Thursday, June 25, 2015

Mount Osceola

by Frederick Keogh

        Every summer I make the pilgrimage home, flying from Milwaukee to Hartford via a random city I could care less about. I still get joy from looking out the window of the jet, but lately there always seem to be clouds or I am put in the aisle seat. Lately, something always comes between me and joy, and it is with immense relief that I greet the landing at Bradley International, the nets on the tobacco fields circling the runways like spider webs caught in morning dew.
        The relief is not long-lived, for I am always going to visit my mother, who lives in the same house that my grandmother lived in before she died. My mother is alone now, her husband—my father—gone, although Mom, in her mind, is never really alone. Sometime after heart surgery when she was eighty, her mind became stronger than her senses, so that of late, she sees and, more importantly, hears things that are only present for her. She talks of her husband in the present tense and is certain, at least for that moment, he is still alive. The doctors say she has dementia, as if a label like that explains anything, but whatever she suffers, it can be nerve wracking. It is far worse for her, to be sure, for she is the one certain that a child is bleeding to death on the road outside her house, or that men are plotting murder outside her bedroom window, but it is no comfort to us, either. And so, as part of every summer trip to Connecticut, I plan a visit with Jim.
        Jim lives not far from my mother, but in summer he spends most of his time at his place in New Hampshire. He can do this because he is a teacher, and it does seem that he needs the break. Every time I visit he seems that much older, and so I blame him for the feeling that I get after visiting that I, too, am that much older. His place, after all, is in the foothills of the White Mountains, and only men who are not old might venture far into them. We venture far into them every year, and so it must be that our increasing age is an illusion. My mother has taught me that illusion is often stronger than reality, and so I must rely on that. With Jim, my old high school buddy, we are forever young and forever we will climb the Whites, and that is how it has always been, since the time I moved to the Great Lakes a long time ago. A time so long that I now bring my son with me, who is old enough to climb not only the little Whites, but even the bigger ones, as we did two years ago shortly after I had reached my fifty eighth year and my son his seventeenth.
        It was our third visit to Jim’s place up north together and already we had established a routine. I would pull the rental car into my mother’s small gravel drive and begin to unload the luggage, when I would see her totter out, barely able to keep balance, her eyes shining with expectation and a little fear. Who could it be? “It’s me, Mom, remember?” I say, and thank God she always does, and she gives me a hug and I feel the bones through her thin skin, her form now more spirit than substance. Then I introduce Jeff, my son, who she takes on faith is who I tell her he is. “How tall he’s gotten!” she always says, and we get our things and talk of her times as a child that may have happened and her times now that certainly did not (“I heard you singing in the attic last night—what were you doing there?”) I later visit my brother and sister who still live nearby and stay a few nights with Mom, her home sweltering in late summer, always, she always cold, her sweater pulled tightly against a never-ending winter that confounds the heat warnings on the TV. After a few days, we pack up early and I tell her, “Going up north to New Hampshire to visit Jim. Be back in a few days,” and she gets that wild look again, not quite understanding: is this forever? I assure her again and again and finally we are on our way, plodding though the traffic up through Hartford and Springfield until the hills of the north come into view, and then the mountains of Vermont.
        It is a tangled trip from there once over the Connecticut River and into New Hampshire, and always I clutch the old, tattered directions for reassurance as we drive through small towns and bad roads until the long dirt driveway to Jim’s place comes unexpectedly, always as if by chance. It is a pleasure to be among the steep hills and white pines, and we swim at dusk, where now it is too cold, but we do it anyway because Jim and Jeff love it and that is what we have always done. At night we drink beer and talk and plan for the big hike the next day. That year, Jim had decided on Mount Osceola, a 4,300 footer that is not tall by Mount Washington standards, but I have learned that any mountain in the Whites is tall enough. They are steep, and you sweat going up them, then freeze at the top, so you always carry an extra shirt or a sweater in the backpack with the water and sandwiches. These are always several hour hikes, and that night Jim tells us this is a fairly long one, but I am ready, as I always have been. For Jeff, these mountains are always nothing, and we—Jim and I—have done a lot together. This will be just another.
        And so the stage is set. In the morning I brush off a slight hangover with a few cups of tea and pack some extra sweets for Jeff, who I think could live on them contrary to the laws of nutrition, and then we bundle ourselves into the rental. The rentals always come with satellite radio, and I have to turn at least once to the Grateful Dead station while up there, because the north has always been like that for us, since we were younger than Jeff is now. From the beginning it has been the place of hippy dreams, although no New Hampshire farmer would understand it, pulling out rocks every year that grow in the cold winter like gray, sharp edged potatoes, but to us it has always been so. In Vermont they have somehow really made it into a hippy dream, growing their third-rate high country pot while living on woodworking and who knows what, while in New Hampshire they still want to Live Free or Die, but that, too, is part of the dream. Of course Jeff does not understand—this is ancient history to him, this living off the land, but he has come uncomplaining to climb the mountains as he always has because afterward we will go swimming in an icy river with cliffs over a pool of deep, swirling water, his favorite spot. That day as we drive towards the mountain, he is happy in anticipation, and sits in the back quietly as Jim and I discuss old times, problems with the kids, problems at work and everything and anything until I am told to turn. “I think it’s this one—yeah, there’s the dirt road. The pull-off is up a half mile on the right.”
