Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: The Visit

Allanya, my sister, 7/2019

My two older siblings and I spent a few days together recently. It’s a welcome yearly occasion. One is a musician/photographer/world travelling brother, one a retired executive director of social services sister–and, of course, me. This is unlike the more frequent “three sisters’ trips” and visits shared with our oldest sister, now gone. And the last time we met in 2018 was after our older brother passed. (So this year it is only us, down to three from four, and before that, down to four from five.) Since it is a more rare occasion, our get-togethers mean that much more. We swap stories, share food, take walks, nothing fancy. Sometimes it is enough to just be with siblings; lots of chatter can be less important than you might suspect.

In some ways, this year’s gathering was as usual, mutual changes noted. There have been a few since we are older, as expected, and still it can hit us as surprising. After all, we grew up together, and it can be easier to hang on to how it was than meet the present head-on. But there it is; we are the same if different and it is likely to continue this way. That we are siblings will never alter; the ties are deep.

I doubt anyone accurately predicted we’d become who we have been, done what we’ve done, and ended up in our respective spots. Though since I am the youngest of five, I can’t say I recollect entirely what Wayne and Allanya (and the others) were like when I was a child. Five years younger than she and seven younger than he, I tended to feel they were a set, like semi-twins; the oldest two sibs were the same with one and a half years’ difference. I was out of the primary circle of four due to my late arrival, and how I saw them was through a lens of the littlest one who looked up to them literally, and otherwise. I trailed them about, happily but was called a “pest” often if also was routinely looked after and taught things helpful or not so much, blamed/teased and generally, at the very least, tolerated. I forged my own ways and world as they grew up, while I remained a kid a few years longer. By age 13, they had all become college students and I was alone in my room and with my thoughts. I saw them infrequently after that–until my later thirties or so.

Wayne, as I think back to our childhood, seemed quietly and warmly outgoing, helpful with many friends, and he was good with kids. Like all of us, he was from an early age a string player–viola–and played in orchestras as well as with the rest of us and our father in our impromptu gatherings. Allanya laughed robustly and this drew people to her. She adored animals but had just cats (enjoyed then lost many, played a mean game of softball (as did our other sister). he had chosen cello to start (as did our biggest sister and I) then switched to flute and then, happily, bassoon. We all sang, at church and in school; I sang with a pop trio and performed in musical theater productions and wrote and performed songs with a guitar. There were so many stages and musical performances we all were involved with, they blur in my memory. Music was our common denominator–and all arts were considered of great value from childhood on. The same is so today.

My sister and I were close but fought as siblings can. She packed a mightier punch; our parents would have been horrified to know we had a few actual fights. Three of us sisters shared a room. When it was only Allanya and me, I was by default the underling, scapegoat and accomplice. I was her comforter when another cat was run over in our busy street, and when her heart was otherwise broken, a repository of dreams and struggles.

A favorite scheme was when she wanted extra food, typically dessert–she’d she’d hand it off to me in a napkin under the dining room table so Mom didn’t see. (She tended to heavier while I have been more skinny–still fight to keep on pounds.) I knew that meant I was to somehow whisk it away to our room and hide it until later. It worked, generally, if I didn’t eat some of it first. From this experience I was learning part of my role.

When I was a teen it meant that even when no one else knew she was gay, I did, before I understood all it meant. I, of course, told no one after I saw her, a college camp counselor (I was a camper, not in her sphere) with another camp counselor at an arts camp. I kept mum until she officially came out, then eventually legally married the woman with whom she remains. (I admit that after that, I said less about my own romantic yearnings of the guys in my theater class or in orchestra; later I realized love was love.) Once I mailed a box with many journals to her for safekeeping, then we threw them out later. She shared the truth of matters no one else suspected. We grew closer, also had fun together when visiting even though she left home, then moved far away. We had learned to trust each other greatly. We are, in fact, still best friends in the way we can be.

She taught English a few years but found her true calling within social service agencies, whether helping people with HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues or pregnant homeless girls or teen runaways or battered women’s shelters. Her skills included advocating and organizing as she oversaw massive community work, and also did fund raising for millions. In the meantime, she ran side businesses–rebuilding/restoring furniture, buying and selling turquoise jewelry and other collections, investing in real estate and flipping renovated houses. My sister has always loved being busy accomplishing something. And, she’d agree, making money–it was a pleasing challenge.

Was this what our hometown folks expected of her? I think they thought she would be a teacher like she’d planned (and likely married to a man). But she did formally and informally educate others about important social matters.

