Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Kudzu, Snakes and Poetry

Photo of kudzu vines by Frank DiBona 2009

“Why are you so resistant?”

Rennie leans back against the lawn chair, clasps hands behind his sweaty neck, puts his feet up on the stump. Listens to cicadas buzz their overpowering song–it feels like they’ve taken up residence in his head.

This is the weekly question, asked one way or another. It flees their mouths with little effort, words soft or rough, as an aside out of nowhere, after another discussion. It is Jillian, his mother or Zach, his older brother– and on alternate days, Pops, his grandfather. Mia has been gone near three years; she is never going to take him to task. She would not have before.

Rennie at first took it all seriously and tried to answer–a thoughtful, embroidered statement to keep them satisfied awhile–but then he tried to lighten up, have fun with it. Which aggravated them so they came back at him two-fold. But he’d had enough after the first few months they started on him. After a year it was noxious, tiresome. It made his head want to explode or just take off, running to unknown territory.

This now makes him laugh: his head running away, tiny legs trying to balance with their heavy load all the way to Iceland or the Galapagos Islands or India. What might they think about that image?

To be fair, their emphasis on words changes now and then: why are you so resistant; why are you so resistant; why are you so resistant–and so on. It’s a refrain or a chant he hears as background noise. So he has different answers, if he answers.

“Resistant to Sal Rogers’ charms? Her hair is just too shiny brown.”

“Resistant to the colds you get? Lucky, I’d guess.”

“Resistant to snake venom? Well, it depends on what type, if I am in the mountains, hills, marshes or fields. If I make it out. So far, so good.”

“Resistant to your words? Repetition does the trick. I don’t hear them, anymore.”

“I’m not resistant to lots of things–let’s talk about those, alright?”

Jillian is hanging out the sheets on the line. She could dry them in the dryer but she likes how they flap and billow–lavender, white and beige with faded leaves–and the sun soaks them with its natural disinfectant properties. When she takes them down she presses them to her face and breathes in the fresh happiness that imbues them for awhile. She likes to hang dry her underwear, too, and the boys’ and Pop’s t-shirts. Makes them whiter, last longer. Makes her feel more secure to smell the sunshine when she hugs them.

Rennie appreciates that she does this. He likes the sun sweetness and roughness of the cotton sheets when he crawls into bed. That moment will endure as a favorite memory when he is old, he realizes: sheets like crazy sails in the world, like peace covering him in bed.

He picks a tiny daisy from dew-dropped grass and twirls it, touches his nose to it though it has no perfume, and looks about. He needs to clip more of the hedge, so he gets up, searches for the pruners.

“Rennie. Please.”

“I don’t have a new answer yet, I’ll think on it.”

“You have to let the college know in a month or it is gone for good. They have lost their sympathy and very long patience.”

Jillian used to cry about it every single time he shot them a smart ass answer, every time he refused to share thoughts at a deeper level. It was hard beyond hard for awhile, what with Mia gone. Then Zach with a broken hip from the fall during a mountain hike. Rennie was there but couldn’t stop his brother’s sudden loss of footing right at the rocky, narrow path’s edge, of course. A pure accident, Zach said it was though Rennie felt to blame. It could have resulted in far worse. But Zach is good now, has re-started his HVAC trade apprenticeship. He’s lived at home to save money. And is about to move in with his girlfriend. She at least has Pops, he’s not leave her. Until he is done and gone one day… please God, not yet.

Sorrow and the clutch of stress has loosened its hold, though, year after year. They slowly got used to the way things were without her daughter…their granddaughter and sister.

Except for Rennie, they might move on a bit more. He is holding things up, she thinks often. He needs to go forward, too.

Pops says to ease up; he’ll just dig in his heels more if they don’t stop. But even he wonders why Rennie has about thrown away opportunity, that decent scholarship to Blue Ridge College. But he also thinks it is more complicated than they know. Might ever know. The boy–going on twenty, taller than he is and strong as an ox, both boys inherited their fool father’s strength and height–had been struck down by Mia’s illness as if it was his, too. And then she died. It might take a lifetime to get his head back together. She was his twin, yes. But being alive is right here and now; being dead is just gone, the past. It dims, despite what you think.

Rennie is different about things, they have to agree. He takes the raw of life into him and it carves out hollows or plants unexpected seeds or is churned into words that they rarely have gotten to read. Even though this is what got him the scholarship. Pops has lately for many nights seen him on the ramshackle back porch writing by candle light while the other two were to bed. It could be 1889 from the looks of him hunched over in baggy overalls and sweat-stained work shirt, face nearly to paper, the old fountain pen scratching away, his dark hair flopping forward, feet bare. His mind might be from a different time… maybe that is why he’s hard to reach at times. That, and the old visitor with havoc to unleash: the malingering of grief.

Pops gave him that pen as he turned thirteen, along with a new hunting knife. Why not? The boy always had such daydreams stuck in his head, may as well help him get them out. And the knife?–a good hunter when he puts his self to it. But like most things he does well–and there are quite a few–he seldom ever hunts now. He does what he does. Writes and works with his hands.

