The Case for a Little Madness

All photographs by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

 

“In the interest of my sanity, I must come to the conclusion that my household is in the grips of something I can no longer control. I surrender.”

“Yes, do.”

“Enough is enough.”

“Yes, well then, he should be banished,” Father said, trying to downplay his amusement. “But it was only a water gun fight. They dripped mostly outdoors. They’re just big kids, themselves, I’m afraid. Soon they’ll be grown ups entirely with daunting or boring careers and flocks of their own.”

I could hear her slam the sun room door–not too hard–in response and wondered what he would do next. Likely nothing but continue reading his book and magazines. Mother would fume a bit longer then get out the china for dessert.

She was Mrs. Judith Lightness, wife of Charles Lightness, esteemed judge. Chic, civilized manager of house and garden. Our mother. Her words had floated outdoors. Their timbre rumbled like the engine of a tugboat, smallish yet still mighty. We heard them from the porch table. We had drinks after dinner, as usual, enjoying the way the garden brought us a sweltering sweetness of florals. My brother, Teddy. said nothing; he knew she was slow to expand her views when it came to impulsive activities. It was as if she had only tolerance for order, proscribed behaviors, despite the fact that she had only a moderate talent for the first and reportedly deviated from the second when she was younger.

Paul sipped a brandy and licked his lips, eyes on the giant trees that surrounded the garden. He was used to ignoring mother’s distress.

“Is that a black walnut?” He pointed. “I’ve always wanted to gather the nuts and make ink from them. I read how that can be done. I’d enjoy writing a smart letter to Meredith in walnut ink.”

Teddy laughed and requested more information. My ear was inclined toward the french doors despite a tiny upsurge of pleasure at his comment.

“Pssst!”

I looked up. Lillian poked her head through her upstairs window. She had her ratty stuffed elephant in hand and waved it at me. Then she pointed down below and made a face meant for mother. I thought she would drop the creature on Teddy but he was ignoring her, his head bent toward Paul’s. She had a habit of making it dive when someone was passing, tossing it down the staircase as company arrived. Leaving it in a pathetic heap so when I left my room I stumbled. It–Hildy, she called it–seemed to do things for her, a daredevil by proxy. Lillian was seven and a half years old. When could I slip it into the trash without igniting her fury?

“Meredith? What do you think?”

I looked back at the boys. They smiled as if something marvelous would be happening if I just gave them the go-ahead so I nodded.

“The ink? Why not? Or did I miss something? Whatever you say.”

“Splendid!” Paul swallowed the last of his drink and stood. “It’s settled. Tomorrow we’ll get supplies and begin immediately.”

“Wait! What am I being recruited to do?”

“Too late,” Teddy said with shrug, palms turned up. “We have a plan and you will help.”

Well, that was the problem. My twin and our adopted cousin developed schemes and often I was a part of them without quite knowing how it occurred. A few times I had spearheaded them, but generally I was more cautious, nicknamed “Merry Mouse” by Paul long ago. But their plans were like rumbas clothed as minuettes, and every time Paul arrived the music played on and on. I sometimes felt like a whirling dervish within days of his yearly arrival. Mother would have said we were struck by lightning, only to survive for yet another strike.

He was an adopted cousin because he was, in fact, adopted by my Uncle Joseph Dane in Newport (as opposed to Uncle Joey in Charleston or Uncle Joseph III in St. Louis). Joseph Dane, or J.D., and my Aunt Genisse tried to organically summon children but things didn’t take. They found an adoption agency operating out of New York while on vacation. They eventually found Paul at age five and the rest is history.

Ours, as well, I must say. Teddy and I were two years younger so Paul took the lead. In another couple of years the gap started to close. He was a curiosity with his foster home tales, long gaunt face and wide dark eyes that appeared surprised or befuddled. Neither of which was the case. Paul knew more about a room and its occupants when he walked into it than those who studied it at length. But the expressions, along with his horsey good looks, served him well. We adored him. He came for up to a month each summer. The habit stuck, except for the year he was at Harvard year around.

He had done well. We all had. I studied anthropology, uncertain of what direction was needed. Mother said anything with marriage as a secondary descriptor might be best. But despite being a female of twenty-two in nineteen sixty-four and typecast as a mouse, I had a secret hunger for adventure.

Lillian was dangling Hildy by one ear from the window she’d opened in her room. Teddy and Paul stood up. As soon as Paul headed toward the garage he passed beneath her window and bombs away, Hildy smashed Paul’s coiffed black hair. Teddy grabbed it as it bounced off and tossed Hildy to me, whereupon we were engaged in a rousing game of catch that elicited shrieks of protest from Lillian.

Mother came to the dining room’s double doors at the other end of the house, popped her head out and called out in a calmer manner. But she still meant business.

“Please return Hildy to her owner before the neighbors call 911.”

Paul had Hildy in his hands when Lillian buzzed him with her balsam wood glider. He ran inside to harass her, which she required.

It never ended. At this point one might think so. We were adults by objective criteria but Paul continued to find ways to subvert that reality. Teddy and I followed him at a leisurely pace. Mother’s head disappeared. I yelled back in passing.

“We’re coming, mother. I’ll have a small Dutch apple slice.”

Upstairs, Lillian’s pallid face was scrunched into her persimmon expression. Paul had squirted her once more with his water gun and dampened her bed. Teddy intervened, whereupon Paul hugged her and she squeezed back.

After they left she patted the bed for me to sit down. “Are you all going to do anything good this summer?”