        The trail starts out gently, as these trails often do, and I am in love again with the deep woods, my home of homes, lost to me now in the rolling farmland of Wisconsin. We cross a river, cold as always, coming past our knees, and then slog through a swampy stretch of road that makes my sandals squeak and slide around my feet. Here the blackflies start, but they do not last long, for soon the angle of the trail picks up and we are on hard rock. The trail splits off, one to the small lakes at the bottom of the mountain, and the other to the mountain itself, but the signs are angled, half fallen down, and we have to guess. In the first half mile I am wondering, if this is the wrong way, but soon the incline increases again and we know that this must be right. Jeff starts to get further ahead, bored with our pace, but it is fine with me. I could walk like this all day, as always. I almost hope that we find Jeff panting by the trailside, exhausted by going too fast, but we do not. Instead, we find him throwing rocks off a cliff, waiting. I save my strength by plugging on, and the mountain gets steeper. Jeff goes ahead, out of sight again, and again the mountain becomes steeper.
        “There, that must be the top. Not too much longer,” I think. Getting pretty steep! I pick up my pace a bit, but only for five or ten minutes, for my heart is starting to race and it is still a ways to the top. “Slow down,” I tell myself, “another fifteen minutes to go.”
        Fifteen minutes later and Jim and I see the real top, way up there, but no sight of Jeff. It has now gotten impossibly steep, where we often have to grab on with our hands. A family group passes us coming down, the father quiet, almost grim, and the two boys red-faced and sweating. “How long?” I ask hopefully. “Half hour or so,” says the man, and we see them no more, almost literally putting our noses to the rock and dirt as we bend into the trail. We go for fifteen minutes more and I have to stop, heart racing again, and I look to Jim.
        “Christ, this is effing steep. How long to the effing top?”
        Jim looks up at me, annoyed with the same fatigue and says, “You can’t just stop. What did you expect?”
        That shuts me up. I am no baby, but damn, it hurts. Jeff pops up before me and I offer him some water and ask him if he’s seen the top.
        “Been there already and got bored. What’s taking you guys so long?”
        “How long to go?” I ask hopefully.
        “I don’t know, a quarter mile or so. I’m going back up,” and he does, losing us again within a minute, for we are moving slowly now, so slowly. It will never end. I have never been defeated by a mountain before, never, and now … but we press on, pulling ourselves over the last quarter mile like dying men across the desert. We do make it. The views are not spectacular, much of the top covered too thickly in pine to give us a panorama. What we do see is the vast slope of the mountains, like a massive green wave, trees and trees set in the wide blue of sky, infinite. Yes, as always it was worth it. But this time, this time …
        It would continue to bother me, how hard this climb was, but like everything unpleasant in life, after the pain was gone, all returned to normal. We sat to eat our sandwiches and then were met by a very large man who had made it up, too, impossible though it seemed. In his thirties, young to me now, he took our picture, Jim with his hat and dark glasses, Jeff open to the breeze as if on a picnic, me, with my gray hair plastered to my forehead. How had he made it, I ask him.
        “I take my time. I give it about two-three hours. I’ve climbed most of the Whites that way.” Remember that, I told myself, you need to. Take your time.
        Going down was easy, nobody with bad knees, and we swam at the lake towards the bottom, water dark with tannin and cold from the mountains, the water always cold there. I dried in the sun, but when a cloud parsed its heat, had to put my shirt on again. The other two lingered in the frigid water while I thought again—that was tough, that climb. Maybe it was too much beer the night before, maybe the cigarettes we rolled from the hidden can used for such nights. Or maybe I had to take my time now. Maybe something had changed permanently, and time had become as much a friend as an enemy, more necessary than it had ever been even as there was less. Less for me, anyway, but not for the mountains. They take their time in big gulps that are impossible for us to imagine, their year a million to us while we are ground down, made humble and small before them, climbing to the top only to retreat, while they stand tall, always, as we settle below after so short a visit.
        We would hike again the next day, this time only along low ridges, and swim in the cold river and listen to the owls again at night over stories and beer, and then Jeff and I would leave the great, heaving hills of forest to see my mother again, to see her tottering out to meet our car. “Is it you?” she asks. “When did you come? How long will you stay?” It is almost as if we never left or never came, all the same to my mother, or nearly so.
        Two days later we would leave, as always first thing in the morning, and my mother would stand out by the door watching us go, hanging on for balance as if a slight wind could take her away, as it might. And since that time I have known that this is it—I am following my mother who will follow my father, and her thin skin and varicose veins leave one with the horror of one’s future as well as with something sublime. In it, in the mountain, in my mother, I have seen my death; oh, it is coming, in slowed steps and labored breath, and that is the horror. But it is also the way it should be, and in it is a peace, too, a peace like the high mountains and the drift of forest veering off into the great sky. It is time, resplendent, a power beyond all sense, cruel yet beautiful as no painting or poetry could ever be. It is not negotiable, this time; it may be spent on a mountain top, its massive shoulders holding us like gnats, or in the valleys, warmed by voices and light, but even there, no turn of the brush or pen can change its presence. Cruel, infinite, sublime—it is why we have made our gods, for it and they are beyond grasp, beyond reach. In the middle of time lies death and around it, life, whirling like the stars around Earth, and we cry at our losses or hold up our hands to the sky in wonder, and still it turns, meaning everything, everything that we can never know while the power remains in our legs and hearts to climb the mountain. Then we drift, totter, fade into skin and bone and spirit, and it is a horrible and a beautiful thing.

