Though I can’t recently locate it, I recall a photo my photographer brother shot and gave me years ago. It showed colorful clothing drying on a clothesline in a narrow alleyway. An older Italian woman, voluminous black hair piled about her head, leaned at the open window above the line of flapping laundry. I recall it being on a pulley system, a good way to reel in all that breezy laundry. Since it was stretched to the other side, presumably the neighbor shared it. I was struck by the friendliness of the shot, the attentive, perhaps pensive woman, the quiet comforts of an ordinary day, an alley with–if I am correct–one boy playing there, almost looking upward. Did he have a bike?…I am not certain now. Was he heading to a friend’s or going on an errand for the woman? Maybe they had spoken to each other; maybe she was his mother, more likely grandmother. It is an entire story. I miss that picture.
But, as much if not more, I was instantly taken with the sight of that laundry drying outside in a slash of sunlight splashed across the alley. I was impressed with the convenience of the set up. Wondered if the clothing still smelled fresh after drying between tall, old apartment buildings– and thought it would. Did the woman have to iron much or did she just shake it out? My senses woke right up as I imagined it all.
I recently had some significant problems with our washer/dryer combo in the laundry closet. It got me thinking of that photo, and the not unpleasant chore of doing laundry over the years, and why I don’t mind it much. In fact, it may be the one household task I manage without mild annoyance week after week.
I must have been well trained, as I did family laundry with my mother. When she was older and less well and I was still at home, I did it for us all as needed. The washer and dryer were in our dank, shadowy basement, the end not renovated with recreation room and Dad’s instrument workshop. As a young child I didn’t care to use those stairs, the back of the steps being open. I was never certain if there was anything or one waiting to snag my ankles. Maybe my older brothers spooked me or maybe it was just a dreary basement, but I was anxious for a few years. But down I went, especially if I was called to duty, even if alone.
Usually Mom and I did the work together. I stood close and watched her, committed to memory what she told me: this and this is how things need to be done to get the best result. I knew she knew such things; she was also a teacher. I had at first a little fear about laundry, too, as I’d heard the story more than once about the wringer she’d used many years to get most of the water wrung from wet clothes…and the terrible accident. My oldest brother had been helping–or maybe he was fooling around, he was a wild one– but his arm was pulled right in between the rollers of that operating machine. He nearly lost that arm; it was a painful, devastating injury that took many months from which to recover. I must not have been born when it happened as I was spared the actuality, if not the tears Mom shed when she mentioned it. I was careful around all machines.
Maybe that’s when they bought a dryer–it would have been an expensive item, as was the washer. I got the feeling that Mom was grateful for both. As a farmer’s daughter and an elder child of eleven children, she was used to near-back breaking work. Any convenient, time-saving helps she had as an adult were respected, maintained well and used til they could no longer be repaired (both my parents were good at repairing things). She once told me she came to inhabit a privileged life after marrying my father, a man with a masters degree, quietly refined, ambitious. No matter that they were starting out as young teachers, struggling. It was not the farming life. No matter that she, in time, raised five children and helped along my father’s career in music, and also taught elementary school. No matter that she was rarely off her feet, hands occupied with multiple tasks–it was not the old life, not the blasted farm, anymore. And the Depression was over, and, finally, the war. Life was gentler and better, at last. So a washer and a dryer? Wondrous.
Yet, Mom also liked to scrub clothes on a small washboard in the double utility sink if there were any stains. Fels Naptha in hand, she showed me how to rub the wet soap into fabric, rubbing it hard first between both hands of knuckles and and then on the metal washboard. I found it entertaining to help, appreciated the efficiency of her labors, and enjoyed the end result: the clean dress or shorts and shirt I might be wearing right then. But it did make my knuckles raw–her hands were toughened, deft and strong.
But despite the dryer, much of the time she liked to hang out the washing. She said they smelled of sunlight and wind. She was right, even as fall rolled into winter and the wash dried cold and stiff. Then she stopped hanging it out until spring.
There was a regular clothesline for years but I liked the umbrella line. It looked just like an umbrella half-turned inside out and one of them spun around. I’d help with hanging the heavy wet clothes, handing them to her or reaching up to do it as I grew. I liked the clever, simple wooden clothes pegs or clippy clothespins. Sometimes I stood by and handed them to her as needed. My favorite were colored plastic clothespins. (Wooden pegs also could be made into little dolls with yarn hair and colored pencil features; the others were useful for clipping arty things together, or lavish scarf dresses to fit me snugly as I played dress up.)