“You mean, with you or in general?”

She shrugged but I felt the longing in that action.

“We usually do, with and without you. Expect nothing less this year.”

“Cousin Paul will be here awhile? Remember? I’m going to New York tomorrow. I hate seeing the doctor. The pokes and stuff.” She thrust out her lower lip but didn’t sniffle.

“Yes, unless mother marches him out the door, he’ll be here when you return. We have to be ready to defend him tonight when she fusses.”

Lillian tossed wispy blond hair from her eyes. “It’s all in or all out!”

I grabbed her hand and we went down for pie. That heralding cry had come from Paul–either do something full-on or don’t bother joining in.

The next day parents and Lillian had already left for New York when I awakened. Another check up. Lillian had energy-sapping anemia that curtailed her activities. They had tried a new medicine; every three months she had tests and an exam.

**********

“What? Up way before noon? Did you have an attack of industriousness?” Teddy inquired of my presence.

Paul chortled and poured himself a cup of coffee. They were dressed in shorts, faded polo shirts and sneakers.

“How could I help myself? I have to see what you two are scheming.”

“Include yourself, Merry Mouse, in the undercover work. After breakfast meet us in the driveway. Tell no one you may see on the way.”

They left. I soon followed with my own cup of cream and sugar with strong coffee added to it. Breakfast could wait.

There was a small stack of lumber in front of the three car garage. Nearby sat four bags that looked heavy. A paint can and brushes waited in the shade. A large bench wrapped in plastic stood apart. They walked around the supplies as if they were as puzzled as I, then disappeared into the garage. It dawned on me what it might be when I found them searching through tools on the workbench and wall.

“I know you can hammer so grab one and come along,” Paul said and linked his arm through mine.

We worked well together. Over the years we had created forts, games and toys, sometimes poorly, other times with great success.

It took us longer than planned, nearly until dinnertime, and after showering off sweat and grime we re-convened for a meal.

“I hope it gets the right response,” Teddy said to me when Paul had left for a walk. “Otherwise it will have to be donated somewhere. We could have done better, I think.”

“How can it not? It turned out beautifully.”

“It’s reasonable to us but you know Mother might forbid it.”

“Please! Mother will have little to say when she sees how much fun it is.” I punched Teddy. “And don’t put it all on Paul. Anyway, Father will help. I hope.”

Paul suggested we go out for dinner to celebrate. When he uncharacteristically slipped his arm around my waist I thought he must be anxious. The night was balmy so we ate at an outdoor cafe, pleased in every way. Sloppy and a little rowdy, we walked arm in arm. It gave me pause to think how long we had been together, and scared me to think it might one day end.

When they returned our parents and sister were in improved spirits–the anemia seemed to be abating little by little. Her doctor was cautious but optimistic that Lillian would become more robust in time.

“But what’s going on in the back yard? Has someone constructed something? I saw several nails, which I narrowly missed and returned to the nail jar. Who to blame for that near-miss?”

That was Father. I thought we had placed our project far enough behind bushes and flowers groupings that it wouldn’t readily show, way in a back corner. There was no street view of the yard, so it was hidden from public probing–Mother would be relieved of that. Teddy and I stepped forward in concert. I made a sweeping gesture with my arm, pointing to porch and yard.

“I think we should go out and see the new addition to our yard.”

Mother made a clucking sound as she withheld questions. Paul led the way in the end but seemed slow-footed.

“Oh, you really did it! You made my wish come true!”

Lillian clapped her hands, then ran to the cheery orange sand box and nearly sat right down in it, floral dress be hanged, white shoes tossed onto the grass. But Paul hadn’t yet taken off the plastic from the bench or sand box in order to p[protect both. He did so, then suggested the parents sit down and relax. Lillian sat down with a sound plop. I had found a drapey coverlet to use as a canopy and Teddy and Paul had painted it. We had hung a string of colorful plastic flags on the bushes behind the bench.

“A sand box? Lillian, out of there at once. You have the wrong clothes on, in fact the whole thing is in unreservedly poor taste, the bugs, the mess, the possibilities of animals creeping into it and–”

“My darling Judith, hush for once! Let it be. They have done a very good thing here. A tiny play area right in our back yard. Her little friends will enjoy this, too.”

Mother turned to her husband, mouth agape, and then did as suggested. They watched their late-in-life child, their great surprise whom they adored piling up sand on her lap, digging with a toy spade and filling up plastic glasses and bucket we’d placed there, her toes seeking coolness below the surface.

“It was Paul’s idea,” Teddy started.

“Yes,” Lillian concurred, “he has the best ideas. Every time you guys do things, it’s good.”

Mother moaned. “Ridiculous, unnecessary things. My lovely yard…! Of course it has to be Paul. Why, dear nephew, must you always shake the boat? Visit every summer and give us such a time of it?”

He went to her side and took her hand. “It’s rock the boat, Auntie Judith, and it’s because I love you all so much,” he said, then kissed her cheek.

And that was that. Mother patted his arm and sat back. Lillian demanded I get Hildy and a few others to join her. Teddy brought out a tray of iced teas. Mother and father sat back on the attractive wood and wrought iron bench to watch Lillian play with Hildy and new sand tools.

Paul stretched his legs out and tapped my sandal with his shoe under the table. His eyes traced my face. “Well, gang, what next?”

“More fine madness, I expect,” Teddy answered. “Maybe we should build a swing set? Add another fountain? I saw a big one at the hardware yesterday.”