Frederick Keogh is the author of the memoir, Dream Weaver (2011). His essay, The Finger, was chosen as a semi-finalist in the 2013 Writer’s Digest essay contest. After fieldwork in the Venezuelan Amazon, he completed his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Michigan in 1995, and has worked as a teacher and an editor. He now resides in rural Wisconsin with his wife and son. Visit his website.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Black Baby Born

by Toni Martin

            My ninety-six-year-old mother, shrunken two inches under five feet, sits in her recliner and waits. She says that she has never lived like this, in a place where she has to wait for everything—to go to meals, to come back from meals, to wash, to dress, to go to bed. As though it is the fault of the help in assisted living that she is stuck in a wheelchair. Because of this limitation, she would have to wait wherever she was. A few years ago, after fourteen years living with one daughter and the next, she wanted her own apartment. In those years, when she could still walk, she said she wanted to be independent, as though she were twenty-one and setting out from her parents’ home. She has never seen herself as others see her.
When my mother visited the passport office for the first time in the nineteen fifties, they thought she was white because of her light skin color, and they thought she was crazy because the birth certificate she offered them as proof of her identity read, “Black baby born, April 21, 1914.” She had to locate her baptismal certificate, which included her name and sex, before they would issue her a passport.
She left one senior apartment in a huff because the white people there couldn’t tell that she was black. Always her father’s daughter or her husband’s wife, even when she held a job, she had never faced explaining to white people on a daily basis how she could be black. Lucky her.
             Lucky, too, that her father was a wealthy man who owned an insurance company, a funeral parlor, real estate, and the only movie theatre in the ‘colored” community of Savannah, Georgia. At a time when most white people didn’t finish high school, both her parents were college graduates, from Tuskegee and Fisk.  In the winter, my grandmother took all the children to live in Columbus, Ohio, where they attended integrated public schools. In the summer, my mother sat on the porch and read. She never needed a summer job. Lucky her.
            But marriage was a shock, because she did not marry a man as rich as her father. She had to learn to cook at least, though she never learned to clean.
 “Why did you have so many children, Mommy?’
            “Because your father liked babies and I always had full time help.”

            My maternal grandfather’s two brothers went north and passed for white. My mother only met her New York cousins once (they didn’t know that their father was “colored”), and now they are lost to our family. When I asked why her father stayed in Savannah, Mother said, “He was a businessman, and he saw more opportunity in Savannah.” Opportunity to make money: he was much more successful than his brothers. But the family couldn’t eat in the restaurants downtown or shop in the white stores. The police could arrest them for drinking from the wrong water fountain. They kept to their own. As a small child, I didn’t think that there were white people in Savannah, since we never saw any.
            My father, the son of a doctor, also grew up in segregated Savannah. His father was Cuban, and his skin color gives me my ambiguous ethnic look. Jewish? Arab? Latina? People never know. My bone densitometry results, like my mother’s, lists my race as “white”. No one asked us.
            Anger fueled the ambitions of my parents, who both held masters degrees. My father became the editor of Negro newspapers and then a politician. My mother worked as a free-lance editor until age 90 and wears her Phi Beta Kappa key on a chain around her neck. But anger does not burn clean. The legacy of segregation hung over our family of five girls like a toxic cloud. The unspoken question in our household was, “What would white people think?”  
Since the stereotype of black girls is that we are loose and sexual, we were raised to be uptight and inhibited. “Don’t draw attention to yourself.” Chewing gum, blue jeans, short skirts, made us look like whores. “Jitterbugging and fingerpopping” were forbidden. Although we were “just like other black people.” my father refused to buy watermelon in the supermarket, in case someone might see him. The song from “Porgy and Bess”, “I got plenty o’ nuthin, and nuthin’s plenty for me” sent my mother into a rage. How dare that white man Gershwin imply that black people enjoyed poverty. They were always looking for racism and they always found it.
Their intent was to protect us, but my parents didn’t give me much hope. My father said that white people would hate us because we were light-skinned and educated, too much like them to dismiss. And black people would hate us because we were light-skinned and educated, too different from them to embrace. We all coped in different ways but once I left for college, I never spent a summer at home. I moved to California from the east coast, I married a darker-skinned man whose optimism is a balm, and I became a doctor. I couldn’t breathe in their house, and I wanted to see all the stars in the sky
My mother’s backbone has collapsed from osteoporosis and she can’t walk, but she still nurses her grudges. She is afraid that we will forget. How could we forget? She lived to see the end of segregation, traveled the world and dined with presidents, including the young black one, but in her mind, it is too little, too late. Nothing about her life was lucky. She is jealous of the opportunities we had, and says that her primary role, a mother, was “worth nothing.” None of us were ambitious enough for her, despite our careers. The toxic cloud still hovers above her, threatening to envelope me again at each visit.
I type her fantasy memoirs, where she imagines that but for segregation she would have become a Nobel prize-wining psychiatrist, called in to counsel heads of state. This woman who avoided cafeterias because she couldn’t make choices quickly and worried about making the people behind her wait, thinks she was tough enough for medical school in the nineteen forties. If she were white, she could probably fly, too.
 I wish, in her old age, that she could not forgive, not forget, but escape the segregation of her youth. Ignore who’s watching and act the fool. (I wish that for myself, too.) Take pride in what she did accomplish. Create her own happiness. But my mother will die believing that there was another, better life she could have lived, if only she had been born white.

