Never an End to What’s Left Behind

“There’s never an end to dust
and dusting,” my aunt would say
as her rag, like a thunderhead,
scudded across the yellow oak
of her little house. There she lived
seventy years with a ball
of compulsion closed in her fist,
and an elbow that creaked and popped
like a branch in a storm. Now dust
is her hands and dust her heart.
There’s never an end to it.
~Ted Kooser “Carrie” from Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985

My Great Aunt Marion was considered odd, no question about it.  She usually dressed in somber woolens, smelling faintly of mothballs and incense. Her straight gray hair was bobbed with bangs,  unfashionable for the wavy permanents of the fifties and the beehives of the sixties.  Aunt Marion was a second grade teacher all her life, never marrying,  and she lived for over 50 years in a spotless tiny apartment until the day she died in 1975.    She bequeathed what little she had to the church she had faithfully attended a few blocks away and was buried in the family plot on a windswept hill overlooking Puget Sound.

I was overseas when she died, and to my knowledge, none of the extended family attended her funeral.  In her retirement years she had become reclusive and remote.  It was clear visitors weren’t welcome so visits to her became rare.  In an effort to counteract that, I have annually visited her gravesite for the past 30+ years, paying homage to this aunt who remained an enigma in life and became even more mysterious in death.

She grew up in the early 20th century in an impoverished German immigrant family who relocated from Wisconsin to the northwest. Her father was gone most of the year running steamboats up the Yukon, leaving her mother to make do as a some time school teacher and full time mother. Her older brother dropped schooling early for the rough and ready life of the local logging camps but Marion finished teachers’ college at the Western Washington Normal School on the hill in Bellingham. She began her life’s work teaching 2nd grade a few miles away at Geneva Elementary School, and became the primary caretaker in her mother’s declining years.

Her shock over her brother’s marriage to a much younger teenage girl in 1917 created foment within an already fractious family that persisted down through the generations.  As the offspring of that union, my father tried to prove his worth to his judgmental aunt.  She was had a spiky and thorny personality, stern and unforgiving, but politely tolerated his existence though would never acknowledge his mother.  Family gatherings weren’t possible due to the ongoing bitter conflict between the two strong-willed ladies.

Though Marion was childless, her heart belonged to her many students as well as a number of children she sponsored through relief organizations in developing countries around the world.  Her most visible  joy came from her annual summer trip to one of those exotic countries to meet first hand the child she was sponsoring.  It seemed to fuel her until the next trip could be planned.  She visited Asia and India numerous times, as well as Central and South America.  It  provided the purpose that was missing in the daily routine of her life at home.

I moved to my great aunt’s community over three decades ago, 10 years after she had died.  I’d occasionally think of her as I drove past her old apartment building or the Methodist church she attended.  Several years ago, I noticed a new wing on the old church, modern, spacious and airy.  I commented on it to a co-worker who I knew attended that church.

He said the old church building had undergone significant remodeling over the years to update the wiring and plumbing, to create a more welcome sanctuary for worship and most recently to add a new educational wing for Sunday School and after school programs during the weekdays. As one of the council members in the church’s leadership, he commented that he was fortunate to attend a church equipped with financial resources to provide programs such as this in a struggling neighborhood that had more than its share of latch-key kids and single parents barely making do.   He mentioned an endowment from a bequest given over 40 years ago by a spinster schoolteacher in her will.  This lady had attended the church faithfully for years, and was somewhat legendary for her silent weekly presence in the same pew and that she rarely spoke to others in the church.  She arrived, sat in the same spot, and left right after the service, barely interacting.  Upon her death, she left her entire estate to the church, well over $1 million in addition to the deed to an oil well in Texas which has continued to flow and prosper over the past several decades.  The new wing was dedicated to her memory as it represented her expressed desire for her neighborhood.

I asked if her name was Marion and he stared at me baffled.  Yes, I knew her, I said.  Yes, she was a remarkable woman.  Yes, how proud she would be to see her legacy – what she had worked so hard for and then left behind — come to fruition.

There were times as I was growing up I wondered if my Great Aunt Marion had a secret lover somewhere, or if she led a double life as her life at home seemed so lonely and painful.  I know now that she did have a secret life.  She loved the children she had made her own and she lived plainly and simply in order to provide for others who had little.  Her extended family is better off having never inherited that money or an oil well.  It could have torn an already conflicted family apart and Marion knew, estranged from her only blood relatives,  her money would hurt us more than it would help.

Her full story has died with her.  Even so, I mourn her anew, marveling at what became of the dust of her, the legacy she chose to leave. 

Of this, I am deeply proud.

Holding Down What We Have

The next morning I felt that our house
had been lifted away from its foundation
during the night, and was now adrift,
though so heavy it drew a foot or more
of whatever was buoying it up, not water
but something cold and thin and clear,
silence riffling its surface as the house
began to turn on a strengthening current,
leaving, taking my wife and me with it,
and though it had never occurred
to me until that moment, for fifteen years
our dog had held down what we had
by pressing his belly to the floors,
his front paws, too, and with him gone
the house had begun to float out onto
emptiness, no solid ground in sight.
~Ted Kooser “Death of a Dog”

God… sat down for a moment when the dog was finished in order to watch it… and to know that it was good, that nothing was lacking, that it could not have been made better.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

Twelve dogs have left pawprints on my heart over my sixty five years.  Each dog of my childhood was my best friend to confide in, take walks with, to cry into the ruff of their furry necks. They always listened compassionately and never judged, even when I was in the wrong.

There was a thirteen year long dogless period while I went to college, medical school and residency, living in inhospitable urban environs, working unsuitable dog-keeping hours.  Those were sad years indeed with no dog hair to vacuum or slobber to mop up.

