want. He wanted to open the door, make an excuse and run back home. The thought of the steep road back stopped him since he’d neglected to bring gloves. A muddle of anxiety crept up his chest. He swallowed it back.

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Heaven parked a block from the post office and turned to look him full in the face. He froze.

“Go. You will like it out there. You’ll do just fine.” She smiled and her teeth flashed in a shock of sunlight. She patted his arm and got out. He relented and did the same.

Oh, the garishness of it all, he thought, as they grabbed the bags. Why couldn’t people be more restrained about things, keep life simple, not make so much stink over things that didn’t reflect Bethlehem and that star and the Baby, anyway? He followed her, then entered the post office and got in line.

More people spoke to Heaven Steele than him. They felt better about her after ten years, despite her heralding from Chicago and reading the future without even a tea leaf. A few said hello to him, acting as if he’d been gone for months when Jasper had come into town three weeks ago for supplies. They buzzed with curiosity: what had he been up to, and had he given thought to a another dog yet and, man, that Shawn had sure found himself a winner, hadn’t he?

“Doing fine, no need to replace Big Yancy. Yes, Olivia’s okay. Just came down to help Heaven with her orders.”

When they finished business, he headed back to her car but Heaven didn’t follow.

“I have something to pick up at the bookstore. Then I’m going to the fabric store. Be about a half hour. Want to come?”

Jasper knit his brows at her, waved her off, and said he’d meet her in thirty minutes. All around him people streamed, lights twinkled until he felt blind and doors opened and closed. When there was a break in the crowd he entered the first place that appealed. His intention was to disappear in some corner.

Inside it was all dressed up, full of beautiful things, nothing he’d want but it smelled good. Berries, woods, something that made him recall the baking he and his wife had enjoyed. A tender melancholy squeezed his heart as he stopped to examine a bird house with a tiny wreath below the perch. Thirty-five bucks when the creatures could enjoy a whole tree for free.

“Mr. Dye!”

Olivia walked with that loping stride, red curls bouncing on her shoulders. She held out her hands and he found himself gravitating toward them. Her strong fingers were warm.

“I’m happy you came to see my shop!”

“Well, I came downtown on an errand and…well, yes, your shop. Shawn mentioned it to me earlier.”

“It looks good, doesn’t it? It’s been almost a year and business is picking up well. Shawn helped me hang some wreaths. Do you need one?”

Jasper studied them on the walls: the source of the fragrances. He admired the shapes, noted natural ribbon and sprays of flowers and handsome feathers. Olivia had a feel for this.

“I’m not a reliable critic of arts and crafts but they look nice. I don’t need a wreath, no.”

The young woman gave him a wide grin. “You’re coming for Christmas Eve dinner, of course!”

He stepped back and was going to note his regrets, say the arthritis had been bad and he wasn’t liable to come back down for a while, thanks all the same. But her eyes were brightly blue with pleasure, excitement shimmering off her. Whether it was the holidays or her success or his son, he didn’t know.

And then she reached for and placed a wreath in Jasper’s hands, one made with a tasteful bow with ruddy berries, pine cones and dashes of greenery in a triangle shape. Small enough to fit his door. Something in him resisted the gifting of it.

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“I couldn’t, really, thanks.”

“But it’s my pleasure, Mr. Dye. It’s the Christmas season, after all!”

The door opened and people arrived; voices and laughter rattled around the warmth. Olivia turned away with a wave thrown back. He hooked the wreath on his fingers and left.

Heaven was waiting for him. When she saw the wreath she knew better than to say one word. He almost suspected she had beamed a message to Olivia, set it all up, made sure he got bit by the holiday bug. His mind was still set on emergency brake mode, but straining despite it.

“Let’s get a peppermint chocolate coffee,” she said and put her arm through his free one, acting like he was a gentleman she’d long wanted to catch up with. It was one of her ways with him.

He was suddenly terribly thirsty. It was going to be Christmas, anyway. Jasper’s will might as well give a little. Then he could return home. Make a good fire. Muse about the wife, Big Yancy, that dinner he’d likely share on the holy night.

