Singing My City’s Praises

 

Portland, Oregon photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Portland, Oregon photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Portland’s weather is taking a good break from its long rainy season (we really have two seasons: cold and rainy, warming to hot and dry) and that means I am experiencing even more fulfilling days outdoors. Since I get cranky and restless when I am inside very long, this is good news for me and those who know me. I have been feeling even more gratitude for living in a place for which I have, perhaps, an inordinate fondness.

There is some danger in writing this post. Naming even a few of the wonders of my home town might inadvertently motivate large numbers of people to pack up and migrate this direction. As did I once.

We already have more traffic jams than I imagined when settling in Portland during 1993. New housing has been going up like mad, even in the particular quadrant I live within. It is part of a larger area labelled “close in” due to close proximity to city center. Old buildings are being torn down right and left–is the recession over?–and new 3000 sq.ft. houses take their places. Small parcels of land are snatched up by developers, then commandeered by towering apartment buildings, multi-purpose buildings and townhouses. Restaurants seem particularly loved in this city; new ones sprout up often, as do unique coffee shops. Architects and builders must be well-challenged by rain and the undulating landscape’s proclivity for mudslides, as well as the likelihood of eventual, significant earthquakes. We even have an active volcano across our state line that wreaks havoc from time to time as ash disperses freely.

But still they come. I know why. Let me name the ways I love Portland.

??????????

1. Parks. Today I was duly bedazzled during my daily walk, sometimes undertaken in Laurelhurst Park. Deciduous trees are newly adorned with bright green leaves, showing off their beauty among the cedars and pines. Cherry blossoms, azaleas, rhododendrons put on their own colorful display. Dog owners were playing with their pets as they ran free in a dog run area; families and couples strolled along; runners were working up a sweat. I mused over the fact that I can get to easily a dozen city parks in under fifteen minutes by car, and about five of those within a fifteen minute walk. I am aware of at least one state park within the city; my family spends many days there each year. There are about 279 parks and natural areas in Portland. When I count Forest Park as one of my destinations I am talking about 5100 wooded acres that are inhabited by 112 bird and 62 mammal species. Forest Park is the largest forested natural area within a city limits of the U.S. We also enjoy Washington Park (which includes many attractions such as the authentic Japanese Garden) within the area and have hiked many of the 40 miles of trails over the years. And we even have a lovely, trail-strewn park that is situated on top of an extinct volcanic butte named Mt. Tabor Park. The views there of city and foothills are enchanting, especially at sunset and twilight. What’s not to enthuse about?

Kelly Point and Smith & Bybee 6-10 010

2. Water. Not far from my home I can see the Willamette and the Columbia Rivers converge. These are mighty and well-utilized rivers. The Columbia  originates in British Columbia, Canada and is over 12,000 miles long. It empties into the Pacific Ocean and harbors many kinds of anadromous fish that migrate between saline water and freshwater. A short drive from our place, the 80 mile long river makes its powerful way through the Columbia River Gorge, which is awe-inspiring and at times treacherous due to fickle weather with strong winds. We can experience the tail end of those winds even in my neighborhood, 20 minutes from their source. My family and I have hiked miles of lush, sometimes taxing trails in the Gorge where bears and cougars reign.

In drier months I enjoy walking and relaxing by the Willamette River where there are colorful dragon boat races and food and music festivals in summer. I hang out by the marina because I love boats (the yachts are pretty, too), an iced coffee and cookie in hand, then head to the Saturday Market for arts and crafts from March through Christmas. There are several other waterways nearby, the Sandy River being a favorite just outside the city for tubing, swimming and picnicing. And then there is the Pacific Ocean. We can get there in under an hour and a half; we take off for the coast a few times a year. Even wintry beaches are magnetic and atmospheric, soothing to my mind and body. And there is nothing like building a fire on the beach in dry weather, quietly conversing with nature or my spouse.

Oswald West & Manzanita 9-10 038

3. Mountains and rainforests. These are what initially drove me to the Northwest. Both trigger in me feelings of familiarity, awe, a sense of constancy and ancient protection. I had dreamed about mountainous territory ever since growing up in the flat, charmless (to me) open spaces of mid-Michigan. I had been excited as a younger adult to live in a northern Detroit suburb because there were at least a few rolling, verdant hills–but I secretly yearned for the valleys and heights of this country.

