Monday, May 3, 2010

Once Upon a Greenhouse Window

I am so sorry I disappeared. I had computer problems that hopefully have been solved, finally, with some rewiring here and there. Then I was knocked for a loop, but in a good way. At least things will be good once the dust settles.

Away from this blog, I am a freelancer and have been tending to that part of my life. So I am posting a piece from a website I write for to explain myself a bit. Then I hope to be back very soon, once I stop shaking (!), for another "Paris" installment.

Thank you, Ellen, for your very sweet note asking after me!


We moved into the house just weeks before I became a mother. It was my refuge. It sheltered us as we cried a river of tears, all of us adjusting to a new life, a new way of being. And those tears reshaped us, molded us into a family.

Later, the house spoke, telling me that the roses, the dogwoods and the holly that had been here when we moved in weren't enough, that I needed to garden in the small spaces outside for the first time in decades. So I went to nurseries and garden centers and talked to people about what to do and brought things home to plant.

Then I discovered the wonder of seeds. Or rediscovered them, they were my father's favorite way to garden, his passion, which had been waiting inside me too, all along. We all are gardeners, I think, it just takes time to find the things within us to bring into the open, to coax into bloom. When we are gardening from that inner space, we are so like our gardens.

Someone I grew up with told me recently that she has great success growing orchids. I didn't know that, but I wasn't surprised. She yearns to live in a tropical climate. That's like my obsession with Angel's Trumpets, another tropical native. I'm too far north, so I grow the angels, defying nature, surrounding myself with the accessories of the climate I yearn for.

I grow the angels in pots outside my Virginia home, the house where I felt my late father's presence, so palpable, on the night before my son was born. I woke up in labor, but it wasn't yet time to go to the hospital, so I told my husband to go back to sleep until dawn. My eyes were drawn over and over to a dark corner of the basement family room where I chose to wait. I could not see my father, but I sensed him there, in just that spot. At times I was sure I detected his scent. He kept my terror at bay.

And it may be for that reason I have resisted leaving here. We grew out of this house long ago. We never intended to stay for so long. My husband has wanted to move for years. Then, a couple of years ago, my son, now 16, started lobbying. Although I did not want to move, I agreed to look.

Then it happened. We found a storybook house in lovely condition, so a move is in the works, with all the madness that entails, especially for someone like me. I like to be, well, settled. But the new house has more room for my gardening. It has a lovely wooden deck and a covered back porch that needs only a ceiling fan and some wicker furniture to be perfect.

It also has something else. I'm always so sad in the winter, because of the northern Virginia cold, because I can't garden indoors with the bad light, the drying electric heat.

But when I walked into the storybook house, there it was, in the kitchen over the sink -- a greenhouse window, something I always have wanted.

The sun was shining through the glass. The second I saw that window, I knew. This house, too, was speaking to me.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Present He Doesn't Even See

My husband's mother died this week, at 91. This was unexpected. But still, circle of life. She had been declining, for several years. She had moved recently from a retirement cottage into a room in the assisted living facility next door. She had been, as she told my husband recently, "just existing."

We last saw her at Thanksgiving, when we went to Iowa to spend the holiday with her. Which is a good thing because another daughter had intended to come, but couldn't at the last minute because she got sick. But it was okay because we were there. And she did an interesting thing that wasn't like her.

So unlike her that we puzzled over it for a while. And the only thing I could come up with was this, I remember specifically thinking it, "She is saying her goodbyes."

My husband is the youngest of five, the caboose baby. Seven years younger than the sibling closest in age. All the siblings adored their mother. She was a nurse in a hospital for a short time, then resigned and threw herself into motherhood and civic duty, volunteering in smalltown Iowa.

But she also marched in pro-choice rallies, supported the local Planned Parenthood. She strongly believed in that. She was very outspoken.

I came to the family late. As did my son. Her other daughter-in-law called her "mom," but that did not feel right to me and when someone brought it up she agreed that was not appropriate for us. She did not mince words. At first I thought the issue was that she was very Midwestern and I was too Southern and we were not sympatico because of that. But I am crazy for Midwesterners. I finally came to terms with it, we were simply different. We did not "get" each other, but we were polite about it.