The great things about hanging wash out to dry: it is something to do outdoors, and work becomes fun; it is enjoyable to watch it flap and rise in the gusty breezes especially when swinging from a maple tree; it gets bleached and disinfected by sunshine; the scent of the garments seem made of something heavenly when dry; towels and sheets fill the hands with fabric that suddenly range from rough to newly, pleasingly textured. Nothing was so lovely as when beds were changed and the line-dried sheets put on at last, the corners squared, the top sheet pulled up smooth and snug. You slipped between them, inhaled deeply, moved about until your body was happy to sink in and rest. And even blankets, rugs, woolen coats and sweaters aired outdoors were better than they might be otherwise.
The folding took time, but it is satisfying to turn a pile of crumpled assorted articles into uniform, tidy items, then a few small tower-like piles, each intended for another person. A few were left out for ironing. I learned how to do that, too, and liked the reassuring motion of warm iron sizzling over various dampened fabrics, the fragrance of sunshine and heat a sweet mist; and the steam rising up as the iron slipped back and forth. I’d hold up ironed pieces to my face, each so warm and smooth and freshened. If starch was required for, say, a dress shirt of my father’s, I’d skip the sniffing and hang immediately onto a hanger. I ironed many cotton sheets, as well–that is how I was taught to care for simplest things.
I can’t imagine young women today feeling as I did back then. But when my father or mother put on clothing I had ironed, and they looked sleekly pulled together and handsome and pretty, all set for a day’s work–well, it gave me the smallest sense of pride in a humble job well done. Not to mention my own clothing being well tended. Somehow ironing out the wrinkles made the most ordinary clothing seem important. In the 1950s and 1960s where I grew up, a young girl and teen was required to look good and presentable, and that meant to ne clean and polished, well put together. Of course, I did grow up in the sixties and was soon not following most of my city’s middle class cultural norms. I was intent on feminism and freedoms; it then became clear the common way of doing things did not imprint enough on me. (Fashion de rigeur later became jeans, chambray work shirts and Frye knee-high boots–or peasant skirts and tops or caftans and leather huaraches–sandals– after 16. No ironing necessary.)
Off and on I continued to line dry the wash as an adult. But there were times when I could resent laundry chores. One was dousing, washing and hanging dozens of cloth diapers on a line near-daily, every week. It saved money. But the process was daunting enough that I gave in after the second child and began using disposable diapers, at times. Another period was when my own five children, during adolescence, got the bad habit of trying on many items, tossing them on floor or bed and later putting them into a laundry hamper, unworn. I was mad and tired of figuring out which items were dirty and which were supposedly clean. Finally I decided to put their growing heaps of laundry into garbage bags and put those in our basement laundry area. They had to figure it all out for themselves. In time, despite their whining about how mean and horrid I was, they relented and started to take better care of their own clothes. It was a relief to not have it all left to me; I wished I’d laid down the law earlier.
The children did more of their own laundry when I ran out of time or energy. Marc helped a little. I’d begun working more hours at my human services job. Laundry for seven family members could take me until midnight. And if someone shouted downstairs, frantic, “Mom, I need that ruffly blue blouse ironed, can you please do that before I get up tomorrow?”… I got more and more close to refusal. They all had been taught how to wash and iron, even my son (who cared less about tidiness than his four sisters). But somewhere between thirteen and sixteen they’d rebelled and stopped. They’d gotten “too busy.” Since four of them were teenagers at once, that was mostly true. (My last child hung around home a bit more, longer.) Fortunately, it all evened out by the time they graduated from high school and went on their way. They knew how to care for themselves, and have proven to be savvy at efficient task completion as adults…most now with their own kids.
Nostalgia can be useful occasionally. More so since the pandemic robs us of accumulating experiences we think we desire. A simpler time appeals; we may see it as better times, as well, even if not really true. So I still can miss the small pleasures of line drying a load of wet wash. The homeiness of it, the reassuring routine. The easy pleasantries swapped with my mother as I held up each requisite wooden peg or the companionable silence. I recall her pointing out backyard birds as they came and went for she was a bird lover, a nature beholder, despite not being a farming aficionado. She loved insects in their variety and usefulness; earth’s minerals and soils, their bounties; flowers’ magic from bulb to blossom; and the changing of seasons being as much a part of her as family life and its complex ways. Anything we could share outdoors thrilled me, and I was enrapt by her storytelling as natural as breathing.