Oswald West State Park+misc 073

To our west there are the Tualatin Mountains and beyond those, the Coast Range; to the east, the Cascade Range that, with Mt. Hood, creates a distinctive horizon. On a clear day one can see four mountain peaks: Mt. Hood and the Washington peaks of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier. So far this has been all about the emerald beauty of outdoors yet I have barely scratched the topic. We are inveterate walkers and the city accommodates that easily; we love to hike and that has led to many good adventures. But there are many more exciting activities than those. Just talk to the skiers and snow boarders, skateboarders and roller bladers, cyclists, kayakers, campers, rock climbers and backpackers, windsurfers and so on. No one who has a love affair with the outdoors feels unrequited.

IMG_1581

4. City center, i.e., downtown. Such offerings! Marc and I can walk a few blocks to hop on a train (“the Max”) and are downtown in a few minutes. Or we can take a streetcar or bus. City center is compact and picturesque with a mix of nineteenth century architecture and soaring contemporary skyscrapers. There are plenty of coffee shops, galleries, indoor/outdoor cafes and food carts; corner-sized parks with fountains and play areas for kids; the waterfront’s lively scene; Portland Art Museum. And there lies Pioneer Square, dubbed Portland’s living room. Last week-end we attended an Oregon Symphony concert, then walked to the Square to hear Pink Martini play with the crowd singing along. There are often musical and other events going on that are either free or cheaper than expected. And how many cities are there in which can you enjoy a leisurely walkabout after a good meal without constantly looking over your shoulder? I have never felt unsafe downtown. Since we are not drinkers we don’t hang out after eleven P.M. but even then I hear there are relatively few incidents.

We often head to the famous Powell’s City of Books. And emerge hours later laden with more delicious tomes. Portland is a city bursting with published and aspiring writers so appreciation of the written word is high. Literary groups and events abound. And further enlivening the city are world-class and innovative musicians, artists, dancers, filmakers…you get the point. We could not live happily without an active arts community and fortunately, Portlanders support them. We even have a City of Portland Arts Tax to insure they thrive in our public schools…gads, I better get that paid!

DSCF1336

5. People. We are the third largest city in the Northwest area after Vancouver, BC and Seattle. But we feel smallish, still. Some of that has to do with the friendliness of the overall population. And basic politeness. When I first moved here I was astounded when waiting to cross the street and a driver just stopped–no stop sign– so I could amble across. I first waited to see what they wanted–in Detroit you had to run for your life to get to the other side. But the guy smiled and waved me across. Here, people do that–smile, even greet one another instead of automatically avoiding eye contact walking. It is a slower pace, but not lazy–this city is full of industrious multi-taskers–just somehow more restful despite the onward march of innovative city planning to accommodate continued growth. I appreciate that we have diverse neighborhoods, each an interesting district of its own. If I say I am going to Hollywood (a well-heeled area but a bit vintage and homey), Hawthorne (hippie tendencies, lots of neat businesses), Alberta Arts (gentrified with newish galleries, eateries, shops and a monthly summer fair) or the Pearl (a showy phoenix of a district having risen from old warehouse blocks) or Nob Hill (upscale but mellower area abutting Forest Park)–well, everyone here knows where I am talking about. Residents and business owners could be from California, Ohio or Vermont; Viet Nam, India or Ukraine. But everyone is drawn here for something hopefully better, something that stirs or supports their ideas and hopes. It is a city that cares about helping others and accepts a diversity of lifestyles better than most cities in which I have lived. Our unofficial motto is, afterall, “Keep Portland Weird.”

I have barely begun to identify Portland’s wiles, oddities and surprises. It’s been fun sharing this very abbreviated tour with you, but I will be back with vignettes about life in “Stumptown” (due to the history of logging). I hope you can begin to see why I was glad, even relieved, to finally arrive. It’s where I belong. Maybe one day you’ll have the pleasure of experiencing Portland for yourself.