Why is he so resistant to college, bettering his lot? Though he can repair darned near any broken thing, so that’s good, It is Pops’ own fix-it gene passed to the boy. He learned–Zach, too, and Mia–right at Pops’ shoulder. Rennie can make a decent living with a repair business and that will make Pops feel calmer. Prouder than fancy words might do, if he’s entirely frank. But he wouldn’t stand in the way if the boy has to do his own calling. Too high a price to pay, his will versus the boy’s. They could lose him, too, and that would be impossible. Every man has to make a mark his own way.

Zach is moody lately; he wants his brother to make up his mind so they can all stop pushing and prodding. He isn’t as close as he may like but the several years difference and, well, he wasn’t part of the twindom, was he? But that’s how it goes, and he misses Mia, too…If only Rennie will face up to the next phase of life, get on with it, maybe they’ll be closer in time.

Rennie sees them. He hears them, pleasant creatures with deft mouths and mighty hands and good minds, with ways that are in his bones, too, as he lives on land his family has owned for one hundred-ten years. But he sees and hears as if they enter a stage, say their lines, do their bits and then saunter or dash off, taking their lives with them while he stands there in the middle, quietly observing, waiting for more, hands clenched by his sides, eyes straining at the dark swirling before him. What should he do? Even though he is tall and broad, owns any space in a manner he hasn’t quite realized, he feels invisible to them when it matters the most. It is not even his stage, not even his story–yet.

******

It takes an easy fifteen minutes to get there, through a wooded acre then down two hills, then following the music of tumbling water until he comes to Fielder and Backward Falls. The second name is due to the way the stream splits off there, around a boulder, and switches to the left. Most of the moving water goes its merry way forward as it should, over and down the earth and rock ledge in a cascade of clear liquid, pure enough to drink. But this is a small waterfall, diverted by a surprise route, and it pools in a natural dip in the land before seeping back to the main tributary eventually.

He settles on spongy dirt by a contortion of roots at pond’s edge. The falls splash and gurgle as it gathers, pools. He glances around to check for creatures, removes his sneakers, sticks feet into the warmish pond, plant debris floating on top. His toes stir up mud and it resettles. The odors of this spot are strong and reassuring, stones and rich dirt and mosses, waters carried from far away. Kudzu vines twist and reach, travel up trees in ownership. Birds call out and he calls back lightly with a thin whistling song that coincides enough with their chorus. The cicadas are relentless with urgent, rasping overtones.

Rennie falls silent. There, a stick cracking, a rustle. He waits. Another soft crackle, and a shushing among birds, their wings closing.

He feels her near, or does he only think it? There is a fine but penetrating charge in the air; his anticipation, yes, but it is their connection that re-makes this into a vibrant site he likes better than any other. It has always been their place. The one they disappeared to over and over. Where they found solitude, or found one another when no one else could or went to, together for a catch up. No one else knew for sure it was theirs, not in all their growing up years. Others might visit, but they alone claimed it at age nine and had a ceremony to mark it as such> Two poems were loudly intoned above the burning of wild grasses in a wide mouthed vase, and a song that Mia offered about trees’ eternal protection and the falls’ “most royal healing waters” and that was that. He closes his eyes.

It was a separate children’s time and place, and the moments made of simplicity in mind and heart. A true and perhaps holy place to Rennie. For she was there with him for everything that mattered all their shared lives.

His eyes blink open. The woods are unusually quiet; even the cicadas are talking in a dull buzzing note that descends into a lull.

“I’ve sure needed to talk to you,” he begins then pauses as his gaze sweeps the woods and water to check for anything or one else. “I miss sharing time and events with you. It doesn’t get easier, though I hear it will. It’s okay. I don’t expect it to be one way or another. I don’t expect you to come back. So I come here, you know.”

He waits; quietness enfolds him more densely.

“If I leave, then what? Will you still find me?”

He feels it, the sadness a net tossed about him and tightened, and he swallows hard, swipes a hand over forehead, stands in the pond. He looks again. It is only the woods, the moss-touched rocks and kudzu-encased trees. Mia is not now going to come out of the thickets and talk to him. He knows she never will, not really. But he wants it, anyway, yearns for the female reflection of his face to come forward, her being to offer words that make such good sense when spoken around his.

There is a distant call, perhaps deer or a bear on the move with a cub, or a grazing horse in fields even farther out. But suddenly he spots movement, a cottonmouth that slips into the pond at the other side, a younger one with light brown and banded scales, the telltale triangular head lifting as it swims. He sits down, scoots back, pulls up his feet and slips shoes on. Stands. He knows it will not harm him as long as he doesn’t threaten it but he backs up, instinct with a hold on him. The snake is placidly swimming into a murky spot and though for a moment it seems to eye Rennie squarely, it gracefully turns its thick body, silently moves across the pond.

It is the snake they saw most often, that semi-aquatic venomous creature at first scaring them, then just a part of the wild. At the falls they often stood on a rocky prominence and held contests, tossed stones into the pond or at any number of trees on the other side. Once Mia accidentally hit a cottonmouth and it raced across the pond and crawled out, searching for their heat. It was well-known for its often-deadly strike when disturbed; they knew better than to wait around. They fled as if for their lives, screaming then laughing all the way home.

He watches the snake now with keener eyes as it turns, swims back round to him, half-floating with head up as it again fixes on Rennie with it’s cat-eye pupils and opening its formidable white mouth. The young man freezes, heart throbbing, wonders if it will come to the ground…but just as quickly the three foot snake moves around the irregular edge of the pond in search of food, perhaps.

