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.

I Remember You

When to the garden of untroubled thought
       I came of late, and saw the open door,   
       And wished again to enter, and explore    
The sweet, wild ways with stainless bloom inwrought, 
And bowers of innocence with beauty fraught,
       It seemed some purer voice must speak before   
       I dared to tread that garden loved of yore, 
That Eden lost unknown and found unsought.  
 

Then just within the gate I saw a child,— 
       A stranger-child, yet to my heart most dear,—
Who held his hands to me, and softly smiled   
       With eyes that knew no shade of sin or fear:    
“Come in,” he said, “and play awhile with me; 
I am the little child you used to be.”

~Henry van Dyke, from The Poems of Henry van Dyke

Behind the house in a field
there’s a metal box I buried
full of childhood treasure, a map
of my secret place, a few lead pennies
from 1943.
The rest I’ve forgotten,
forgotten even the exact spot
I covered with moss and loam.

Now I’m back and twenty years
have made so little difference
I suspect they never happened,
this face in the mirror
aged with pencil and putty.
I suspect even
the box has moved as a mole would move
to a new place long ago.
~Dan Gerber “The Cache” from Particles

And this is where we went, I thought,
Now here, now there, upon the grass
Some forty years ago.

The days being short now, simply I had come
To gaze and look and stare upon
The thought of that once endless maze of afternoons.
But most of all I wished to find the places where I ran

What’s happened to our boys that they no longer race
And stand them still to contemplate Christ’s handiwork:
His clear blood bled in syrups from the lovely wounded trees?
Why only bees and blackbird winds and bending grass?
No matter. Walk. Walk, look, and sweet recall.

I came upon an oak where once when I was twelve
I had climbed up and screamed for Skip to get me down.
It was a thousand miles to earth. I shut my eyes and yelled.
My brother, richly compelled to mirth, gave shouts of laughter
And scaled up to rescue me.
“What were you doing there?” he said.
I did not tell. Rather drop me dead.
But I was there to place a note within a squirrel nest
On which I’d written some old secret thing now long forgot.

{Now} I lay upon the limb a long while, thinking.
I drank in all the leaves and clouds and weathers
Going by as mindless
As the days.
What, what, what if? I thought. But no. Some forty years beyond!

I brought forth:
The note.

I opened it. For now I had to know.
I opened it, and wept. I clung then to the tree
And let the tears flow out and down my chin.
Dear boy, strange child, who must have known the years
And reckoned time and smelled sweet death from flowers
In the far churchyard.
It was a message to the future, to myself.
Knowing one day I must arrive, come, seek, return.
From the young one to the old. From the me that was small
And fresh to the me that was large and no longer new.
What did it say that made me weep?

I remember you.
I remember you.
~Ray Bradbury from “Remembrance”

This past weekend we drove the country roads where I grew up,
now sixty years later,
and though the trees are taller,
it looked just as I remembered.
The scattered houses on farms still standing, a bit more worn,
the fields open and flowing as always,
the turns and bends, the ups and downs of the asphalt lanes unchanged
where once I tread with bicycle tires and sneakered feet.

My own childhood home a different color
but so familiar as we drive slowly by,
full of memories of laughter and games,
long winter days and longer summer evenings
full of its share of angry words and tears
and eventual forgiveness.

I too left notes to my future self, in old barns, and lofts,
and yes, in trees,
but won’t go back to retrieve them.
I remember what I wrote.
My ten year old heart tried to imagine itself decades hence,
what fears and joys would pass through like pumping blood,
what wounds would I bear and bleed,
what love and tears would trace my face?

I have not forgotten.
No, I have never forgotten
that I remember:
this is me,
as I was, and, deep down, still am.


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.


Packed and Unpacked

Holes in the shape of stars
punched in gray tin, dented,
cheap, beaten by each
of her children with a wooden spoon.

Noodle catcher, spaghetti stopper,
pouring cloudy rain into the sink,
swirling counter clockwise
down the drain, starch slime
on the backside, caught
in the piercings.

Scrubbed for sixty years, packed
and unpacked, the baby’s
helmet during the cold war,
a sinking ship in the bathtub,
little boat of holes.

Dirt scooped in with a plastic
shovel, sifted to make cakes
and castles. Wrestled
from each other’s hands,
its tin feet bent and re-bent.

Bowl daylight fell through
onto freckled faces, noon stars
on the pavement, the universe
we circled aiming jagged stones,
rung bells it caught and held.