Toni Martin is a physician and writer. Her second book of non-fiction, When the Personal was Political: Five Women Doctors Look Back, was published in 2008. Her work, medical essays, memoir and fiction, has appeared in the East Bay Monthly, The Threepenny Review, ZYZZYVA,, The Los Angeles Review, and The Bellevue Review. She lives with her husband in Berkeley, CA, where they raised their three children. Visit her website.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

J.D. Scrimgeour and father to read together

bioStories contributor J.D. Scrimgeour will read with his father, poet James Scrimgeour, in Gloucester on Saturday, June 13th. Details here.


by J.D. Scrimgeour

I was named after my grandfather, John Harold Scrimgeour, a man who was over seventy by the time I would be old enough to preserve any memories of him. My mother said once that she wanted to name me “Jonathan”” and spell my name the less conventional way—J-O-N—but my father said no. Like his father, I would be “John”—J-O-H-N.
I hardly remember my grandfather. By everyone’s account, he was a kind man. In some tapes I made with my Uncle, also named John, before he died of a brain tumor, my uncle said that my grandfather “had an acceptance and love of others as they were. He wasn’t concerned if you were a success or not, he just wanted you to be happy and be yourself.”
My grandfather worked most of his life driving a truck for his brother’s electric company, though he could have taken an easier, higher-paying office job. My father and John have told how he used to take the neighborhood kids for rides to the swimming hole in the back of the company pickup truck after he got off of work.
My grandfather lived in a decrepit house in West Boylston, Massachusetts, with his mentally troubled wife, who almost never left her bedroom. In my childhood, my family lived in Illinois, and so we didn’t visit often, maybe on Christmas if we came back east. There was always a clutch of cats around the house, and I remember the grimy kitchen smelling strongly of tuna, an unwashed can sitting in the sink.
The bedroom was not small, but seemed dominated by a huge bed that my grandmother always lay on. The headboard was against the wall perpendicular to the door, so that someone lying in bed could turn her head and see down the hall that ran through the center of the house. The curtains were closed, the light faint and dusty. The floorboards were thick, and dusty, too.
It was the bed, though, that remains in my memory, the blankets aged, like the spreads over the sofa in the living room, like everything in that house, colored a dull brown like dirty light, like there was no such thing as color. The thick smell of unwashed life rose from the sheets.
I rarely saw that bed without my grandmother in it. Sometimes when our family would visit after my grandfather had died, we’d peek in and see her sleeping, or almost sleeping, coming to consciousness in response to my father’s shouts of “Ma! Ma!” when we pushed open the unlocked front door. If she was awake, she’d be sitting up against the headboard, her mat of dingy hair pressed behind her, looking like a round loaf of grey bread.
Once or twice I was told to go into the room and “say hi to Grandma.” She’d look at us, smile tiredly, ask a few questions. I was glad when we would be released and could go breathe the outside air.
What was it that kept my grandfather minding her all those years before he died? Love? Duty? Fear of change? Kindness? Kindness.

One evening when my son came home from a baseball practice, he told me, frustrated, that he had done poorly in a running contest.
I sighed. “You’ve got to get faster,” I said.
“I know,” he said, turning away from me, and I caught in his voice a slight tremor that told me he was fighting back tears.
My parents happened to be visiting, and my father, sitting on our second-hand sofa, didn’t miss a beat. “I never could run fast,” he said. “I don’t know why.”
It was a helpful line, letting my son see that his lack of speed may have been inherited—he was not to blame—and letting him know that someone else had endured the same failure. Unlike my comment, it would hold off tears rather than bring them on.
My father isn’t always a particularly sensitive conversationalist. In fact, he often misses beats, even whole conversations, too engrossed with a Sudoku puzzle or with the newspaper. But thinking about his comment, I realized that he had been a parent who never said anything mean or cutting to his children, who never made them feel that they were a disappointment, who rarely let his own frustrations show.
I love this about my father, this gentleness: how, knowing what words could do, he wielded them carefully, seriously. Perhaps it’s the reason that I took after him and became a writer.

My grandfather died in 1976 in West Boylston, in that house that smelled of tuna and dust. A few months before his death, my father had sat down with him and recorded an hour or so of conversation about his life.
As a child, one of my favorite toys was a tape recorder. We had it for years—almost all black, save for the red “record” button. My brother, sister and I would fill tapes with various imitations of the grown-up world: sports talk radio interviews about the baseball game in the cornfield across the street, or “albums” by our made-up bands, one of us slapping an old, un-tuned guitar, another pounding on our chipped xylophone, making up lyrics on the fly.
The tape my father made somehow ended up in the shoebox that held all of our family tapes, and when, two years after my grandfather died, we moved back to New England, it was tossed in the moving van with all our other possessions. A few years later, my father came across it and rattled it into the family tape recorder, which he had set down on the kitchen table.
The tape began. The quality was poor, the hiss of ambient sound loud. The recording was especially hard to listen to because my grandfather had been quite deaf, so my father had shouted all his questions. As the tape unspooled, we would turn the volume up and down, depending on who was speaking. Still, it was hard to catch many of my grandfather’s words. It felt as dusty and drab as that house where the recording had been made.  
Suddenly, there was the sharp crack of the record button being pushed down, and the sounds of my siblings and me. We were singing, or talking, making the kind of noise we liked to record. The recording was much clearer and louder than the interview—a burst of life and laughter.
Disappointment flooded my father’s face when he realized what had happened, and I might have even seen a flash of anger. I don’t recall specifics—his response was mild—but I know there was a rebuke, and I know that I felt guilty. It was something that couldn’t be rectified. The interview, those words from a man now dead, were gone.

A few years after my grandfather died, I read my father’s poem about waiting in the hospital as his elderly father has prostate surgery. The poem made me think more about the man I knew—my father—than the mystery he had gone to visit. In the poem, my father looks out a window and sees the wind whipping up the lake beyond so that it looks full of dark fingers. And, after a moment of calm, the fingers reappear and, as he puts it, “wiggle seductively into question marks/ like worms/ on the hook.”
Reading that poem as a thirteen-year-old, I felt the presence of death: how we can’t escape it—those fingers return--how it looms beyond all words. The poem also gave me a sense of what writing was: lamentations, elegies, confronting brute facts. Writing should end tragically, perhaps because life ends tragically.
James Scrimgeour
Yet now I go back to that moment of calm in the poem’s center, when “the dark ripples die down/fade away into light blue.” I go back to how my father, in the poem, recalls talking with his father, John Harold, the previous night, how grateful he was to hear his father’s voice. And there, in the poem, are some words of my grandfather himself, words my father presumably transcribed, words not erased by a foolish son:
I think age is an illusion
We all fade into each other
Like colors in a rainbow.