The cicadas start up again, unimpressed with his earlier speech or the snake; birds flap wings, chitchat among themselves, tend babies.

He rests at the rim of the woods before entering Tennessee sunshine that will beat on his skin and like a giant spotlight make him go blind a moment. He recalls the last time they came to Backward Falls. A bright blue and gold scarf was wrapped around her bald head; her eyes looked huge, turquoise in the light, her skin whiter than white, her full lips thinner then, slack. But they had read the poem in turns; they’d written together then buried it by the little waterfall. They knew it was their last time there. She leaned heavily on him as they made their way back, and they stopped often.

–Why you and not me? he asked her often. Why not both of us since we’re twins? And how will I manage, sister?

Finally, her answer came then.

–Because, you were meant to travel the world. To find its poetry. I was meant to make sure you did. I’ve been happy enough. I’ll pop up wherever you go. Don’t let us down, Rennie.”

The wind came up after that as a skirmish of storm clouds let rain down fast and hard, with lightning swift as jagged arrows piercing the dark sky. They’d walked as fast as they could hand in hand, drenched and unafraid. Jillian had been worried, waiting on the porch, but when she saw them together she just went in to heat up butter biscuits and make a pot of tea.

They always believed they were safer, better, smarter when closer to each other. Even near the end of the end, when they knew they’d not be in touch as they had all their lives. But the fact was, they weren’t really apart. Even when three days later she was gone.

He’s not disturbed the buried poem; it was a happy story of time together, and yet a stab in his center as they’d read it. Let the earth hold it close. Let their happiness be protected there.

******

They are done with dinner already, reading aloud the paper and chatting over coffee when Rennie comes in, panting some from running.

“So, family, I have an answer for you. I’m not going to college. I’m going to work at the hardware this year–already talked to Herb about it. I’ll continue small appliance and other repairs on the side for Herb and from home. I need to save a lot more. But then, by next June, I’m leaving.”

“Where to?” Zach asked, incredulous. He was on track to become a teacher but travelling sounded even better. Maybe he needed a road buddy? They hadn’t been all that close–he wasn’t in the Twindom, was he? But it was what it was. He’d like to know him better, it might happen before it was too late.

“First the West and Northwest, then Canada and Alaska, then…who knows. Might have to take a pause to work or come back now and then.”

“What about college? Your writing?” his mother asked, face gone softer with disappointment, her eyes damp, the barest amount. She managed a smile. “Though having you here longer will be nice.”

“I won’t stop. Have I ever? College won’t make me a writer. Writing will.”

Pops folded the newspaper and set it aside, stroked his beard in muted surprise. “Rennard Ames Collings: small appliances repairman. Traveler. Author. Good heavens, some life ahead of you.”

Rennie smiled at his grandfather and gave his mother a hug, his brother a quick tap on the shoulder. Then took a plate of potatoes, pork chops and fried okra and went to the porch. He settled on the top step to better see the dusky horizon, and Mia–it was what he felt so was what he believed–quietly sat down, too.

Moving Days

Despite my sudden absence lately, I have not foregone my usual posts without regret. I have had a dental problem to encourage to better heal just as we became mad-busy with preparations for vacating of our decades-long home for a new one tomorrow. So significant lingering pain (plus inability to eat well) has underlain the constant energy output of sorting/tossing/packing, conducting household and other business, and developing a clear strategy for our near future. We will remain in the Portland metro area but in a quite different setting. And finally I have resolved to make it as welcoming as this old place, and to discover all the possibilities that await us in a new area. It is not easy to let go of all the good we have welcomed and shared while here.

The benefits of moving, of course, include taking a leap of faith and learning about people not yet met; natural environments not explored and enjoyed; and putting in place routines and activities that accommodate fresh obligations, choices and surprises awaiting us.

I feel fortunate we’ve enjoyed a congenial, stable lifestyle for 25 years in a close-in city center neighborhood. And it is also designated as a historical one that is both lovely and inspiring architecturally. And the gardens–divine, lush. But there i a rush of new building going on; our five-plex will be sold sooner than later and the who know what.

Any neighborhood has its history, its stories, and we will slowly root out those threads that connect one thing to another. It is people who make a place what it is, after all–that, and the land that it grows into and with.

This move is largely due to our youngest daughter expecting twins in April. She is a medically high risk mother– and a successful career woman who is fiercely independent. My son-in-law is a fine husband for her, smart, kind and dependable. But this time I will answer the call as I have not since her youth. And I will be caring for twins a few days a week when she returns to work for quite a while. If that is not an adventure, I don’t know what is. Two new human beings come to earth…what an honor to be up so close and personal. And what a lot of work, of course, that we will all tackle together!

We have another daughter living near the new place who will undergo major surgery next week; this may mean a few weeks of recuperation. We have invited her to stay with us until she is feeling stronger once more. We are taking this a day at a time with her. And it will be such a pleasure to have two daughters closer to us again.