The first dog in our married life on the farm, a Tervuren,  rode home from Oregon on my pregnant lap in the passenger seat, all sixty five pounds of her.  I think our first born son has a permanent dog imprint on his side as a result, and it certainly resulted in his dog-loving brain yet he has lived ten years in the largest city on earth, sadly dogless.  

Six dogs and thirty four years later, we are currently owned by two gentle hobbit-souled Cardigan Corgis who are middle-aged and healthy. I hope they stick around with us for a few more years, but we have felt the unmooring of our home’s foundation when we have lost, one by one, our dog friends in the past, usually in ripe old age.

Dogs could not have been made better among God’s creations because they love unconditionally, forgive without holding a grudge and show unbounded joy umpteen times a day.    It’s true–it would be nice if they would poop only in discrete off-the-path areas, use their teeth only for dog designated chew toys, and vocalize only briefly when greeting and warning, but hey, nobody is perfect.

So to Buttons, Sammy, Sandy, Sparky, Toby, Tango, Talley, Makai, Frodo, Dylan Thomas, Sam Gamgee and Homer:  God sat down for a moment when He made you and saw that it was good.

You’ve been good for me too, holding fast my foundation to the ground..

Sam as puppy kid – photo by Nate Gibson
photo of Dylan Thomas by Nate Gibson

At the Waiting Window

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Dawn comes later and later now,
and I, who only a month ago
could sit with coffee every morning
watching the light walk down the hill
to the edge of the pond and place
a doe there, shyly drinking,
then see the light step out upon
the water, sowing reflections
to either side—a garden
of trees that grew as if by magic—
now see no more than my face,
mirrored by darkness, pale and odd,
startled by time. While I slept,
night in its thick winter jacket
bridled the doe with a twist
of wet leaves and led her away,
then brought its black horse with harness
that creaked like a cricket, and turned
the water garden under. I woke,
and at the waiting window found
the curtains open to my open face;
beyond me, darkness. And I,
who only wished to keep looking out,
must now keep looking in.
~Ted Kooser “A Letter in October”
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God knows we seek out light
these autumn mornings,
longing for rainbow colors to fill in the lines
beyond a blackened window pane
and in our prayers.Some mornings we can only see our own reflection
mirrored by darkness, startled by time,
wondering what comes next.
God knows we need to feel the light
as we wait.
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lookingout
rainwindow
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Every Green Moment

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Just past dawn, the sun stands
with its heavy red head
in a black stanchion of trees,
waiting for someone to come
with his bucket
for the foamy white light,
and then a long day in the pasture.
I too spend my days grazing,
feasting on every green moment
till darkness calls,
and with the others
I walk away into the night,
swinging the little tin bell
of my name.
~Ted Kooser “A Birthday Poem”

 

morningmeadow

 

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Right now
all is green~
every square inch
and every misty mythical moment.

So I feast while I can,
knowing soon the darkness descends
and I too am called
to come home,
the bells I bear
swinging and ringing.

 

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I Keep Looking Within

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Dawn comes later and later now,
and I, who only a month ago
could sit with coffee every morning
watching the light walk down the hill
to the edge of the pond and place
a doe there, shyly drinking,

then see the light step out upon
the water, sowing reflections
to either side — a garden
of trees that grew as if by magic —
now see no more than my face,
mirrored by darkness, pale and odd,

startled by time. While I slept,
night in its thick winder jacket
bridled the doe with a twist
of wet leaves and led her away,
then brought its black horse with harness
that creaked like a cricket, and turned

the water garden under. I woke,
and at the waiting window found
the curtains open to my open face;
beyond me, darkness. And I,
who only wished to keep looking out,
must now keep looking in.
~Ted Kooser “A Letter in October”

 

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sunrisepond22115

 

God knows I miss the light
these autumn mornings,
especially when a storm blows
wet and wild in the dark
beyond the window pane.
I can only see myself
peering into the darkness;
I want to look beyond me.

God knows I need the light.

 

morning1110171

 

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Spending My Days Grazing

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morning528151

Just past dawn, the sun stands
with its heavy red head
in a black stanchion of trees,
waiting for someone to come
with his bucket
for the foamy white light,
and then a long day in the pasture.
I too spend my days grazing,
feasting on every green moment
till darkness calls,
and with the others
I walk away into the night,
swinging the little tin bell
of my name.
~Ted Kooser “A Birthday Poem”

morningonthefarm

I usually go in to work on my birthday,
just a regular day most summers~
instead today decided to catch up
on weeding, reading and needing
a day of quiet:

To notice each blade of grass while grazing through the hours,
transformed by something so simple,
to be called as the time comes
to return to the barn
in fullness,
ready to give all I have until empty.

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Beyond Me, Darkness

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morningstorm

evening1151514

Dawn comes later and later now,
and I, who only a month ago
could sit with coffee every morning
watching the light walk down the hill
to the edge of the pond and place
a doe there, shyly drinking,

then see the light step out upon
the water, sowing reflections
to either side — a garden
of trees that grew as if by magic —
now see no more than my face,
mirrored by darkness, pale and odd,

startled by time. While I slept,
night in its thick winder jacket
bridled the doe with a twist
of wet leaves and led her away,
then brought its black horse with harness
that creaked like a cricket, and turned

the water garden under. I woke,
and at the waiting window found
the curtains open to my open face;
beyond me, darkness. And I,
who only wished to keep looking out,
must now keep looking in.
~Ted Kooser “A Letter in October”

 

God knows we miss the light
these autumn mornings,
especially when a storm blows
wet and wild in the dark
beyond the window pane.
We only see ourselves
peering into the darkness.
God knows we need the light.

sunrisepond22115

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