Laundry freshly dried and folded is a task to take mundane pleasure in, still. If the day seems out of sorts one thing I can do is laundry–putting some things right and into good form. I like the movement of it, the swing from washer to dryer to flapping out wrinkles to smoothing and folding or hanging. My husband can do laundry but chooses not to, yet I seldom am bothered by this. The easy rhythm is lovely; it’s a small event that breaks up monotony or blends with the hours. Laundry has a small power to balance life, a counterweight to the philosophical with the banal and concrete.
The trouble I had with my original washer and dryer in our home was gradual and annoying at the start. The dryer kept leaving pale tawny smudge marks here and there on legs of pants, arms of nice shirts or knit tops. I felt the dryer was too hot, as well. The maintenance man came in and checked the machines, then noted a small metal vent looked a bit rusty and snaggy so he got out his steel wool and scoured it cleaner and smooth. I complained about our half dozen marred items but there seemed nothing to do about what was already done. The problem seemed to lessen. I relaxed. Then fall came and I noted dark smudges on heavier items, this time black, longer marks. I held the clothes up to my nose. I thought they were scorch marks this time, even burn marks, and I was not drying one more thing until it was resolved. I complained and got action fairly fast: a new large sized but stackable washer and dryer unit delivered in three days.
You might think I was delighted–no more marred clothing or perhaps, eventually, a fire. But they turned out to be futuristic machines with many settings and little push buttons. It had complicated directions in four languages that I finally read in English a few times before we could even begin. The washer tub filled itself to the right level; it has sensors to tell it precisely when to stop filling. I didn’t believe it at first and tried to open the loid, but it would not. I had to trust it and found that very hard without seeing it happen.
And the sounds it made. It didn’t fill with water immediately but started and stopped with strange electronic grumbles. I thought it was malfunctioning already. But on it went, filling and pausing until all was ready and it washed–with soft, whiny alien noises. The load came out fine, to my surprise, even with almost not water left in the clothes. The dryer was less hard to understand though I studied those buttons several minutes, too, before entrusting the heap to the perfectly heated tumbling apparatus. When it was done, I didn’t even realize it; there is no bell or alarm but just gently stops turning. I have to keep an eye and ear to it but find if things sit, they are not all wrinkled. It is admittedly much better than the former dryer’s obnoxious alarm; it could cause me to startle if I was deeply reading or writing. Every item comes out (mostly) wrinkle-free, way cooled down. I’m now accustomed to its funny humming and soft ratcheting, its gurgles and pauses and surges.
The truth is, it’s a wonderful advancement General Electric has made for cleaning and drying clothing. And I’m pleased we got it for nothing; I feel partly compensated for our stained clothing (worth a good $600-750). I can get the job done without worrying now.
Yet as warmer weather arrives, the balcony will offer an option once more. I will still sneak a hand washed top or dress, maybe even a silky camisole, just place the hangers on hooks or nails in the roof overhang. I might put a lap blanket over the balcony railing to air out, too, or a rug.
I am well aware it’s against the housing rules (as well as sonorous chimes I adore but had to put away). I know the fine print, I got their message–and who wants to see wash drying outside in a well-heeled community these days? It might even give the neighbors a story, a surprise.
I have to say: I do, I really do. And I suspect my clothing misses sunshine streaming down and a strong breeze.
I think of all we are experiencing now, then of my parents. Specifically, I have thought more of my mother. The charming Edna Kelly (later marrying Lawrence Guenther), likely 19 or so, is on the left. I am on the right. Do we even look related? I once more wondered about her life after my niece, Lila, posted her photo on social media. I thought of my own. I am now at the age she was when I was just 30. She was born in 1909 in Blackwater, Missouri, and died in Michigan, 2001–where I was raised. (Her heart and the rest gave out; a few months later I had a heart attack while hiking.)
At times when studying my mother’s more youthful photos, I often wished I looked like my oldest sister, as she looked much like our mother. I felt I had come into our family not quite akin to Mom, nor quite Dad. It may have been untrue, but it felt like that a long while. I don’t often look at old photos, though they are gone; the family is fixed vividly in my memory. Lila, the family historian since my mother and aforementioned sister passed, also has features more reflective of theirs.