So writing may become more sparse beginning the next month or so; that could be difficult for me. But it is just as likely that writing will remain just what I desire and need to do, so I’ll manage it even in small bits despite tiring times. Well, I may have to start a new blog about “Twin Grandmothering” escapades…

I have been musing over how rich and fascinating a life I’ve had raising five children–then being frequently involved with some of their own children. And all this for a young woman who had nary a thought of becoming a mother at 23. I was a bit of a spitfire then, drawn to the arts with soulful devotion as well as enjoying various intellectual and political pursuits, and quite in love with my new husband the sculptor. I, then, found it perplexing that I was gaining weight as we crisscrossed the western states one summer in our old El Camino. Many months later–just 6 and a 1/2, actually–I was unprepared when our first child was born. Outside a blizzard covered the hometown as the tiny one struggled to gain a greater foothold on the earth at a mere 2 and 1/2 pounds. That she survived in the early seventies when limited technology could offer so little to save preemies…it was a miraculous event to behold. And the start of a rather strange, wonder-filled life, woven of worry, mundane labor and supreme delight. A life of great humbling “otherness”–it was about adoration, and welfare of children. No longer just my spouse, my own self. It was revelatory, as it is for every new parent.

So at sixty-eight, another door is opening as another swings shut: a new home, new babies, new chores and joys. Finding my way once more, learning as I go.

I will write and photograph as often as possible–and share with you appreciated readers as I can. I hope you are creating somehow daily–what is a life but incremental creations? I will look forward to your  inspiring offerings often.

Be well and open to sharing of good love; be ready to experience the small, curious, stunning moments that help shape our lives along with lessons of loss or the odd detour or unsettling bewilderment. We are in it for the whole messy, colorful story, are we not?

 

Wednesday’s Nonfiction: An Intersection of Lives

The thing about moving house and home is that past, present and future vie for attention and, mostly, all at once. About the time it’s perceived as inevitable–papers signed, money given, changes of address completed, boxes being filled–the magnetic center of your life is yanking you back to the current abode and security. Then the past nabs you as you shuffle and muse over odds and ends. And presto! -you’re afloat in “what once was,” even dreaming of surprising segments. Then you try to imagine again the new square footage–the very shapes of rooms and placement of windows, even slant and foliage of the land– and how to grossly simply it all. And how to like it, come what may.

At least for me, all this is becoming apparent as I plot and plan with Marc. We are determined to be rational adults during the entire process; we have nearly failed a couple of times already. It has been 25 years here. It is what we know–and enjoy. It is the familiarity which tops the list, I suspect, though vast neighborhood gardens, logical grid of streets and rambunctious style of the city life–these all count so much. Yet circumstances plus a big chunk of family devotion have brought us to this moment. Our current small, well situated building will be sold sooner than later. And one daughter is having twins soon while another is having major surgery. Reasons enough to– having scouted the new domain–compare movers’ estimates.

We have fantasized about moving (once or twice nearly taken action) for…well, at least ten-fifteen years. That is a lot of looking along with balancing pros and cons. There always presented some reason the timing wasn’t right. The kids joked that we’d always talk of it but never vacate. 

This time, after months of intensive searching, one of the first places seen has become the one we’ll transform into a den in the wilderness. Sort of. I mean, it sits on a high ridge. The view is fir trees and a bit of valley. Welcome to the southwest frontier, as our son-in-law jokingly said. Not a joke, exactly, as my daily walk will preclude an easy, carefree romp. It will require a trudge to get onto hilly trails–even fetching mail, for that matter, will be a chance to exercise. I have this glowing picture in my mind, though: I am smiling, I am breathing in fresh piney air, arms pumping to generate momentum and blood flow so my brain is oxygenated and thrilled and then thigh muscles sneakily yell at me and lungs tighten– but I am happy, yes! I am moving with grace and enthusiasm as sweat makes a beeline down back and chest and my heart is kicking at my ribs. Yes, made it up another 75 feet! Good for me and all.

Speaking of which, the new place is at 500 feet which contrasts with the current sea level…from the valley to hilltops. It is weirdly–with all the nature about– a more suburban community. But we can still drive to Portland’s downtown in perhaps fifteen minutes if we luck out with traffic.

Truth is, this is one reason we chose the new place: a rich beauty of quietness, trees, views. And it is much closer to the daughters we will see often. The one blossoming with twins I will be with daily a long while as new mothering starts to fit her like a beloved, comfy garment. I am hoping my grandmotherly skills are still up to par–our youngest grandchild is now 13– but some things are embraced in faith, with best intentions grounded in love. We’ll learn by doing, all of  us.

For Marc, a drive to work or the airport will lengthen. We don’t speak of that much yet. It is what it is. He was the first to feel more strongly that the place should be our new one. He is worn out by an insomnia worsened by the cacophony of passersby, sirens, homeless rooting for bottles and cans in bins, bar visitors making known their delights and miseries as they careen down the street at 2 a.m. (Yes, it is a “good neighborhood” but it is the real city.) Whereas, I lay there contemplating what stories can come of all that, and watch the night sky that is wondrous even with its city-lit sheen. This is some of what we are leaving. And I concurred with Marc. We have lived in countryside a few times over the decades; this is out of city proper and offers another scene.

And though it has plenty of space for us (plus family meals, friends visits), it’s strangely lacking decent storage, so I must not be self-indulgent as I start sorting. We can rent storage–it seems so many do that these days–but why hang onto what is outmoded, unnecessary?