~Dorianne Laux “My Mother’s Colander”from Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems.

Many of my mother’s kitchen things, some over seventy years old, are still packed away in boxes that I haven’t had the time or the emotional wherewithal to open. They sit waiting for me to sort and purge and save and weep.

But this kitchen item, her old dented metal colander, she gave to me when I moved into my first apartment some 40 years ago – she had purchased a bright green plastic colander at a Tupperware party so the old metal one seemed somehow outdated, overworked and plain. It had held hundreds of pounds of rinsed garden vegetables during my childhood, had drained umpteen pasta noodles, had served as a sifter in our sandbox, and a helmet for many a pretend rocket launch to infinity and beyond.

It still works fine, thank you very much, for all intended and some unintended purposes. It does make me wonder what other treasures may surprise me when I finally decide to open up my mother’s boxes. She died ten years ago, but her things remain, as if in suspended animation, to be rediscovered when I’m ready. They wait patiently to be useful to someone again, touched lovingly and with distinct purpose as they once were, and be remembered for the part they played in one woman’s long and faith-filled life.

Maybe, just maybe, it will feel like I’ve unpacked Mom once again as well.

To infinity and beyond…

The Abundance of This Place

Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light.
~Wendell Berry from “A Vision”

Into the rooms flow meadow airs,
The warm farm baking smell’s blown round.
Inside and out, and sky and ground
Are much the same;

Now straightening from the flowery hay,
Down the still light the mowers look,
Or turn, because their dreaming shook,
And they waked half to other days,
When left alone in the yellow stubble
The rusty-coated mare would graze.

~Léonie Adams from “Country Summer”

Most of the work on our farm involves the ground – whether plowing, seeding, fertilizing, mowing, harvesting – this soil lives and breathes as much as we creatures who walk over it and the plants which arise rooted to it.

Yes, there must be light. Yes, there must be moisture. Yes, there must be teeming worms and microbes deep within the dirt, digesting and aerating and thriving, leaving behind needed nutrients as they live and die.

And yes, we all become dust again, hopefully returning to the ground more than we have taken.

As I watch our rusty-coated horses graze on the stubble of these slopes and valleys, I’m reminded it is a sacrament to live in such abundance. We all started in a Garden until we desired something more, and knowing our mistake, we keep striving to return.

So this land teems with memories: of the rhythms and cycles of the seasons, of the songs and stories of peoples who have lived here for generation after generation.

Eventually we will find our way back to the abundant soil.

A Shortcake with a Soul

Cherry cobbler is a shortcake with a soul…
~Edna Ferber

Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
to mouth-size,
hand-size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet.

Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive,
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road
it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.
~Stephen Dunn from “Sweetness”

When the soft cushion of sunset lingers
with residual stains of dappled cobbler clouds
predicting the sweetness of a next day’s dawn,
I’m reminded to “remember this, this moment, this feeling”~

I realize that it will be lost, slipping away from me
in mere moments, a sacramental fading away of time.
I can barely remember the sweetness of its taste,
so what’s left is the stain of its loss.

Balancing as best I can on life’s cobbled path,
stumbling and tripping over rough unforgiving spots,
I ponder the messy sweetness
of today’s helping of soulful shortcake,
treasure it up, stains and all,
knowing I could never miss it
if I hadn’t been allowed a taste and savored it to begin with.

A World of Moments

The evening comes slowly over us,
over the cardinal and the wren still
feeding, over the swallows suddenly
swooping to snatch up mosquitoes

over the marsh where the green
sedge lately has a tawny tinge
over two yearlings bending long
necks to nibble hillock bushes

finally separate from their doe
mother. A late hawk is circling
against the sky streaked lavender.
The breeze has quieted, vanished

into leaves that still stir a bit
like a cat turning round before
sleep. Distantly a car passes
and is gone. Night gradually

unrolls from the east where
the ocean slides up and down
the sand leaving seaweed tassels:
a perfect world for moments.

~Marge Piercy “June 15th, 8pm”

photo by Harry Rodenberger of a swallow fledgling

So many daily moments pass by me, like raindrops flowing away in a stream — I can’t capture and hold them. They run through my fingers like water, leaving behind only a residue of memory.

Yet each is a moment of perfection, even as I lose my grasp on it. I can write a word or record a picture, yet most precious is the gift of time itself.

A moment given, a moment breathed, a moment vanished, lived fully and never to come again.