Unfortunately, Wayne and I have not been as close. Inevitably, perhaps, because he is male; we simply shared less time together–though there was affection– as he roomed with our older brother (though they were not too close). He also spent more time with Allanya in school or musical events. He was tall– at least six feet to my five foot four inches–though everyone was– and he moved with a casual grace. I believe he liked tennis, and was thrilled with a good game of ping pong. And he swam often, loved to dive until he sliced open his head and got a concussion when slamming a diving board on the way down. A terrible day.

His enjoyment of the water coincided with mine and so we’d swim around and past each other in pools or northern lakes; he might show me things as we dove off a raft or board. His serious accident, frankly, did not deter me from working on my own swan and jackknife dives and flips, even from a high dive board. I figured if he could master these, so could I. The accident was “just” an unfortunate pause; he recovered. Then, in winter, we sledded, tobogganed, ice skated and built forts from which to throw monster snowballs. I was quick if not the biggest, and knew how to compete! Mostly, I admired his congeniality and his talents from afar more than from up close so am delighted that has changed over time.

But we all got separated year by year, went to different colleges, landed jobs, married, moved to other cities. Though I did live with my sister a year in Seattle after high school… truth was, I was given a one way ticket by our parents to stay with her after I ran into trouble with drugs, and wrestled with PTSD from past abuses. We lived in a great mossy cabin on Lake Washington with an artist she knew who also became a longtime friend. It was at the lapping lake on a half acre of land. We smoked pot and made art and music, studied eastern religions and had philosophical discussions into the early morning. It was 1969; that was how many of us lived. My sister did alright in work and life. I didn’t make much progress as I racked up hours at an A&W drive in restaurant as a roller skating waitress, and hung out with an older, wilder bunch, a guy who loved his motorcycle and partying. I learned about drug dealers and drug dealing and often looked out across the lake and wondered, in tears, who I had become and how I might reclaim what mattered most. Yet we sisters had each other’s backs no matter what. It should have been better for us both. I might have styed and enrolled in college there, but did not. We remained in close touch after I went back to Michigan.

My brother, meanwhile, had taken a required ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program in college, and later entered the Army though he held a music education degree, a minor in history. I did not think we had much in common and was likely correct. While I had been railing against the Vietnam War, he was overseas enmeshed in it and what we hippies called The Machine. Then, when he returned to stateside, he was not the same. There was a stunned stillness to his typically animated self and it scared me. Yet he stayed on with his Army career many years.

Was this what people would have expected? He might have been a choir director, an historian, or a teacher of music theory like our father. I don’t think most would have expected him to become a career Army officer but it made sense to him and he did his work well.

It would take me decades to get to know Wayne again, due to differences in our lives but also actual miles between us. You, too, have to build a habit of genuinely engaging even with family (maybe especially). When I did visit with him, I watched, listened, shared what I felt I could, though some still felt too private. I waited. Over time, life got less arduous, more normalized. I visited him on the East coast; he flew out to Oregon every year or so to see us four sibs living in the Pacific Northwest. When, for my 60th birthday, my siblings bought me a ticket to celebrate it with them at his home (with his second wife, whom I enjoy) I felt enriched with the growing appreciation and love. It was one of the best family gatherings I’d had, just being together a few days. And we later met up as much as we could.

Wayne has traversed the world constantly since he and his wife retired from the Army. It is as if their stops at home are a brief respite before they return to lives they more need and desire to lead. It is so far afield from from my life; I cannot keep up with all the countries they’ve been to–most all, some several times. It exhausts me to consider the miles they fly and how they partake of what they encounter but the experiences also fascinate me. I eagerly await tales they share. This last Oregon visit was on the heels of more European travels (lastly Switzerland and France, I think). And I sure look forward to viewing the photos since they are both fine photographers.

Wayne got engaged with his passion as a young adult when he was stationed overseas; he snapped and developed black and white pictures then. Some of those wartime images are moving. haunting. Since then he has studied, learned and exhibited often. It has been a pleasure to see how his work has evolved over many years.

He and his wife have been professional string instrumentalists and vocalists; he recently retired from rigorous performance work. I am sure he will still sing for special occasions when he called to do so, as he loves music, still. As we all do, in our way–how can we not? It is in our blood and heart. But while he continued to perform, I did not, but left it to raise a family and more. And sometimes that feels like a very large chasm between us, though we talk music, embrace it together, nonetheless.

I have shared much of my life here so it is known that I was a home care manager for elder care/disabled adult services for a few years, then was a clinician mental health/addiction treatment field for 30 more. And raised five kids. I didn’t reach certain goals I had growing up. I believe Allanya and Wayne have. I’d guess my emotional and physical trials were of a different nature than theirs, and fall-out less private than my siblings’. But I am first to praise them and so enjoy being their sister.