Back at my tasks, then, I find the past comprises a whole lot as I toss out ancient  reading or sunglasses; a hundred sweet birthday cards that just cannot be kept; many articles I should have read, then recycled already; silly scribblings of once-younger grandkids; a bunch of decades-old prom and recital pictures of our five; even yellowing report cards. I like to keep pictures torn from magazines and other colorful paper items… for collages that are sometimes made. My small drawings and paintings- keep or shred? How many pens and paper clips do we need? Old bill receipts? The piles grow. My massive wooden desk is like a magic object: the more I pull out, the more paper/office supplies/miscellaneous expand. And the past beckons me so that dreamy pauses become as frequent as decisive action.

When did I-we-live all this life, gather such stuff?  Know all these people (friends, family’s multi-generations, co-workers, acquaintances, also husbands)? I know I took things in hand but the events sure took me in hand, too. I stand up and utter: Gaaack!

How did the kids just…become themselves? Oh, well, it happened despite our interference and attentiveness. Was the child in the bold red gown, Cait grinning from the stairwell, minutely aware she was to be a chaplain helping the aged? How about my tiny preemie, so quiet her hands spoke for her as she built things, patiently created fresh realities… Naomi became a sculptor and an advocate for many. Aimee full of dancing passion and a spirit of justice, still a deep heart whose persistence is mighty. Alex, the one percolating twins, started out life with a rare disorder,  is courageous and ambitious, full of quirky energy. Joshua, the firebrand? A born athlete who thinks outside the box, has survived near-death more than once. Of course, these flawed but loving adult children–though not all nearby–are with me always. It is not the stuff they left for me to muse over and organize but their very existence that takes up much room within me. And I am not crowded by that.

The last time a big move was completed it was from a two-story four bedroom house. We dragged all with us, found places to keep it, hide it, lose it. (Will I locate those other socks? a lost earring? that poem?) Now, much will be let go. Material things can be weighty, a superfluous anchor for spirit and mind when both desire freedom. I am hoping someone else will utilize many books, clothes, tools, unloved furniture, those mugs that don’t excite me.

Loves, losses, hardships, revelations and such mundane moments, too –it all comes forth as I riffle through my old writings (and those family members wrote and shared), sort scads of old photos, eloquent letters and quick notes from my strong, thoughtful mother and tender sisters. Examining my father’s signature stamp for his correspondence and instrument invoices, I wonder why on earth I still have that useless thing. How do I rid myself of special Valentine’s Day cards that Annie, my artist sister-in-law, has created for years? Or the sheaf of postcards that Naomi and I sent back and forth, each inscribed with a sentence, poem, dream–a story that we made together with replies? The music mixes Alex made for us, some on which she was joyfully singing. The collection of bells that my mother started and gave me. My cello, asleep in its case.

It gets harder the more I stop to consider it all. Only things, I tell myself, let the life that was lived just be at it’s ease.

And please may my family not have to plow through an abundance of unnecessary stuff when I am gone for good.

Ordinarily, I do not linger in the past–despite the fact that many of my narrative nonfiction pieces revisit the past somehow. It is material for writing within a set time frame; I delve into whatever waits to take its place on a blank screen. My daily life is greatly consumed with the moment, the present needs and experiences–as is true for most, I suspect. And as I get older, I don’t think more of the past, contrary to what an over-60 stereotype indicates. There is far much to yet discover and immerse myself in; such an abundance of moments to celebrate–and work out and share. I think rather little of the future, as well–just enough so I can plan for certain events. But not so much that I become riveted or stalled by what good or ill may or may not occur. It is worth little to me to try determining a life that has created its own wild, then improved trajectory. My decisions matter, yes, but only in part. The rest is up for grabs.

So this is the thing: like a confluence of divergent tributaries, all simply merges. It is powerful, this life making its way and taking me into and along with it. In the midst of more significant change, where past and present and future intersect, I continue to find a new balance as best I can and join the lively movement forward. It is tedious and exhilarating and maddening. But I’m up for it, an hour at a time. Thank goodness I can write about such domestic adventuring. I’ll keep you posted on interesting starts and stops along the trip. And show you my perspective of the terrain I come to know. Here is to uncharted territory and trying to live this life well!

This I Can Leave You

Yachats, MR 66, Days 3,4 252
Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

When Tessa thought back to the day she first saw Cliffside Court, she couldn’t for the life of her recall seeing that thing standing like a relic amid sea salt-licked, sun-burnt grass. She’d only been drawn to the bluff’s edge, and the ocean’s roaring like a wild thing it was yet which from up there sounded like a comfort born of the neutrality of indifference. Acceptance, that was what she felt as she peered at cottages and stepped across the dry lawn which offered a shared area. She observed the kids squinting at her then scattering, an old man hunched over his walking stuck with cap pulled to his eyes. If one was inclined to share an area, that is, which she felt was unlikely overall. It suited her. She was here to do nothing, for as long as it took to feel at ease with that. Doctor’s orders, finally.

“I’m not yet a basket case; you can’t just order me to some obscure asylum where I  must lunch on a manicured lawn with the crazy ladies,” she’d protested when forced to see Dr. Matthews. “I have scads of excellent miles left on this mind and body.”

This was the day after her meltdown during a useless, contentious staff meeting wherein she threw her favorite Waterford pen across the room. It then bounced off the window and hit Jarrod’s cheekbone, her comrade but also boss. Then worse yet she began to weep as she mumbled another something regrettable and fumed out.

