Channay’s Gifts

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It was nineteen ninety-six, late autumn, raining. The first day she joined our team at an adolescent residential treatment center, it was as if a wisp of a sweet breeze had entered the building. Channay was composed, a bit subdued but soft around the edges, as though she moved in a dream. Her Chinese (we speculated) beauty was startling but she seemed unaware of it, and dressed unobtrusively. Thick ebony hair swayed against her back. Her delicate hands with long tapered fingers and impeccable nails were like birds wafting through the air.

There was a modesty and simplicity about her that vividly contrasted with the raucous, rough teenagers (male and female, different floors) we aided, as well as our toughened team. Many worried she would not be strong enough for the work, that the clients would manipulate and bulldoze her within a week. We needn’t have been concerned; she watched and learned rapidly. She held firm but never raised her voice in response to their heckling of her slight accent or pushing of program limits.

She and I connected easily. Neither of us fit the profile of someone who would work with often violent, abused and abusing, drug addicted, homeless or gang-affiliated kids. Channay was in her late twenties–not so far from my oldest daughter’s age–and not so much older than some of our clients. She had no experience with substance abuse and was finishing her Bachelors degree. She lived with an aunt, uncle and cousins.

At forty-four, I was older than most of our teammates, and remnants of Midwestern suburbia clung to me despite my best efforts. I was working hard to adapt to the environment while deepening my compassion. I had become well defended emotionally and physically. In other words, I was on my way to being more seasoned and had decided to devote myself to counseling. Many people left before after a year. I wondered how long Channay would last.

The months passed. She and I worked together efficiently, updating each other during shift change, and when working together addressing charting, filing and crisis-management (among many more duties). In my groups or alternative school classes, she was a steady counter balance, and always dedicated to the goals shared. The youth came to respect her presence. I saw her self-possession and knew she was much older than her birth age. And wondered why.

Channay was mysterious but it was partly because she valued her privacy as well as others’, I believed. It was a relief. Well-established boundaries and a calm manner meant no high drama, no excuses or infighting with other staff. We had enough of that every moment with the kids. She noted she had worked with youth at a homeless shelter and that was reflected in her skills. Her quick intelligence was a balm. She showed a small smile when I joked a bit, the sort of black humor one adopts when working with daily trauma in others. In time, as things solidified in her job, she relaxed.

We soon worked several grave yard shifts together. There was time to chat as the building turned inward by midnight. For fifteen female clients we were the only two staff so stayed attuned to the dormitory.

“You have children, yes?” she asked me one night.

“Yes, five. My youngest, twelve, is at home. An older son lives here but is more or less on his own.”

“Oh, my, how lucky! Big families make life more, better. I have some cousins here, aunts, uncles.”

“My other three are back east but I hope to see them all together soon.”

“Ah, you miss them.”

“I do.”

Her eyes, dark and large, seemed reminiscent of a wild creature’s: alert, clear. But then they unfocused, closed suddenly.

I finished the last bit of filing, then studied her. The energy had shifted, as though something invisible had entered the room. She was staring at her hands, hair falling over her face, shoulders drooping.

“Channay?” I sat across from her.

She turned to me, lifted her head so that her hair parted a little, eyes searching somewhere else. “My own family–gone long ago.”

The sharpness of her voice stopped me.

“Your parents?”

She nodded. “They died Cambodia, under terror regime of Pol Pot. You know about him?”

I sat down across from her, my breath caught in my throat. The dreaded name flashed in my mind and I nodded.

“They were murdered, nineteen seventy-seven. And my brothers and sisters. The Khmer Rouge stormed our house. My father was a doctor. They didn’t leave professionals like my father alive. They were branded capitalists. This was Pol Pot’s communism. So his men killed them all. Families, too.”

Her face was defined by stillness, her eyes by the sort of agony that cannot be named. I felt myself caving inside. I wanted to touch her limp hands but did not.

“I am so terribly sad for your family, for you,” I mumbled, and begged my tears to recede. Out of respect, I prayed for calmness.

“I escaped. I cannot say how. Ran away so fast…” She took a breath that originated from the deepest regions of her being. “I was later brought here by aunt and uncle.” She picked up a pencil, smoothed it gnawed edges. “I wanted you to know. I trust you  with this.”