Would people have expected this life for me? My close friends were likely just relieved I stayed alive– and created some happiness. And as far as the career, I think some would while others may have expected I’d seek a life of performing. Having a big family? I doubt it. Writing more than this? Perhaps. Life happens and we often plan around it, just live it as it unfolds- I do not regret it. There is good in this living every single day. There are lessons to be gleaned in all changing circumstance. I am a willing student, and a seeker of Spirit and so I go with the river as much as I am able.

My family makes a patchwork design; we have all kinds, of course, with many so-called eccentrics or to use a modern term, “creatives”, with unique perspectives. Dysfunction or any significant challenges also impact members differently in any family. People learn to adapt, survive, strengthen and find healing, and it goes better if they use several resources and work at it. I would say the three of us have recovered from much if not most all of our woundedness over time. We let go of more with each year, I feel. No one can know for sure, even a brother and two sisters, what we have lived but ourselves.

But we are strong and bendable, thankfully. We’ve made or captured countless wondrous moments, taken chances to forge our own way. We also share a heart for others. Our passion for fine and performing arts is primary; we value and respect differences even if it demands much; and we believe in a loving Divine Power, a genius web of vast creation. This, despite scars and remaining secrets we must sort out or release, our defects and weaknesses and those failures to do what might have been much better to do or say. Like every family, we are so fallible individually and also as a whole.

Wayne had to fly back to the East coast after 4 days; Allanya and I, of course, remain in Oregon. She has worsening dementia, almost unbelievable and yet she is herself, who she always was, and we flow with her flow. She remains amazingly good-natured, and does realize she has short term memory loss and confusion. We talk about it– and many other things, as ever we have. It all began with several car accident and resultant concussions but has has evolved into a quite foreign illness we are trying to grasp and accept. This has not been in our family; we are new to such necessary understanding and are improvising as we learn more.

Our brother and I are not sure what is next. I am here, while he will be there and yet we will figure things out together. It is hard to accept at times that what or who she knows today she may not know or be able to share the next day. Or even the next hour. Wayne and I are the last who can remember much of the family’s past and also this busy present–and will hopefully for a long while. He is 75; I am 69. And blessed to feel well, overall, well engaged in living. He will again be travelling to, I think, South America to start with, along with his equally adventurous wife. And they will be taking more photographs.

I will be tending babies and my family, enjoying friends as I can, taking my own impromptu photos and writing with time stolen, and immersing myself in nature’s gifts, as ever. And praying for more strength and grace, please, Lord.

I gave a last-day-of-visiting barbecue for some of my kids and their partners and my youngest’s new baby twins for Wayne last week-end before he left. I found it absorbing to just sit back as my son, Joshua, asked questions about Wayne’s military career inception, how he rose in rank and why he remained in the Army. And if you had been there, it would have been this: a forty-something house painter/pro skateboarder with many scars and tattoos and also beads around his neck–asking his only surviving uncle, now–with sincerity– just what he learned, and more of who he is. And his uncle told him some of that story. And then asked after his nephew’s skateboarding and life. And we talked about other relatives here and long gone, and our genealogy. Life as it is, common, valued.

And how lovely as we sat in the glow of sunshine on the balcony, eating tasty grilled fare, sharing it all and laughs. The company of those I love is so worth keeping.

We start out seemingly empty of personal agendas, hands and minds clean of miscalculation. As a grandmother I can attest to this, and study my twin granddaughters and see only eager and immense possibility for their individual life paths–it is vividly apparent in their searching eyes, ready responses, new skills and guileless anticipation at four months.

My brother cradled each one of the twins, smiled and chatted with them, then he hummed and sang and said: “A flat? Can you sing A flat with me?” And they cooed and smiled at him and maybe, just maybe, one of the girls hummed in response, that note or in its vicinity. This is our family. This is our way of caring. Who will the little ones become? As we all discover, there is a momentum as we undergo a curious series of events, just journey through each hour upon this earth. I feel fortunate to have my two remaining siblings and to witness their decency. To share affection that shapes time and tales. To be able to say, I am one of this small tribe, blood of this blood.

Train to Happiness

Photo by Vivian Maier
Photo by Vivian Maier

Les had been rounded up by his mother the night before and made to pack a big suitcase plus his backpack. His back pack was a no brainer, the only place he stashed basics and important things. But the suitcase was filled with clothes he didn’t care about and an extra pair of shoes that made his feet hurt. There were two books to add, for English and math. He had homework to do. Les already decided he’d deal with it on the train ride back.

