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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Ha-pence of Sense

by Peter Wadsworth

Soon after reaching his hundredth birthday, my father decided he had finished with looking after himself and moved into a nursing home.

I visit once a week.

I enter the room to find him slumped in a chair. The thought insinuates: "he's dead!" A rattle, and saliva trickles from his mouth. I shake myself and stride towards him. "Hello dad," I say, and repeat louder when I get no answer. A gentle pressure on his shoulder elicits no response, neither does a firm grip. I retire, defeated, to fetch his jacket from his room, and pass a resident in the corridor determinedly making progress while clutching her walking frame and muttering to no one in particular. Returning with the coat and a wheelchair, I grasp his shoulder. He stirs, eyes flickering open and shut as his consciousness struggles to return to the resident's lounge. Still a little confused, he looks around and notices my presence. After a few seconds his dazed expression turns to recognition and a little smile flickers across his face. I sit next to him while he gathers strength, inspecting his face. The forehead sports a large plaster earned from his latest fall. Yellow teeth few but still his own. Hair pure white, the waves hinting at once lustrous full locks. The face still remarkably unlined, belying his 102 years.

When I was fourteen he constructed a kayak in our garage: a two person—well, a one man and one boy. We were going on an adventure. A template was ordered, paper patterns for tracing the cross members in ply, and detailed instructions on how to form the skeleton and clad it in canvas. But my father had a better idea: he had acquired the very first samples of a new development, glass fibre. Little by little we (that is he, while I watched and occasionally passed a tool) built up the frame until we had what looked like the bones of a twelve foot prehistoric sea monster. Over this were stretched layer after layer of glass fibre fabric and lashings of resin. This was not a light nimble craft but a dreadnought, only just able to be lifted by the two of us. That long hot summer my father and I cannoned down the river Wye. Water levels were low and we were the only kayakers on the river. Stories are told to this day in those whereabouts of the two crazies who barreled down the half dry river bouncing from rock to boulder to rock in a miraculously undamaged kayak.

He has little conversation, and grunts as I ask him if he wants to go out. He readies himself for our little routine. The wheelchair is positioned next to his chair. I take his hands and become his strength. "On three," I intone and pull him gently forward while he rocks his body. A second pull and he has the rhythm. With the next he pushes himself forward and I carefully draw him out of the chair as he gradually, with great effort, rises to his feet. He steadies sufficiently for me to guide his left hand to the wheelchair, and I lead him on a slow, unsteady pirouette to line him up with his destination. On my command he trustingly slumps backwards and is safely ensconced in the seat. I propel him purposefully down the main corridor towards the entrance, passing staff who wish him a good trip or teasingly place orders for fish and chips.

Inserting my father into the car takes all of five minutes for a drive of a thousand yards to an ordinary looking pub, which unaccountably but delightfully has an excellent chef. Our five minute disembarkation routine has us safely inside the building. Seating is tricky. I get my father out of the wheelchair with the one two three routine and plonked down on the bench seat. Then I need to maneuver the heavy table as close to him as possible. I gently lift one foot up and move the table base under it, repeating the procedure for the other foot. I scramble up off the floor and smile inanely at the bemused fellow diners. I roll up my father's sleeves and tuck in a number of napkins under chin and chest. We are ready. My father orders lamb, which comes on a raft of sweet potato with assorted vegetables, all beautifully presented. I have had the dish before and it is delicious. I cut the meat into bite-sized pieces and place the cutlery in his hands. Food has always been an important and serious occupation for my father and we proceed in strict silence. He struggles to grip his knife and fork, then spends much time and effort in persuading sufficient morsels of food to remain on his fork as he lifts it waveringly towards his mouth. I find myself transfixed by the spectacle, hoping that his efforts will be rewarded and saddened at his frequent failures. A residual determination drives him to persist. Forty minutes after commencing his meal he is pursuing the few remaining rebellious peas around his plate with a persistence worthy of a door stopping reporter. "Did you enjoy your meal?" I ask. "No", he responds, looking down at his empty plate. "I like it plain and simple."

Like all seventeen year olds I realised that I knew more than my parents. They were old, behind the times, could not understand. One of the less objectionable manifestations of this obvious truth was that I believed I was a better cook than my mother. So, with the arrogance and ignorance of youth I took over the preparation of the evening meal. Not having trained with Escoffier I would raid the pantry and refrigerator, pillaging anything vaguely edible. Unique and scary concoctions, often of ill-assorted vegetables, perhaps some dubious meat or fish, seasoning, spices and/or herbs, were placed triumphantly in front of my long suffering parents. Unlike my mother, who often retreated to wedges of bread smothered in butter, dad reveled in the strange and unexpected,and so looked forward to his evening repasts. After a particularly enjoyable meal my father said he would like the dish again sometime. I did not reply. I had created a concoction of such complexity that re-creation was an impossibility; I could not recall all the ingredients or quantities. I sighed, another culinary masterpiece was lost to the world.