I was so pleased our Lillian could be given such simple fun; she had a challenging time of it. But I knew what Paul meant. I gazed at the summer sky as if nothing at all had occurred to me. But as a budding anthropologist I clearly had more real life research to do.

 

 

A Small Ice War

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It was cold enough that the birds hesitated to sing. Below 20 degrees, a thermometer attached to the side of the house confirmed. Fine etchings of ice embellished the many windows. Maren exhaled against a chilled pane, its prettiness fading, and brought forth a blurred view of the lake, obscured by snow-laden fir limbs. An over sized pond was more the truth (Andy called it his private lake), and it sat just beyond the first fir tree line. He had already scraped parts clear with his shovel and its revealed bluish-gray sheen flashed in the sunlight. She could more fully imagine it than see it: an irregular oval with a wood bench along the south edge, more thick white and scotch pines at the northwest side to help shelter all from the Great Lake effect snow and wind. She had once found it the more beautiful of the land’s features.

Close to the house a cardinal landed on a birch limb and turned its head to her. Maren returned its look, a flutter of cheer rising inside then flailing. She returned her gaze to the place where the pond lay in wait. It was well-frozen now; he wouldn’t have been there, anxious to do more ice fishing.  He hadn’t mentioned its state of thickness to her; he always waited for her to ask. She had avoided checking, though she knew the rhythms of the land by then, was intimate with the seasons’ ways. She told herself it didn’t really matter, she never went there, it was a bother to think about. If she got the information from Andy it would likely cease to rattle around her mind. This had gone on each winter for three years. Each winter she put it off. But when she knew the thickness or thinness of ice, she felt somewhat relieved of burden of memory. She didn’t worry much about Andy or even their son. But the one time she would go near it–even then, only the edges of its benign murky green depths–was in summer, and it was for the riot of wildflowers that enticed her. Or to watch Andy and Troy fish. She never touched her pole now, either.

Maren and the pond had become enemies. It had nearly taken her as she had swept about its rough-hewn surface, her ice skates bouncing a bit when they hit ruts and snags of ice. The sun had graced the day, a sort of heavenly beacon after two weeks of leaden skies heavy with snow, then emptying of the thick flakes that took hold of everything. All was well. She had executed a nice turn, then a fair waltz jump and landed, if not quite gracefully, with sureness.

And then she heard it, the undoing of that weld of millions of hardened water molecules, the slow cracking warning of more. She caught her breath, gloved hand at her throat. Then the fracturing ice and sudden unbearable wetness like merciless claws grabbing feet, ankles, calves, thighs. Her chest was rigid with weak screams; her arms thrust out and atop the widening hole’s edges, trying to keep head above the depths, hands groping at the opening, then going numb as her body sank, nearly paralyzed. Her thought, floating atop the terrible weight of ice, was how she had skated–a passion held dear–right into death.

Andy had been at the edges with Troy, barked an order to stay put and not budge, then ran and slid across the expanse, grabbed the back of her coat  and arm just as her pale, soundless mouth became submerged. He yanked her up with wild might. It had been mere moments. She coughed hard and sputtered, cried out like a wounded animal. He dragged her off the ice, the continuous creaking and cracking following them every inch. Andy had been certain the ice was no longer perilous. He had checked it the night before; the temperature hadn’t risen much since.

When he stumbled into the hard snow he threw her over his shoulder and shouted at Troy to follow. They rushed to the house where he laid her by the roaring fire, stripped off her clothes and skates, rubbed her flesh until she cried out, “Don’t you dare touch me again!” He stopped a  moment, began more gently. Maren’s skin flared then burned as it thawed. She, aching, buried herself in wool blankets, peeked out as the friendlier fire leapt and waved at her. Troy, then four, sat behind her, patting and smoothing her head, his voice half of anxiety and half of love.

Andy split and brought in more wood to feed the fire until it roared. The kettle whistled. She longed to stand up with blanket about her and get it but she could not move for a long while. Andy brought her tea and sat with hands clasped between his knees, his slippered foot touching the heel of her foot, a mass of anxious anger hidden until he lay behind her, breathed onto her neck, held her arms close to her chest with his muscular warmth. How could he have let her go out before checking better? Troy lay in front of his mother; the three of them dozed. It took that night and the next day before she felt warmer, could claim her extremities as belonging to her.

She did not go anywhere for five days, vowing a war against winter. He kept telling her: she hadn’t been drowned by the monster of iced water, hadn’t lost any fingers or toes, sure hadn’t died. But she still would shake with fear when cold. Only Troy could comfort her with his laughter and attentiveness. His need of her motherly equanimity. Andy often left her to herself but this wasn’t so different from before, just more uneasy.

Maren had wanted to sell the place, at least the acres that abutted their home and included the pond. It would have made them a good profit. But Andy had been there long before she came. It was his own true home, he’d reminded her. Despite being a law clerk for several years in a town three miles away this was where he felt himself. She didn’t wonder at his choice of solitude–only two neighbors nearby, little sound but nature’s voices, no one to interfere. He was a man who made his way alone. Until he met her and allowed for adjustments, enough that they could live together without overlapping too much. She had wondered if he could love her long or well enough and she, him. But they managed with passion, love of the land, shared creative work. He built burnished, sturdy wood objects for pleasure; she made glass and wood chimes for fun and to sell. In the wood shop, she loved him happily and he found her fascinating once more.