 

Flag of Portland
Flag of Portland

Home is the Spot You Land

BC599120-1DD8-B71C-07EE5AFD2AFDAC43-large I had to move all the way from Michigan to Tennessee before I got to live in a state park and purchase a large A-frame-style house for our family of seven. I was thirty-four. My husband was transferred, the fourth time in five years. I was ready as always for adventure, I thought. My parents had taken my siblings and me through Tennessee during summer vacations on our way to other places. History was something my family studied in person–or remnants of it. Tennessee has plenty of that. I even thought of myself as a bit Southern since I was born and lived in Missouri for one and a half years. I was quite mistaken. That was clear the day we arrived at Pin Oak Lodge, where we would stay while we located a suitable house. The lodge was in Natchez Trace State Park, under ten miles from Lexington, our new city of five thousand. It looked like an old town out of a movie, replete with a small library, three small schools and a town square with courthouse front and center. It boasted an attractive lake within city limits. We were about to dive into a mega adventure in the classic South. Detroit suburbs were very far away-I wasn’t very sad about that–as soon as the lodge receptionist emitted words cloaked in vowels that had been stretched, transformed. “Wayaacom yaal. Aahm Jaaayean.” Her smile dazzled. That is what I heard when I first met Jane. I was embarrassed to have to ask for a repeat. I felt quite unsure about the territory we had just entered. It was late summer, a month before the new school worries. Our children, ages eleven down to four, initially considered it a well-deserved vacation. The rooms were pleasing; the pool had cheery aqua water with a diving board to execute daredevil dives from, day and night. I joined in though my husband watched from a shady spot or, preferably, an air conditioned window seat. The sun hunted us down, mistaking us for prey. Sweat was a constant accessory. We turned pink or bronze in no time. The daily buffet offered surprises like fried okra and catfish, which we loved. I didn’t tell the kids what the fish looked like alive or where it had lived. For errands in town, we tooled around in a fancy Lincoln Town Car my husband’s company had leased for us–it was a tight fit–until we moved everything, cars included, to a new house. In the meantime, we were to adapt and enjoy the amenities as we continued searching for our own habitation. It was true that clamorous cicadas rivaled those in Missouri and the cottony heat eventually drove us indoors if not in the water. But those realities seemed minor for the moment. Who could complain, right?  Hotel living gets old fast, despite the expense account, the services, the “easy does it” attitude. Ever try to keep track of five kids who have their own room, even one by your own? They felt freed of old constraints, the general rules of family that develop and nurture a civilized communal lifestyle. I empathized with their responses, but I was the ruling parent while my husband worked. The responsibility felt heavier outside of a house and neighborhood. We lived in the forest. Anyone could get lost. But we couldn’t find a home big and decent enough yet affordable. I watched as other families came, played, and left–they were on vacations–and we remained two, then three weeks and into the fourth. We made a decision to move on. ?????????? To the cabins. We were in two, side by side. Rustic but with running water and usable kitchens. Secluded. Because it was nearly September and everyone else was home buying fresh pencils and notebooks, trendy clothes and backpacks, we were alone. Excepting the wildlife. Not that we weren’t preparing for the new school. But ten miles from school meant only a couple trips. The children lamented the few choices of commodities. I wondered where a good music and bookstore were. We worked at tuning into the language cadence so we understood what was said. Some found us less than appealing, with our big family, luxury car and our own accent that branded us as foreigners at best, enemies at worst. Confederate flags whipped in the breeze while people sipped iced tea for hours. Our kids danced and sang to Motor City soul music and liked to get right to the point. Most of the time we were in the thickets, hiking, observing an array of insects, avoiding unknown snakes and getting full choral concerts from bountiful birds. Bears we didn’t worry about. I heard larger creatures, sensed them nearby but rarely saw them. I’ve always liked bugs. I grew up with a mother who took etymology and geology in college and a father who was a scientist at heart. We’d gone camping, hiked many trails. I had once lived in Texas, where fire ants, spiders and cockroaches did not win their battles with me. So I didn’t shrink from unique flora and fauna that might elicit shrieks from others. That was before we took showers in cabins in a Tennessee state park. The first time my dripping wet foot landed on a hard, round object that was not a pen or bottle I was startled. When I moved so that my shadow stepped aside as well and the truth was revealed, I said things rather crass. Then I jumped on the toilet seat and shrieked for my spouse like a wimp. millipede A millipede! And many more to follow during our stay. The sort with well over one hundred legs, I am certain. Not poisonous, not a biting sort, but nonetheless. They have hard shelled segments to protect their soft undersides. We had towels. After that we wore our sandals and inspected the bathroom and shower first. Considering they are thought to be the first creature to move from water to land, I owed them some respect. Like the place we were to make a home within. There were good times shared while we lived in the forest of Natchez Trace State Park. Nature provided peace and pleasures unlike any city life offered. I embraced myriad wonders. We lounged outside, sat at picnic tables for meals. The scents of earth and abundant plant life clung to us. Wildflowers greeted us in secret places. We followed butterflies by day and moths’ curious dances around porch lights in evening. There were fires to tend in the fireplaces as the air grew chill. Storytelling and making our own music were second nature without television or fancy phones. We created things out of nature’s bits and pieces, compared found rocks and studied trees and flowers, nature guides in hand. The children grew braver, more sure-footed. Resilience is readiness of spirit, a skill of adaptability. All five gained more daily. They cared for each other and squabbled as before but they couldn’t escape each other easily. They learned things about one another that they did not know before. Just as my spouse and I did. Like how to cultivate patience, faith and love when alone in a strange, if beautiful, land. ?????????? We found our house after the kids had been in school for a month. I might have moved into anything with enough beds for all at that point. But the moment I laid eyes on it I thought, It looks like a northern Michigan house. The beauty of that anomaly choked me up. The bonus was getting some land with it. My husband agreed. It was built into a hill. The front looked like one story whereas the back revealed it was two.  It had four bedrooms, two baths, two living areas and a wood stove that warmed up the whole house in the winter (yes, it got cold). A porch spanned the front, the better to ogle the countryside. There was a rolling acre of yard that opened onto woods, a murky pond (fit for nothing much but snakes although the kids tried fishing) and a nice garden spot. We swore we could see the kudzu, monster vine, creep across the road, it grew so fast. It fascinated and frightened me a little, like southern thunder or ice storms we’d watch roil the skies far off, then shake up everything on the way in. As with so much of Tennessee, I came to appreciate the power and wiles of the geography. I loved helping split wood, then tending the fire in our wood stove, making the two stories warm and fragrant. Was mesmerized by the harsh music of cicadas among unseen critters. Grew to appreciate heat that left us languorous. I made a dear friend of Jane. I was the only woman in the one AA meeting where older men made up a club, exceedingly slow to set out a chair for me. Poetry came to me unimpeded while walking our acre. But my cello had arrived cracked, splintered. My father repaired it back home, then hand delivered it, lest my heart stay broken, too. It played differently after that. It seemed an omen that much was to change, one way or another. Our children learned about kindness, tolerance, and prejudice in equal measure; we were a multicultural family in actuality and viewpoint–not always understood or welcomed. It was a place where a molasses-like accent charmed and lulled us, and the closeness of air hung on our shoulders like invisible cloaks. Where we could roam at length in our own back yard. I fell in love with many of western Tennessee’s characteristics about the time we followed a moving van back over the Mason-Dixon Line. It had not even been two years, but it had changed me. Deepened and challenged me. It had been a journey worth taking for the family. But it was very good indeed to be heading north to yet another spot. BC46E051-1DD8-B71C-072E2077349C8353-large