It was spring break. He’d travel eight hours, thirty-two minutes to reach his destination, if all went well. This was because his father, Dean, lived in Idaho but his mom and he lived in Wyoming. Dean actually lived with Les’ grandmother for the time being. That was because he was broke again and trying to get on his feet. The fact that Dean hadn’t really talked to his own mom for three years made it interesting, his mom said, but things were better now. They’d had a falling out, Les knew that. It had happened one Christmas Eve when he was nine and as a result he hadn’t gotten his new bike. Money always seemed to be the problem.

Dean was a good guy and an okay dad, if a little unreliable. He was a construction worker, and when he lived in Ohio (like they did until he was seven) he hadn’t made enough money. Out west the weather and times were better with more houses and businesses being built. Les could see that even in his town things had changed since there was a new canning plant. Workers had just started tearing up ground across the street for six new houses. They’d probably be so tightly packed you could see what cereal the next door neighbor was eating. It had been a big empty space as long as Les had lived there.

The trip had been a last-minute plan. Dean–Les called him that since he left his mom when Les was only three–had a gap between jobs.

“Come on over,” Dean said with enthusiasm. “I got a new blue truck –well, it’s used, but still looks new. Grandma is always wanting you to visit, as you know. We can hang out, see things.”

“Yeah, sounds good if mom agrees.”

“Of course–we already talked. Lara, I mean your mom, says she has to work extra hospital shifts this month so it works out. You’ll be fine by yourself on the train, right? I thought you’d like that and there was a deal. There’ll be adults to help out.”

“Sure!” The thought of riding alone gave him a charge. “Hey, should I bring my ball and bat? It’s my favorite thing, you know. We could play in the back or even the field.”

“Naw, got those waiting for you.”

Les figured Dean would run out and buy them after they hung up. The fact that he wanted to play ball with him was awesome.

Grandma Cora had always called Les once a month and sent him cards with frilly flowers and bright birds on them that said “Wishing you sunshine!” and “Missing you across the miles!” He hid them in his desk drawer so his friends wouldn’t harass him but he missed her, too, even though they only saw each other a couple times a year. She laughed a lot, had crazy stories and liked to buy him cheap but good gifts. And made really good red velvet cupcakes, among other things. Since Dean had moved in with her maybe he’d see them both more. He and his dad could go camping or riding bikes. Grandma’s house was just outside a small city but her big back yard opened onto pasture where somebody’s horses liked to graze. The Sawtooth Mountains looked like giants, sleepy and muscular against the sky.

Les leaned back, swayed a bit. Vibrations from the clackety clack and rush of wheels on steel rumbled through him. He watched the world go by and daydreamed. He did have company across from him, an older couple, close to Grandma Cora’s age. The man had caught Les’ eye and nodded. His arms were both tightly around his wife. She slept against him. He looked out the window most of the time, his face so still Les couldn’t imagine what he was thinking.

Les had been up since six and his stomach growled. There was a ham sandwich and a peanut butter peanut butter one in his backpack. He looked them over. On the ham sandwich was a sticky note in his mom’s neat, slanted printing: “#1 so it won’t spoil!” as if he didn’t know better. She had also sneaked in an envelope which he opened. Some cash, good, and a longer note. The scednt of ham and cheddar sandwich made his mouth water. He took a huge bite as he read.

“Les, you know you can call me day or night. Or Aunt Roberta. I hope this trip turns out to be what you hope. I think it’s great Cora will be there, too. If your dad gets too busy or ornery or you get bored just call any time. Call when you arrive. I LOVE YOU! Mom.”

Les got the ornery part. Dean could get impatient sometimes; he wasn’t used to having kids around. But he didn’t have a bad temper too often. When he did, Les went to his room or outdoors. That worried him a little but Grandma was there. He finished the sandwich and got his water bottle. He was ready for a walk around.

The sleeping woman stirred, her elbow jerking, her ankles uncrossing as if she was going to sit up. But instead, she mumbled something and the man smoothed her hair, patted her shoulder. Les tried not to stare.

“On your own?” the man asked. His voice was very deep but quiet. His wife didn’t move anymore, just sighed.

“Yeah.”

“I guess you’re big enough. About thirteen?”

Les shook his head; he knew he was tall, a little chubby. “Just twelve.” He took a sip of water. “Going to see my grandma and dad for a week or so.”

“That right? Good thing to do.” He looked back out the window.

“You travelling a long time, sir?”