Troy made a difference. He was the elegant bridge, the chance to make their commitment to each other a greater thing of wonder and delight. She had barely begun to teach Troy how to skate that winter when she’d lost her nerve. After that, they never went onto the ice. He didn’t ask her to skate again. He fished with his father (who never could succeed at skating).

Her skates still hung on a nail at the back porch, covered by an ancient barn coat once owned by Andy’s father.

Maren regarded the flat, monochrome landscape, let her eyes linger over trees and rusty red barn, then the lean-to that was renovated for the wood shop. She traced clouds to a break where broad rays divided the drear, then fell over a ranging cloak of snow and graced it with a honeyed glow. The pond in the distance seemed to wait for her but without any pity. Nonetheless there was a brief spark in her, a call of the old blades. Feet shifted as she straightened spine and rolled her shoulders back. There might be a way. She had read in the paper that a new mall right between their town and the burgeoning city had opened before Thanksgiving. There was a skating rink there, open now. It wasn’t so far. She could leave Troy with his aunt for the day, say she had shopping for Christmas.

Four days later Maren expertly laced the old figure skates, noting how stiff was the cracked, worn leather, how unforgiving on tender arches and ankles. Her mouth went dry. Adrenaline brought all senses sharply into use. Yet when she first stood she wobbled. Finding a new gravitational center, she took her turn entering the half-full ice. She let go the guard rail and pushed off, reminded that the speed that smooth, artificial ice allowed was much greater. The ice rink, like the pond, was oval but perfectly small. In the center towered a well-lit Christmas tree. Festive and full of laughing skaters, the ice appeared benign. No one was moving very fast. She took easy, long strides around the rink. Gained speed bit bit bit, felt her legs contract and propel, ankles hold. Soon she passed others with ease. Her blades grabbed ice, then released it; arms swung, legs followed and she experienced the forward momentum as a thrill, skates confidently attacking the surface and sliding forward. She would not stop until a half hour passed, not even if she fell.

Her bare head lifted, held higher as she streamed across the rink without fear or hint of impending failure. It came right back to Maren, that old love. Many stopped to watch as she whizzed by, the dizzying spins, a stag jump, a fast backward weaving that took her over the ice as surely as if she was being guided through a sort of flight-like dance. Her chestnut hair swept the air, her eyes open wide, lit with a feeling for which there were no words. But her body’s secret language gave off joy.

Maren, at last, skated free.

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******

It was a couple of weeks before Christmas. Snowfall had abated for two days. The temperature had held at under twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Andy had ice fished a few times with Troy and he cooked up bluegill for dinner.

“Ice fishing pretty good this year?” she asked, savoring her meal.

He glanced at her from under thick light brows. “Very good. You are tasting what it’s delivered.”

“I was thinking…but, oh, never mind.”

“What, Mama?” Troy asked, mouth full.

Andy finished off hash browns, wiped his mouth and sat waiting.

She looked him straight in the eye. “I was wondering if I might go out.”

His eyes started to smile at her, lips slower to follow. “You mean fish with us? That’d be nice.”

“Maybe.”

“Please, Mama? I want you to see how I do,” Troy said.

“I’d like that, son.” She ruffled his blond hair and finished eating.

“You don’t mean that. Fishing.” Andy leaned forearms on the table.

Her fork halfway to her mouth, it stalled and was put down. Her hands went to her lap, to the napkin there, and twisted it tightly. “No.”

Andy searched her face and saw her open just a little to him. She had been missing for too long, as if the ice break had taken part of her. The part that had been there before he’d come into her life. She’d been a champion skater as a youth, then had kept at it as a passionate hobby. He had admired that, her physical nature so natural and dominant. After the ice broke and she sank, she had retreated in some crucial way, as if she’d lost heart in their country life. He’d told her how his own brother had gone down once but popped back up; it was just a risk on the ice and most surely did survive it. He’d tried to encourage her but she’d refused to try again. He couldn’t understand it all but it hurt him. Maybe because it devastated her. Or perhaps because she hadn’t trusted him, hadn’t tried even with his support. So he’d let her be, even more. Right or wrong, they had drifted. Now it was mostly Troy that kept them mindful of their love.

“Tomorrow?” he asked her as he surmised her intention.

“Yes,” Maren said and got up to clear the table, biting her lip hard.

“What, Dad?” Troy asked.

“We’ll see soon, son.”

The next afternoon when Andy came home early they set out. There was a big sky of sapphire and gold and the snow blinded. She donned her sunglasses, grabbed her skates and headed out, Andy and Troy right behind her.

He was excited and yanked at his father’s hand. “I know what’s happening now!”

Andy tramped onto the hard surface of the pond-lake first and held out his arms.

“See, Mar? All good. I’ve been on it for a week, no surprises. It’s holding fast. Four inches thick, I checked twice.”

Maren nodded, sat on the bench and laced her skates deliberately, tightening them close to the skate boot. She wanted no wobbling this time. She would either skate right out and around or she would not attempt it today. It had to be that way; she couldn’t bear to fall or lose whatever edge she might have on its rough surface. If she got scared she couldn’t face Troy, nor Andy.

Her husband held Troy’s hand; it felt small. His son could barely recall the incident. He’d told his father he remembered her falling on ice, then shivering by a fire. He knew she didn’t like the lake (he called it what his father did to her annoyance). She had only told him she had once nearly drowned. He could not imagine it, his mother who chopped wood and planted the garden, canned peaches and tomatoes and made chimes and calmed him during nightmares. Told him good bedtime stories, still.