Her other grandchildren are a good deal older than my son. They spent lots of time with their grandmother. Some of them spent weeks at a time with her in Iowa. Some, even more time during various upheavals at home. Divorces and the like. My son never spent time with her alone. He saw her once a year, very briefly, with many other people around, most of the time.

But this is the thing. At Thanksgiving, my son's grandmother gave him her car. He was 15 then. My husband drove it back to Virginia. This was not like her. She was careful to not show favoritism. One grandchild asked for a couple of her many teacups a couple of years ago and she said no.

The car is a good one. A grandmother's car, certainly, a Chrysler. But with low mileage. My husband wondered aloud why she didn't sell it and divide the money between her five children. That was generally the kind of thing she would do. But she wanted my son to have it. She had decided.

But I knew why she didn't. She didn't elaborate, but it came to me eventually.

She was close to her other grandchildren, as I said. Several of them doted on her, visited her frequently, called, did things for her. She knew them and they knew her. She didn't really know my son, never had. But with each year, he looks and acts like her youngest child, my husband. Tall and lanky. And that child, my husband, looks just like his mother. So the three of them are a poster picture for the way strong genes are passed down through the generations despite being "diluted" by other parties.

Their blue eyes, for instance, glow from photos.

But that's not really why, their common looks.

I think she realized that she hadn't made that much of an impression on this last grandchild of hers. That he was unfailingly polite to her. She appreciated the chatty letters he wrote thanking her for the gifts. Telling her about his sports, his academic accomplishments. But she recognized a lack there.

What's the term? You reap what you sow. She may have noticed a lack of real warmth there.

So what did she do? She gave this boy a car. Think about it. It was brilliant. He was 15 then, poised on the edge of 16, getting ready to start driving, approaching the time when he would be able to get a license and walk out and climb into a vehicle that he could call his own. That he did not have to pay for, or wheedle or beg his parents for, sign over his first-born child.

Especially since we had always told him he would have to save up for a car. And he had been doing that. And his grandmother knew about that.

The woman was brilliant.

So now, this boy will grow older and smarter and more sentimental. And he will do it driving a burgundy Chrysler that once belonged to the Midwestern grandmother he didn't really know. And then he'll grow older and he'll remember his early years in his first car. And his Iowa grandmother, who thought enough of him to give him her car. To give him freedom.

Think about it. About what that really means in that context.

A boy and his car.

I'm laughing when I think about it: A boy and his car.

He doesn't even know it yet, but he is going to love this grandmother forever.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Waiting For Signs Too

So Bethany talked about signs in a post. And I loved that. What she said as well as the subject. I look for them. Even though I think that's the best way, for me, not to see one.

Maybe I'm just dense. Or maybe I need something that is so unequivocal that I won't be able to talk myself out of it, something that makes me go weak in the knees with certainty.

Like things that happened after my father died. Which I kept dismissing. Hearing him laugh, even though he wasn't there. Hearing his truck pull into the driveway. Even though it had not moved from its spot.

He died suddenly, in an accident. And I blamed my mind. Playing tricks, I thought. My mind was unable to accept that he was gone because I did not see him in the hospital bed hooked up to monitors and breathing equipment like my mother and siblings. I did not see them remove those horrible things.

And those things happened as I hurtled through the air for home, my body curled into the side of the plane, face pressed against the window, crying in silence. People stared, repelled by grief, but I was unable to stop or care.

When I got home, and the first visitors left, I could hear him in another room, laughing. He had an infectious laugh. When you heard it, you had to laugh too, even when you had no idea why he was laughing. He would laugh and slap his thighs, then that laughter would take over his entire body. The way I laugh.

But during those days, I thought I had lost my mind. Because I heard him so clearly. And would rush from the room I was in, looking for him. And my mother would be there, just her, no one else, and would look up in surprise because I was almost running. Looking for something. I couldn't tell her what. How could I?

It was so exhausting I ended up leaving sooner than I really had to, flying back to Virginia, because I was desperate for rest. I had slept with the lights blazing because I was certain that if I turned them off and closed my eyes for a few seconds that he would be there. And even with the lights on and my eyes closed I could feel him there. So I squeezed my eyes shut and thought long and hard, "Go away. Please go away." Because I was so afraid.

But he was determined to get through.