The man nodded but kept watching thickly forested scenery whipping by, lines and squiggles of greenish brown. Les waited a minute–he didn’t want to be rude–before getting his backpack and standing up. Then the man glanced at Les, his eyes so pale they almost blended into the grey shadows. The man’s face was colorless, too. It scared Les, he didn’t know why.

“Second day on the train now. Hard on Fran here. Whole trip was hard, to tell the truth. How about you?”

Les sat down. “I’m great. Left early and will be at my grandma’s and dad’s for dinner.” He wondered if that was the wrong thing to say to someone who was having a hard trip. “Haven’t seen Dean–I mean, dad–since last July.”

“Looking forward to it?”

“Yes sir.” He wanted to leave awhile, check out the other people, get something sweet in the dining car. But he heard his mother saying, Good manners, now; treat people well. “My dad builds houses. My grandma plays organ at church. She has an old house with a huge yard, horses beyond it.”

His face flushed. Why was he telling this stranger stupid personal stuff? Encouraging the man more? But he felt he should.

The woman whimpered and her husband pulled her closer. “That’s good, son. You enjoy every single minute with them.”

He turned his face to the window again. Les could see the lined skin around his eyes squeeze a little, then his eyes go watery. He felt panic for a second. What were they doing on the train, anyway? He felt his legs about to push him off the seat. He wanted to think about baseball season, wonder over what his grandma was making for dinner. If Dean was going to pick him up for a hug like he still did last summer. Les sincerely hoped not.

The man rubbed his face with his right hand and looked back at Les. “We just buried my son. Had the cancer but his suffering is done.”

Les held his backpack close to his chest, heart beating a little too fast.

“Just so you know why my wife is so unsettled. Both of us. I’m sorry. You should have friendly people on your trip.” He sounded so tired.

“It’s okay. I mean, I’m sorry about your son… ”

“Thank you…we just need rest. Won’t bother you anymore.”

Les scooched forward on the worn leather seat. “I’m Les Winter.”

He halfway held out his hand. Wasn’t that the right thing to do? What should he say now? Why did he have to say so much, period? Big mouth, that’s what he was, his friends even said he talked too much. He should just play with his phone and shut up.

The man took his hand off his wife, extended a long thin arm and his palm was so empty Les had to fill it with his own slightly damp hand. The man’s was dry, chilled, firm and he gave the tiniest squeeze for a second, then let go. He tried on a half-hearted smile that faded.

“Ken Haverson. Going home to California. Yes, thank you Lord, back home again.”

Les felt the sadness creep from Ken to him but waited as the man grew sleepy. But then Ken spoke again.

“You’ve been nice, Les. I hope you always aim for happiness, then you’ll get and give lots of it.”

Les watched the two of them sleeping awhile. They looked so calm and natural, as if they’d been side by side their whole lives. Then he got up and roamed a bit. He saw the landscape turn from forest to valley to mountains, shapes and colors flashing by like a beautiful story. But right then Les couldn’t wait to get off, not becasceu of Ken and Fran and their son. He just wanted to see Dean–his dad!–and grandma in the flesh by the train tracks, waiting there with arms open just for him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mosquito

jack-corn National archives Who she used to be
(Photo: Jack Corn, National Archives, Who She Used to Be)

It couldn’t hurt. It might help, in fact, taking time from her busy schedule to visit her family and those who’d cheered her on (some) from the start. And those (many) who hadn’t. She didn’t have to stay more than a day or so. Take the early flight from Miami. Archie would go with her for company. All she had to do was call her mother. Her dad was still alive, correct? She had a two week break; breaks were for spontaneity, good or bad. This was good, right?

Travis Beecher turned around, phone in hand, and looked out the twenty-first story window of his agency. He let his gaze rest on the azure sea. Well, more of a grey-blue today but he never let reality spoil his vision. He had money to make, places to go, stars to propel into the stratosphere.

“How about it? I got my finger on the pop pulse of America, and this is good: Galicia Havers Meets Mother After Ten Year Rift. We could show you two in the garden you always talk about. Iced tea so cold it beads up the ole Mason jars. Apples all shiny, green and red in a basket on the table. I should have been a set designer!”

He could hear her breathing. That was one thing he wished she would work on; there was a barely audible but distracting wheeze that came when she got nervous and stated to hyperventilate a little. But that was usually the worst of it. She was manageable. She was exquisite, a high demand model; she was on her way up as an actress. He hoped.

“Galicia? Have you left the premises? Are you entertaining royalty over there so I have to wait?”