“The operant word there is ‘yet’, Tessa. You’ve given much and are paying for the 16 hour days and sleepless nights. You know I can more or less order you to take a leave since I work for this company–part of your perks, our wellness team. Your blood pressure is sky-high. You aren’t eating right. You have no one at home to corral you or advise you so I am sending you off. Six weeks, then do a check-in. Take the tranquilizer as needed, it can help. But go far away, and don’t answer emails or that phone.”

She hung her head like a chastised puppy and slunk out of the room, face burning with embarrassment and anger. No one dared look at her as she tidied her desk, watered her creamy white orchid with shaking hands, turned out the light in her office then walked very fast in her spike heels with head high to escape one more second of humiliation. No one was going to see her fall down, certainly not into any terrifying emotional rabbit hole. Jarrod observed Tessa with two fingers gingerly touching a tiny bruise on his cheek. He shook his head, turned away. He sure hoped she’d get a grip.

******

There certainly was no dependable internet connection at Cliffside Court or surrounds. Anyone would think this was not the place for her, such a step down in the world according to friends and family–why didn’t she take a month’s cruise to the south of France, for example? Find her way to a spa resort on St. Lucia? It was a getaway she needed, a break from a job that had begun to take her apart, her composure and authority disturbed like silky threads torn free of a fine embroidered work. She was VP of a well-tuned interior design business, after all; anyone would need a serious time out after ten years running. But at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot on the road?

Tessa wanted nothing of chic or exclusive or trendy. She wanted unreachable, ordinary, earthy and weathered Cliffside Court fit the bill. After only a week, she had begun to sleep again. She’d found a Saturday farmer’s market in the hamlet four miles away and had begun to eat more than once a day, like a surprisingly hungry person. Off coffee bit by bit, she drank soothing medicinal teas the local coffee shop kept in a green glass jars beside homemade lemon peel and poppy seed scones.

She’d taken to sitting n the deck, careful to step around split or missing boards, settling into her plastic chair with mug in hand. When a thought from the rat race world wriggled into her mind she banished it with a choppy wave of a hand. Tessa primarily focused on the horizon when she could see through fog; she loved how things disappeared and reappeared as a brew of  sweet-tangy mist burned off or fell upon all. She watched fishing boats make careful progress, and the rolling, cresting waves were a like spell for healing. When her aching back yelled at her, she walked down a treacherous stairway that led to the miles-long beach and spent an hour loping up and down a blinking sandy stretch. She walked until her leg muscles and brain felt liquid, just another part of the sea. Blessed sea. Sea that scared her in the right way, like God was talking to her. She soon listened to the wordless poetry of it all and breathed in thick or shimmering damp air.

On the week-ends, it got busy; she kept to herself, inside. Or perhaps chatted with the old man who repeated much of what she said to make sure he got it, and had lived there four years since his wife passed. She liked the mischievous sister, Mae and brother, Ty, who soon approached her, and Elle, their mother with a close cap of silvered hair–it could be dyed but Tessa thought no, it belonged on her, framing olive skin and moody eyes. She admired it and Elle’s patience with those entertaining but madcap kids. A family of five from Canada stayed for ten days, friendly from afar at best which was fine with her. A single man came and went after three days; an older woman stayed for two, on to California next, she said as if relieved. People came and went as she stayed on.

The couple who owned the place was always busy. Mo hummed as she worked, sometimes chatted awhile; you’d have thought it the radio as her songs were tuneful and her voice sonorous. Henry tended to silence in a satisfied way. They’d been married on the bluff long ago, bought the cottages six years after their first son was born. Tessa believed the place and lifestyle were their dream come true.

It made her wonder: was her life the one she chose or one that chose her? It seemed a trite thought and dissolved as she relaxed into the pace of coastal life. It made her nervous that she was adapting so quickly to doing so little. Where was the adrenaline rush she loved of the looming deadline? That memory fell over the bluff and headlong into the sea.

So mostly it was good, better than she had imagined. The summer breezes left a kiss of salt on her lips, her hair frizzed and billowed off her loosening shoulders, her bare feet carried sand and dirt inside the cottage and she left it all as it was as long as she wanted. No one cared; not even she cared.

By the end of the second week, however, Tessa found herself unable to see past that odd thing, the two sturdy grey poles with a lateral top pole, and it rose in the middle of her sight line. Useless old beams cutting up the grand view. It struck her as a sort of gallows. She played with tat thought and found it morbid  but fascinating. It was as if her vision sharpened, her mind refocused in a fresh way so landscape and surroundings were perceived as more dramatic than soothing. But she began to feel that someone or more than one had hung from or hung onto those frayed rope ends. It scared her. Re-positioning her chair didn’t help; the thing was just there, a reminder of something that made her squirm. It was worrisome, that structure. And her wondering about it, so she’d get get busy with something pleasant, like quickly sketching the morning glories or the ocean, kids at its edge. To draw like that seemed like freedom, like play.

Days passed uneventfully, just sunning and walking and reading two good books she had put off for too long. The nights sweetly whispered to her, the push, lift and fall of endless water shushing her mind, the deep darkness gentle about her body.

One afternoon Old Man–he didn’t offer a name, saying his real one was ridiculous, no one could pronounce it–sat on the bench longer than usual, face to the glinting expanse of water and sand below.

“May I join you?”

“Eh? Join me? So you are.”

They sat a moment quietly. He liked to chew on an unlit pipe as he stroked his white beard, now scraggly but reasonably short.