J.D. Scrimgeour is a poet and nonfiction writer who coordinates the Creative Writing program at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. His second book of nonfiction, Themes for English B: A Professor’s Education In & Out of Class, won the AWP Award for Nonfiction. Recent essays have appeared in The Quotable and Pangyrus. He has also published a book of poems, The Last Miles, a chapbook of poetry, Territories, and has released a CD of poetry and music, Ogunquit & Other Works. In June 2014, a musical, Only Human, which he wrote with his two sons, was produced in Salem’s Ames Theatre.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

My Summer Mother

                                                             “Elders” Contest Honorable Mention
by Sharon Frame Gay

The corridors in the nursing home were quieter than usual. It was a Saturday, only a skeleton staff striding the halls.

I slipped into her room and found her sleeping. Nodding at her new roommate, I set up a small table from home, fitting the little Christmas tree on it, lighting it, and fetching decorations from my bag, I placed them around the tree.

"Mom," I whispered, "Wake up. See what I brought you.” Her eyes opened slowly, then widened with happiness as she looked at her surprise. "So pretty,” she murmured.
"It's your own tree, from home, Mom," I reminded her, and she nodded, staring at the fiber optic tree that she had bought several years ago. She smiled sweetly, drinking in the sight, then turned and peered up into my face.

"I want all my money, my checkbook, bank account statements, and credit cards, right now," she hissed, " I am canceling Medicaid, leaving this place, and I am completely finished with you. You're a liar and a thief, and you have even tricked your poor brother into believing the things you say."

So begins another day, channeling through the sundry personalities that morph like the lights on the Christmas tree, daily, hourly, minute to minute. My mother. My jailer, my muse, my genetic partner, and my childhood fairy princess, now turned into an evil witch who smears poison apples against my teeth and begs me to swallow.

Stumbling out the nursing home door in tears and rage, I was like a dog hit by a car, wanting to bite whoever comes near.

At home, I crumpled into tears, keening as I rocked back and forth in exhaustion from spending months handling my mother's medical affairs, finances, household, and pet, while she languished in the nursing home in a flurry of psychotic dreams.

"Your mother is suffering from delirium, visual hallucinations, delusions and confusion. She has progressive dementia and failure to thrive. She is likely terminal."  I nodded thoughtfully as the doctors and nurses, practitioners and psychiatrists gave me their diagnosis, but inside I thought, "Oh no, she's not. She is far from terminal, only a dream away from coming back into the swirling world where she has always reigned. She is going to rise again, for she is immortal.”

I was first introduced to my mother under a bright white hospital light on an oak-lined street in Chicago, pulled from her womb, wet and squalling. But I did not truly meet her, nor fall in love with her, until I was four years old, as we left the city behind one day on the way to our lake house in Michigan. I was bundled into a small red sweater, stuffed into the back seat with our old spaniel. Peering up at the front door of the bungalow, I saw my mother emerge in a flash of long legs, her sneakers skipping down the steps, hair in pigtails under a cap, with the brim snapped over her Nordic blue eyes. This was not the Ice Queen who came home each night from work in the dark, trailing the cold of January on the hem of her long, grey coat. Nor the enigmatic young woman, seated with her parents and my brother and me around the kitchen table in the golden lamplight after dinner. Then, she was more like a bigger sister, sharing her day with her two young siblings and her parents. No, this was the Lake Fairy, gliding into the car with a grin plastered on her face, her troubles left behind in the rearview mirror, as we departed the curb in a flurry of joy and laughter. My Summer Mother. I felt a flash of excitement and mystery with just a hint of fairy dust as we headed to the lake.

"Come with me,” my mother smiled, one hot July afternoon. "I am going to give you the greatest gift in the world. Books.” I followed her down the dusty road to the public beach, where a dingy tan Book Mobile sat, low on its tires in the shifting morning, the lake in the background like blue silk. Inside the musty bus, a treasure trove of books waited on shelves, motes of dust in the sunlight glinting off the spines as though they were enchanted. On the bottom shelf were children's books. "May I borrow one"? I asked tentatively. "You may borrow as many as you can carry", she grinned, and I filled my tiny arms with volume after volume, excitement rising as we hurried back down the lake road and into the cool glade of the front porch. She read to me into the evening, sharing pirates and ponies, puppies and faraway lands. I hung on each word, my head on her chest, hearing the rumble of her voice and knowing I would recognize it anywhere.

And so began the enchantment and bewitching, the blessings and the curse that came with being my mother's child.

One day I walked into the nursing home and found her in tears. "What's wrong, Mom?" I asked, alarmed. She sobbed, "I am thinking of Troy". Troy. My brother who died a year ago, but until yesterday, my deluded mother thought was on a ferry boat with her on their way to Germany in happier times, he forever nine years old. She had been sending me out into the facility hallway for days now, to call him in for supper. Now, she remembered the truth. I nodded in empathy, as she raised her sorrowful blue eyes to me. Then, she began to cry again. "Look at me", she sobbed, "I'm a cripple." She reached out her hand to me. I clasped it between mine, staring down at her. "What have you DONE to me!" she wailed, and I felt every word like an incantation, hexing me, driving me down with her into an abyss so dark that the night seemed bright by comparison.