So, a few months later, I had a dream. My father called from a payphone. He was dressed in his summer suit, seersucker, and was holding his best cream-colored hat. I said, "Where in the world have you been? We have been looking everywhere for you, so worried." And he told me not to worry, that he was fine. And he talked about his travels, which I don't really remember much about. But we had a nice long chat. And he hung up and I felt better. So much better.

But, still, he wasn't done.

A couple of years later, I woke up at midnight. I was in labor. This was my first and only child. I had waited quite late in the game to become a mother. I had not thought this would happen. The pregnancy had gone fine and I was taking off a couple of weeks before the due date to rest and get ready.

So I called the doctor and he said it was early in the labor, yet, to wait until daybreak to come. So I told my husband to sleep, that I wanted to go into the basement to watch television, read, maybe doze by myself. I insisted on this, I needed him to be rested and strong.

I went downstairs and settled on the sofa. And over the next hour I became overwhelmed with terror at what was about to happen. What have I done? I can't do this. I change my mind. I did not want my husband. I felt no one could help me. I think I prayed, I was so terrified that I don't remember.

And then I looked in the dark corner of the room. I couldn't see him, but he was there. My father. I thought I smelled his scent, aftershave, something. I felt him as strongly as I have ever felt anything in my life. I calmed down. I settled back into the pillows and pulled up the covers. And I kept my eyes on that spot.

I felt him, hovering nearby, for the next 19 hours. Through my healthy son's uneventful birth. And then my father was gone.

I missed him so during the next few years. I thought about how much he would have loved my son, who was like him in so many ways. My father was an accomplished baseball and tennis player. And my son, when he could barely walk, would pick up little rocks and hit them with straws he pulled off juice boxes. He wasn't talking much when suddenly he was singing "Take me out to the ballgame..." swinging an imaginary bat the entire time. Where did he learn that song? We never knew. And tennis is his sport to this day.

And one day, a friend amazed me when she pointed out the way my son was walking onto the soccer field. "I love watching him walk. Look at him, he walks like such an athlete, chest first." My father walked exactly that way. Chest first, cock of the walk. My friend had never laid eyes on him.

Of course I talked about my father to my son. And my husband talked about his father too. My son didn't meet either of his grandfathers. They both died before he was born.

But it was my father my son was talking about when he wrote this poem. His teacher told me that, when she handed it to me, with tears gathering in her eyes.

"I never met my grandfather.
I wish I had
Sometimes I feel he is watching me."

My son was six when he wrote that. Six years old. You can think maybe I'm crazy, that I was so grief struck that I was hearing things right after my father died. And that people have dreams about the dead all the time to try to comfort themselves. And that the hormones of labor do all sorts of things to the mind.

But I did not feed notions to my son. I never talked about any of that to him. I was always very careful about not putting my ideas in my son's head. Besides, he has always been like his father, he is very literal, he wants proof. He's not one for signs. Show him.

But my son knew, back then. The way I knew. That my strong, larger-than-life father had given up his earthly form, yes. But that he was still here, too, for a while, anyway. That his huge spirit had things to do before going on ahead, without us.

He cheered us, with his laughter, which is mine now too. He comforted, with his strength. And he watched over us even when I could not see or feel him. But my son felt him. Fresh from that place beyond the veil, he knew.

Just in case, I'd like to say this out loud, in case he's listening. In case he wants to talk, or laugh out loud, or make his spirit's presence known somehow again.

Thank you, Daddy, for everything. My eyes are wide open and they'll stay that way. And I'm not afraid. I promise, I won't ever be afraid to see again.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Boat and the Weeping Willow

The weeping willow is my favorite tree. I have good reason for that.

I put flame to candle just now. As I watched the wick burn, I saw it, four of us in a small boat gliding on a pond in late spring. The willow was just ahead, branches dripping into the water at one end.

We all needed refuge. T., J. and their little brother lived in a lovely new house that shuddered with the fighting and rage inside. And in my home, for years the alternating chill and warmth felt like menace because it was unpredictable.

The woods behind my house offered easy solace. But escape was not so simple at T.'s. We had to stay inside most of the time, for one reason or another. Still, the girls were allowed weekend guests sometimes.

T.'s beautiful mother was always glad to see us. Her father was courteous until my parents left, then his cold silences returned and he disappeared into his bedroom or den. He worked odd hours at the airport nearby, so when he left, we took off as fast as we could, out the side door, through the garage, out. Into freedom.