“I have a feeling your beard has longer than this,” she said, pointing with her chin, her hands grasping the bench. There was a strong, chilling wind this time.

“My beard? You’d be right. Down to middle of my chest a long while.”

“Why’d you cut it?”

“Cut it? Well, my wife didn’t like it that long. But I didn’t whack it down until she died.”

“You waited until then?”

“Ah, yes, I waited…and then it seemed the right thing to do. Respect for her memory. And I didn’t enjoy it long, anymore. She used to brush it out, oil it up for me.” He puffed on his smokeless pipe a bit. “That’s the sort she was.” He glanced at her, heavy-lidded eyes keen and clear. “You married?”

“Oh, no. I mean, once. Not anymore.”

“Once, eh? Enough for some, that’s it. You look like one of them fancy lawyers, too busy for such.”

Tessa laughed. “No, not one of those. I work at an interior design company.” She wondered what it was that made him think that.

Old man shrugged as if he heard her. “I guess it’s how you talk.”

She started again. “We create interiors of houses and commercial buildings, make things functional but attractive.”

“You create, huh? Make house stuff? Well, that’s fine. I loved woodworking, myself. Made some money in handmade furniture.” He then held up a hand and showed her a pale scar running along his gnarled thumb all the way to the tip. “About cut it in half, but they got ‘er fixed.”

She shook her head, pulled her jacket about her. “Well, good thing. Going to storm?”

“Naw, not tonight. Just bluster, a little wet. Might even get a good sunset.”

She glanced at the moldy looking clouds, unable to see how that could happen.

“Just wait,” Old man said, “that sky will likely shine.” He pushed his stick into the ground and helped himself up. “I saw you looking at the thing out there. We all have, too much.” He pointed at the poles behind them. “Don’t ask Mo and Henry. Not a good story.” He lumbered off, all six feet of him, a long crackling branch bent over by time and wind.

Tessa waited for the sun to set, arms crossed tightly, hood pulled up over her head. She heard the children run inside as Elle called twice and almost wished they’d come sit with her. Her cottage could feel too ancient and quiet. Empty of much, not such a bad thing but sometimes a tad lonely. As she stared out to leaping and cresting waves, a yellowish-coral light seeped through heavy banks of clouds and there was a small thin line that grew, a spot amid the dimming distance that shone, just like he said.

It was beginning to feel right, being there, and she still had three more weeks of wonders. And then she did not know what next. She did not miss the power of her title, the problem solving to create a heftier profit. She missed making art.

******

In the morning she was possessed of an immense desire to find out why the thing was left to rot over the years. Though it still stood tall and straight it was a blight. And clearly someone wanted it to remain. She had awakened knowing it was just meant to be long swings, two by the looks of the ratty rope ends flapping away. Even if Mo and Henry weren’t going to tell her, she could explore it more. Set a chair by it and step up higher to look it over. So she perpared to do that after pancakes for breakfast and strong black tea she gave into and bought at the coffee shop.

Mae’s small face greeted her, nose pressed flat against the screen of the door.

“Miss Tessa, what’ve you been cooking?”

“Pancakes, want some?”

“Blueberries or raspeberries or what?”

“Gluten-free flour, no berries, but walnuts.”

“No thanks.” She shrugged, picked up a ladybug.

They sat on the deck and surveyed the bright blue sky when Elle sauntered around the corner with mail in her hand.

“Look at that, something from a Mr. Lance Forman.” She smacked it twice on her palm.

“Oh…a nice surprise, huh?”

Elle looked down, smiled widely.

“It’s Daddy! Read to me!” She tackled her mother’s waist.

“I guess he’ll get around to coming back one of these days, the kids are powerful magnets. Maybe I still can persuade him, too. Well, well.” She smoothed back the long bangs from her daughter’s forehead. “Not now. Wait for Ty to get back with Henry. Then we’ll see what’s what.” She unlatched her child. “So how’s it going, Tessa? Pretty out here today.”

“Yes, all except this thing, the weird blight on the bluff,” she said, pointing at it. It’s all I can see, anymore, until I get to the beach. And then I still see it as I look up. What is it, Elle?”

She studied Mae’s surprised eyes, then sighed, opened her mouth to speak.

“Mama-you said not to talk about it.”

“Yeah. And Ty’ll be back soon. Why not go find Mo, see if you can help her.”

Mae jumped down from the deck and ran off.

Tessa thought better of her inquiry. “Maybe… just forget it?”

“It’s just, it was tragic, that’s all.”

“I see. I felt maybe that was it. An accident?”

Elle nodded, ruffled glimmering hair. “I guess I can tell you. Just say nothing to anyone else.” She glanced around her. “Their other son. He fell from the top piece, way the heck from up there. He climbed all the way up to show off to his little brother, I guess, who was swinging down below him. Those swings could really fly, I guess, fun if a little dangerous if you pumped too hard and flew up too high. But it was the climbing that got him, not the swinging.”

Tessa’s right hand pressed hard against her chest. “Oh, no. Then why keep it there? Why not take it down so it isn’t a reminder every single day?”

