The Knowing

We thought we were the perfect family—
loyal, stable, a brick wall you couldn’t topple
with a wrecking ball. Parents dependable
as the frozen Minute Maid juice
we squeezed from cardboard cans and drank
mornings, reconstituted.

We’d come to this place just to be together.
October in Ogunquit, record heat,
no need for the sweaters we’d packed.
Dad had died but Mom, in her 80s, sat
pouring green tea, our wicker chairs
on the small porch, six sets
of knees touching.

She didn’t mean to mention
Dad’s first wife.

To our collective what?
she sputtered lasted a year, before the war,
her name: Phyllis.
Remember that chest in the basement?
It was hers.

Some moments passed, then mutely
we agreed to let it go.
Radium glowed green in our brains
but didn’t burn. The knowing, a relief:
We didn’t have to be perfect.

The August-warm wind felt pleasant
and odd. We sat on that porch,
orange leaves pinwheeling down the street.
~Karen Paul Holmes “Rental Cottage, Maine” from No Such Thing as Distance

Surfacing to the street from a thirty two hour hospital shift usually means my eyes blink mole-like, adjusting to searing daylight after being too long in darkened windowless halls.  This particular day is different.   As the doors open, I am immersed in a subdued gray Seattle afternoon, with horizontal rain soaking my scrubs.

Finally remembering where I had parked my car in pre-dawn dark the day before, I start the ignition, putting the windshield wipers on full speed.  I merge onto the freeway, pinching myself to stay awake long enough to reach my apartment and my pillow.

The freeway is a flowing river current of head and tail lights.  Semitrucks toss up tsunami waves cleared briefly by my wipers frantically whacking back and forth.

Just ahead in the lane to my right, a car catches my eye — it looks just like my Dad’s new Buick.  I blink to clear my eyes and my mind, switching lanes to get behind.  The license plate confirms it is indeed my Dad, oddly 100 miles from home in the middle of the week.  I smiled, realizing he and Mom, the best parents ever, have probably planned to surprise me by taking me out for dinner.

I decide to surprise them first, switching lanes to their left and accelerating up alongside.  As our cars travel side by side in the downpour,  I glance over to my right to see if I can catch my Dad’s eye through streaming side windows.  He is looking away to the right at that moment, obviously in conversation.  It is then I realize something is amiss.  When my Dad looks back at the road, he is smiling in a way I have never seen before.  There are arms wrapped around his neck and shoulder, and a woman’s auburn head is snuggled into his chest.

My mother’s hair is gray.

My initial confusion turns instantly to fury.  Despite the rivers of rain obscuring their view, I desperately want them to see me.  I think about honking,  I think about pulling in front of them so my father would know I have seen and I know.  I think about ramming them with my car so that we’d perish, unrecognizable, in an explosive storm-soaked mangle.

At that moment, my father glances over at me and our eyes meet across the white line separating us.  His face is a mask of betrayal, bewilderment and then shock, and as he tenses, she straightens up and looks at me quizzically.

I can’t bear to look any longer.

I leave them behind, speeding beyond, splashing them with my wake.  Every breath burns my lungs and pierces my heart.  I can not distinguish whether the rivers obscuring my view are from my eyes or my windshield.

Somehow I made it home to my apartment, my heart still pounding in my ears.  The phone rings and remains unanswered.

I throw myself on my bed, bury my wet face in my pillow and pray —
for a sleep
without dreams,
without secrets,
without lies,
without the burden of knowing the truth
I alone now knew
and wished I didn’t.

Having Clean Earth to Till

The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Sciences:

the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts.

I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy.


My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture,


in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain.
~John Adams in a letter to his wife Abigail Adams

“Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world,
but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know,
so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.
What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.
~J.R.R. Tolkien from The Return of the King

As we watch family generations build one atop another:
great grandparents fighting wars to bring peace for their children
grandparents attending school to bring culture to their children
parents bringing music and poetry and beauty to their children
the children returning to the garden, tending the soil.

they all work the land,
turning the earth
planting and weeding
growing and harvesting
preserving so the children, grandchildren, great grandchildren
have succor and sustenance.

Clean earth to till, good food to share, mighty blessings to bestow.

Through it all, we watch the skies,
wondering whether the weather
might take it all away
as it has before.
We are not its master
so pray for His merciful Hand on us.

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.


The Road From Here to There

A spoon in a cup of tea.
Letters in yellow envelopes,
the way a hand pushed lines
into the soft paper.
Morning laughter.
A white shirt draped
over her chair.
An open window. The air.
Call of one blackbird.
Silence of another.
November. Summer.
My love for you, I say.
My love for you infinity
times a million
, my son says.
Sounds of piano notes
as they rest in treetops.
The road from here to there.
Grief, that floating, lost swan.
~Paige Riehl “Things That Cannot Die” from Suspension

photo by Nate Gibson

Anticipation of an early morning call so not much sleep last night.
When the call came – a new grandson announced from miles away-

we laughed gleefully at this gift

our love expanded infinity times a million for these brand new parents, this new life joining the world,
this new road to travel together from here to there.
All that is ordinary is now new and extraordinary.