Somehow, I can smell water. So it didn't take long to sniff out the pond. They had no idea it was there. They had moved to a new house in a development built on cleared farmland and had not ventured far from home.

We found the pond one beautiful day in late spring.

I remember the light. It scattered diamonds on the water's surface as we jostled and pushed each other while running over the grassy hill that had concealed the pond from the road. It was even more beautiful than the two ponds in the woods behind my house. Because bushes, wildflowers and grasses surrounded nearly every inch of water. And a huge weeping willow dripped branches into the water on the far end.

I fell in love that day. With a setting. And it had only just begun.

I saw it first. Something was underneath the shadowy surface at the shallow end. A piece of wood, an old box, maybe. I felt it with my hands, then started pulling. I yelled for help. We pulled and pushed and I am sure began to scream when I realized what we had.

A boat! A boat!

It was small, a little rowboat that someone had used once to float on that pond. We dragged it to the banks. And to our astonishment, it seemed largely intact, with a hole at one end. Then we found an oar, I don't remember where. But it was intact too.

The next thing I remember is getting buckets. We must have gone back to the house, a sneak mission. Because we were bailing water out of the boat. And then I found a long branch suitable for steering. Then I launched, testing whether the craft was seaworthy.

It started sinking. But I was living an old dream long lodged in my young heart and I was not giving up. I had a boat!!!

So T., who was sweet and girly, my opposite and my best friend, was assigned to bail along with my little sister/loyal assistant. They were the easy ones. T.'s younger sister J. was wild and prone to sass just like me, so I'm sure she argued for the pole position. But I had found the boat, I reasoned, and therefore was in charge. I also was the oldest, by one month, and certainly the bossiest. So she rowed.

We were wet and muddy by then and should have been freezing cold. But we had fallen into the arms of a bliss that transcends physical discomfort, then shelters in the heart for a lifetime. So we held onto the boat sides and pushed into the water and jumped in -- launched!

I know we were loud and raucous as we figured out how to stay afloat on that pond. But we managed. Eventually, we were balancing the boat with our weight to keep the hole out of the water, or mostly, so the bailers could take a break.

At first, I took us around the shallow edges of the pond to make sure we could stay afloat. My sister and I swam like fish, thanks to Mother for introducing us early to the lively waters of rivers and creeks. Then finally to my father's method of taking us into the middle of Flint River and releasing us, standing just short of our flailing arms, forcing us to "stop fooling around and swim." And we did!

Once established, we found a rhythm. We moved around the edges, through the middle, around again and then through the willow branches. That was the part I liked best. I will never forget those moments.

We fell silent as we approached the weeping willow, moving from clear bright spring sunlight into a deep green curtain that I pushed aside first with the pole, then my hands and arms. Suddenly inside the veil, the air was cooler and so still and quiet that we did not speak. If someone whispered, another shushed. Something ancient and mysterious was at work within the shadows of that tree. We did not understand it, but we clearly fell under the spell.

It calmed us. We spent hours at that pond, quietly rowing, then sitting, drifting, letting the wind gently blow the small boat through the water. Four little girls, two rarely quiet, sat in silence, suspended in time and space until the twilight began to steal through the cracks in the trees bracing the sky.

But then T.'s mother found us. And we were banned from the pond.

We slipped back once or twice and the boat was gone. I'm sure T.'s father removed it. T.'s mother was upset with herself for letting us be gone for so long. She was terrified from then on, worried we would go back and drown in that pond. I protested that little sister/loyal assistant and I would never drown.

But her children never learned to swim like that. Or roam. Or discover what the world held for them. Held tightly, encapsulated in a prism of fury not of their own making, they each in their own way stand apart in some way even today.

Which is why, not that long ago, I made T. come with me one day when I was visiting home. Ignoring her questions, I walked her through my sister's field to the pond and made her climb into the little flat boat. And I pushed us into the water despite the mosquitoes and the little snakes she kept looking for warily. And I paddled us into the middle of the water.

And we laughed about the old pond and the sunken boat and the willow tree. At a distance, I could see my little sister/loyal assistant, now all grown up, watching me as she has done her entire life. And then T. and I sat in silence, letting the twilight flow over the huge oaks onto our skin and into our lungs like a sweet cool wind.