There was nothing I could offer. “Thank you.”

She nodded, her mournfulness a thing I could nearly hold in my hands like tears, like blood. Instead, I let my palm graze her shoulder when leaving the room to attend to a railing youth. Another soul with other kinds of nightmares.

One morning Channay came in earlier than usual. Her hair was still damp. I was surprised as she was always readied for work, and told her so.

“Oh, I usually take baths every morning, but usually have time to dry my hair. I slept in a little! Luxury but basic, my bath. I don’t think I could go into this world without a twenty minute bath. It calms me, makes me ready.” She smiled. “I burn candles. Sometimes there are flower petals in the water and I watch them float, smell their sweetness. Such peace. You must try it, Cynthia!”

I appreciated her quiet whimsical side as well as how she valued such simple things. How she smiled from a place of shyness. Her adeptness at handling angry, forlorn youths. We were now friends; the confession of such tragedy cemented our bond. We never spoke of it again but after that night she shared readily about her extended family, the American culture she couldn’t get fully accept but enjoyed after ten years, the traditions she and her family still practiced. Her loneliness and hopes. She did not have the freedom she wanted. She was bound by duty to do as her elders required. She gave much of her money to aunt and uncle. I listened and tried to understand, to accept her lifestyle and encourage her.

Soon after the bath conversation she told me she would be leaving her job. I knew she had been under pressure to marry a man in Seattle, an arranged marriage that her aunt and uncle felt was excellent. She had met him twice. Now the wedding had been arranged. She would marry and go to his home–“a lovely house, he has a great job; I am old to wed, Cynthia”–and there she would be his wife and care for his aging parents, who lived with him. It was a successful match for her family. It was the least she could do.

“It is our tradition. I must go.” Her eyes moistened. “But it will not be easy. Hard work lies ahead. I can do it.”

What about her education? What about her dream of being a youth counselor? I asked her. But she shook her head.

“Maybe one day,” she smiled, then turned back to her work.

I felt her unease in every breath, but her shoulders were squared, strong. I knew she would go, would smile, would do well.

The day Channay left I dreaded the end of her shift. We went outdoors for a few minutes. The sunshine was silky, warm on our faces; spring was ready to envelop our city. We spoke of the time we had spent getting to know one another. Our futures. We promised to write one another. I gave her a card with a poem I had written, which she read, then held close to her heart.

“I have a very small gift for you,” she said.

I opened the box. There were two small mugs with flowers on them. They were designated for the months of May and June, as noted on the bottoms. They were different than what I owned, graced with such delicate designs.

Moved, I murmured my thanks. How could she leave her dreams behind, take from us her generous spirit? But she had more to give elsewhere.

“Now you will remember me,” she said. “You have been a mother and friend to me. I have many good memories to keep with me. Thank you.”

We embraced a long moment and our tears, oh, how they came.

Channay left for Seattle and I stayed on at the treatment center for almost three more years. But I didn’t hear from her. Without her new address I couldn’t contact her. I searched for her name online but didn’t locate her. I wondered if in that other life–beyond what I could share–she had a far different name, something musical on the tongue. Complex. But I also wasn’t surprised she vanished. She went where I couldn’t follow: the way of the traditional Cambodian wife.

One of the mugs sadly was lost long ago but I treasure this remainder, keeping it safe at the back of the shelf. It has pink and white peonies and columbine and is framed in a vivid berry tone. It fits in my hands. It speaks to me of a woman’s courage, her love of others so less fortunate, her unrelenting respect for life. Her haunted soul was a symphony of grief and longing that imprinted my own. Her heart, a deep and shining bowl that held so much with room for more. Her good mind a beacon for others who admired its strength. I was honored, happy to be invited in.

It is almost twenty years since we said farewell. My dearest Channay: wherever you are, I will not ever forget.

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For more information on Pol Pot and the genocide in Cambodia, please see http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~amamendo/KhmerRouge.html

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)

Little Dove, In Abstentia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AlbertBaertsoen+VoortmanHouseAndParkInTheSnow+1900+MuseumofFineArt+Ghent

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

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

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

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

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

“How about one of our moms or dads?”