She had been lying in a pool of misery for over three months. The doctors and physical therapists had given up on her, recommended only comfort care. Mom did not eat, she did not drink, and needed round the clock assistance. I called my brother to discuss if we wanted her to be tested for a cancer. The doctor said she was declining, and not wanting to add another layer to her grief, we agreed not to have her undergo painful biopsies and procedures.

Two days later, a physical therapist called me. "It is a miracle", she trilled. "Your mother suddenly stood up by herself, and walked! The aides came running to my office to bring me in to see it. Your mother can WALK after nearly 3 months bed ridden."  I thought, "No. It is no miracle. She has simply decided to wake from her dark dreams and start moving again".

When I was twelve, she married a terrible man. A man so rank and evil that ravens began to nest on our roof tops, so dark that even now when I tell the tale my heart skips and I tremble inside. And for eight long years we lived like paupers in a snake's nest, going from town to town in hopeless abandon while my mother alternately tried to kill herself, then him, and succeeded only in killing the spirit of my brothers and me.  Beneath the terror and the heartache, Mom was sweet and guileless. We thought she was a victim, too. We gathered around her, shielding her from coming storms. At all costs, we protected her, we as drones and she as the Queen Bee. Protect. Get hurt. Protect again with our young bodies, our frightened souls. Still, the scales did not fall from my eyes. I returned again and again to drink at the pool of confusion, as she was the only adult now in my young world. I thought all families were like this. I rejoiced at the magic, and cowered at the curse, losing myself in canyons so vast, that it took me years to find daylight again.

I can remember her on a summer swing, her laughter trailing softly in the coming dawn, singing songs with me as trout breached the still waters, the smell of wood smoke in the air. Mom was a nymph, skirting in and out of my consciousness like quick silver, while my grandmother was the one who held my head over the toilet, washed my hair in the bath tub, or brought me lunch while I lay, prostrate in bed, too terrified to go to school, afraid that when I returned, it would be to an empty house, and I would be left behind down some dusty road with no map, no way to find my family again
I can remember her screaming at me, her hands like talons, reaching to grab and scratch at me like a trapped cat. And I remember her calmly beside me, my heart broken over a lost love, her hand cupping my head like an eggshell, as I find solace at her knee.
Now we bring flowers and candy, promises of spring, all to lay before her feet as she travels first down one road, then another in her delirium. I am left forever behind, always trying to catch her long enough to gather some warmth on a sunny day, or to turn the corner and find her waiting for me, hand outstretched, as she says, "Hurry down the road with me, for the moon is coming up and the hills are awash in starlight."

I had followed her through canyons at midnight in the Arizona high country, my small legs barely spanning the back of an old mule, as her horse picked its way through the gullies, heading true north under a promising star. I had hid in terror as she ran through the house screaming with a shotgun, had felt my heart thud when I found her standing on a chair with a noose around her neck, threatening to jump.

 My brother and I rode in the back of a pickup truck as we moved from town to town, stopping by the side of the road to cook. We left pieces of our souls from one end of this country to another as she chased demons up and down the highway. We were in limbo, ghosts passing through town after town, pausing each summer to return to the lake, finding our reflection in the water. Our love for her was fierce, our gypsy spirits held in her thrall, children of her rebel soul.

"It was magical,” my brother said one dreary afternoon, and I paused. Yes, I think. It was magic. And still is. For how else can she rise from her bed and enchant the entire nursing facility? How else can she drive me to my knees in fear and distrust, and keep me wandering through so many sleepless nights? How else can I hate her and love her all in the same breath, while she continues to dance in the shifting change of darkness and light, sweetness and cruelty, while the world spins on in stoic indifference?
My brother sighed. "Nobody would ever understand.” I nod. Nobody can. For it has been a lifetime of colors and threads, wafting and weaving into something so beautiful, so cruel, that my eyes burn if I stare at it too long. "She can't live forever, you know,” he said. "Life's impermanent. This, too, shall end.”

I scoff, take a sip of jasmine tea. "Oh no, you're wrong, my friend. It stays with us forever,” I say as I hear the sound of laughter and tears trailing down the nursing home corridor, across time, to the dusty road by the lake.

Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, traveling throughout the United States, playing by the side of the road. Her dream was to live in a house long enough to find her way around in the dark, and she has finally achieved this outside Seattle, Washington. She writes poetry, prose poetry, short stories, and song lyrics. Her work can be found in Puppy Love 2015, bioStories, and Romantic Morsels.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Set in Stone

by Cathy Warner

The old stone wall bordering the street had long reminded me of the English countryside, stretching as it does, nearly a thousand feet along the road. Above it extends a gentle slope green with bracken fern and full sun in our otherwise heavily wooded mountain town. I had walked to this property often from the local library and dreamed of flapping a blanket under the giant Live Oak like others who had used the land illicitly until old Mildred Johnson died. A granddaughter of homesteader John Bonebrake—who’d once owned a hardware store in Oklahoma and travelled west, settling in this lumber town in the San Lorenzo Valley with his wife Elvina—Mildred, was the last of three spinster sisters to call the place home.  
Without an heir, the property—one of the first settled in Boulder Creek, California—left the family for the first time in over one hundred years. Four acres of pear and walnut trees, a prolific persimmon, a creek, and farmhouse on one side of the road, redwood groves, sandy expanses, and seven spacious acres with rock-terraced hillside on the other, were deeded to the Historical Society and Park and Recreation District, jointly.
The agencies, unable to agree on whether to build a museum or a park, decided to sell, and my once innocent desire to picnic on the knoll swelled like ripe persimmons to full-fledged longing. I lived nearby at the bottom of a sunless ridge, runoff flooding our basement and septic tank most winters. My neighbors were living in their own derelict states: one about to be arrested for child abuse, drug dealing, and tax evasion, the other camped in a trailer while his house, a burned out shell, yawned behind him. I was home all day with my children. We needed out.
My fellow townsfolk were abuzz with offer talk, and I expected tight competition, but our full-priced offer was the only one made. Perhaps the others felt as I had—unworthy of this land, inadequate in light of its history. And yet it became mine.

