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.

Both Landlord and Tenant

snail1

 

The frugal snail, with forecast of repose,    
Carries his house with him where’er he goes;    
Peeps out,—and if there comes a shower of rain,    
Retreats to his small domicile again.    
Touch but a tip of him, a horn, – ’tis well, –           
He curls up in his sanctuary shell.    
He’s his own landlord, his own tenant; stay    
Long as he will, he dreads no Quarter Day.    
Himself he boards and lodges; both invites    
And feasts himself; sleeps with himself o’ nights.        
He spares the upholsterer trouble to procure    
Chattels; himself is his own furniture,    
And his sole riches. Wheresoe’er he roam, –   
Knock when you will, – he ’s sure to be at home.
~Charles Lamb  — “The Housekeeper”

 

snail2

 

I like to think of myself as carefully self-contained and safe from whatever threatens  – not dependent on others, able to bear my own burdens, completely sufficient unto today.

The reality is far different.  As sturdy and solid as I may seem on the outside, I’m nothing but soft and a bit mushy on the inside. And I have a tendency to retreat and hide inside my shell when the going gets rough.

Yet even shells can and will be broken.  I know it’s my home only for a little while.
So knock when you will:  I’ll be here.

 

For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.  Hebrews 13:14

 

snailshell

 

 

broken

Time to Hatch

eggshell2

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird:
it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg.
We are like eggs at present.
And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg.
We must be hatched or go bad.

~C.S. Lewis
Our destiny is to fly free,
whether soaring alone
or arcing and sweeping together as one organism.
It starts in the nest, protected and warmed.
No view of sky
until shrugging off the shell,
then fed until our wings
spread beyond the edges,
readying to carry us
to places beyond imagining.
morningswans
murmur3

Broken Things

broken

God uses broken things.
It takes broken soil to produce a crop,
broken clouds to give rain,
broken grain to give bread,
broken bread to give strength.
It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume.
~Vance Havner

 

And I might add:
a snail wandering into sidewalk foot traffic,
crushed, cracked and dying, clinging to the pavement,
its broken shell a gift of metaphor
of our own leaking brokenness.