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

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

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

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

Monet's Magpie                                    (Magpie-Claude Monet)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

imagesCAZU2PKG

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

So Many

vietnam-memorial-soldier

                               (Viet Nam Memorial/soldier)

So many names.

I could talk about being a youth and young adult during the sixties and seventies and the myriad events I witnessed, the upheavals that altered this society’s institutions of many kinds. Or the ways family was redefined and individuals found community in new ways. There were pioneering and also risky ideological movements; women’s rights made progress and many men came to know themselves differently, as well. The assassination of JFK alone would have ben enough to rock our young worlds. It was a time of change that made an impact we would feel decades later.

I could tell you my little story. But this attempt at saying something that matters is about theirs, almost all of which I barely know. This essay is not “for” or “against” anything, but simply in remembrance of those who have gone before us due to being soldiers. They have had expectations and thoughts regarding events about which I have understood less than I should.

But I can at least say that back then there was Viet Nam first and last in our lives. It permeated the news, our consciousness, our fears, questioning. Television left less and less to the imagination and the images followed us into sleep. Front pages held news daily that stopped us in our ordinary lives. We had our own ways with the war: enlisted or were drafted, debated, protested, marched, prayed for peace, tried to ignore it, worried, waited it out a very, very long while.

So when I see this picture my breath leaves me and it sears on the way out, aches upon its return. I stood at that memorial, that wall, many years later, touched the names chiseled in the smooth, obdurate surface. I watched the soldiers and families, felt my face burn and eyes fill, heart contract. But I have never been a soldier. Standing there was so private, yet so public as all who were present shared grief and memories together at the wall.

So many.

But not all who left passed on.

My brother came back from the Viet Nam War a changed spirit, a different kind of man altogether, and for me a brother I feared lost. I was confused. I could not touch him so far away was he from us. His easy laughter had long left and the rooms were emptier for it. I was not a child but it sorrowed me in a way that nothing and no one could explain away. I did not find the brother from before but he did return to us in body, and slowly, he redesigned his life. He lived each day as he best determined it. He unfroze over time but the thoughts were kept to himself; pain, no doubt bitter, never named. Yet somewhere his changed destiny allowed him to unearth indelible beauty and love, which he offered again. Or it found him, like an angel settling in. One way he may have been renewed was through photography, a way of seeing and translating life even when he was a soldier. I have seen his pictures of the women and children, men in doorways, streets full of the still-living, the country and city landscapes so haunting to me. Perhaps they helped him salvage the good that survived. I don’t know. He stepped forward and continued on.

I’ve rediscovered him again since becoming an adult. I’ve become less innocent but more attentive, too. I study his photographs past and current and think they hold a kind of vivid austerity, a lean and elegant power that comes from burning. A quietude. Something sacred and also forlorn co-mingles in light and shadows. He has travelled around the world many times and brings back stories for my eye and spirit. I can wander with him. For all that, I am more than thankful. And he shares kindnesses in more ways than can be noted here.

Yet as he himself would likely note: too many gone. I once walked through the Arlington National Cemetery. The endless white, simple crosses with stringent light streaming through trees…that unavoidable silence, yet a silence potent and heavy. It hollowed out a place in me from which a tidal wave of weeping issued as I walked on and on.

I feel it again today. There is so much more to the story we see in the photo above. Tales that survivors hold secret. Things some release in increments that nonetheless feel vast. And it still haunts and covers us with a cloak of pain. Prayers like songs that never end: they fall like drops of blood to earth yet also take flight. To the Universe. To God, who waits for us to remember our compassion, seeks to heal without our ever knowing all the answers. Or the right questions, I sometimes think.

So many separate lives, sacred to the whole of this, our humanity. That is what I think of when I see my artist daughter’s mammoth handmade quilt, the fabrics into which she sewed and counted porcelain “bones” to represent each soldier who died in Iraq. “In memoriam” was the engine of her industry and moved her heart. Her lap was heavy with yards of fabric sheltering clay pieces, then folded on the floor. She sat in a rocking chair exposing, stitching, recreating, remembering the losses. And the spirit of her work was unleashed. She has shown it in art galleries where few of us may fathom lives lost, to forces we poorly decipher. But the essence of those gone is evident.