Maren stepped into the ice, making small steps on the ice as if she was a novice, her ear attuned to that terrible sound.

“What’s she doing? Is she afraid?”

Andy squeezed his hand.

But as she left the edge and  found more speed all she heard was this:: blades slicing across the ice, a sharp scrape as she pushed off for each long glide, the roughness of frozen water giving in to the command of her trail and its signature marks upon the ice. Freshening wind in her ears. She moved around the edge of the big pond, and soon was a medium speck at the far end as her husband and son looked on. Her heart felt it might explode as she pushed herself, thigh muscles engaging in power, giving her impetus to charge through time and space, across treacherous ice. She skated and listened, stayed back from its center where the ice failed her that one time. Fear ebbed and flowed but nothing threatened her, after all. She felt amid each movement more sloughing off burdens, the dissipation of fear. Flying by the two in her life who mattered most, she waved, then powered up for an effortless rise high above the ice, legs flung apart with her fingertips touching tops of opposing feet in a breathtaking split jump. She landed with a resounding thud. Not one shard of ice gave way beneath her. She skated on, hair waving behind her like a banner, one fist raised to the perfect sky.

“Dad! I didn’t know all this about Mom…”

Andy crouched in the thick bank of snow, held his son close.

“I don’t think I quite knew it, either, son.” He watched as Maren glided toward them as in a vision, like their own snow angel, clearly the woman he loved.

 

Discover Challenge: Open-Mindedness/Gender Identity, More a River than a Clear, Still Pond

Open-Minded

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

via Discover Challenge: Open-Minded

I have a grandchild whom I will name Z, who has felt and seemed more like a boy than a girl even since toddlerhood. Not just to Z but also to others after the first three or four years. Not a tomboy, not really. Just more male than female, somehow. There was a way of moving and interacting, of expressing ideas and needs that didn’t seem to line up with what society deems feminine. If that sounds sexist, I guess you would need to experience what I saw and felt as I have gotten to know Z. There must be some essential difference between “boy” and “girl” well imprinted before birth, then more asserted earlier than later, and not just outwardly but via personality. Yet if anything in the beginning,  Z seemed behaviorally more gender-less to me than female, or not. I was just waiting to see what happened and thought nothing more.

Then I didn’t see Z for many years due to a divorce from Z’s grandfather. I also moved far away. I had pictures, though, and it always seemed Z was well, almost masquerading. The usual school and family pictures I studied displayed two granddaughters side by side, both in frilly dresses, hair in tiny rows of braids with fussy ribbons (Z) or straightened and glossy (older girl, Y). Yes, Z and sister, Y, are bi-racial, more Black than white if they cared to say so when asked (my husband is bi-racial). In the photos, though, the gender contrasts were remarkable: Z looked constrained and out of sorts and overdressed while Y was happy, at ease and already elegantly pretty. She danced, sang, painted her nails, fussed iwth her hair. Z  cared for comfort in clothes, headed out on the bike, and made noise enough for three.  Z’s mother stated that Z didn’t like to hang out with girls any more than before. Z and Y had fights galore; they were so unalike. Z was more defined by increased traditional male-identified behavior and perhaps attitude with each passing year.

It had become problematic–that is, there was real confusion in the other kids– by second and third grade at school and in the neighborhood. Fusses and questions. And then Z began to hint that Z felt not like a girl but a boy. Was, in truth, not really a girl. And things got harder. Bullying commenced; distress intensified for Z. And in some manner, the family.

When a few years later that daughter and two children moved to my city, I waited for them at the airport. And there came the jaunty, grinning, enthusiastic, hearty Z with hair shorn and fashioned into a mohawk. The stance, the walk: Z was sending a signal and no one would shrug and say well, Z was really still a girl. Despite biological facts and the hormonal changes on the horizon; Z was 1o by then. I was faintly disconcerted at first. Maybe quietly stunned is the better descriptor as the days and weeks went by. Sure not less impacted. This child was someone other than who everyone else had determined. And Z had already suffered consequences. It was almost like Z “passed” as male although Z really was truly struggling to “pass” as a female everywhere— when it didn’t even resonate one bit. Z’s skin color–dark brown identifying Z as black, Z’s whiteness almost like a footnote–was not debatable and so was less an issue than the other. Or so it seemed at first. That was another matter, further revealed as the middle school loomed.

I wondered what the new city would offer, as Portland has generally had many resources for folks other than heterosexual, even young teens. And as a side note, one of my sisters was a Director of agencies that provided some of those services. Z and family had migrated from a conservative suburban area to a much better situation as far as supports were concerned.

I had already observed over the decades that a great many people leaned toward androgyny. Our gender appears to be a matter of how much or little of hormones born with and our more mysterious inclinations, I suspect. We are a fantastic conglomeration of parts, chemicals and genes that hide or reveal innumerable variations. It seemed testosterone and estrogen were only part of the story. There are those who apparently have more of one than the other. Appearance of one gender or the other, noted or searched for in people’s faces and even bodies can be tricky, I thought and still think. I have always found gender identity a beautiful yet peculiar aspect of being human. Because, in the most primary ways I’ve identified as profoundly female, yet intellectually and creatively I’ve experienced realms beyond gender while engaged in exploring ideas and creating. It seemed irrelevant to me that I was a girl growing up in those crucial ways–and that was perhaps odd, considering my femaleness was also victimized as a child. So, being a girl could be socially daunting even as I felt it deeply mysterious, thrilling, to grow up. And yet–I was a female who thrived in places that anyone at all could live and aspire and succeed: in mind, spirit and heart. And why not? Being female was sort of an aside when I was in thrall creatively. While it was the boys who distracted me and then opened up other worlds, to be sure.