Walter Remus Swain Rock Walls
Not until my husband and I signed escrow papers for our claim to this part of Swain’s Addition to Boulder Creek, did we learn that the five-acre hillside overgrown with brush was terraced to the top with stone walls, as evidenced in the Historical Society’s 1880s photo. The picture depicted twenty-nine terraced rock walls on an otherwise bare hillside, and a small man, probably Remus Swain himself, wearing a large hat and sitting halfway to the top of the ridge, dwarfed by the rock-scape.
To prevent the house we built from damage by runaway boulders, the County geologist required us to install a heavy-gauge fence with twinned cables extending out twenty feet and posts anchored ten feet deep, with a sign reading: “Rock Barrier Fence May Not Be Removed & Must Be Maintained.” 
But these walls, made of individually stacked stones placed without mortar, had survived two devastating earthquakes: the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. The Loma Prieta struck one afternoon while I stood on a friend’s deck, holding my toddler, while her daughter turned cartwheels, until the ground began heaving in waves before us, the epicenter a scant few miles away. Ten homes were destroyed in my old neighborhood two miles from these sturdy walls.

Warner home under construction: terrace walls
Exploring my new backyard terraces, I found a sandstone monolith engraved with graffiti, modern day petroglyphs carved by hikers and campers on their way to Big Basin State Park. My fingers slid over the roughly etched names and an eye inside a triangle. I discovered charred fire-pits ringed with empty cans of beans and beer, moldered tents and sleeping bags, decomposing clothes. The day the bulldozer came to dig our foundation a homeless man emerged from a redwood grove roused from sleep by the noise.
How many men had these stubborn walls and overgrowth of eucalyptus, juniper, and Scotch broom sheltered over the years, and where would they go to pitch tents away from prying eyes?
Remus Swain was the first settler to make his home here. He pushed east with others from Santa Cruz into the forest. They forged wagon trails along the San Lorenzo River into big stands of Coast Redwoods, and cut the giants to stumps, paving the way for hard-working, hard-drinking men and the scattered towns that followed: Felton, Bonny Doon, Ben Lomond, Lorenzo, Boulder Creek.
Swain owned a sawmill, and my hillside isn’t the only one he denuded. Of course, he didn’t do it alone, Swain hired loggers, muscled and rowdy, and who kept the sixteen taverns and brothels in Boulder Creek in business. The Sequoia sempervirens—alive since the time of Christ—were two hundred feet tall with circumferences big as dance floors when they were felled, chopped, milled, hewn into boards, and freighted to San Francisco by rail to build houses and stores. Swain, and others like him, became rich, until the lumber ran out.
The redwoods are second and third growth now, but the stone walls are original. One lines the street, and another twenty-nine snake across the mountain flank. Nearly a thousand feet in length, they terrace five acres. Each piece of granite and Zayante sandstone was carried, stacked, and fitted into place, one at a time. Between the walls, which are roughly ten feet apart, the dirt was tamped flat and planted with eucalyptus trees and shrubs according to the nursery receipt in the Historical Society archives.
It’s undocumented but asserted in the area’s slight historical volumes, that the hands building these walls belonged to the Chinese who made their way to the greater Monterey Bay to build railroads that chugged lumber and other necessities through the treacherous Santa Cruz mountains—where dynamiting tunnels proved deadly—to the Santa Clara Valley and beyond. Some of these industrious men (how many, I have no idea), living in camps segregated from the Europeans, were diverted to the more domestic and aesthetically pleasing task of shoring up my mountainside.
After years of laboring in this yard myself, sweating and swaying in the summer heat as I planted flowers and harvested vegetables—I thought of those men as more than historical trivia: men with bruised legs as they hefted boulders, bloodied fingers as their gloves wore through, throats scratched dry with dust and grit accumulating in their water buckets. I thought of their long trek to the creek in the afternoon swelter. I imagined their cooking fires in the terrace now occupied by my house, swimming pool, and garden. Could they imagine their toil on this naked hillside would one day anchor living quarters so enchanting and comfortable?

Near dusk one August day, after I watered my potted roses, I pulled weeds near the for sale sign we had erected and wondered who would buy this land from us as we planned a reluctant departure from our dream home. An economic recession had drained our resources, just as the lumber had run out for Remus Swain and labor demands elsewhere carried the Chinese workers away. Would the new owners care at all about its history, about Remus Swain, the Bonebrakes, Mildred Johnson, or the Chinese laborers who built these walls?
Hawks glided overhead on thermal currents, the sun slipped low. That evening bats circled, feasting on mosquitoes as dark fell and an owl called. I slipped into the hot tub, a modern luxury, steam rising off my body like fog, and watched meteors from the Perseid shower streak across the sky. I imagined a dozen braided Chinese men, cracked hands laced together behind their heads while they stretched out on wool blankets in this exact spot looking heavenward at a similar sight 120 years ago. Was it too late to thank them? For surely they paid the price for my desire.