How many wars this world has counted and still counts. Soldiers who have taken their places. Our country alone: those going, too often not returning. So many lives. I bow my head. Tears do not, cannot speak enough- cannot touch enough- cannot change this world enough. But that doesn’t keep me from hoping and praying, still. It doesn’t put out the light. But we cannot forget who and what has been, and who still carries on.

large_fit_Falk_recalledquilt_0073_1_1000                                “Recall(ed) Quilt” by  Naomi J. Falk

*Please view more on this and other works at: http://naomijfalk.com/media/2095

*Note: Vietnam Memorial photo is courtesy of Patricia Ann McNair’s blog.

Details for a Young Detective

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Before everything went haywire, the fence marked the border of a small paradise. Jenisse lived four blocks away, but her yard was a square cement pad behind their apartment. My mother used to say that travelling five blocks was leaving one country for another. I thought she was being judgmental but I was wrong. She just thought Jenisse had a tough life and wondered how she might change my viewpoint. It should have been the other way around. My best friend wasn’t perfect and maybe took a couple false turns but it was a long way from where I ended up awhile.

We  had several things in common back then but the most important were philosophy and fast cars.  I read Camus and Kierkegaard in study hall. She found that weird in ninth grade but the thing that impressed me was that she even knew who they were. She liked to think past pink lipstick and white pom-poms, too. We were, contradictorily, cheerleaders that year. We had other friends, but no one liked us as much as we liked each other.

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The cars had fascinating, daredevil men attached to them in our imaginings. We also wanted to drive a few of our own. On Friday and Saturday nights we watched them roar down our busy street. I was better at calling the make and year but she was better at waving and smiling if they slowed down to get a better look at us. A perfect team.

We liked to hang out on my parents’–and mine, by default–half-acre. Our overgrown yard. I don’t know why our modest bungalow got the benefit of so much space outdoors–we were at the edge of the city– but it was perfect for me and my two older brothers. There was a little creek–that is, when it rained enough, otherwise it was just an unsightly ditch. Dad, a history teacher who had a passion for making things, built an old-fashioned house like a pioneer homestead. We half-grew up there and used it for all sorts of secret activities, from eating too many chocolate donuts(us) to playing dice and smoking a joint (brothers and sometimes us) to furtive gropings in the dark (all). There were sleepovers there which were popular with everybody. Our parents could see the place from the kitchen window so they felt we were safe.

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I guess we were but it was easier to find trouble there. My brothers’ exploits are theirs to give away. Even though it was fifteen years ago, I’d raise my dad’s blood pressure if I told him about the fire Jimmy started that consumed the neighbor’s prize roses and damaged the fence at the property line behind the “homestead”.

Jenisse and I were happy best friends, that’s the thing I need to make clear. We had that innocent, bountiful trust that you look for the rest of your life. Everything that happened or crossed our minds was talked over: breathtaking and annoying family dramas, sapping discouragement when we failed to meet our goals, whether or not slapping Hugh was a strong enough response to his hand on Jenisse’s thigh, the skin cancer scare for my mother. Or just how wine red lipstick and black eyeliner made us look older but not better. And our plans for the future.

“I’m definitely going to be a private investigator,” I told her. “That, or a lawyer. By the way, I want to–no, I will–win the next debate at school.”

“Of course you will, Lola–you out-talk everyone, who wouldn’t cave under all that? But I got you beat. I now think I want a career in designing parks. Isn’t there something like that? Ever since I got to know you and spent time out here I’ve thought about it. More safe outdoor places for people could change neighborhoods, even whole cities.”

I gave her a long look. “See, this is why you are so much smarter than most people. You think about the long tem effect of things, not just your own little desires. You have principles. Me? I just want action!”

She punched my shoulder. “Stupid, you just have to make a show of things, like telling people you gotta have action, when what you want is to save this crappy world, just like me. Well, as long as it involves some risky–or maybe a little risqué?–stuff!”