But the reality for Z was that, regardless of birth identification as female, the other reality prevailed: Z adamantly felt and so must be male. Z finally made this clear to family, then changed her name to a masculine name, even asked for male pronouns. The name has stuck for years now; the habit of different pronouns has been established. I think it must have been long sought and practiced privately before spoken aloud. Changes began to happen and complications occurred.

It hasn’t slowed down seven years later. Z. takes testosterone hormone shots, something I found almost scary, certainly jarring when first informed. There has been a lot of therapy. And Z talks, behaves and portrays his more singular self as who he feels he truly has been, is, will be. Few find him other than what he wants the world to see, even though it can’t be easy at in high school, either. I know there has been a lot of pain and anger, hope and courage and a new freedom with newer constraints all mixed up together. There must have been bargaining of one sort or another with himself, with his mother and father and sister, with friends and enemies until finally: enough! Z was Z and that was that.

Being open-minded has been critical. There is a child’s future at stake. There is love that is at the center of things and hope for his future, one that may be safe and fulfilling. Yes, it has been a challenge, at times. I felt I once had a granddaughter, now more and more a grandson. We get double takes sometimes when out and about. Some of the family does not feel even close to comfortable much less accepting. I find myself glimpsing Z and seeing more and less, the girl, the boy or all that may be in between. And I wonder who this person is becoming. I can’t say I have no uneasiness to wrestle with, or no fear or worry for Z. I can’t say I understand, that it all makes sense to me with no further thought necessary. Because I have been at home as a woman only so cannot begin to imagine, not really, how it is to not feel aligned internally and externally regarding one’s identity as a whole person. And I suspect that is what it’s all about in the end: not Gender, even, as much as being allowed to be one’s own unique self. And that’s hard for all and for certain much harder for some others. But we all fight for and work toward what it is that matters most.

I will simply care for Z, no matter what. Because I want Z to–as a human being first and last–experience peace and joy, to know and give love, to reach for and attain valued goals and dreams. To be who Z wants to be/become. And I say this although right now Z is not close to me. We used to take good walks and talk a blue streak, used to play board games and share more meals and plenty of laughs. For now, Z’s journey is about heading out in another direction. But I’m still here.

Perhaps being open-minded asks us to make a responsible commitment to gaining greater information. To be willing to at least try to understand the best we can, despite different, sometimes opposing experiences. I ask myself to first to feel and act compassionately–this must reach beyond my lack of direct, personal knowledge and comfort zone. I am a true believer in kindness, and possess a lifelong desire to learn what I don’t know.

 

Note: This is not my usual Wednesday nonfiction post but a response to the “Discover Challenge” word prompts bloggers are invited to write about if desired. The topic of open-mindedness got me going. I will post my regular nonfiction piece, as well. Thanks for reading.

Flowers and Stone: Memorial Day

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Tomorrow is a federal holiday, Memorial Day, a day when citizens of the U.S. A. take time to reflect on those in Armed Forces whose lives have been lost in battle, and to also show respect for living veterans of so many wars.

I feel thoughtful and quiet as this day arrives. I have never forgotten a visit some years ago at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia. It is 624 acres, across from Washington, D.C. The first slain was interred in 1864, a casualty of the American Civil War. Today there are about four hundred thousand soldiers laid to rest in that ground.

That day as I walked among the graves of seemingly endless numbers, looking at the rows and rows of white headstones the grief was overwhelming, visceral, devastating as tears flowed from my eyes without sound. Such sorrow is so painful the body and mind fail to find relief. Immense numbers have served our country; so many lives have been sacrificed. Such an immeasurable loss for countless numbers of family members who were and are left to mourn. I have had family who served. I think of them on this day.

But Memorial Day is also a time when families and friends come together to reminisce, to enjoy good food, to share laughter and affection. We, too, will have family coming to our home in the afternoon, will be firing up the barbecue and sharing a casual feasting with the hum and rumble of convivial conversations. Counting blessings.

Praying for that most fervent and elusive of hopes to come true–for peace in this world–in my deepest heart.

Thus, I am not posting a short story as is expected on Mondays. Instead, I only want to share some photos from good walks I have had recently. I will be back with my usual fare on Wednesday.

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Irv. rain, yard decor, flowers 019 Irv. rain, yard decor, flowers 035 flowers, marc and me 037 flowers, marc and me 057flowers, marc and me 058 flowers, marc and me 077flowers, marc and me 050

flowers, marc and me 031Irv. rain, yard decor, flowers 046Flowers in rain, Laurelhurst greeness 006

Exodus from Tattler Falls

Photo by Pierluigi Praturlon
Photo by Pierluigi Praturlon

At the end of the season–ending in August for some, late September for others–people left in droves so that the town felt like an over-inflated balloon losing its shape. Then finding a new one. The outward flow left the population at a measly 897, a number that jumped to about 1300 via magic arithmetic each summer. They noted the changes each summer and fall, then soon readjusted. Tim Melton, age 9, didn’t give it a lot of thought but found himself counting the days until they all disappeared. Then he could get back to his own business without all the “foreigners” interfering.