Elle narrowed her eyes at the sea. “A kind of memorial, I guess, to Wally. The little brother, Rusty, didn’t talk for months but he finally turned out okay, he has a welding business over the mountains. Doesn’t come by much. I’ve met him, he was nice-looking and polite but oh, those eyes.” She shivered. “Like two deep wells of sorrow, you just want to fill them with happy times until he can smile without hurt fighting its way out… After one visit Mo came over, explained to me. She wanted to finally cut it down but Henry said no, not yet.” She let out a long sigh again, then got up to start dinner. “Best to try to overlook it, go on and enjoy your stay here. You’re a good sort, Tessa, say a prayer for them, huh?”

Tessa held herself very still as she looked up at the weathered wood and tattered ropes. The ghosts of two perfect swings, made for children and grownups alike, and  the remnants aged in the salty wind, rains that swept in from foreign places, the swift sunlight that cut through all the fog and burnished sturdy grasses and morning glories that grew wild. The people who withstood such a place of mysteries, and miseries.  Like people everyhwere, she guessed. But Wally seemed only half-gone, lingering upon the vehicle of his ending. It suddenly angered her to think that they would always see him just lying broken on the ground, or falling and falling, or cheerily waving so high up before that fall…that this was the last they would recall of him.

Tessa got out her camera from its soft case in the bedroom. She held it in her hands and thought about what she was doing. She needed a picture of this ghost thing and then she needed to think a lot more.

Outside she quickly snapped a dozen pictures from all angles, hoping no one would see her and ask questions. She then looked more closely, zoomed in right on the cross board. And her breath rushed out of her, eyes stung.

She flew back inside, shut the door and leaned against it, felt the universe swell and open as Wally or something more than she understood held a hand out to her. She closed her eyes, willed her heart to stop its rampage at her ribs. Did Rusty really climb up there a furtive hour to carve those words for his brother, take the same risk that ended Wally’s life? No one but he, surely, needed so badly do it.

Old Man sat on his deck, puffing invisible tobacco, watching her figure things out and then hiding behind her door. A thing of the past, the smoking business although his pipe fit just right there and so it stayed. So much was a thing of the past. Like that Wally. A good boy. A kid who’d have grown up handsome and smart like his sweet little brother though a lonely man he now had become, bless him. A hard knowledge to carry. But some things are not to be, others are, and what lies waiting between one or the other you just never can guess.

He wondered a lot about Tessa. A woman who instinctively knew a way to better things but couldn’t quite grasp onto it. Maybe soon she would. He tapped his pipe lightly against the chair leg, went inside and turned on the radio to the oldies. He and his lady used to dance to these tunes. Sometimes he still did.

******

It was barely dawn but she had to get it done and then–vanish. Tessa propped the tall, rickety ladder (taken from the shed with Elle’s help after midnight) against one pole, climbed slowly. At the top, she steadied herself. In the soft bag at her shoulder she fumbled for fabric. She had brought it along for her “work time out”, a few pieces she was considering for a project that had everyone else stumped. It was odd lengths of fabric she, herself,  had hand dyed with muted, mostly primary colors. Something for an airy white gazebo that overlooked multiple fancy water features for one of their bigger design contracts. No one had deemed it appropriate, but she remained engaged by her larger plan and had begun to re-imagine it the past month. To present it again, brilliantly. Though it gave her less and less pleasure to picture her suited silhouette against a window which framed the city’s mad bustle.

The night before she had torn them into narrow strips, leaving the edges raw. She had seen just what she needed to do, how to embrace but change the abandoned swing set. She enlisted Elle, who now steadied the ladder below her.

“Hurry!” she hissed. “They all get up early!”

“Patience…hold on tight,” Tessa cautioned.

She had tied each varied length of fabric, some a foot long, others several inches, on a sturdy cord and now secured one end of the cord on one pole, then climbed back down to re-position the ladder. Then up she went to tie off the other end to the opposing pole.

“Is it straight enough? Look quite taut?”

Elle gave two thumbs up.

She climbed back down and studied what Elle was seeing.

A dozen strips of colorful fabric fluttered in a light wind, flapping, twisting, spinning–sunny yellow, rich turquoise, fern green, soft rose, tender lavender, the bonus of a wider mango-bright strip in the center. Flags of fancy, signals of life, in remembrance of all the lovely, lively children. A beacon for others, a sign of hope despite harm that can happen to all. A reminder of Mo’s and Henry’s devotion, a gentle greeting for Rusty should he dare look up again at his carved words of love.

It was what Tessa could leave as a portion of her gratitude. For kindnesses. For a taste of freedom. For a glimpse of better living.

She was enveloped in a brisk hug from Elle, then loaded up her suitcase and then, “Give Old Man a farewell for me, hug the kids. I hope Mo and Henry don’t get distressed by it…”

“It’ll be a good change, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone along.”

Waving, Tessa drove away. Elle patted the address and phone number Tessa had shared, safe in her jeans pocket. Such an odd thing, a city friend. The kids would miss her a little, too. She saw Mo come to the office door; Elle hurried away to Old Man. He sat on his deck gumming his pipe. He’d seen it all now. Elle nodded at his faint smile, his feathery eyebrows rising, falling, a clue to his feeling. Yet, too, he was steady as the tides. She leaned into his aged bony warmth.

“Going to be a good day,” he said, pointing past Elle’s boy Ty on the bench–or another Wally vision, he never knew which. Swaths of bright fog skimmed the horizon, glowing pink, the eye seeking the blues beyond, a bit of heaven.

 

 

 

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

Open-Minded

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

via Discover Challenge: Open-Minded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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