After the meal we complete the afternoon by a drive in the country. The hinterland of West Yorkshire is a mosaic of crisscrossing roads linking once industrial towns with ribbon development. But this seeming megalopolis contains unblemished hills and moors, prosperous farms and dense woods. These hidden places are what we seek. Each of these trips is an exploration, every turning done on whim, meandering through unexpected villages and stone bounded fields. My father gazes around, trapped in a metal box but enjoying the views. "Perfect clouds," he volunteers.

In his fifties he took up gliding. It became a passion. The silence, the freedom, the vantage of an eagle. He became a skilled but individualistic pilot. Low speed flight was a fascination. As air speed drops lift caused by airflow over the wings decreases and eventually the craft stalls, one wing losing lift completely. The glider drops suddenly to that side, spiraling down out of control unless the pilot has the skill and sufficient altitude to recover by putting the nose down and diving to gain speed. My father wondered if it would be possible to keep a stalling glider from losing control. On a series of flights he gained maximum altitude for safety, and gradually, after repeated stalls, he found he was able to keep flying by innumerable subtle adjustments of the ailerons. The slower he travelled the faster the plane dropped, but still under control. Back at the clubhouse he eagerly told the flight instructor of his discovery. The instructor was furious, said that was impossible and that if he tried such a stupid maneuver again would be grounded.

Later that season my father had a launch by winch. The driver, inexperienced, released him too soon. He did not have sufficient height or speed and was therefore unable to circuit round to land. Rather than spiral into the ground, he used his new technique to keep flying, dropping ever faster to the ground. The glider landed normally but very heavily. Both he and the glider survived. He with a painful back, the glider with scratches. Ground staff were astonished. "Why did the glider not crash, you could have been killed!" My father kept his silence.

He awakes as we pull into the nursing home drive and I decant him into the wheelchair. He needs his bathroom; I can see that his pad is leaking. In his suite I manhandle him onto the toilet seat. Exhausted, he rests for a while as I close the door to give him privacy. Looking around his bedroom I notice a faded photograph in a silver frame. A pleasure boat on a river, a glimpse of a man leaning out of the cabin. My father swings open the bathroom door. He is ready to have his pad replaced.

When my sister and I were in our early teens our parents bought a thirty foot cabin cruiser: four berth, galley, washroom, centre control cabin, gleaming white timber hull, sparking chromium fittings. It just happened to be called Yvonne, my sister's name. My mother was afraid of water but that was of no concern to my father. It was his pride and joy. The boat was berthed in a small marina hidden on a minor tributary of the river Severn, a pastoral idyll. We would drive down for the weekend, my parents disappearing into the boat to get things ship shape while my sister and I were free to wander. I loved exploring further up the little river, now too narrow for pleasure craft. I passed through swathes of nettle, both white and pink flowered. Tempted to stroke the leaves in the direction of the barbs to avoid being stung, invariably I had then to search out dock leaves to rub on my inflamed hands and legs. Being brave in the face of adversity, I would continue further into the wilds. A plop caused me to look across the river bank, a plump water vole was sculling towards its muddy hole. On a stagnant outreach of the waterway busy water boatmen skittered on the placid water surface, whirling legs bending the elastic membrane. A little upstream I caught a flash of turquoise and froze, moving my head round very slowly until I espied a kingfisher perched on a thin branch stretched out over the water. A full five minutes passed but the bird remained a statue. I slowly and quietly withdrew, only to hear a splash. I hurried back to see an empty branch and ripples spilling out from the water below.

During one long languid summer spent on the river Severn we ventured down a small tributary of the main river and chose a shady clearing to camp. My father made the craft secure, then began to forage. Mystified, my sister and I watched as he gathered broken tree branches and bunches of reeds. Squatting down beside the boat he began to strip the branches of bark, the green wood shimmering in the dappled sunlight. To our delight, half an hour later an elegant yet sturdy child sized stool with willow frame and reed woven seat stood before us, created using but saw screwdriver and hammer. The stool was used constantly all summer, supporting our fidgeting bodies without complaint until joining that optimistic group of goods mentally labeled “will be needed again” and consigned to the furthest recesses of the garage.