He thought she should drop the Havers but she didn’t agree. She’d already changed her first name. What was she doing? Consulting her calendar again? This was free time more or less, why couldn’t she just say okay and book the flight? The calendar hung on her kitchen wall; she filled it in with different colored markers. Tacky!

“I might.”

“She speaks! Look, no one’s twisting your arm here. You had mentioned you finally wanted to call them so this is just a variation on the idea. We can route you through–”

Galicia’s voice was quieter and more distinct. “I’ll do it. I’ll call my mother and if she talks to me, I’ll take care of the plans. Archie can’t come. No pictures.”

“Now, wait.”

“No one cares about me and my family. I’m not that important. And even if I was, family life is off the record.”

Travis lit a cigarette and let it dangle between his lips. “Look, everything you do is an opportunity to promote, sell. You know that. Good story here.”

Silence. A little wheeze. He wanted to tell her to get a drink but held back.

“I’ll let you know if it works out. I have to go, Travis. Dinner with Mr. Darnell, the producer, remember?”

“Good, good. Call me later.” Travis brightened. He could see the sunlight wedge itself between two masses of cloud, making its way to his place.

Galicia went to her closet and walked around. Not turquoise, not chartreuse or peony, not the little tweedy dress. She fingered the dove gray silk shirt and charcoal ankle pants. Silk was so cool, easy on the skin. She grabbed the sleeve and crumpled it in her hand, then let go. Yes, elegant. She slipped it on with the pants, then checked her face a last time. Rose lips. It was what was expected; it was what she did. But even as she locked the apartment door, her childhood fell over her like a clinging breeze. She said a prayer for strength: Holding tight, Lord.

******

Her mother’s voice nearly squeaked. “Alice? No. Alice Sue? Is this some mean trick? Who is this?”

“It’s me, mom. I…I thought we might get together…I mean, if you had the time, if you wanted to, because I have a couple days and can come by. I want to see you. Dad, too.”

“Come by? You can stop by for lunch, is that it? Are you ordering out? Because I don’t cook for strangers unless they’re recommended by a trustworthy friend.”

Galicia swallowed hard. What could she expect? She knew it would be a mistake. “Alright, I get it, you don’t want to have a thing to do with me. We had a terrible time… so sorry to intrude!”

She was close to hanging up, should do it, forget any building of bridges. Too much lost, misunderstood. Time had made it worse, not better.

“You did not bother with your own brother’s funeral, Alice Sue. No words between us for nearly ten years. What now?”

“Nothing, mom. I know, I know…”

She put her phone on speaker, laid it on the table, then made a ponytail of her thick caramel colored mane. The balcony was heating up. She imagined her mother on her own shabby back porch in baggy shorts and sleeveless cotton shirt. Was she heavier or still a scarecrow? Was her father stooped, his six feet bent with work and cares? Were they happier since their ambitious daughter had stayed out of their lives? Did they see her on magazine covers? They took no money from her all this time. Maybe they saw her face but turned away, her mother angry and confused, father wondering how she lived with all the nonsense.

“So, what is it?”

Her mother’s question dove into the Miami sunshine and floated. The Missouri cicadas were so loud in the background that Galicia couldn’t make out what her father said. She recognized his voice, so deep it rumbled even when he sighed.

“Mom, I’m just going to come. If you won’t open your door, I’ll just leave. But I need to see you and dad and Molly.”

A clap of thunder raced across the miles and left Galicia trembling. The cicadas were insistent; they scared her after all this time. They might be warning her off. Or telling her to hurry up, she couldn’t be sure.

“Well, then,” her mother said, “bring ordinary clothes. Rent a regular car. I don’t want folks running over here making a fuss. And I don’t like the company of strangers so come alone. You’ll be enough to handle.”

******

It had always been that way, she thought, as she drove the three hours from the airport through the Ozarks, slowing at the familiar curve of road, looking down the dirt paths, noting trucks parked  in the shadows. She had been enough to handle. When other kids were minding their parents she was running off with Willy, chasing after small game. Building hideouts deep in the woods. Willy called her “Mosquito” the way she doggedly trailed him, pestered him. She hated dresses, preferring to wear the same old jeans in winter and plaid shorts in winter that Willy said looked like a boy’s, knowing full well they were his-hand-me-downs. Alice Sue was good in school but foolish and wild after, her father said, his hand raised over her more than once, then lowered as he turned away, half-smiling to himself, his wife scowling.