And just under the orange sun dipping low, I swore I could see it. The weeping willow tree. It's still there. It is always still there.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

My Summer of Flying

Snow again. It sends my mind skittering from here, like dozens of waterbugs on the glassy surface of the pond in the woods. But it doesn't take long to find refuge. Mother reminded me at Christmas.

"Remember the summer you spent flying off the M.'s wellhouse?"

Another of my schemes. I took something my brother said -- about physics, about flying, about lift -- and mixed in my own harebrained ideas. My special brand of mental alchemy.

"You cannot be serious," my brother, the future engineer, would say. "Mother, you have to make her stop," was another of his requests. Mother would check to make sure I wasn't about to seriously harm myself or others, then let it go.

So I gathered my materials, enthusiasm bordering on hysteria, which drew a small crowd of followers. These included the believers, the bored and the skeptics. The last generally consisted of the neighbor boys, who enjoyed watching me fall on my face. My experiments frequently failed. But they always entertained.

It was summer and Mrs. M. watched my sister and me while my parents worked in town. No one was hauled off to camp or activities. The high school boys started two-a-day football practice at some point. And they got themselves to and from the field pretty much on their own.

Which left the rest of us to entertain ourselves. All day long. All summer. Three long, beautiful months.

So the first morning of the flying I was ready. I had kites and makeshift harnesses made of belts and ropes. I had money for helium balloons to be filled at the store across the highway. We needed lots of helium balloons. I had my long black satin cape and a myriad of other capes. I had cardboard boxes and tools for the building of aircraft. The materials, loaded into a red wagon and a wheelbarrow, were hauled to the M's with the help of my loyal assistant, my little sister.

I had barely slept. We were going to fly.

The M. sisters were already waiting for us at the big picture window. J., the oldest, S., M. and P.

We got the helium balloons and went to work at the sloping wellhouse. It was the tallest one in the neighborhood, almost five feet at the highest point. We climbed up, dragging our equipment. We were beginning to draw a crowd.

I don't remember everything. I know I was hoping for a windy day for my first attempts. We wrapped ourselves in harnesses, hooked kites to them and helium balloons. I could feel the slight tug of the kite against my weight. I held out my arms. I ran as fast as I could and jumped off the wellhouse.

Of course, I did not fly. But this did not discourage me. Not in the least.

I kept it up. We all did. J., the oldest of the M. girls, helped in between loads of housework and cooking and otherwise helping her mother. She wasn't really ready to grow up.

We went to work on wings, using all kinds of materials. We built aircraft using cardboard boxes and pillows for seats and tried to fly off the shortest point of the the wellhouse. Ouch. Not for long.

We added fake wings to the harnesses, Icarus-like. We interviewed each other and the "witnesses" with the seriousness of rocket scientists. We wrote down responses. Did you feel that? Did you feel any lift at all? Did anyone SEE anything? Just a little bit, you had to feel SOMETHING!

We were sure if we tinkered here and there, added this and that, jumped higher, ran faster, we would find the magic formula that would lift us into the sky. Into the wind. Up, up and away.

And our notion was not so off the wall if you think about what was going on around us at that time. Not for children growing up in a magic time and place. Yes, we were going through nuclear alert drills at school due to the Cold War -- watch for a flash of white light and get under your desk. But we weren't told to actually slide under those desks, like some. Our drills were verbal. Sort of wink-wink drills.

Because we had faith that such a thing would never happen. We also had a secret weapon.

Just to the south of us, in federal installations where many of our relatives reported five days a week, the work was being done to send man to the moon. Not only that, we had Werner von Braun, who had been responsible for some of the most feared German weapons before he surrendered at the end of World War II and came to Alabama to help lead the U.S. space race.

From time to time, we felt the earth move under us. "It's the big rockets," we were told. "They're testing them." So, we knew we were safe. The earth was moving. We were going to the moon. I mean, why couldn't we fly off the wellhouse?

So we tried. Over the course of days and on and off over weeks that summer. We just kept trying.

We never did fly, of course. At least not in a physical sense. But our hearts soared, up and out, over grass dew-tinted an emerald green, into wide open blue skies.

The sun's fire loosened our fluid young muscles. Air cleaned by miles of old forest curled into our lungs, sending blood pounding in our veins. Wind blew through our long soft hair as we stretched our arms high and grasped with small hands for clouds as white as the cotton bursting from the fields around us.