The other day I once more considered how much of who we become is inherited–or not. And how much we can understand of our relatives and heritage, beyond bare facts.
Perhaps this is especially of interest since my daughter had twins last year. My mother had twin baby sisters who died in the flu pandemic; she would have been so pleased to welcome twins again into our family. They are not identical. One seems to take after her father; the other, her mother. And their personalities are already coming to the fore with strong intimations of their future selves. We will see who they become, week by month by year. It is exciting to be a part of it as their grandmother.
It’s a big question, of course, that folks have well debated: nature v. nurture, genetics v. external experience. I gather social scientists and other experts agree it is both. Each of us enters the world with complex brain chemistry and other physiological mapping regarding health tendencies, personality markers and potential, strengths and deficits, talents or lack thereof. And this reaches back into genetic banks of ancestry–most of whom we never knew or heard of. Yet they remain present within us in many subtle or exaggerated manifestations. A mind expanding thought–with so much conjecture.
There are definitely physical traits that came through my mother, though I more resemble my father’s side with large blue eyes (her’s: smaller, grey -toned– and often mischievous), a much less “patrician” nose and fuller lips. My mother, of hearty farm stock, had a perfect straight and near-pointy nose, thin (often smiling) lips and ivory skin. She was of Irish/English/Scottish decent. Thus, so am I. And German, via both of my father’s parents.
I inherited my mother’s shape of hands, even her fingers; her hair, as mine until a few years ago, was a plentiful auburn brown and it’s become more more wavy; and perhaps–if I might say this– her nice figure, though I am slimmer (like Dad) than she was most of her life (I like food less than she did). I think we share eyebrows and for certain our foot shape and size–she lent me beautiful high heels for years when I dressed up. That made those shoes doubly worth the money she spent, she once said. She enjoyed fine clothes (those she didn’t make herself, excellent creations) and good accessories for bargain prices– but wasn’t shy about paying whatever was necessary, if it came to that, either.
Edna Kelly was athletic, playing basketball in school and roaming the country roads, working on her parents’ farm. (She was kicked by a horse and ever after had chronic lower back pain–she saw no doctor back then.) Appreciative of the great world of nature (loved botany, geology, ornithology and etymology–and studied these some in college) she shared her knowledge, went camping many times with Dad and me. I also love sporty activities and have enjoyed figure skating, hiking, any water sports, volleyball and other ball games (baseball with our 5 kids- basketball, too). Just running about or bicycling kept me going for hours. Nowadays, give me a gym for pleasure and exercise, sure (I was a body builder for a couple years), but the outdoors calls to me far more. Mom used to say she was a bit of a “tomboy” and I loved that–she had excellent physical endurance and stamina, was known for her reservoirs of energy almost until the end.
I found her naturally beautiful–she rarely wore more than a dash of pale coral lipstick and only when going out. I was born (last of 5) when she was 40, so only had pictures of her younger self. No matter: with shorter graying hair and glasses she still radiated loveliness, a sparkling essence. And when she dressed in jewel-toned, long gowns for concerts my father conducted or played in (or other events), she seemed breathtakingly so, that wavy white hair a-shimmer as she aged. Her skin? Smooth and unblemished. Dad often hugged her, saying “she was quite the catch”– even though he was, as well.
Add to these external traits the fact that she was talented domestically and turned out handmade creations (with the discerning eye of an artist). And was also a fine elementary teacher. Little of which I can claim, though I adore art, have painted and sketched off and on. (And I suppose I did provide education when counselling my mental health/addiction treatment groups.) She had it all, I thought. And felt the lack.
In certain ways we are clearly mother and daughter, though our faces appear less alike. In others, our shared genes may appear unlikely. What of our personality traits and greater interests? Were those characteristics passed down or learned?