I gave her a punch back and then a hug, I’m sure. How many people got me like that? So it seemed like we would be friends forever. We even talked about how when we were old we would have houses by each other with a connecting yard for our kids. If we had any time for kids.

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It was the following autumn when things changed. September had shaken out the languid vestiges of late summer, edged with the promise of frost. A fire was burning in our corner woodstove. I was in the living making a poster for class when I heard her on the porch. I would know her laugh anywhere, a crescendo of sound sweet but loud like she had just seen or heard the funniest thing ever. When she didn’t come in, I dropped my felt tip pens and looked out the beveled glass window in the door.

It was not to be believed. She was on the porch swing with Arnie, my brother and they were swinging hard, chattering about something that appeared to fully engage Jenisse’s attention. His arm was around her shoulders. I opened the door.

“Jenisse? What are you doing out here?”

The swing kept going but Arnie just looked at her and she looked at me like, what did I mean? I thought it was funny how dumb they acted. Like, were they up to something, like planning a surprise party for my upcoming birthday?

“Why are you out here with my brother instead of inside while I struggle to create a fabulous poster for my speech about Egypt? Come in and help me out.”

“I can’t. Me and Arnie are talking.”

I thought they were both just up to aggravation so I went out and pushed Arnie half off the swing and squeezed in beside her.

“Lola, “she said, hands up, “wait a minute. What’s wrong with me having a conversation with Arnie? I’ll be in later. You’ll do great without me.”

And there it was. I got it instantly. Jenisse liked Arnie more than just her best friend’s older brother. He got up and leaned against the porch railing post, arms folded, feet crossed at the ankles like he was King Tut. It killed me, that look. I knew from others’ feedback that he was good-looking or even better but I didn’t think he was that smart or nice or fascinating. I was closer to Jimmy. Arnie, well, he was arrogant. He was a jock and I thought myself a burgeoning intellectual; he teased me about it. I was not having Jenisse sit with him now or ever. It was cross contamination.

“Get up, Jenisse. You’re blinded by genetically pleasing material. He is not The Man. You and I are best friends. That makes it almost illegal for you to remotely care about my brother!”

Her brown eyes shot me a challenging look. “Lola, you don’t own me! I can be with Arnie if I want. In fact, we’ve been together more and more. You just didn’t notice. Some detective you’ll make!”

That did it. I got up, entered the house and slammed the door. I steamed all night and into the wee  hours.

You think you know how this ended. We had a fight, got over it and they got married one day. A love story in which I could play the part of everlasting friend, maid of honor. Sisters-in-law!

None of that.  I ended up alone. Too often. I ended up taking rides with a few drivers of those fast cars after school. I felt like I should change, too, or I’d be lost. I was upset and angry every day; I had to see her hang out with Arnie at school or while I sat in my room or avoided them. She greeted me tentatively but I was deaf to her attempts. Watching them from my upstairs bedroom window was shocking. Seeing how he pulled her close, how they whispered things. It was bad enough thinking of my brother kissing at all but my best friend? What was she telling him about her life that she kept from me now?

Jenisse stopped trying to talk to me. She got dumped by him four months later and her grades dropped I heard. But I burrowed into school work but I’d found a group who liked to party. I had instant success, being a little mouthy but witty. But I frightened my family with increasingly grave errors. The last car I got into while in high school accelerated to one hundred twenty mph. A gorgeous Porsche. Before we even hit sixty we bounced off a lamp post and another car. The guy was in the hospital for two months and then in court for a DUII. I broke my nose and right arm.

But I finally figured out what not to do about the misery of loss. You had to just live through it. So, I guess, did she but by then the bond had frayed and split. I returned to my saner self and resolved to pay strict attention to internal and external signs. Do something good.

Despite my initial lack of observational skills as a teen-ager, I am now an investigator. I’ve survived worse things than losing a best friend. But I had to tell someone our story. Today I saw Jenisse’s picture–it was her with more make up, less hair and sleeker–in the newspaper. She won an award for her co-design of a park circling a pond. The name? Homestead Park. I want to see it. Then I may give her a call. We each had our plans. We aimed for the target and finally hit bull’s eye. How many people can say that?

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