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(Painting by Pisarro courtesy Wikipedia;”Winter Landscape” photo by dan/courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Space and Time to Celebrate Family

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(A gathering in 1964)

Because I am soon off to visit my brother, along with a gaggle of other family members, I thought I’d share a bit before I board the plane. I am more a traveler by car so this trip, non-stop, requires a good reason. Much of my family is converging on the other side of the country to celebrate W.’s seventieth birthday in a few days. It seems preposterous we all could have aged so, but certainly it’s a blessing we’re yet here on earth and engaged in hearty living. To that end, there will even be a nephew arriving from Germany. The party will be a good one.

December is a month full of meaningful dates. It occurs to me my mother’s birthday was this month; I wonder if she will attend in in spirit, which would be like her. And a dear grandson will be turning eight the day I fly back home. But, too, I must say–because he is so much on my mind–that I lost another nephew far too soon one December. I grieve his passing, still. And Christmas is coming up, a time of faith that matters to me spiritually, far less so materially.

Family. We all have complicated families. I read once that those who maintain congenial family relationships tend to fare better as they age–particularly if one feels close to siblings. There is comfort in familiarity (notice the root word there!), the forbearance and forgiving acceptance that being blood-connected offer us, and a love that cannot be shared in quite the same way with any other.

Besides, in my family we share: similar cowlicks, white hair generally arriving quite early (I am the odd one with more auburn brown still), large and mostly blue eyes, mental and physical stamina, musicality, and a tendency to believe all things possible, even good things. We love to hope, learn and create. We also can be fussy and critical, high-handed, overly generous rescuers, perfectionistic, easily moved by suffering and kept awake by troubles here and afar. We pull toward God, those ancient teachings a divine compass, yet we can be too demanding of ourselves and others. Fervency can be a pro or con here but at least we have passion.

I have written of my family before, most recently of the aforementioned brother on Veteran’s Day. What could possibly interest you further? I’ve told a few tales about five children growing up in a two-story bungalow in a small Michigan city. Our father was a music educator and administrator, a conductor and musician. Our mother, an elementary school teacher. For some years she was a stay-at-home mom, which translates into being the CEO of a home-based business: a large family with drive, wide-ranging goals and assorted needs and deeds. We were (and are) a slew of “doers”. That meant keeping track of intricate schedules for each one, not to mention my father, who was so busy his recalled presence is at times like a blur except for dinner and Sunday mornings. Then he slowed down, sat (often with a symphony score at hand), talked with us. Quizzed us on various topics. It was like school at home and we all had something to say.

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(Birthday brother and our father and a shared appreciation of cameras)

W. is much like my father, with his passion for history and music and his artistic eye, a genial way with people and generous laugh. Today I got a text message from my sister-in-law: they were on their way to perform with a small choir at a White House holiday reception. It doesn’t surprise me; they remain professional singers (not their actual vocations) though they are retired. W. plays viola well but his voice is lovely. We all used to gather together around the baby grand at my parents’ house, five kids singing and/or playing an instrument, a mini-orchestral experience. Our father accompanied us on piano and directed; my mother watched from the kitchen door.

You can see where this has gone: family reunions unlock the door to memories and it is an experience that recalls sounds and smells, feelings, specific slices of life. The way my father’s eyes warmed (yes, twinkled), his laugh when sharing a new pun. The way my mother touched the side of her nose with an index finger while regaling us with a story. It might have been what happened as she walked to the store yet it was somehow funny and fascinating.

I am the youngest of the bunch. My two brothers and two sisters were off to college when I was barely thirteen. W. is more a known entity today, despite the miles. One of the sweet pleasures of being an adult is getting to know your siblings as co-adults. I feel fortunate; there is not one I am not proud to know, and I look forward to being in their company.

If holidays triggers nostalgia, then family reunions bring reality into sharper focus. No one is without flaws or quirks; we are all creative types and strong-willed, but were taught to be kind and civilized. Laughter will embellish conversations. Debate will be commonplace. I am sure there will be discussion of our diminishing extended family, events we recall from our youth, the passing of pictures to exclaim over. There will be feasting around tables. Music: it goes without saying, whether we sing, attend a concert or listen to the stereo. And since W. is a professional photographer, as well, his cameras will be recording details. The schedule for five days will be orderly with some room for spontaneity. My brother’s house will accommodate us, people wall-to-wall. I look forward to the “side-by-side” composition of our meeting, rubbing shoulders, exchanging hugs.