I felt from early on that my mother was near the pinnacle of success as a person and woman, and by the time I was 12 years old I saw I would never reach standards set by either parent. Yet I had their examples to aspire to, and I tried hard off and on all my life– until I hit my early forties. I knew who I was very well and that was that, with much room for improvements–and at heart I was not so different than I was at 12, I thought. Just older and surely some harder; hopefully kind, perhaps more insightful…
So if I had little skill regarding domestic chores, also far less interest than many. Food’s primary purpose, for me, was to provide fuel so never understood why it elicited such labor and excitement. Housekeeping was a simple necessity so dust didn’t fur surfaces of furniture and rooms with their various possessions were orderly enough, in a pleasing way. But it took too much time some days. (We had 7 people in the house, at least as many musical instruments, frequent visitors for everyone.) I didn’t sew well or happily, nor create my own dress patterns although there was much instruction from Mom as she stood at my shoulder. Still, despite my humiliation, I don’t think she worried about it much. Our parents insisted we all secure a fine education, go into the world armed with degrees, honed talents– plus kind hearts. No difference if male or female: achieve, that was the byword. She would shoo me from the kitchen with a command to study or practice my cello or sing or write (or maybe anything to get me out of her way). But I still felt the sting of having nothing decent to show for my (minimal) efforts, otherwise. I wanted to garner her approval in all things, have every good life skill. At least I managed to help entertain their guests–greeting and chatting with people, carrying out food, cleaning up at the end and chatting with Mom. I liked people, talking, listening–and gathering more info for writing.
In time, there were serious ways I would let my mother down. If I did have abilities that brought happy successes, there were also matters that took me farther from acceptance. I grew into a rebel without truly intending to be one. I had big ideas of my own; I also had a lot pain; and dreams that began to diverge from a family legacy of either useful teaching or work in mighty realms of music. (Though why I left music is a much harder story.)
In time, things came apart bit by bit. I maintained high grades and performed on stages and showed a face that was for awhile better than I felt: I stayed out too late; used illicit substances; wrote death-defying poetry of longing as I contemplated the specter of suicide; wrote folk songs that were often more bitter than hopeful; dated boys that lived on the thin edge while pining for the one I could likely not win because, as Mom told me: “You must be more the girl he wants.” Implying I needed to be…better. Different. Not like me. It cut deep. I was who I was but desired to be more– yet, not an idealized, proper, rule-abiding- at-all-costs girl. (Though, I have to say, that boy did not truly want that and we were in love–but his parents did. In the end, he went to a faraway college as I fell further from grace.)
Maybe that is the kind of thing what she believed when she and my father were growing up together, then attending college, then finally marrying. That is: be who a man needs you to be. Still, I find it hard to accept. My mother was deeply engaged with life, independent-minded and opinionated, given to bossiness, multi-talented and smart (I often felt she was under-utilizing her intelligence) as all get out. But for me, what she suggested wasn’t even possible. I was afire with passions of many sorts–not just sensual but creative, spiritual, intellectual. I was hungry for more, more. As a teen I was reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (lofty but a Catholic!–we were Methodists) Herman Hesse and Anais Nin (scandalous), Kahlil Gibran, poets Sylvia Plath, Muriel Rukeyser, e.e. cummings. I was listening to cool jazz, folk music and swing on the sly (we almost always heard only classical in our house). I longed to be a modern dancer despite sweating out ballet exercises in my room, and a jazz singer despite my proscribed art songs polished. My cello? Could I play it electrified? But I did not dare do that.
It was the 1960s, as well. The lure of loosening middle class mores shaped by heavy constrictions; protesting of social injustices and archaic ideas regarding women versus men–it was powerful stuff to this 15-19 year old, dreamy-eyed, wounded by years of non-familial, silenced child abuse. I wanted so much to rise right up even as I was falling down. Feminism was a bright flag waving high above a movement made of empowering women as never before. I thought: we can be real potent trail blazers. I, too, can make myself heard and make a good difference.
So it was: student-empowered politics mixed with substance abuse–and rebellions fomented by hope for a more inclusive, improved society. An odd combination at first glance but there it was. My deeper desire was to do more, become more, contribute in a creative and compassionate way. And that took action, not just talk. The fact was, I reminded my parents, I was raised to be a critical thinker–despite a sanctioned conformity that ultimately ruled at dinner tables, schools, churches. My voice had gone weary of being quieter, so civilized–which seemed then like being made blind, deaf and mute.
They did not accept my arguments. They had lived through wars and pandemics (flu, polio and more) and the Depression. Why couldn’t I– along with my friends–be satisfied with what was so much better than what had come before us? I needed to settle down, stop agitating or challenging life. Act more civilized…
But I grew up faster than planned. In short order, survived more severe trials than I had expected. Finally had children, dropped out of college many times to raise them and so my spouse could get his Masters degree, then we later divorced, and, ultimately, I married three times–unheard of for a long while.