Once it had been a nondescript wayside requiring three turns off I-75. The road might be missed if you didn’t pay attention to the small green and white sign at the last turn. Tattler Falls had been voted one of the “Twenty Most Popular Great Lakes Tourist Spots” in the state’s tourism magazine. That was in 1978. The only reason it hadn’t grown a lot more is that there were very conservative zoning laws set in place by Garver T. “Tommy” Melton, Tim’s grandfather, and his crew back in 1950. Little had been altered despite occasional heated debates so there was only so much land to go around. The developers compensated for that by building upwards as much as possible. The fancier houses and a couple of hotels poked above the treeline and were eventually tolerated like warty growths.

Almost two-thirds of the year-around residents were third generation or more. They weren’t well-off but held the power because they held the land. Everybody feared a last family member dying off, as who would the will leave their land to? Often enough, it was bequeathed to friends or the Congregational church or the newer (1989) wildlife refuge at the far edge of town. It was a safety feature, something that folks had dreamed up back when Tommy ran things, more or less. Now he was faltering and staving off a nursing home. Tim liked to visit with him since he could still play a mean game of slap jack from his wheelchair. He also told him interesting things about the woods and lake. Historical stuff.

Tim, like his grandfather, wanted to run things but he was still in training. He knew he was smart but apparently not smart enough to get everything he wanted when he wanted it. Patience was not something he favored, as his mother said, but something he would eventually find.

He pulled up to their long oak table.

“Gosh, I don’t want chicken again, Mom. I want some yummy grilled steak, the ones you bought today.”

He poked at the plump piece of white breast meat that was huddled between mashed potatoes and canned peas. He hated canned peas. Who had come up with that idea? He might have to learn to cook one day.

“Sorry, the steaks are for tomorrow when everyone comes for our end-of-season party. As you well know. Oh, and Gus will be coming. I think.” His mother raised one arched eyebrow high, her mouth pulled into a crooked shape.

“Uuuh.” His mouth was stuffed with potatoes or he might have said ‘ugh.’ Gus was now thirteen and a menace. That’s what Gus’ dad called him when he got mad. Tim could have told him that long ago. But they’d grown up together; he used to be like a big brother. “Nice. I like the end-of-season parties.”

“I do, too, son. Except for all the preparations!”

He studied his mother from under his longish hair and worked on the chicken. Lynne, thirty-six, married to Adam, his dad. Only his dad was downstate working on some bridge construction for a couple more weeks. He was gone more than Tim liked. But his mom was a great one to have around in more ways than he’d admit in public. He peeked up at her. She looked pretty, too, in her blue and green plaid blouse and her reddish-blonde hair held back with a golden headband. Her freckles had been shared with him.

Just this morning she had gone out in the canoe with him. It was early with translucent fair skies. Since so many had left, the water was still and smooth near land’s edge. Quietness floated over the water and them. They watched eagles and red-tailed hawks dip and soar. She had taken pictures, her favorite thing besides fishing and her family.

“I like how empty it feels again. How things go back to the right places,” he said.

“You always say that–always so serious.” The words lit up in light laughter. “I know what you mean. We all do. Like everything is jostled around when the summer people come, things feel close and tight, even the trees feel off-kilter.”

Tim nodded and attacked the whole piece of chicken, put one end of it into his mouth and bit hard before she frowned at him. It tasted good and he kept nibbling away.

“I wish your dad was back,” she said, then bent over and kissed his forehead so softly he barely felt it. But he did feel it and this time did not complain.

“Me, too. He should be here for the party.” It came out as resentful but he couldn’t help it. He was usually scolded for being disrespectful but this time she didn’t say respond.

He finished his meal and carried the plate to the sink. His mom was humming to herself, counting the days until Adam returned–three–and thinking over her “To Do list” for the last big cook-out. If only Adam could be there. He’d been gone most of the summer. Tim saw her face set itself to the Things aren’t easy but I will get on with it and be fine mode.

“Mom?”

“Hmm?”

“Is Charlene Young going to be there? At the party?”

She turned to look at him, her hands in mid-air and dripping soapy water. “I think so, yes, she said she’ll try to make it. You remember to be nice to her, especially.”

Tim nodded, then left the kitchen and picked up his Frisbee. He stepped into their wide enclosed porch, pushed open the screen door and let it slam, heard his mom yell after him to “let it go easy not so hard!” He ran down the steps and stood gazing out over the lake. The air was laced with damp pine, chilly water, rich earth and far off winter smells. He took it all into himself like a powerful energy needed to recharge. There was a rustling movement to his left and Gator, their half-Lab, half-shepherd, dashed out of thick bushes and jumped up on him, eager to play. He threw the disc to Gator but thought about Charlene and June 21, then his dad being gone and for a moment he forgot he was happy.

********

It had been a perfect summer day. Tim and Missy had taken the rowboat out earlier and fished a little with homemade poles. Then they went swimming by her big old cabin.

“I can out-swim you any day!” She swam out to the floating dock.

“Beat ya!”

He took off after her. They were neck-and-neck until the last few feet when he burst ahead and he called it.

“Victory!”

Missy dunked him and they tussled in the water, gulping some lake, coughing and laughing. She dove deep and he followed, grabbing her toes. The plants waved at them as they torpedoed by. Fish grazed their legs and arms. They resurfaced, pulled themselves up, caught their breath as they leaned back.

“I’m getting my hair cut before school.” She pushed it back from her face now, long dark strands catching on chin and nose.

“So? We always get our hair cut for school. I don’t know why. I’d rather keep mine long.”

“No, I mean, I’m getting it cut really short. Like this.” She pulled the wet mass back so it looked like her head was a seal’s or a wet puppy’s.