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(Childhood home)

When all seven of us, our friends and father’s music students were present in the house it was cramped. Often it felt lacking in privacy, was noisy and action-packed. I would climb the backyard maple tree with notebook and pen, breathe and think, plan faraway jaunts and dreams. After my siblings departed for the next stage of life there was such gaping space, a swell of silence that at times unnerved me. Then I’d sit on my bed and marvel at finally having my very own huge (so it seemed) room. I felt suddenly like an only child for the next several years, with the high and low points that came with it.

We can’t go back to the house on Ashman Street–no one wants to return to childhood, really, and my parents are long gone. But this is even better. Each of us grew up, became individuated beyond the group as everyone does with good fortune. Our lives have at times been challenged, even fragmented, then stitched together and made whole again. We have many interesting years between us, voluminous talk to share. We will develop new snapshots while tending and savoring each moment. Age has sculpted our faces and no one knows just what lies ahead. So now we make space and time enough to celebrate my brother and, too, these enduring and deepened family ties.

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(My brother and me)

Little Dove, In Abstentia

landscape-under-snow-upper-norwood- Camille Pissarro
(Landscape Under Snow-Upper Norwood- Camille Pissarro)

Poppi was hosting Thanksgiving this year. Carter’s birthday was two days before Thanksgiving and he was happy to have it there. Although it wasn’t as spectacular as a birthday right before Christmas, it brought a bonanza of attention and a few goodies. He  looked forward to the family traditions. Carter was turning nine; he thought that was a decent age. It was closer to being less a little kid, yet not so close to being grown up that he had to act it all the time. And between the spread on the table and his very own lemon zest cake (they also had the usual apple, pumpkin and pecan pies), his belly would grow at least two inches in a matter of an hour. He’d measured it once.

He got gifts, of course.The real important ones came on Christmas morning so he’d keep smiling when he got another pair of wild socks from Aunt Rosa and a used book he wouldn’t read from Uncle Phil. They flew all the way up from Texas so were forgiven. He usually got a little money. This year he’d asked his parents for a black ski hat, a half pound bag of gummy sharks, a Polartec hoodie (pine green) and gift card for the movie theater so he and his best friend Lou could go see a new movie during school vacation. And a pillow. The pillow was important; his was squashed to the point of no return and smelled of popcorn and dirty hair.

It was likely he would get most things or a surprise or two. But first: the feast.

It usually alternated between Carter’s house and Grandfather’s house. Every one called him Poppi. Grandmother had died when Carter was six but he still remembered her like she was a regular visitor. His mother said maybe she was, but also knew Carter had an exceptional memory. He was the only one who noticed she had moved the cactus garden from the middle of the buffet to left after dusting. He knew what the meals had been the last umpteen months if not years so his mother consulted with him on menu ideas. Everything he’d read–Presidents’ names, major world events and their dates and so n on–all the people he’d ever met and music he’d heard with full lyrics: right there when called on. There was no end to it, he was afraid.

In school, of course, this made him a sore thumb. Schoolmates called him a show off and worse. They also liked to pump his memory right before tests. It wasn’t that he was so smart; he just didn’t forget. It could be annoying. Like the day Carter had skidded into someone on the ice rink when he was five. He couldn’t get up until they lifted off a short, round woman. Carter’s stomach flip-flopped even now at the thought of how she’d smelled, spicy mixed with damp wool and bad breath. He could still recall her plumpness pinning him to the freezing ice and her soft curls tickling his face. She had pretty angel earrings.

He remembered Grandmother’s hands, the veins like little vines under white skin, her long fingers gentle on his face. The rattle of pans and squeak of drawers when she was in the kitchen, like a cooking band. He remembered how she walked with long strides, shoulders just so. She read him stories and sang him songs, Carter sitting on her lap.

Poppi had a good house. It was brick, two stories, not overly large, but with enough rooms to play a long game of hide and seek with the four cousins after dinner. It smelled like pine and burning wood because Poppi lit big candles on the dining table and kept a fire going in the family room. Carter’s house didn’t have a fireplace, just a big back yard with a homemade fire pit.

When it got cold in November, he went over to play play a game of checkers with Poppi. Grandmother brought tea in a big white pot. Carter thought sipping tea from small cups was good if funny but never let on. And ginger cookies came with tea. Carter knew she was pretty, with white hair so bright it lit up a dull room, her grey eyes smiling. When she talked it was as though birds entered the room; her words were like soft cooing sounds that seemed to float above chaos and noise, then land like snowflakes or feathers on Carter’s shoulders. That was why Poppi called her “Little Dove” sometimes. Carter felt good when he repeated the nickname.