Was this any of what my mother hoped for? Did it reflect her sorts of choices? Did it reflect on my heritage? No, no, and often likely not. Except I was a creative person, had a capacity to care deeply and an abiding faith in God. These saved me from utter failure, and I believe kept her hope burning for me.
Still, I got stronger, learned to live better. I could look her in the eye more often. I built from nearly scratch a career in human services–it was God who guided me there, at start–and spent the rest of my life counseling folks who lived fast and hard and paid for it and needed a renovation; or wandered precariously near the edge of the world and needed acceptance and hope. They gained new coping skills as had I. And I cared deeply for every person who walked through my office doors. I had learned to do what mattered most, felt glad to join the ranks of countless others who do this work every day in the wide world: serve others.
What, if any of this, is like my mother’s life, her beliefs and actions? What did she teach me about being a person, a woman? She offered a lot, and I have, finally, carried a good portion of it with me.
Edna Kelly Guenther was a woman with backbone, one who did not give up when she believed in something or someone. She made her opinions known, at times in ways that seemed minor but were major with a raised eyebrow, a turn of the head, a gasp or quick laugh, a gentle touch on one’s arm, a forefinger tapping her lips. She was expressive with hands and voice, was a natural storyteller. She could share anything that happened in an ordinary day, elevating the moments in the very emotive telling. Entertainment was living life, sharing it a part of that. She appreciated all kinds of people even if she didn’t always understand or even approve; she found people enriching and puzzling and generally good. She had, as they say, heart.
In her mind, there was no problem that didn’t have a solution; it was often the simplest. There was no such thing as boredom, only a lack of intention and action. If you witnessed a dispute, don’t let anyone damage another–yet don’t keep anger too quiet if it needs to be the alarm. And one should mend what was broken, even if it hurts some in the process. Forgiveness, then, is paramount: compassion is the thread, the glue that binds together the pieces.
My mother wanted to be a writer, she said once, looking out the kitchen window with dish towel in her hands. She kept journals of her travels to foreign countries and whenever crisscrossing our country; she was a frequent letter writer. She watched me type away on the old Remington for years, knew I wrote by longhand deep into the night. She read what was offered to her; she approved, cared to note glitches, upheld my burning passion that still courses through my blood and fills my soul. And after she died and I despaired and longed to have her close, her spirit came to me with this: You must write. And my whole self trembled, then was profoundly calm.
She read a third draft of a long-developed novel a couple of years before she died. It doesn’t anymore matter that it has been pushed aside. It matters that she said it was “a page turner, I loved it.” So if I am like my mother in any way–and most of all this way, always telling stories–I am humbled, honored. But what I think is that I simply became somehow more the person, the woman, she knew I was so long working to reclaim and set free. Not that similar to her, perhaps. Nor quite like my sisters, beloved aunts, grandmothers. But we have shared a spark, a link, a look that says we live from the center of things, from the reaches of our souls, messy or not.
And we are one for the other, and all of one, in the end. And my toddler girls, the twin grandchildren, will carry on a legacy of vibrancy, inventiveness and perseverance underscored with hope if they can. And, too, our imperfections, our quirkiness, our weak points–and add to their repertoire their own uniqueness.
The biggest question for me remains: who actually was the person of Edna as a youngster, a college student, then wife with babies, a woman with a career, then a woman growing older? Who else might she have been, what more could she have explored? Was she as happy, ultimately, as she seemed, even amid weepiness that came and went with remnants of losses creeping in…? Her breath catching in her throat as she spoke of tender or difficult things? I saw and understood. As she gave of herself here and there all along the way, I watched and learned. But– I knew her so little.
After leaving home we were close only when we talked on the phone or wrote, or enjoyed quick visits at different meeting points in the country. Only a small part of what we shared was fully presented and treasured more than any gold; the rest was a delicate, tentative search for more. We know our mothers too little, even if we think we know more. We may be unwilling to blur boundaries in fear of…what? What shall be lost in knowing more fully the one who gave us birth? Can we not suspect it is less than enough that we share before the chances are over?
I wager Mom was feisty, diplomatic, dramatic, or deeply intuitive long before any of us took hold of her. There was more, I could feel it when we talked or didn’t talk, when she shared her vivid dream-infused nightly adventures and then listened to my own; showed me how to make good poached eggs and Waldorf salad; stood watching out the kitchen window as I ascended to the top of the maple tree to sing, to write, to cry, to plan. There was a pressure of diverse energy in her, even at rest; there was much left unsaid as she spoke voluminously. So most of her story remains a mystery.