We head for the lounge and his favourite armchair. I retrieve his walking frame and he transfers to it from the wheelchair. Always a man of few words, he waves at the chair. I eventually deduce that he wishes for it to be moved alongside the adjacent armchair. "Not fall," he mutters, and I realise that placing the chairs together would prevent cups or biscuits placed on the arm falling down the gap. After flopping down into the soft upholstery of his chair he fiddles with his walking frame against the chair front. I reach over and move it to one side. He bristles and harrumpfs. The thought comes to me that his fiddling had been to some purpose. He had placed it hard against the chair so that his leverage would be maximized when he later had to struggle out of the chair by himself. I am comforted that in such a reduced existence his intelligence was still at work.

He hated school. Most of his teachers regarded him as "thick"; dyslexia had yet to be recognized. But in mathematics he excelled, particularly with problems, exercises in logic, the harder the better. Later in life he ran a plumbers' shop in a chemical works, but spent much of his time solving problems throughout the massive site. On one occasion he was presented with the first samples of a new wonder plastic, polythene, and asked to play about with it. Some of the samples were of tube, which sprang back into shape if bent. This was a challenge to my father, and he tried many possible techniques until finally succeeding in having them retain a bent configuation. A little while later he attended a seminar run by the scientists and chemists who had invented the plastic. During their presentation it was stated categorically that the tube could not be bent permanently. Although a man of few and hesitant words, my father stood up and explained that he had devised a method of doing so. The experts laughed him down. "Impossible", they cried. Dad, disgusted, walked away fulminating against "so called experts who don't have a ha'pence of sense between them." In his nineties this under-educated man obtained one patent for flood defenses, and a second for generating electrical power from ocean tides.

He looks around at fellow residents, some asleep, others staring into the void. Helpers position a hoist over a chair and gently lower an old lady into place. A heartbreakingly dispiriting environment. He wishes to be moved to the dining room, even though the evening meal is an hour away. We go through the one two three routine, I move him the thirty feet to the dining room, and lift, adjust, cajole, and shuffle him into place at his favourite table. He is dismissive of the food at the home. “All reheated from the day before,” he grumbles unfairly. But any food is better than no food, and so alone in a sea of plastic tables, confident that he will not miss his next meal, he retreats into his memories as I withdraw until next week.

After leaving a long career as an architect, Peter Wadsworth now uses time once consumed with his work to pursue writing. Following the advice and encouragement of Alex Shoumatoff, the renowned Vanity Fair travel and environmental writer, Wadsworth has recently dusted down old scribbles and now works on new ones, delighting in recording the lives of people in all their complexity and the places they inhabit. He loves to travel to far flung places, recording both people's differences and their common humanity, but is always drawn back to his homeland of West Yorkshire with its gritstone towns, purple moorland, and proud, friendly people.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Red Wings

by Susan E. Lindsey

“Your stepmom and I are sorting stuff,” Dad said over the phone. “Is there anything of your mom’s you want? When you come out to Washington, you can take what you want back with you to Kentucky.”

My mom, an educated, well-read, and articulate woman, had been dead nearly twenty years. She died of cancer in her fifties. We had sorted and disposed of most of her belongings shortly after her memorial service, but Dad had kept a few things.

My father and beloved stepmother, Bernice, had been very happy together, but they were getting older and more aware of their mortality. Dad was calling his kids to pass along his possessions, starting with the things of Mom’s that he still had.

I pondered his question for several days. I had loved my mother very much. Shortly after she died, my father gave me her wedding and engagement rings. I had since passed them along to my daughter when she married and she wore them with pride and affection. Nothing of Mom’s would mean as much to me as her rings, but Dad obviously wanted me to have something else of hers. I thought about durable, but sentimental things—things that had meant something to her and would mean something to me, but that were portable enough to survive a trip of more than 2,000 miles. Not the delicate rose-covered china or the beautiful lead crystal—my sister, who lived closer to Dad, could have those. Not furniture or the boxes filled with her many books—too bulky to transport or ship. My brothers could divide them.

I called him back. “If no one else wants it, I’ll take the sterling silver flatware you and Mom got for your wedding.”

“OK. I’ll hold it for you.”