Earley Waits for Mail

mnDtgrrWH_PPRCjOXFSRFmQ

Earley waited for the mail all afternoon like he did every delivery day, with the patience of Guernsey cows, which he’d loved as a child on the farm. His grandson would take issue with that idea, tell him, Cows don’t know enough to be patient, but that’s what Earley thought of when faced with the occasionally slow passage of time. Cows liked to eat, rest, socialize, all with a deliberate pace and acceptance. It seemed a good lesson. Being human created issues with time. For Earley, time generally was dashing away. As far as the postal service went, he was just grateful he still got it. What sort of life would it be without a little junk mail and a letter or package now and then?

Sol was too smart sometimes, explaining calculus and reading thought-provoking passages from his contemporary novels. Earley had patience with his grandson, but who cared what sorts of odd tricks numbers got up to at this point in his life? But the books he liked, or rather the being read to, especially when it had to do with a little love or a lot of history. One stimulated the other in the world, he thought.

When his son, James, was at work and Sol was at school he had some waiting while he did chores and puttered. Today was–he checked Sol’s calendar on the fridge–computer club. Three days a week the boy had obligations he said were fun. Earley had neither for the most part, unless you counted being a grandfather.

“You have to get a hobby, Grandpa. Ever since Grandma passed you’re just waiting all winter to garden. I know gardening is your thing but really. You need more than that. Maybe like playing Sudoku or checking out that new fitness club. I saw one of your friends over there. What about your woodworking?”