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(Voortman House and Park in Snow, 1900 -Albert Baertsoen, Museum of Fine Art, Ghent)

They all missed her. She had been a music teacher, and made music seem a biological need. She would play on the old grand piano after meals and she and Poppi would sing, then get everyone else to join in. No one minded. It’s how their family did things. Carter liked being there most after home, even though it was hard when Grandmother didn’t wake up one morning.

Poppi now had a certain way of making sure she was with them each Thanksgiving and Christmas. He always left her chair empty at the table; he put a place setting there. The grown ups accepted it. Carter didn’t think about it until Lance, his fourteen year old cousin, mentioned it.

“Do you think Poppi will still keep the chair at the other end of the table empty? I mean, Grandmother has been gone for three years now. It’s weird, right? It spooks me. He needs to move on.”

Carter shook his head. “It’s what he does. I don’t know who else would sit there.”

“How about one of our moms or dads?”

That would be weird. It’s Grandmother’s seat.”

Lance flicked him with an index finger. “You’re weird, Einstein!”

So Carter had been thinking about Poppi. He wondered how it was to turn in without Little Dove on Christmas Eve. How he felt when he started to talk to her and she wasn’t there.  Carter recalled odd things about her, like her shoes. She always wore real leather high heels until she was done for the day. Then she put on loose pants and sloppy blue slippers that had tiny white flowers on them. She said they were edelweiss and once sang a song from a very old musical, “The Sound of Music.” She’d sung on stage, he knew, and wondered if she’d wanted to be a star. In college she’d met Poppi and they’d “fallen so deep they couldn’t get out” she’d said with a chuckle.

Carter anticipated his ninth birthday but this year he had a surprise for Poppi. He’d had a half-brilliant idea that the family traditions might be tweaked a little and still be great. He had thought it out a long week before making his decision. He worried Poppi might be shocked at first. Cater didn’t want to cause trouble, but he wanted to add something of his own.

Monet's Magpie                                    (Magpie-Claude Monet)

All of them were seated at the table and Poppi was in the kitchen getting the turkey, carving knife and fork. Carter got up and slipped over to Grandmother’s empty chair. Then he felt under the hanging flap of the yellow tablecloth and pulled up something. He set it on the seat and adjusted it just so. He heard gasps from his mother and Aunt Rosa and Lance snickering. Poppi was coming into the dining room. Carter sat in his seat just in time.

It was a good thing his grandfather had set the turkey platter down in front of his plate or there would have been a mess. Poppi’s hands went right to his heart. Hi eyes widened and his face paled. Uncle Phil and Carter’s dad rose to catch him in case he fainted. Cater felt his throat constrict. He was light-headed. What stupid thing had he gone and done?

His mother stood up, too. “Poppi, I’m so sorry–Carter didn’t tell me what he was up to! Carter…” She gave him a hurt look.

“Shush.” Poppi said and stood still a moment. Then he carefully walked over to the chair where Grandmother had reigned over meals for decades. He stood before the grey and white stuffed husky that sat at her place. It was over three feet tall. Its blue eyes gazed out over the table and a pink tongue was glimpsed at its mouth. One paw was atop the tablecloth. Poppi touched its back, then finally patted its head. He blinked back tears, then started to laugh.

“Good heavens, boy, you invited Oscar!” Poppi smiled so all  his teeth showed, a rare thing since he was a more serious type. “She’d love this; he’s right where he belongs.”

The dining room started to fill with sounds of people talking and then clapping, and Lance came over and mussed Carter’s hair. Every one shared memories of Grandmother and Oscar, the real husky Poppi and she had loved for ten years before a truck got him. Carter had decided to give her this stuffed dog the Christmas before she passed. She’d kept it on the trunk at the end of their bed or near her chair in the living room.

When she’d passed Poppi had given it back to Carter; it had been a reminder he didn’t need. Oscar slept each night with Carter but now he was nine. He could share.

Carter went to his grandfather and hugged him tight around the middle. He felt a little shy about it but he felt great that everything was going to be alright. Poppi hugged right back. Carter had missed her so, but maybe they would gather by the fire and sing after dinner again, Oscar warming by the hearth, Little Dove humming along from afar.

 

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Happy Thanksgiving, kind readers, and thank you for reading my blog! Best regards, Cynthia