A couple of weeks later, Dad greeted me at the SeaTac Airport baggage claim and wrapped me in a bear hug. Bernice said, “Hi, sweetie,” and kissed me on the cheek. At their house, I dropped my bags in the guest bedroom and wandered into the kitchen. There, spread on the kitchen table, was Mom’s silver service. Knives lay in long, neat rows. Bowls of spoons glimmered. A bottle of silver polish and several cleaning rags lay nearby. A pile of blue flatware storage cloths sat next to the bottle of polish.

“I went to the bank and got it out of the safe deposit box,” Dad said. “I’ve been trying to clean it up for you.” I was oddly touched at the thought of Dad storing Mom’s silver at the bank, making a special trip downtown to pick it up, and polishing it in anticipation of my arrival.

I sat down with him and as we polished the silver, we caught up a little. I told him news of the family in Kentucky. He told me news of the family in Washington. It was an easy conversation. When it lulled a little, Dad stepped into the family room to check on Bernice.

I polished a teaspoon, working the blue liquid into the Damask Rose pattern on the handle. I thought of my parents on their wedding day—Mom, twenty-one, and Dad, twenty-three. They had married in the church her parents attended, the same church where my father’s grandfather had preached. Neither of them came from money, but my grandmother had well-to-do friends, and my mother worked in a jewelry and china shop. The couple registered for china, crystal, and silver, and received enough gifts to set a table for twelve.

They didn’t know on their wedding day that they would have seven children and little need for such elegant tableware. We grew up eating off Melmac plates and drinking from cheap glasses with painted-on daisies. We used everyday stainless steel flatware. We never got out the china and silver, even on holidays. Counting Dad, Mom, and all of us kids, we had a family of nine, and usually Uncle Ed and Aunt Jean and their six kids joined us. Even service for twelve wasn’t adequate.

So the china and crystal sat in the cabinet—lovely and fragile and representing an ideal at odds with reality. Perhaps when my mother was a young bride, she and my father had a few romantic dinners for two on the rose-strewn plates. Maybe she dreamed of someday holding supper parties or inviting the pastor and his wife over for dinner. Somehow, in the process of raising seven kids, she never found time to host formal meals. I wondered if she ever had the urge to tug open the china cabinet doors and set a lovely table.
When I was a child and dusting the dining room, I stared through the cabinet’s glass doors and dreamt of elegant dinner parties. Sharing a table with five brothers and a sister was usually loud and crazy—no formality, no grace, no elegance. I often yearned for something several steps above Melmac and meatloaf.

Dad walked back into the dining room and broke my reverie. He held a sturdy shoebox. “Red Wings: The Fittin’est Shoe for Work” was emblazoned on the side. Dad had worked for the phone company most of his life. He installed and fixed phones, and climbed poles to repair storm damage or string wire. He loved to work outdoors, in the garden, or in his workshop. Red Wing shoes, his first choice in footwear, were a lot like Dad—sturdy, hardworking, dependable, and without pretention.

“I think it will all fit in here,” he said. “This box should hold up well on the plane.”

I had a sudden post-9/11 realization. “Dad, we’ll have to ship it. They aren’t going to let me on the plane with a box of knives—even if they are Damask Rose.”

I researched shipping options. When we finished polishing the silver, we carefully inserted the knives, dinner and salad forks, teaspoons and soupspoons, seafood forks, butter knives, and miscellaneous serving pieces into the pockets of the tarnish-proof cloths, rolled them up, and tied them. We tucked them into the box, alternating the rolls, placing handles to the right and then to the left. It all fit beautifully and Dad taped it up eight ways to Sunday.

We took the heavy box to the Fed-Ex store, bought insurance, and shipped it to my workplace. I flew out of SeaTac that night and the box arrived safely.
To this day, I’m not sure why I chose my mother’s silver. I don’t lead an elegant life or host champagne suppers or dinner parties. A few times, I used the silver for holiday dinners—always with great joy—but most of the time, it remained stored in the Red Wings box.

I recently bought a wooden silver chest at a garage sale. I took it home, retrieved the Red Wings box, and unpacked all the silver. I slipped the knife blades into the velvety slots, stacked the forks and spoons into narrow channels, and found perfect places for every piece. The silver was lovely shining against the dark blue lining.

I picked up the Red Wings box and opened the kitchen trashcan. I hesitated. I thought of my mother and her china cabinet filled with beautiful things she never used. I thought of my father and his work shoes; I thought of him polishing an expensive set of silver and entrusting it to a shoebox. In the end, I could not throw away the Red Wings box.

Years from now, when I’m gone, my daughter and son will sort through my things. My son will kneel to pull things from under the bed, pick up an empty old shoebox, and raise a quizzical eyebrow at his sister.

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.

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.