“I’ve made enough stuff, why do I need more? I do my crosswords and word searches so I don’t get soft in the head. I walk everywhere. Cook. Do laundry and pay bills like when Nana was alive. Plant my garden in spring. What more? You have hobbies, I get some free time.”

Sol and James looked at each other, eyes rolled. It made Earley think a bit. He did get restless at times. Then he saw the ad and put in an order.

For the last week he’d been watching over Sol by himself. It wasn’t hard but it took a little more out of him. Worrying and making sure he did all that homework, catching up with him more than usual. No James as a buffer or disciplinarian. It went pretty well.

James had gotten to Florida on Tuesday. He was supposed to have have come back home by now, not that Earley was anxious for it. It was never much real hardship being there for Sol. James called twice, once when he got to Miami and once when he found out he would be back a few days late. James was a fully degreed person, a writer and a construction worker, which Earley didn’t quite get, but the building trade usually worked out better. Bills had to be paid for three people.

James had this desire to swim his way into that smallish pool of people who might find their stories on shelves. He had been working on a psychological thriller for four years and it was almost done. Earley hadn’t read it yet. He wondered if it would scare him; the thought of that captivated him. Well, in good time.

James poked his head out of his office door one morning.

“I’m going to Miami, you guys! Kevin was hired as editor of Killing Justice, that new thriller and mystery magazine I mentioned, and said I’d be a good addition. But I have to do a formal interview. We’ll all move there, start fresh if this works out.”

Sal frowned and considered. He was fifteen. He had a small, well-defined life that he liked just enough. The house they shared with grandpa was big and had a garden he helped tend. He wondered how his grandpa would manage down there. He did want his dad to be happier. Sal could try Florida after ten years in Omaha despite leaving his best friend. The thought of tan, beachy girls and large reptiles soon held him in thrall.

As it lowered, the sun shot out pink and orange rays behind houses across the street, making half-halos about trees and rooftops. The sky warmed up like a tropical vista. Earley wondered what it would look like in Florida. He watched out the bay window, then saw the porch bathed in a glow despite a deep chill he kept at bay with the heat jacked up too high. The mailman–well, mail woman now– should have been there long ago. It annoyed him despite his resolve. So much for Guernsey patience. He wondered about James coming back late, what that all meant. His stomach growled as he glanced in the refrigerator. Leftover meatloaf when Sol got home.

He grabbed the seed catalog and sat in his worn, smooth leather chair. When he turned on the light and opened it to the first page pictures dazzled him with their lushness, as always. He could hardly stand that he had months to go before the planting.

51X2z748CfL._SX300_ (1)

What would it be like to grow things all year long? he wondered. Florida looked like it sprouted life without any effort. It unnerved him a bit. The winters in Omaha were a good time to hibernate, which he liked. He might have to wear madras shorts in Florida, learn how to swing a golf club well, use terrible smelling sunscreen all the time. Or stay indoors even when there was no snow and no rain because of that heat. He wanted his son to use his degree in English and Sol to be able to try other things, but this was a lot to ask. If it was to be asked. He breathed into the gathering dark, a ruffly sound making its way down his commandeering nose. What if James thought it was time for him to join the others over seventy in those cramped places they pretended were communities? He had one already, right here, on this street, in this house. It had been good enough for forty-five years. The house had conformed to him and he, to it.

The front opened, then slammed shut the same time his cell phone rang. Sol tossed a package on the rectangular table in the foyer. Earley got up, then looked at his phone.

James. He answered.

“Hello? Son?”

“Hey, dad. I’ll be home tomorrow but I wanted to talk to you guys. Is Sol there yet?”

Earley beckoned to his grandson and he came over.

“We’re both here.”

Sol put the phone on speaker.

“Sol?”

“Hey, dad! See alligators yet?”

James laughed. “Not yet. But we might sooner or later.”

“We? You got the job, dad?”

“I did. They liked me and I like them. I’ll start in May.”

Earley walked to the table where the package lay. He could hear the two of them talking, excitement tinged with disbelief in Sol’s voice. He shook the package to confirm it was his order for sure, then went back to to his chair and sank down in the old cushion, box in hand.

“Hey Dad? You there?”

“Yes, I heard you.”

“Are you glad for me?”

“Happy as a clam.”

“Grandpa, clams aren’t even close to being smart–”

“You don’t know that, Sol. We don’t know every single thing.”