But then she grew up. Tall like him. Beautiful like…who? Some said it was a younger Aunt Marilyn–now disfigured by cancer–she took after but her father shrugged. Then looked away. Her mother told her it would come to no good; looks created problems and then fell away. It didn’t make sense, Willy said, to be gorgeous when she didn’t even want to brush her hair. He evaded her. No matter her pleading, he went off with friends, leaving her to her own devices. But, still, later they’d met by the campfire pit to catch up. Willy with his beer, her with a stolen cigarette. They conspired and laughed. He predicted great things for them both. Gotta get outta here, ‘Squito, he’d repeat solemnly and she’d nod.

When he died, she was in Shanghai on a shoot. She got word a day after the fact. Galicia wanted to attend the funeral yet the thought of seeing him empty of himself was terrifying. Her mother had said he looked like life had taken him and dropped him off a cliff. It was true, she knew. Because of the alcohol. So she didn’t go. Couldn’t. And that was the end of everything. She went on. They turned their backs.

Galicia pulled up to the row of houses. each turned inward, tired from standing up so long. She parked and saw how their roof sagged. She saw the hearty flowers and vegetables her mother had planted. The wash drying on the line. She heard a screen door slam shut but it was no one she knew, just a raggedy kid running by, giving her a wide-eyed look. She got out and too one step toward their porch, looking and listening. Did they know she was there? Where was Molly?

“Molly?” she called, her voice wavering a little. The beagle should be making a fuss by now, howling and running out to guard her territory. Would she know her like this, all clean and shiny and smelling of money?

“Oh, my.” Her mother stood at the top step in the dark cool of the porch roof. Arms folded hard against her chest. “Molly’s long gone.”

As Galicia came forward she caught a glimpse of someone, a girl about ten years old, hair unkempt, wary eyes piercing the sultry air, arms all brown and bug bitten. And then she was gone.

“Alice Sue…” Her mother cried out and stumbled down the steps, cropped hair so grey, arms thin as pins, her hands held out.

She ran to her mother and held her close.

“There’s our Mosquito,” her father said. He just leaned against the porch railing, his eyes like those of a man who has seen a strange sight and might never find the words to tell what it felt like. They were three of the four in one spot. He and his wife would finally sleep through the night. He knew Alice Sue might look like something the world owned, but only part of her, and not for good.

(Photo prompt from http://www.patriciaannmcnair.wordpress.com)

Decorating with Books

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Weather and View from Here:Variable but Fair

I am not a seasoned traveller, the sort that easily navigates  the barbaric mazes of airports. Neither do I speak fluently many languages of exotic locales. For me, “foreign” means our cousin Canada. I have sung praises of the beauty there–boating through the San Juan Islands, sampling the delights of Victoria and Vancouver, coming face-to-face with bears in Banff National Park. But other than Canada, my explorations have thus far remained within my own country. The primary modes of travel have been car and feet. The last time I flew anywhere was in 2007 when a daughter graduated from Union Theological Seminary, and it took love and will to get on that plane even though as a young adult I loved to fly.

In September when Marc and I planned a trip to Virginia and Florida to visit family, my excitement and anxiety were contained by the distractions of daily living. I had been the one to bring up the trip despite a mild dislike, perhaps more accurately a moderate loathing, of flying ever since events in 2001. I kept focused on the final destination and the experiences we would enjoy. By the first of January I was checking weather reports and planning what to pack. My goal was to be ready for anything but not embarrass my husband with a surfeit of bags. And to be calm upon arrival. I considered the leftover Valium Marc still had after dental extractions. Or the natural kava kava, which I had used when I flew to and from my mother’s funeral May 2001. In the end Dramamine was secreted away in my cloth bag beneath books and magazines, just in case.

But the moment I get on the  plane I know it will be a good trip. We haven’t visited my in-laws in a long while and we’ll see two daughters, as well. I am leaving behind wind-driven, chill rain in favor of delicious sunhine. More crucial, we are abandoning work and humdrum routine.

So it happens: I peer out a small window. My breath catches in my throat as the plane rises smoothly into the sky: I am on a small adventure and anything wondrous and fine can happen. In an instant I fall under a spell.

The world looks kinder from above, as if all the earthly things have come to order. It is as though the fine raiment of the land is meant to complement the colors washed along the horizon. As we near Chicago and the sun descends,  amber beacons pulse across the rolling earth, while the sky gives forth a display of piercing white lights.

From where I sit the Big Dipper appears to be in conversation not only with a perfect moon–which trumpets light all the way to other galaxies–but also with the criss-crossed lines of city and town, the slip and slide of pale country lanes against shining rivers.  I wonder what magic things spill upon the land from the mammoth ladle above.