As for me, I may once have thought I risked more, dared more, took my knocks and got back up but, honestly, I knew her life was harder than what she told. It was in the depths of her gaze, in the response to others: she knew about great love, about piercing sorrows; she knew about pain and healing and faith. About just going on. I suspect she even knew I would manage alright, too.
Her own complicated tales were carried home with her when passing into what and where she believed was a more liberating, illuminating experience than all she’d experienced on earth. And that is another thing we had in common. But when I consider all the aspects of our lives, I do realize that we each were on our own life journeys. I still am making my particular way through this grand and strange experience.
I meant to have an adventure or two in Colorado and so I did; I had little idea what was ahead.
I am chock-full of images absorbed, moments shared. The first motivation was a desire to visit my oldest daughter and her partner– in his element, a place she has been visiting awhile (she lives in S. Carolina). But close behind that was a fascination with one of our Rocky Mountains states. I hadn’t traveled there in decades and not to the same area. I always have loved mountains–anywhere, any sort–as they draw me with their magisterial presence carved from fierce wildness. Intrigued by geological history and flora and fauna that have claimed mountains as home, I am also just a sucker for beauty in its plethora of origins and designs.
I will let my photos show the way I first saw Colorado Springs, the Rockies surrounding it. I knew they would be there–I just didn’t know they would be that upclose and personal. I was forever craning my neck, tilting my head to see even better, farther. And I adapted to the 6000+ ft. altitude in a couple of days–a small ache in my head, a little breathlessness at first. (I felt fairly confident since I have been to Banff in the Canadian Rockies, visiting Lake Louise at 5249 ft., as well as Crater Lake in OR. at over 6000 ft.) Fun to experience were the different architectural style of older neighborhoods and good downtown shopping, an impressive art museum and delicious meals– and a sweet evening visit to the famous Broadmoor Hotel. Artist Naomi also taught me a bit about Shibori indigo dying and we created squares of cotton prints together, a satisfying and fun afternoon.
But all that can wait for later posts. Instead, we will go on the short trip I felt quite ready to undertake by my 5th day. I was excited about it: an off-road trail exploration of mountains in a refurbished older Jeep with Naomi, with Adam at the wheel. He has lived in Colorado for over 25 years so knows all about the terrain and adventuring. This is a man who has climbed 14 of 52 mountain peaks 14,000 ft. or so–not just famous Pike’s Peak that can be seen in some of the photos below. A person of many enthusiasms, as is Naomi.
Come follow along to see what I saw and learn what I experienced that was entirely new in my 68 years of living, thus far… The highest peak seen in the last 4 photos is Pike’s Peak. (Sorry, these are not the best clarity, taken late afternoon/evening with rain clouds gathering and some smokiness. One of many Western summer forest fires was burning not far away; wind carried the smoke in a bit the week I was there.) Naomi and Adam goofed off and posed here when I asked for a picture with mountains behind them downtown.
I’m going to skip a few days to move on to the Pike National Forest off-road trail trip. Smoke wafted about as we drove through groups of people exploring a famous city park close by, Garden of the Gods with unusual sandstone formations. These are only a few views of the place as we didn’t stop; it was quite congested. People come from all over to hike, horseback ride, cycle and climb. As we left the worthy attraction and climbed up, the air cleared.
A slide show reveals gradual changes in terrain as we drive higher and higher in the Rockies toward our destination. Upon arrival at Pike National Forest, amid lots of exclamations of astonishment at the mind-boggling panoramas, I noted a slight headache and the sun was searing in the sparkling air. But not to worry, I thought, we had plenty of water and I was ready to move on and embrace whatever was next!
We continued on, looking for the off-road trails Adam had mapped. The air fairly crackled with dryness; it struck me how easily a devastating wilderness fire could flare and take immediate hold of the quite arid landscape. We passed also through private ranching country at times, yet for miles and miles there seemed to be nothing but mountains, scrubby plant life, scatterings of tree groupings. It is solitary land, and feels like verging on a great emptiness but for the immensity of sky and grandeur of the mountain range. I was aware of being separated from common civilization, felt the immediacy of the environment scoured by heat and clarity of air, and not uncomfortably jostled by the Jeep navigating rougher dirt roads. Elemental, intense, this territory is transfixing. And I felt a bit off-kilter from what I knew was decreased oxygen. It was a sudden sort of “high” not experienced before, a light-headedness not quite unpleasant as we bounced along. I snapped my pictures of this great American West, was made smaller, more humble by such immensity.