“Dad, I have to get going. Kevin is taking me out to dinner to celebrate. I’ll tell you everything when I get home.”

They hung up. Earley fished his Swiss Army knife from a back pocket. Sol had sunk into the couch, his jacket still on, backpack at his feet.

“Florida… sweet. I think.” He sat forward, hands clasped together between his knees. “What do you think, Grandpa? Oh, you got a package. What’s in it?”

Earley cut through tape, tossed the paper and pried open the box. Inside were neatly bagged pieces of wood. A whole ship.

“Behold, Sol, the Santa Maria. The largest ship of the three sailed during Columbus’ voyage. Modest, really, especially by today’s standards. About one hundred tons of her. Deck was 58 feet. A good seafaring ship until she shipwrecked in Haiti.”

“Nice! A wooden model. So that’s your new hobby?”

Earley smiled. “Could be.”

They looked over the plans and talked about history until Sol said he was hungry. At the table over meatloaf sandwiches, they were quiet awhile. Then Earley spoke up.

“You think you could head down to Miami, then? Or would you want to stay here?”

“We’re all in this together! Dad’s taking me and you if you’ll go and I’m sure taking you, so we’re going together. Right? Florida, like it or not, here we come.”

Earley wiped his mouth and sat back. “Well, it could be a good place to make and sail ships. But I’ll get back to you after your dad gets home and we talk. I’d have to have a garden. At the very least.”

Sol agreed; no garden, no move. He put the kettle on for tea and got out the organic peppermint teabags. That’s what his grandpa liked after a meal. That’s what Sol would always make him.

Monet in the Garden by Monet
Monet in the Garden by Monet

The Meeting

IMG_2289

It was later than she planned on waiting, but still she walked the grounds and watched the periphery of the garden. Lena was in the thick of it, both the grounds themselves and history. She languished in the former more easily. This place was her solace, being out-of-doors and finding small beauties, even a homely leaf resting on the surface of a pond. The great oaks were vibrant beings, their branches entreating sky and earth.

The estate had been left to her a year ago, but she only came on week-ends when the flat began to pinch her with its abominable smallness. The city preferred she stay there and since she was newly rooted here, it was best. She was welcomed just as a writer at an arts publication. They did not know the rest, who her family was yet. How she dreaded those “yets”.

The light unspooled over the lawn in a wide arc. Shadows drew her with a waft of coolness. She leaned against a tree, rough bark hard against her backbone like a warning. Where was Thaddeus, her brother, generally an opposing force of nature? It was like him to keep her waiting, chose this day when the sun was full of power, nowhere to hide. Of course Lena could go inside but that required three keys and discussion with Randall II, the stooped but demanding caretaker. He would have questions, he always had questions and needs, as well he ought. He had watched over Great-aunt Lidia’s home for forty-two years. Randall knew the manse and gardens better than any one else, anymore. It was up to Lena to learn more, she agreed. It was all the sorting and tending that had deterred her from a full commitment. Yet if it used up her time and stripped her peace what was the point of this ecstasy she felt with one sweeping gaze? Paradise is what it was. Safety. She wished Lidia had stayed a little longer, told her more about the family’s legacy and lies.

It was not good that Thad had called, demanding she meet him. He would find her on the lawn, near the great tree, where the bench awaited, as was their usual spot. When had Lena last spoken with him? Four months ago, six? He was always abroad, meeting with someone or other from the diamond industry, talking business and making deals, checking interests. Basking on boats with lanky bronzed women who knew little of the value of a coin or the charity they reaped so carelessly from her brother. Thad had a lukewarm interest in Lena’s work. He had once berated her for asserting her need to make her mark. That had been done for her by the family, he informed her levelly; all she had to do was get involved in the business, do her duty. She had left her place on the board two years ago. Instead she strove to become a freelance journalist though making, as he pointed out, an uneven income. What did that matter, she laughed. It wasn’t ever money; it was curiosity and even a small promise of love that drove her.

Thaddeus never knew what to make of her, nor she, him. Well, he was their father’s son in most regards and that was not bad, only righteously bound to work and inaccessible. She was her mother’s daughter…well, one said so even when one suspected otherwise. And Lena was fearful that Thad might state his suspicions now that she had inherited this place. Proof that she was the daughter of opera singer Helvetia Simonson of San Francisco. Yes, that was the woman she knew about; Great-aunt Lidia had made it a point of pride to clarify details others disregarded or denied.

IMG_2273The shadows lengthened quickly. She checked her timepiece. It was soon dinner hour and she supposed Randall would need to be seen. She saw him enter the back door, impatient with her as she awaited Thad. A good man, a paragon of efficiency, dear Randall II was so-called because Lidia’s parents had employed his father. Lena recalled when she came each summer. He’d welcomed her with a smart bow, a pat on her head, then let her go as he gathered her things. The river shone past the grounds like a teal ribbon; she would run there first. Then the pathways that wound around the acreage, the ponds and stream, flowers swaying toward her. She was happy here. It had saved her, this freedom protected by orderliness.

Lena saw Thad round the corner of the house. He was striding toward her, and in his hands was a flat leather envelope that she knew carried more information than she wanted to know. She backed into the trees and hid. The lawn was striped with shadows; it separated them still. A sharp intake of breath as Thad stopped not fifty feet from her and turned a slow circle.

“I know you are there as Randall told me. You need to show yourself. I don’t have time to play games.”

Lena stepped forward as he turned his back. She ran to the path that led down to the riverfront and kept running, her bare feet stung by stones, her legs hindered by her skirts. He was not going to stop her. He must not threaten to take Elderberry House from her. His thirty-seven years seemed ancient to her twenty-four and she felt his power as she had her father’s: worldly, driven, final.

But it was too late. Thad cut her off and she stumbled into his outstretched arms, fell upon his tweedy jacket. The angry tears escaped before she could stop them but as she began to protest he held her close.

“It’s alright, Lena! I know! You can stop hiding now. Your mother wrote us and she is coming to visit us. Helvetia Simonson, who would have thought her? Amazing voice! I suspected for years, then father let something slip when we met in Switzerland, the miserable….well, he is our father despite his failings….We must simply move on.”

Lena sat on the ground, pushing from her face the mass of unruly yellow hair, so unlike Thad’s dark brown. He reclined beside her. She could not speak. It had been like a breath held in for her entire life and now all she could do was let it out in jagged, soft sighs. Thad twisted a stem of lady’s slippers and placed it in her hair and she lay her hand on his shoulder. It was a start, perhaps a kinder one. Something she might write about one day.

IMG_2286

Decorating with Books

MarthaRoslerlib276

(Photograph from Public Domain)

I had reason to survey my bedroom this summer, to take stock of what makes it liveable. There are aspects that could benefit from better design; it is a big square room. At the least some items might be put in smart boxes or on hidden shelves. For example, I have perhaps thirty scarves, the overflow of which currently dangles from a broad, ugly hook on a closet door. (I finally shopped at World Market for an attractive pewter owl hook; it is waiting to go up.) There are pictures and postcards stuck around the frame of my dresser mirror. I can glimpse a partial view of myself if I need to determine my presentability. It is mirror enough; I would enjoy more pictures, visual art glutton that I am.

Atop the massive, old desk which fits between bed and closet are stacked folders categorized by writing, ripped out magazine items, medical information, drawings by grandchildren, tax documents, and special interest topics like the Roma. A photo of spouse and myself taken along a riverside walkway ten years ago has taken center stage. I like how we look: alert, breezy, young. Next to this is an aged photo of two aunts and my mother showing off their smiles and their ironed print shirtwaists. Above the desk is a poor quality but beloved print of a multi-generational line of female dancers. They are more than a chorus line to me, a testament to longer life maintained by joi de vivre. I have a good print and original art on the walls as well as a poster of Crete on the door. Or it might be Santorini. The point is, it is beautiful. There is a tulip design woven through a wool area rug from my sister. It frankly outclasses many other objects.

The reality is, this is a room shaped by things that make me a contented woman, not a chic style icon. Well, shabby chic might be appropriate to describe the space.

There is one dominating element not yet mentioned. Upon entering, I am surrounded, almost inundated by books. I don’t mean just two decent-sized bookshelves that are stuffed full two-book deep, with books wedged on top of others. There are books stacked against the floor by open wall space. They are lined up like sentinels by the door, and there are stacks of a half dozen each camping by an electric heating board. In winter when the heat threatens to singe paper, I push them back a couple inches, leaving just enough room to get into bed. Once in, I plump the pillows and settle in with the current intriguing story taken form the bedside table. In that way I am no different than others who lean toward sleep with a fresh hardback or well-used paperback in hand.

DSCF0930

But I have to admit it may be a bit out of control, at least to some. In defense, I am not a collector. I don’t have a china cabinet boasting rows of Lladro figurines or a room transformed by model trains, tiny trees and people. I am not so nostalgic that I want to search out matchbooks from the sixties or tinted glass from the Depression. I find things I appreciate when my sister and I go to estate sales from time to time. But what I head for, always, are the books in subterranean corners or sad, stuffy attics. Most of my books have been bought at bookstores but also have been gifts, not to mention books traded with others.

I evaluated the room before two of my daughters arrived for a family reunion. I needed to tidy it up a bit more, put on a more presentable face, or so I thought. I had been meaning to do something about all those volumes, namely, take a good number to Powell’s Bookstore and trade them in or, maybe for once, just get a nice check. I blew off the dust from the higher volumes and took some down. Here was Rumer Godden, who grew up in India and whose novels reflect her love of a certain place and time. There was Pearl Buck’s adventurous life revealed in story and John Steinbeck’s truth-telling. Wallace Stegner. Madeline L’Engle. Charles Dickens. John LeCarre: more current novelists have lured me, as well. There are mystery and thriller shelves, and general non-fiction and poetry sections. A section about writing and about religion and spirituality. Nature and a few about flamenco. There are travel writers’ tales that can take me away from chill January rains to come.

DSCF0933

When did I last read Denise Levertov or Neruda? I stepped back, a Mary Oliver collection held close. There were so many of them, writers who experienced history unfolding, imagined worlds within worlds, shared heartbreaks and epiphanies. The dust jackets were brash, beautiful or somber as they leaned together like old cohorts.

But I couldn’t believe I would read them all before my own life was done, before, one day surely my eyes would lose their already corrected vision. What was I doing with all these books? How much money had gone to my inordinate passion for books and reading? It seemed a grave disservice to them, waiting for someone to pull one down. A wave of irritation prickled me. I took a breath and dug in; sorted, rearranged. Re-shelved.

I could not seem to let them go, not yet. I needed these tomes, even–or especially–the orphan books with bent and slightly dirty pages. After more dusting I thought about their place in my life.

It was when sitting on the balcony one evening, enjoying a waft of summer fragrance, imagining moving to a house that had suddenly become available. Wondering how there would be room enough for all those books–I didn’t even mention my husband’s separate beloved library–in those narrow, truncated spaces. My mind ran over titles and authors that populated shelves, tables, desks and floor space throughout our apartment. Magazines are cousins to books so they had their own spots. These were all part of our way of life, the wide-ranging seeking and learning, reading aloud to one another a humorous insight, a poetic turn of phrase making the moment better. As a writer, I read with an innermost ear that longs to hear more. My best mentors have been other authors. Books meliorate the quality of my living.

DSCF0929

And then it occurred to me: I keep buying, reading and stacking books out of interest, it’s true, but there was something more. Since I could not possibly read everything I wanted to read, maybe it was also a stay against the shortening of time, the awareness of mortality that arises as years pass. Each book said: take me home, give me room to unfold my story, offer me time and attention in your busy life and I will keep yours moving forward another quiet night, another daybreak.

Maybe books have been part of my hope of living well past any reasonable time, the desire to keep throwing myself into the thick of life with open arms. I want to still awaken with a rapturous hunger to see, do, become more. I need to stay alive long enough to read every single book I own. So the more books bought, the longer I get to stay. No, it is a pact: I cannot be discharged of my duties here until the last book is investigated.

It may seem odd to use the idea of books as an analogy for a talisman, an epiphany about life. After all, I started this essay wondering over my lack of good taste in decorative style. What to do about those scarves (and jewelry that overflows wooden boxes and handmade ceramic containers)? What about the stacks of folders that contain some of what matters to my daily living or the pictures jammed along edges of the mirror?

Nothing, nothing at all. I am keeping it like it is. It makes sense to me. The room with its random textures and colors delights every time I scan its configuration. I would rather stumble over books in the middle of a sleepless night than have a wide berth to nowhere of note. This way I can still reach the window, crane my neck to see the moon, return to comfort with a choice book propped up on my knees and sail away. I will awaken armed for a new day, the languages of heart, mind and soul at the ready as I carry on with it all. My daughters’ visit? They get it; they have their own books and more.

post -glasses 003