Over and over we jumped, throwing ourselves into radiance -- the sweet arms of a midsummer day in the deepest part of the South. Days we thought would never end, could never end. Drunk with it.

Other children gathered near the wellhouse to watch our whimsical quest. Then later, grownups too. They stood, watching, but not really seeing. Because their eyes had gone soft, remembering what could be seen only in memory -- their own long-gone childhoods.

So now, that wellhouse exists only in memory, too. We're all scattered to the winds. And J. has gone on ahead, without us, off somewhere with Cyn.

I'm going to try to catch a sign of them this summer, when I visit Alabama. When the crickets and Katydids are in full throat and the night sky is blazing with stars. That's when those days feel so close I can stretch arms into the darkness and almost pull them back to me.

I'll find an old wellhouse or another icon to sit on. Maybe I'll wear my black cape, not the satin one, that's long gone. But of course I have a black cape. I've always had one. I might have an opportunity to fly. Or something. And I want to be ready.

So, in the summer I'll look into the sky and recite the old directions. Tell them we'll all be along soon. Because I know where my friends went. And I know how to get there, when the time is right. We talked about it. You just follow some simple directions.

It's easy.

Listen closely. Remember?

All you have to do is hold up your arms, you way we used to do, take off running and fly. Up and away, into the sky. From there, just take the "second star to the right, and straight on 'till morning."

Hold on tight.

Much love, Glimmer

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Running In The Night

I was a sleepwalker. It's a family affliction. At least one in every generation.

We are selective, though. We don't always walk in the night. We pick and choose. The truth is I always have believed the places where we don't rest through the night in one spot are haunted in some way.

I have settled down, at least. I can't remember the last time I woke up in the pitch, holding my breath, knowing that once again I was not where I was supposed to be. Holding perfectly still, listening for just one clue, hearing only the decimating clanging of my own heart. Straining to see the smallest shimmer of light. Shaking with cold even in the heat, holding tight against the panic. Where am I? Where is this wall my hands are tracing?

I think, I hope, those days are long over.

We have certain characteristics, the night restless. My sister, when she was taken for several years, mainly talked, frantic, upset about something drastic that had gone wrong or was about to go bad. Her husband would question her about her fears, which made her furious. In her sleep.

One night when he was in his early 20s, Uncle H. tried to climb from the second floor window onto the roof of the porch of the farmhouse, but his mother caught him. She screamed for my father and his brother to help her. They ran to the hallway and this tiny woman had her oldest by the ankle, holding on for his dear life.

I roamed. My father found me one night sitting on the carport, legs crossed, silent and still, looking out into the rural South night. I had unlocked the front door, opened the storm, and walked around the house, through the grass and onto the flat concrete. Where I perched. And waited. For what? He woke up and had a notion and went into the living room, finding the door open. He knew something was amiss. Generational memory.

From then on, relatives were on alert. My favorite aunt had her husband build what he laughingly called "an idiot gate" for the stairs leading to the basement. He insisted it was for my grandmother, not me. I don't remember ever sleep walking in that house, although he said he heard me one night, as a middle schooler, shouting from my bed and went to see about the commotion. I was sitting up, my hand raised in the air: "I voted for you Mr. Kennedy, I voted for you!" A reference to our doomed president, John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated a couple of years earlier.

When I was grown, my brother told me he got up early and went into the garage one day. The dog slapped her tail on the concrete floor in greeting. Odd, he thought, Daisy stayed prone on the ground in a corner, lying next to a doll, instead of running over to say hello. He walked over to check on the dog. He was startled. The "doll" was his daughter, 3, holding tightly to Daisy. The little girl was fast asleep.

He picked her up and she started to cry. She said she woke up in the garage, and couldn't get back in, the door was locked. I asked my brother, "What in the world happened?" And he said, "You're asking me that? You know what happened." And, I said, "Oh yeah. I'm sorry."

She's a physician now, married to her longtime prince charming, a Navy helicopter pilot, who keeps her grounded at night. But, at least one in every generation.

I seemed to have been the longest walker, duration-wise. Then I married JO, a light sleeper. When I moved at night, his arm would clamp down like automatic prison bars. If I needed to go to the "ladies," for instance, I had to argue my way out of the vise, prove I was awake somehow. In the early years, he was the sleepwalking police.