Love through the generations cannot die but thrives and pulses alive. We laugh and cry at once at the generous grace of our good God who turns all human grief to joy.

photo of Ben Gibson and baby Daniel by Kathy Mulhern (grandma!)
photo by Lea Gibson

An Inheritance Bereft of Poetry

All day we packed boxes.
We read birth and death certificates.
The yellowed telegrams that announced
our births, the cards of congratulations
and condolences, the deeds and debts,
love letters, valentines with a heart
ripped out, the obituaries.

We opened the divorce decree,
a terrible document of division and subtraction.
We leafed through scrapbooks:
corsages, matchbooks, programs to the ballet,
racetrack, theatre—joy and frivolity
parceled in one volume—
painstakingly arranged, preserved
and pasted with crusted glue.

We sat together side by side
on the empty floor and did not speak.
There were no words
between us other than the essence
of the words from the correspondences,
our inheritance—plain speak,
bereft of poetry.
~Jill Bialosky from The Players

The box of over 700 letters, exchanged between my parents from late 1941 to mid-1945, sat unopened for decades. The time had come.

My parents barely knew each other before marrying quickly on Christmas Eve 1942 – the haste due to the uncertain future for a newly trained Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. They only had a few weeks together before she returned home to her rural teaching position and he readied himself for the island battles to come.

I’m now half-way through reading them in chronological order. I’m up to March 1943 when my father received orders that he would be shipped out to the South Pacific within days. They had no idea they would not see each other for another 30+ months or see each other again at all. They had no idea their marriage would fall apart 35 years later and they would reunite a decade after the divorce.

The letters do contain the long-gone but still-familiar voices of my parents, but they are the words and worries of youngsters of 20 and 21, barely prepared for the horrors to come from war and interminable waiting. Much of the time they wrote each other daily, though with minimal news to share and military censors at work, but they speak mostly of their desire for a normal life together rather than a routine centered on mailbox, pen and paper.

I’m not sure what I hoped to find in these letters. Perhaps I hoped for flowery romantic whisperings and the poetry of longing and loneliness. Instead I am reading plain spoken words from two people who somehow made it through those awful years to make my sister and brother and myself possible.

Our inheritance is contained in this musty box of words bereft of poetry. But decades later my heart is moved by these letters – I carefully refold them back into their envelopes and replace them gently back in order. A six cent airmail stamp – in fact hundreds and hundreds of them – was a worthwhile investment in their future and ultimately mine.

The Coiled Shell of Their Lives

Needing them still, I come
when I can, this time to the sea
where we share a room: their double bed,
my single. Morning fog paints the pale
scene even paler. Lace curtains breathing,
the chenille spread folded back,
my father’s feet white sails furled
at the edge of blue pajamas.
Every child’s dream, a parent
in each hand, though this child is fifty.
Their bodies fit easily, with room
to spare. When did they grow
so small? Grow so small—
as if it were possible to swell
backwards into an earlier self.


One more year, I ask the silence.
Last night to launch myself
into sleep I counted their breaths, the tidal
rise and fall I now put my ear to,
the coiled shell of their lives.
~Rebecca McClanahan from “Watching my Parents Sleeping Beside an Open Window Near the Sea” from Deep Light: New and Selected Poems.

My parents have been gone now for some time, my father over 25 years, my mother now over 10 years. Their dying was a long process of counted breaths and pauses. I witnessed their bodies curling into themselves, shrinking smaller, worn down by illness and age.

I still miss them, reminded of them by the events of my own life, still wanting them to take me by the hand as I navigate my own daily path.

After mom’s death, those possessions not distributed to family members have remained packed up and stored in our barn buildings. I know it is well past time to deal with their stuff as I become keenly aware of my own greying and aging.

Untouched in the bookshelf of our bedroom is a sealed box of over 500 letters written by my mother and father between 1941 and 1945. I know the letters began as they were getting to know each other at college, then going from “pinned” to “engaged” and continue for three and a half more years after a hurried wedding Christmas Eve 1942. By mid January 1943 my newly minted Marine officer father shipped out to spend the next three years of his life on the Pacific Ocean, fighting on the battlefields of Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, not to return again to the states until late summer of 1945. My mother wrote her letters from a rural eastern Washington community, living in a “teachers’ cottage” with other war wives who taught school while waiting for their husbands to return home – or not.

It has taken me a decade to find the courage and time to devote to reading these letters they treasured and never threw away. Yesterday I sorted them unopened by postmark date into some semblance of order and sat down to start at the very beginning, which, of course, is my beginning as well. Only sixty letters in, I open each one with some trepidation and a lump in my throat about what I might find written there. I worry I may find things I don’t want to know. I hope I find things that I desperately need to know.