I rest my eyes on the fullness of the scene–how much there is to love when venturing far, how great the mysteries as we leap in the face of reason and then lilt within the far-flung dark. The city’s lights flare out like a giantess’ necklace on an indulgent bosom.

And the moon holds steady as the night spreads its vast velvety wings. The sky, bemused, opens to the watchful audience of the universe beyond. Lulled by night, face pressed against the glass, I watch the geometry of roads and tiny cars come closer, the plane tilting and sailing toward a better known world, yet no less extraordinary.

The story could end right here, but disembarking feels like leaving one dream for another. I am a space traveller cruising in for a pit stop.

Then suddenly, in Virginia with daughter Naomi, artist/wandering pilgrim, who has been to Europe, to the Caribbean and Iceland, to places I cannot pronounce. To our surprise, it is rainy and cold just like Oregon the first day, but on the second the sun joins us. We take to the sights and sounds of rustic Jamestown, then Colonial Williamsburg. Encompassing 301 acres, with 88 of the original 18th century shops, houses, outbuildings plus hundreds of others reconstructed on original foundations, this is the past vibrant within the present.  We stroll Duke of Gloucester Street and stop to chat with the Shoemaker, whose supple leather shoes are meticulously hand-made for a man of more or less means in the 1700s. We visit the Weaver and learn about beetles from South America that provide the brilliant red that dye the wool the women spin. Then off to the Magazine and Guardhouse where I come upon not only rifles and muskets but a Hatmaker sitting on a bench. He is proud of his work, and informs us that he also can make shoes and is a blacksmith. At Chownings Tavern I enjoy tasty chicken stew and corn bread, then we’re off to see the Cabinetmaker–would I be interested in a lustrous $20,000 harpsichord? It plays beautifully as I run my fingers over the keys.

And so it continues as the sun illumines all. The Silversmith, the Cooper, the Milliner and Tailor. Every shop and house we enter or wonder over holds the hint of lives lived long ago and well, of trials, aspirations, romance. It is like walking hand-in-hand with those who planned and built the bustling town, had heady political discussions, reared families, fought illness and loss.

I stand before the Governor’s Palace and swear I hear the rustle of silk, the resonant ring of crystal from deep within the rooms. Other women and men have shared lives full of pleasure, burdensome with toil. They watch us from the shadows as the bright wind runs through bare treetops and stirs my hair.

On the last night, we three gather at the hotel suite and partake of a redolent beef stew that  Naomi started in the Crockpot in the morning. It is reminsicent of the recipe I often made for our large family a lifetime ago. But it tastes richer. Better seasoned. More tender.

Then: Florida.

Another place altogether with its shy manatees and ubiquitous palms, alligators common and fierce,  lumbering turtles. It’s flat, subtropical landscape is strange enough to me to be a foreign land and yet the warmth of the breezes and languor of the people are a welcome respite after chilly Virginia. And there is family again to welcome us, daughter Cait, who is a minister, and my in-laws. We mosey through Matlacha’s gaily painted shops, then enjoy lunch and melt-in-your-mouth pies on the shore of Pine Island.

The water is a glittering blue that changes hue from moment to moment, place to place. There are boats to watch and piers to walk, along which the sea ever beckons with it powerful rhythms and brilliant depths. The sun moves over skin like warm honey, then removes itself with grace, an empress, bestower of rainbowed light upon the horizon.

At Beth’s, my elderly mother-in-law’s, there is much talk and music. Marc and his brother pick up guitars and sing old hymns, John Denver and Carol King, other random tunes. Their voices rise and fall as though meant to do just this together. Tonight Beth closes her eyes, taps out the beat on the arm of her chair. She telegraphs her love with smiles and soft comments. When she asks me to sing as well,  I am busy videotaping each moment, but hum along a little, sing a few phrases: “If I had a song, I’d sing it in the morning, I’d sing it in the evening, all over this land.” Cait nods at the hymns; my sister-in-law encourages our men. Laughter is generous as well. We are parts of a whole in that room.

In a few days we leave. I do look back. But the planes are still majestic vehicles that carry me through the atmosphere, over the worn garment of earth’s surface. I think of the millions of lives we are passing over, people working and resting, making love or devising plans, recovering from loss or creating something fascinating.

When we arrive in Portland, it is raining, of course, but it rains on top of rare snow. All this moisture keeps the land lush. Even weary, it feels just like home; we are happy to be here, as well.

The photos I study show me more than expected. Some are better than others, but each one tells such a story. Every familiar face is better known now. One trip took me out of myself, toward many others,  and back again. The views have been excellent, the weather everywhere, just right.

(Thanks for everything, family. My heart to you.)