After puberty, my son became the sleepwalker in the house. An athlete, one night he ran in his sleep, swiftly from his bedroom, down the stairs, to the back door and out. In my sleep I heard him, somehow, the mother in me overruling my sleeping self, moving silently from the bed, fast and light on my feet, down the stairs I followed, calling his name before I was fully awake.

"Stop. Stop! Right now, you need to stop this second and turn around and come back in the house."

Finally, he stopped. "What?" "Come in, you're asleep." I took his arm. His sleepwalking self is ephemeral and smaller, somehow, almost as though he could slip through my hands into the ether unless I hold on tightly. He's there and he's not. Like some of the molecules making up this boy now towering over me are somewhere else.

So he's easy to guide once I have my hand on his arm, once he hears my voice. He does not resist. "Okay," he says, moving back into the direction I lead him. Then awake, he's fully there, all molecules present, dense, like me.

He has settled down too, lately. But the sleepwalking reappears when we visit his Iowa grandmother. She lives in a tiny cottage on the grounds of a huge old assisted living facility, where we stay. This is a wonderful service provided for the families of the people who live in these units. Rooms for guests are provided free of charge.

But my son tries to leave the room in his sleep all night. So I can't allow him to stay in a room alone. One of us, my husband or I, have to sleep in one of the twin beds to keep him in the room, keep him from roaming the halls.

Because an hour or so after lights out, it starts. He argues, gets up and rushes for the door, fast. Other times he'll slip quietly from the bed and sneak, trying to get out before I can wake up. He's urgent, upset, and he argues. All in his sleep. He is desperate to get out of the room, out of the building. This has happened everytime we have stayed there since he went into puberty.

The last time we were there, I was fed up after multiple escape attempts. Finally I said to this sleeping boy, "Okay, what are you going to do if I let you leave this room and the building? In the middle of the night in the freezing cold in the middle of nowhere Iowa? How are you going to get out of here, out of Iowa, get back home?" Or words to this effect.

Quietly, calmly, in the dark winter night of the Midwest, he told me matter-of-factly, "Sarah will help me."

"Go to bed," I said. And he did. We don't know a Sarah, or we haven't since fifth grade, five years ago. This huge old, gothic nursing home/assisted living facility is full of ghosts. That's what I think.

Because at my mother's house, D. sleeps peacefully, all night long, not a peep from him. And always has. Mother built this house a year after my father died. No one else has lived there.

So many questions. No real answers. I used to bring up the sleepwalking to doctors. Who have no answers, no response, no solution. So I don't talk about it anymore. I have read and read. No real answers there either. Contradictory information. We generally grow out of it anyway. Eventually.

At least one in every generation. Calm and collected in the daytime, happy, well-adjusted. Yet desperate in the deep, dark night. Trying to escape a nightmare we don't remember, recognize or understand in the light of day. Which would be very upsetting except for the stories about the generations of us affected by this. We've heard them as long as any of us can remember.

At least one in every generation. Restless in the night. Running from something never seen and rarely remembered.

Friday, January 8, 2010

We Did It, Cyn

We did it, Cyn. Girl we did it.

I felt you. I couldn't have watched a second of that game without you "there" somehow. Tide nerves. All my talk back when about not being interested in football, about the Crimson Tide. That was blither. You knew.

Cyn called that (Longhorn) bull from hundreds of miles away. That's the thing about keeping friends through the decades. They know your crap.

She always knew when I was thinking about going to the floorboards. You know, the way the Mafia went to the mattresses during times of conflict? When we were little, we slipped keys out of purses and crawled into the family cars, onto the floorboards, to listen to the game on the radio and pray for the Crimson Tide to pull out just one more victory, for us and for the Bear.

I was thinking about doing that on Thursday night, despite the freezing weather, about the time I called that baby Longhorn QB "a little A..-hole" in front of my teenage son. The same baby quarterback I'd worried about earlier when he went in to replace the regular quarterback. "Don't hurt him," I told the mountain-sized Alabama defensemen through the TV screen.