Tim tilted his head, wiggling his index finger in his ear to get out the water. “That’s too short.”

“I need something new.”

“Why?”

“Because…I want to, because…it will look better shorter.”

“That’s stupid. You’re not even ten. You don’t have to change anything. Or ever.”

Missy scooted to middle of the slick wood surface and brought her knees to her chin. “You can change for no good reason. Or for fun.”

“Yeah, I guess do what you want.” He looked at her sideways. “Makes me think about Annie Young.”  He’d wanted to talk about Annie for once.

Missy’s head whipped around. “Annie? Why? Anyway, I’m not sure she’s having fun. You’re joking, right?”

“Maybe she’s having fun her own way but not such a great way. We hear stuff and I wonder.”

Missy sighed and stretched out white, bony legs. “I know. I mean, we live in Tattler Falls! Not the humongous city. How can she get that stuff? She’s just fifteen…”

“Dad says drugs just travel from downstate and before you know it, it infects all the best places and people. I agree. It’s awful when  nobody needs that stuff for anything good. Ridiculous!”

Missy shivered. “It’s gross. It’s spooky, too. If it can get to Annie, who’s next?”

“It won’t get us, right?”

“Right.”

Tim leaned toward her, shoulders making contact for a second, then kicked the water hard. They dove in one after the other. Missy won the race to shore by a length. They ambled ashore talking about playing badminton when Missy’s mom rushed out with big towels and wrapped them up. She burst into tears.

“Come in the house, kids, okay? I have bad news about Annie Young.”

********

“If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a smart ass,” Gus said, toothpick bouncing between his lips.

“I didn’t mean anything by it.” Tim tossed a flat stone into the water and watched it skip.

“Well, then keep it to yourself.” He smacked Tim on the back so it stung.

“All I said was–‘

“I heard you the first time. You told Missy you wondered where I was the afternoon Annie died. Everybody knows I was out on the dirt bike. I get so sick of everyone pointing their fingers at me!”

The lake rippled as the rock punctured the calm, burnished water. Dusk was gathering about the trees, and the sunset had left its afterglow upon the lake’s mirrored surface. Tim wished Gus would go away. He could smell the steaks about ready. There was a bonfire and he knew Missy and the others were finding good spots. But Gus had called him down to water’s edge.

“I’m going soon, anyway.” Gus picked up a knobby stick and tossed it into the lake where it floated away.

“What? Where to?”

“Maybe Ohio. My dad’s parents. I need a breather. Just because I like weed and tried a little meth…I’m good now but mom and dad…” He turned Tim around to face him, then drew himself up before plunging in. “Look, I of course saw Annie that day.  We were…more than friends, so I thought. That’s what I told the cops, too. I saw her with Jubal– they were on his BMW–when I headed to the trail. I knew Jubal was up to no good but Annie didn’t listen to me… So when I heard about the crash, I was as shocked as anybody, I was freaked out if you want to know the truth because I told her to stay away from him. He’s totally no good. So now he’s in jail after they found the drugs and good riddance. But Annie!” He covered his eyes, then stared into the distance. “I need to get out of here.”

Tim felt frozen to the stony earth. “Why are you telling me all this?”

Gus picked up a rock and threw it so hard Tim couldn’t see where it arced in the fading light. Laughter and loud voices overtook the soft shusshshusshshussh of lapping waves. Tim felt himself drift a moment. It would get windier soon, rain, then snow. He knew the fire was blazing and wished Missy would come down with some of their friends.

“I’m not sure, buddy. You’re pretty smart and I guess I thought you’d understand but maybe you’re too much of a kid, still. Yeah, you’re just a runty, snotty-nosed kid.” He backed away, then turned toward the house and rich smells of food and the bonfire. Stopped.

Tim watched the older boy’s face as the orange glow of the flames fell upon his face. Gus used to look so much bigger. Now he just looked worn out, a lot skinnier. Was it that meth drug or was it Annie leaving? Okay, the truth: overdose and death.

“But I kinda get it. You want to leave that day behind. Maybe the whole summer. And Ohio might have an answer…or something.” Tim dug the heel of his shoe into the dirt and rocks. “I wish that day had never happened, too, it’s like a nightmare took over our town and nothing is really the same.”

He was afraid he was going to let it jump out, the sharp-edged sadness, the fear that had crept into his life. New worries about his dad going so far away for work; why couldn’t he stay home? His mom feeling lonely sometimes, he could just tell. The summer people could come and go as they pleased, make things better or worse for the rest of them. But this was their own place, and it had been so right and good for so long. It was home. There were new things every year Tim didn’t understand. Or even want to. And this summer had been the hardest so far with Annie being taken.

Gus didn’t look at Tim but hung his arm loosely around the younger boy’s shoulders. “Yep, you’re a genius. A decent kid.” They started to walk back.

“Gus, I never told anyone, but the week Annie’s funeral took place? Her mom, Charlotte, saw me in town and she put her arms around me, squashed me so tight I thought I was going to choke. It scared me. All I could smell for hours was her perfume, something way too sweet…I’ll never forget it!”

“Yeah, that’s grief, buddy, that killer hug. I don’t know much about perfume yet.”

Missy saw them then and trotted down to grab onto him as Gus drifted into the boisterous, milling group. Tim thought for sure he was seeing things when his father’s face moved out of the shadows and into the beautiful October firelight but no, he was back. He had come home early, just for the party. Just for them. Tim started running, Missy calling after him to wait up.