Cathy Warner moved from her historic California property to Puget Sound, where she writes, edits, blogs, leads workshops, and renovates homes with her husband. Cathy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University and has authored a poetry volume Burnt Offerings. Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in dozens of literary journals and anthologies. Visit her website.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Chasing the Dead

by Susan E. Lindsey

I kneel in the damp sod in front of Lydia’s lichen-covered gravestone. It’s a chilly October day in southeastern Kansas. The wind scatters white clouds across a cornflower blue sky. Dry oak leaves skitter through the graveyard and collect by the thirty or so gravestones.
I press my palms against the soil covering Lydia. I’m not sure what I expect to feel—surely not a pulse. Lydia’s heart stopped beating more than 140 years earlier. I had been haunted by dreams of her for months.
I’m an amateur genealogist; we live for these moments. Call us crazy (many do), but there’s something fascinating about chasing the dead.
Lydia died at the age of eighteen while giving birth to her first child. Her baby boy survived his mother by only a few months. Lydia’s husband was my great-great grandfather, David Lindsey.
“Alas, she hath left us, and we mourn our loss,” the inscription reads.
Just to the left of Lydia’s stone is a similar gravestone. David’s second wife, Sarah Sophia, lies beneath it. The two arched stones look alike—made from the same material, inscribed in a similar style, and each has a weeping willow at the top. A small lamb lies beneath the willow tree on Sarah’s stone—symbolizing the baby boy buried with her. She, too, died in childbirth. My great-great grandfather had three sons; only Sarah’s older boy survived.
The two women didn’t know one another in life, but spend eternity next to each other in this small family cemetery, a speck in the midst of rolling farmland.
Mine is a sometimes gruesome hobby. I spend hours in old cemeteries, dim basement archives, old county courthouses, and historic battlefields. I am caught up in lives long passed. I admire their courage. I’m touched by their tragedies and moved by their grace.
I feel as though I almost know them, that I understand something of their lives, joys, sorrows, and passions. They have become more than dates and names.
Lydia’s story haunted me. By the time she married David, she was an orphan. She had lost both of her parents, two sisters, and a brother in less than six months. I’ve never learned why—maybe one of the countless diseases of the past swept them away.
She married David when she was seventeen. Exactly ten months after their wedding, she died in childbirth. After I found her grave, placed yellow grocery store roses on it, and whispered a prayer, my dreams about her stopped.
Others now take Lydia’s place in my thoughts and dreams and haunt me. They are my direct and not-so-direct ancestors, and their neighbors and friends.
There’s James, who packed up his wife and family, and moved from Kentucky to Illinois twenty-seven years before the Civil War because he was determined that his children would be raised in a state free of slavery. Most of his relatives remained in Kentucky and continued to own other human beings.
Jane, his wife, had courage and strength of her own. She gave birth for the first time just ten months after her marriage, and for the next twenty-one years, she had a new baby on an average of one every twenty months—twelve children in all. She raised all of them to adulthood, an extraordinary feat in an era when half of all children died before they were grown.
James and Jane had a good friend named Ben. He also opposed slavery even though he was a slaveholder. But after living and working in New Orleans, Ben wanted no part of slavery. He spent the next few years educating his slaves to ensure they were literate. He then freed all of them and paid for their passage on a ship to Liberia, Africa. Ben’s involvement didn’t stop when his former slaves boarded the ship. For fifteen years, letters to and from the freed slaves and their former master crossed the Atlantic. Some of the letters still exist; I’ve held and read these yellowing pages.
There’s William, Ben’s brother-in-law. He lost his father when he was only five and his mother when he was eighteen. He and his wife had eleven children and William, a preacher, buried nine of them. He unknowingly brought home cholera after a trip. He survived the disease, but his wife and two of his sons did not. He struggled with guilt, tragedy, and debt the rest of his life.

I didn’t descend from powerful or famous people. My ancestors were mostly preachers and teachers and farmers.
My family’s history is entwined with the nation’s history. My grandfather pursued Poncho Villa. My great-great grandfather helped Kansas join the Union as a free state. My great-aunt served as a nurse at a first aid station at the Chicago World’s Fair. My paternal grandmother could shoot the head off of a chicken from across the barnyard. My maternal grandmother made exquisite bridal gowns. Her great-aunt was murdered by Plains Indians. My father, when he was just a teenager, helped get Pretty Boy Floyd’s car out of a ditch.
Some of my friends are researching their families. I hear their stories, too: the great-grandfather who, while drunk, smothered his own crying child; the woman with talent too big for her small town, who left her husband to embark on a stage career in New York and European capitals; and the father who walked across the frozen Ohio River to bring home Christmas gifts for his children.
These people were real. They lived through tornadoes, blizzards, drought, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, wars, and famine. They fell in love, married, had children, and buried loved ones. They made good choices and bad ones. They were human.
There’s no soap opera more compelling than these very real lives. Their stories should be remembered—these people helped shape our nation and literally brought us into being. But we also learn lessons from their lives about the nature of true sacrifice, and about honor, hard work, conviction, and courage. I complain less about trivial annoyances in my own life when I recall the very real challenges they faced.
So I continue to chase the dead, coaxing stories out of old documents, and trying to bring long-forgotten lives back into view.

"Chasing the Dead" received honorable mention in our spring essay contest.

Susan E. Lindsey fell in love with words in the second grade while reading The Wizard of Oz. After a nearly 20-year career in corporate communication and public relations, she now leads a much happier life as a writer, professional editor, and speaker. Her essays, short stories, and articles have been published in various newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Susan earned a degree in communication at Pacific Lutheran University. A member of three writing groups and numerous historical and genealogical societies, she is completing work on a nonfiction manuscript.