But in the back of my mind I wondered: how much higher. By the time we got a couple of miles down the rougher trails, I was burning up. My daughter switched seats with me so I had more shade and thoroughly wet a bandanna for my face and neck which cooled me nicely. I kept drinking water often as instructed. But I knew it was something else that underlay my body’s discomfort; I suspected it was the elevation and we had quite a way to go. I asked Adam if we were going to descend any time soon and he assured me we would. (I’m not sure how high we were then; I never asked.) I watched the land go by in a daze and finally we started to wind down the mountainous trails and then onto a road. We passed several others having fun on their ATVs. At Wilkerson Pass, amid miles of wide openness at 9504 feet, we got out to eat (I nibbled at half a sandwich) and stretch a bit. I took a “selfie” there, but can you tell I’m feeling a bit out-of-body and thinking: Hold on, Cynthia, you will be alright one way or the other…?
But I really wasn’t. I got blasted with altitude sickness in a couple of hours. Oxygen deprivation. I felt poorly enough that when we got into the city and stopped at a bookstore I had so wanted to visit, I just wanted to lie down. The headache had begun in earnest and I felt queasy. And then the headache got far worse and the nausea did not abate all day and night. It was as if my body had been hijacked; there was nothing to do but surrender to it. “Drink more,” I was urged. How on earth to drink on a bad stomach…but it was constant sips, all night long. I was lost in limbo, caught between the worst full body pain I had felt in a long while coupled with a peculiar disoriented state of mind. I moved awkwardly, feet and legs not working well, to bathroom and back from a living room couch–I never got to my bedroom– body resisting. No pain or stomach pills helped. Symptoms got worse, not better, as hours passed. In a distant way I heard Naomi ask if I needed more medical intervention, and once or twice considered the emergency room. But it seemed too hard to do. My heart felt, miraculously, as if it was beating decently. I could breathe well enough. I simply hung on in the faith it would only more time. A long time…but the damaging night passed into a hallelujah day.
My daughter said I didn’t sleep until around 6 a.m (neither did she)–well over 15 hours since the beast got hold of me. Naomi was a Godsend watching over me; calm, efficient, kind, I would have been lost without her aid. When I awakened around noon the next day, the pain was receding and my stomach had settled. Not yet up to dancing speed, but I felt more safe and sane. My body felt wrung out as if it had been boondoggled, but there was gratitude that it had about run its course. Hunger was aroused. Not thirst; my very cells felt waterlogged from the constant imbibing of fluids. It seemed as if my flesh and bones had run a marathon through a bad alternate reality, a sort of trial by fire. But I have had those trials before–different but also challenging.
The important thing was, all was ending up alright; there was a quiet giddiness underlying that. The human body vigorously fights for a renewed homeostasis so it can heal so I’d held on for the ride. Truth is, altitude sickness can strike anyone when above 8000 feet, no matter their fitness, health, age or expectations. Adam and Naomi felt badly it happened but so it goes, I pulled the short straw that time. Until I got up around 9000 ft., I had felt hearty and ready for anything. Honestly, it was at first more aggravating that I was waylaid: my first off-road Jeep trip in the Rockies at age 68–well, I wanted more!
I had to cancel that evening’s flight at a cost, but the next day I felt much more able to return home. I took a last congenial stroll in the lovely neighborhood with Naomi, then packed my bags. I was not glad to leave, only relieved to be recovering. Sad no time was left, to share laughter, conversation, jaunts and good meals with two lively, bright, caring people. I’d discovered joyous experiences plus instructive ones. I would sure go again. Just not likely above 8000 ft.
As my plane descended to Portland International Airport I was delighted to gaze upon our own mountains, the Cascades, as they showed off in a sunset. Mountains, the geography I always will love! Wild, breathtaking (in a true dual sense), daunting and mesmerizing, oddly elegant in their rough-hewn complexity. I am ever confounded by ancient beauties on/within our earth. Count me lucky to be alive another year, another day. The earth has many golden passages that open us to greater illuminations.
(As soon as I disembarked that last trace of headache vanished…at 30 ft. elevation.)
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson