Stumbling in His Wake

Horse Team by Edvard Munch

My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
Painting “Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp
Benjamin Janicki of Sedro Woolley raking hay with his team of Oberlanders

My grandparents owned the land,
worked the land, bound
to the earth by seasons of planting
and harvest.

They watched the sky, the habits
of birds, hues of sunset,
the moods of moon and clouds,
the disposition of air.
They inhaled the coming season,
let it brighten their blood
for the work ahead.

Soil sifted through their fingers
imbedded beneath their nails
and this is what they knew;
this rhythm circling the years.
They never left their land;
each in their own time
settled deeper.
~Lois Parker Edstrom “Almanac” from Night Beyond Black. © MoonPath Press, 2016.

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
Field with Plowing Farmers by Vincent Van Gogh

My father did field work with horses when he was young and honestly — he hated every moment of it. He badly wanted a tractor though his father could never afford one, so the draft horses were their meal ticket, swerving around the large stumps on a farm that would never produce enough to sustain the family.

My father wanted more when he grew up. For him, it wasn’t about the rhythms of the seasons or his relationship with the horses, or the romance of the soil turning over to be planted. It was hard sweaty frustrating often futile work.

He didn’t welcome my interest in horses but he still supported me. He loaned me the seed money that got us started with a small breeding herd of Haflinger horses and he had advice for us when we asked but not unless we asked. He built stalls in our barn and fashioned hefty metal stall closures and helped in whatever way he could with the handy skills he had learned growing up on a farm that never could succeed.

As a child, I had stumbled after my dad in the figurative furrows he plowed ahead of me, always leading me to pursue something better. He reminded me regularly that I could do whatever I set my mind to, like setting the wing of the plow and eyeing the straight line, mapping the course ahead. And I did, largely because of his encouragement during the 60’s when most girls didn’t hear that from their daddies. Instead it was usually angry bored moms who became the voices who pushed their daughters to dig deeper and plow stronger. Not my mom.

My dad’s encouragemnt still echoes in my mind. He gave me momentum in the furrow. He is still there behind me, ready to steady me when I stumble.

I’m glad he led me down his plow line, and all these years later, he still follows me and isn’t going away.

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
Dan driving our first Haflinger team – brother and sister Hans and Greta

Thank you once again to Joel deWaard, local farmer and photographer, who has graciously shared his photos of the Annual International Lynden (Washington) Plowing Match

So Necessary

You are alive.

And what is it like:
to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is?
Live a day of it and see.
Take any day and LIVE IT.
Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.

It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. The world is to be opened.

BE ALIVE.
~Frederick Buechner from The Alphabet of Grace

“I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
and that necessary.”
~Margaret Atwood from “Variations on the Word Sleep”

For Dan’s birthday:

the boy you were
became the man you are today:
blessed by our God,
so necessary to your family, church and community,
loved by your children and grandchildren,
and by me
~ever more every day~

In this journey together,
we inhabit each other,
however long may be the road we travel;
you have become the air I breathe,
refreshing, renewing, restoring~~
you are that necessary to me,
and that beloved.

So Starved for Hope

I know what you planned, what you meant to do, teaching me
to love the world, making it impossible
to turn away completely, to shut it out completely over again–
it is everywhere; when I close my eyes,
birdsong, scent of lilac in early spring, scent of summer roses:
you mean to take it away, each flower, each connection with earth–
why would you wound me, why would you want me
desolate in the end, unless you wanted me so starved for hope
I would refuse to see that finally
nothing was left to me, and would believe instead
that you were left to me.
~Louise Glück “Vespers”
from The Wild Iris

Summer days like this: bright, so promising with potential, birdsong constantly in the air, scent of roses and a flush of color everywhere, miracles growing gilled under my feet –

how can I not love the world so much I never want to leave it?

Yet it is but a tiny show of the glories to come, of what You have waiting for us next.

We are wounded with the realization that we must eventually let this go.

We hold onto the hope that won’t be found in all this beauty and lushness, the fulfilling hope that can only be found in our relationship with You as our Father and Creator.

You provide only a taste here so that we know what we starve for, starved with hope for what You have in store for us next.

Amen and Amen.

My Father’s Dream

To every man
His treehouse,
A green splice in the humping years,
Spartan with narrow cot
And prickly door.

To every man
His twilight flash
Of luminous recall
of tiptoe years
in leaf-stung flight;

To every man
His house below
And his house above—
With perilous stairs
Between.

~James Emmanuel from “The Treehouse”

A shudder of joy runs up
The trunk; the needles tingle;   
One bird uncontrollably cries.
The wind changes round, and I stir   
Within another’s life. Whose life?
Who is dead? Whose presence is living?   
When may I fall strangely to earth,

Who am nailed to this branch by a spirit?   
Can two bodies make up a third?
To sing, must I feel the world’s light?   
My green, graceful bones fill the air   
With sleeping birds. Alone, alone
And with them I move gently.
I move at the heart of the world.

~James Dickey from “In the Treehouse at Night”


My father’s treehouse is twenty five years old this summer, lonesome and empty in our front yard, a constant reminder of his own abandoned Swiss Family Robinson dreams. Over the years, it has been the setting for a local children’s TV show, laser tag wars, sleep overs and tea parties, even my writer’s retreat with a deck side view of the Cascades to the east, the Canadian Coastal Range to the north and Puget Sound to the west. Now it is a sad shell no longer considered safe, as the support branches in our 100+ year old walnut tree are weakening with age and time. It is on our list of farm restoration projects, but other falling down buildings must be prioritized first.

My father’s dream began in February 1995 when our sons were 8 and 6 years old and our daughter just 2. We had plenty of recycled lumber on our old farm and an idea about what to build. Dad, retired from his desk job and having recently survived a lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, had many previous daunting building projects to his credit, and a few in his mind that he was yet to get to. He was eager to see what he could construct for his grandkids by spring time. He doodled out some sketches of what might work in the tree, and contemplated the physics of a 73 year old man scaling a tree vs. building on the ground and hoisting it up mostly completed. I got more nervous the more I thought about it and hoped we could consider a project less risky, and hoping the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.

The weather cleared as simultaneously my father’s health faded. His cancer relapsed and he was sidelined with a series of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatment courses. He hung on to that hope of getting the treehouse going by summer, still thinking it through in his mind, still evaluating what he would need to buy to supplement the materials already gathered and piled beneath the tree. In the mean time he lost physical strength day by day.

His dream needed to proceed as he fought his battle, so I borrowed library books on treehouses, and hired two college age brothers who lived down the road to get things started. I figured if my dad got well enough to build again, at least the risky stuff could be already done by the young guys. These brothers took their job very seriously. They pored over the books, took my dad’s plans, worked through the details and started in. They shinnied up the tree, put up pulleys on the high branches and placed the beams, hoisting them by pulling on the ropes with their car bumper. It was working great until the car bumper came off.

I kept my dad updated long distance with photos and stories. It was a diversion for him, but the far off look in his eye told me he wasn’t going to be building anything in this world ever again. He was gone by July. The treehouse was done a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck, a protective railing, a trap door, a staircase. We had an open tree celebration and had 15 neighbors up there at once. I’m sure dad was sipping lemonade with us as well, enjoying the view.

Now all these years later, the treehouse is tilting on its foundation as the main weight bearing branch is weakening. We’ve declared it condemned, not wanting to risk an accident.  As I look out my front window, it remains a daily reminder of past dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled. Much like my father’s body, the old walnut tree is weakening, hanging on by the roots, but its muscle strength is failing. It will, sometime, come down in one of our frequent fierce windstorms, just as its nearby partner did a few years ago.

The treehouse dream branched out in another way. One of the construction team brothers decided to try building his own as a place to live in his woods, using a Douglas Fir tree as the center support and creating an octagon, two stories, 30 feet off the ground. He worked on it for two years and moved in, later marrying someone who decided a treehouse was just fine with her, and for 20+ years, they’ve been raising five children there.  The treehouse kids are old enough to come work for me on our farm, a full circle feeling for me.  This next generation is carrying on a Swiss Family Robinson dream that began in my father’s mind and our front yard.

I still have a whole list full of dreams myself, some realized and some deferred by time, resources and the limits of my imagination. I feel the clock ticking too, knowing that the years and the seasons slip by me faster and faster as I near the age my father was when he first learned he had cancer. It would be a blessing to me to see others live out the dreams I have held so close.

Like my father, I will some day teeter in the wind like our old tree, barely hanging on. When ready to fall to the ground, I’ll reach out with my branches and hand off my dreams too. The time will have come to let them go. Thank you, Dad, for handing me yours.

photo by Dan Gibson

Drying Inward From the Edge

 
I know what my heart is like
      Since your love died:
It is like a hollow ledge
Holding a little pool
      Left there by the tide,
      A little tepid pool,
Drying inward from the edge.
~Edna St. Vincent Millay “Ebb”
 
 

I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded;
not with the fanfare of epiphany,
but with pain gathering its things,
packing up,
and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.

— Khaled Hosseini from The Kite Runner

My mother was seven years younger than I am now when my father left her for a younger woman.  For months my mother withered, crying until there were no more tears left, drying inward from her edges.  

It took ten years, but he came back like an overdue high tide.   She was sure her love had died but the tepid pool refilled, the incoming water cool to the touch, finally overflowing beyond imagining.

Something Went Wrong

age nine

The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.” 
~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

~Ted Kooser, “Abandoned Farmhouse” from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems. 

In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state.
I didn’t understand at the time the reasons for his leaving his job after 13 years.

Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol.  It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop.  It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.

The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other.  The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room.  The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year.  In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room.  That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.

The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture,  was strictly off-limits. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas,  a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived.  The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.

One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room.  I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.

It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and hurting) was actually taking place.

The tree straddled more than just two rooms.  Every year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart, like the fir needles dropping to the floor to be swept away. Something was going wrong.

Each year since, the Christmas tree bearing those old ornaments from my childhood reminds me of a still room of mixed memories within me.  I am no longer wary of the past, and when I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.

Even Brighter Lights

Dear Ben,

It was gray and drizzly the November 15 you were born thirty one years ago, very much like today’s gray drizzle.

November is too often like that–there are times during this darkening month when we’re never really certain we’ll see the sun again.  The sky is gray, the mountain is all but invisible behind the clouds, the air hangs heavy with mist, woods and fields are all shadowy.  The morning light starts late and the evening takes over early.

Yet you changed November for us that day.  You brought sunshine to our lives once again.  You smiled almost from the first day, always responding, always watching, ready to engage with your new family.  You were a delight from that first moment we saw you and have been a light in our lives and so many other lives ever since.

And you married another bright light and now you shine together with a new little bright light of your own in your lives.

I know this is your favorite kind of weather because you were born to it–you’ve always loved the misty fog, the drizzle, the chill winds, the hunkering down and waiting for brighter days to come.

November 15 was, and each year it still is, that brighter day.

Love,

Mom and Dad

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.

In the Quiet Misty Morning

In the quiet misty morning
When the moon has gone to bed,
When the sparrows stop their singing
And the sky is clear and red,
When the summer’s ceased its gleaming
When the corn is past its prime,
When adventure’s lost its meaning –
I’ll be homeward bound in time

Bind me not to the pasture
Chain me not to the plow
Set me free to find my calling
And I’ll return to you somehow

If you find it’s me you’re missing
If you’re hoping I’ll return,
To your thoughts I’ll soon be listening,
And in the road I’ll stop and turn
Then the wind will set me racing
As my journey nears its end
And the path I’ll be retracing
When I’m homeward bound again

Bind me not to the pasture
Chain me not to the plow
Set me free to find my calling
And I’ll return to you somehow

In the quiet misty morning
When the moon has gone to bed,
When the sparrows stop their singing
I’ll be homeward bound again.

~Marta Keen “Homeward Bound”

In my father’s near daily letters home to my mother during WWII, month after month after month, he would say, over and over while apologizing for the repetition:
“I will come home to you, I will return, I will not let this change me, we will be joined again…”

This was his way of convincing himself even as he carried the dead and dying after island battles: men he knew well and the enemy he did not know. He knew they were never returning to the home they died protecting and to those who loved them.

He shared little of battle in his letters as each letter was reviewed and signed off by a censor before being sealed and sent. This story made it through:

“You mentioned a story of Navy landing craft taking the Marines into Tarawa.  It reminded me of something which impressed me a great deal and something I’m sure I’ll never forget. 

So you’ll understand what I mean I’ll try to start with an explanation.  In training – close order drill- etc.  there is a command that is given always when the men form in the morning – various times during the day– after firing– and always before a formation is dismissed.  The command is INSPECTION – ARMS.  On the command of EXECUTION- ARMS each man opens the bolt of his rifle.  It is supposed to be done in unison so you hear just one sound as the bolts are opened.  Usually it is pretty good and sounds O.K.

Just to show you how the morale of the men going to the beach was – and how much it impressed me — we were on our way in – I was forward, watching the beach thru a little slit in the ramp – the men were crouched in the bottom of the boat, just waiting.  You see- we enter the landing boats with unloaded rifles and wait till it’s advisable before loading.  When we got about to the right distance in my estimation I turned around and said – LOAD and LOCK – I didn’t realize it, but every man had been crouching with his hand on the operating handle and when I said that — SLAM! — every bolt was open at once – I’ve never heard it done better – and those men meant business when they loaded those rifles. 

A man couldn’t be afraid with men like that behind him.”

My father did return home to my mother after almost three years of separation. He was “bound to the pasture and chained to the plow” as he resumed his love of farming the land and teaching others how it is done.

He never forgot those who died, making it possible for him to return home. I won’t forget either.

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.