Most of all I want to understand the two people who became my parents within the coiled shell of their forty years together, though broken by a painful divorce which lasted a decade. Having lived through that awful time with them, I want to understand the origin of a love which mended their cracked shell, glueing them back together for five more years before my father died.

As I read their words over the next few weeks, I hope I too can cross a bridge back to them both.

Where Have I Been?

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game…
~Joni Mitchell “The Circle Game”

those lovely horses,
that galloped me,

moving the world,
piston push and pull,

into the past—dream to
where? there, when

the clouds swayed by
then trees, as a tire

swing swung
me under—rope groan.

now, the brass beam,
holds my bent face,

calliope cadence—O
where have I been?
~Richard Maxson “Carousel at Seventy”

photo by Tomomi
photo by Tomomi

Sixty years ago in July, I was a five year old having her first ride on the historic carousel at Woodland Park Zoo before we moved from Stanwood to Olympia.
Fifty years ago — a teenager watching the first men walk on the moon the summer I started work as an assistant to a local dentist.
Forty years ago — deep in the guts of a hospital working a forty hour shift thinking about the man who was to become my husband.
Thirty years ago — my husband and I picking up bales of hay with two young children in tow after I had just accepted a new position doctoring at the local university & we are offered an opportunity to buy a larger farm.
Twenty years ago — with three children and our farm house remodel complete, we have three local parents with health issues needing support, helping with church activities and worship, raising Haflinger foals and organizing a summer local Haflinger gathering of nearly 100 horses and owners, planning a new clinic building.
Ten years ago — two sons launched with one about to move to Japan, a daughter at home with a new driver’s license, my mother slowly bidding goodbye to life at a local care center, farming is less about horse raising and more about gardening, starting to record life on my blog.
Five years ago — two sons married, a daughter off in the midwest as a camp counselor so our first summer without children at home. Time for a new puppy!
Now
O where have I been?
We can only look behind from where we came.

The decades pass, round and round – there is comfort knowing that through the ups and downs of daily life, I am still hanging on and if I slip and fall, there is Someone ready to catch me.


Way Out Beyond Us

My father would lift me
to the ceiling in his big hands
and ask, 
How’s the weather up there?
And it was good, the weather
of being in his hands, his breath
of scotch and cigarettes, his face
smiling from the world below.
O daddy, was the lullaby I sang
back down to him as he stood on earth,
my great, white-shirted father, home
from work, his gold wristwatch
and wedding band gleaming
as he held me above him
for as long as he could,
before his strength failed
down there in the world I find myself
standing in tonight, my little boy
looking down from his flight
below the ceiling, cradled in my hands,
his eyes wide and already staring
into the distance beyond the man
asking him again and again,
How’s the weather up there?
~George Bilgere “Weather”.

It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.

Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
breaking chore he’d forced himself

to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took

so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him

home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—

all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,

help your father, but this
was work we could not do.

He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen “My Father, Dying”

Deep in one of our closets is an old film reel of me about 16 months old sitting securely held by my father on his shoulders. I am bursting out with giggles as he repeatedly bends forward, dipping this head and shoulders down. I tip forward, looking like I am about to fall off, and when he stands back up straight, my mouth becomes a large O and I can almost remember the tummy tickle I feel. I want him to do it again and again, taking me to the edge of falling off and then bringing me back from the brink.

My father was a tall man, so being swept up onto his shoulders felt a bit like I was touching heaven.

It was as he was dying 24 years ago this week that I realized again how tall he was — his feet kept hitting the foot panel of the hospital bed my mother had requested for their home. We cushioned his feet with padding so he wouldn’t get abrasions even though he would never stand on them again, no longer towering over us.

His helplessness in dying was startling – this man who could build anything and accomplish whatever he set his mind to was unable to subdue his cancer. Our father, who was so self-sufficient he rarely asked for help, did not know how to ask for help now.

So we did what we could when we could tell he was uncomfortable, which wasn’t often. He didn’t say much, even though there was much we could have been saying. We didn’t reminisce. We didn’t laugh and joke together. We just were there, taking shifts catching naps on the couch so we could be available if he called out, which he never did.

This man:
who had grown up dirt poor,
fought hard with his alcoholic father
left abruptly to go to college – the first in his family –
then called to war for three years in the South Pacific.

This man:
who had raised a family on a small farm while he was a teacher,
then a supervisor, then a desk worker.

This man:
who left our family to marry another woman
but returned after a decade to ask forgiveness.

This man:
who died in a house he had built completely himself,
without assistance, from the ground up.

He didn’t need our help – he who had held tightly to us and brought us back from the brink when we went too far – he had been on the brink himself and was rescued, coming back humbled.

No question the weather is fine for him up there. I have no doubt.