We needed that victory more than Texas. Texas has the Cowboys. Texas has the legends, the romance, the ranches. We used to visit family friends near Denton, Texas, with a ranch that could be viewed only by riding for a long time in a truck. They had peacocks. So I have two beautiful silk shawls with peacocks on them. I slide one over my bare arms and think of Texas. Of big skies, ranches, cowboys and those peacocks.

Paul "Bear" Bryant's Crimson Tide was just about the only positive news coming out of the state during the bad times, the 1960s, as Gov. George Wallace helmed the ugly fight against civil rights. The days of riots and fire hoses, bombings and white hoods. Unspeakable things, people hanging from tree limbs, ropes tied around their necks, horses charging praying men and women asking to be treated like human beings.

And then on Thursday night, our team brought it. Texas suffered a terrible injury early on and that wasn't fair. But still, those teams battled full out. Nobody phoned it in. Nobody sat on the ball to run out the clock in the last minutes, preserving a tie and stealing, in the eyes of the faithful, Alabama's deserved third national championship in a row. (If I must write it, this references the 1967 game against, shudder, Notre Dame).

Cyn wanted it so very badly, this win. So much so that our friend J., an Auburn graduate, sacrificed and pulled for Alabama for two years to make Cyn happy. And the Tide brought it to us, they brought it home. Even though I'm sure the cynical think she wasn't really "here" to see it.

But she's been around, somehow, still. Hovering near the veil, the membrane, whatever it is that separates us from the next place. I've been relaying her stories here, of course. And then last month, my husband found the ornament in the attic, tied with Crimson Tide ribbon. It showed up after being missing for years.

I posted the picture at the top. A few years after I married JO, she made that ornament and mailed it to him. She thought it was time to tell about the "secret clause" that had been inserted into the marriage vows. And which he had solemnly sworn to uphold, 'til death do us part and the like.

Although he was a proud son of the great state of Iowa, marriage to a woman with crimson red blood in her veins comes with a price. And that is sworn allegiance, for a lifetime, to the Tide. Above and beyond all others.

JO liked the idea, actually. An athletic man, he would rather do than watch. But he was happy for an excuse to "marry into a winning football team," as he put it. "Let's face it, the Hawkeyes suck." Well, not always. But he took to the team and converted our son last year, a rabid Washington Redskins fan who previously had no time for college ball. And now JO is working on his brother in Chicago and they're planning a pilgrimage next fall to see the Tide play in Alabama. Tailgating and all.

The ornament has a joke on it -- Cyn wrote "Louise" on the glass bulb, a nickname I gave her when we were little. I don't know why, we thought it was funny. She nicknamed my mother Mildred in response. Louise stuck. Even her mother called her Louise.

So, after Thursday's 37-21 whipping, I can hear "Louise" calling it that now, I think she can safely go on ahead. It's okay. Her work is done here.

She can move away, climb if she needs to, like we did with these mimosa trees in my yard so many times. We spent hours there, escaping from the hot summer sun, planning our futures, making fun of boys. We had no intention of marrying, ever. And then we both did. Twice.

I know a couple of guides who can accompany her if need be. She didn't like being alone, really. Her dad. And of course, mine. The strongest man I've ever known. He was particularly good at leading expeditions in trying circumstances.

I don't have proof. But I know her strong, vibrant, brave spirit is glowing just beyond the veil. And she'll be larking soon, where she's going. And what a treat "others" have in store.

I kept thinking of this after she passed, something I read, by Victor Hugo. It sums up what I think about the afterlife. Not think, feel. And somehow, I know it in my bones, in my blood.

"A ship sails and I stand watching till she fades on the horizon, and someone says, 'she is gone.'
Gone where?
Gone from my sight, that is all; she is just as large as when I saw her...
The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her, and just at the moment when someone says 'she is gone,' there are others who are watching her coming, and other voices take up a glad shout, 'there she comes!'...

And that is dying."

I can't see Cyn anymore, but I can hear her. Can you? Listen. It's Cyn, or maybe she's going by Louise these days. She's shouting. She's running, a feisty blue-eyed girl, blonde hair flying, growing smaller in my mind's eye, but she's shouting at the top of now-strong lungs, "37-21, 37-21, 37-21!!!!!!!!"

And they are shouting. Cheering. They've been waiting for the likes of her. And they're glad. They're shouting too, "There she comes!"

We love you, Cyn. J. and I and so many people, even those who got to know you by reading about you here. And we will never, ever forget you.