Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I thrill to go back to the deep South still, 30 years after I moved hundreds of miles from home. There are so many reasons for this. Family of course. And the friends, some I've stayed close to since we were 5 years old.

But there is a visceral pull from the South that I do not experience anywhere else. It is a palpable, physical force. I feel it as I approach the airport, circling the vast farms that have survived development in the Tennessee River Valley. I love feeling the force from a train, but I get to do that only rarely.

So, my favorite way to re-enter the South is from a car. It gives me time to adjust. I'm never the one driving, of course. I love him for doing this, taking me there, 13 long, hard hours from Northern Virginia for Christmas.

We are old hands at it now, the three of us. This was no easy thing with a baby, a toddler, a whiny overly active boy under the age of 10. But now that D. is a teenager he sleeps a lot and just deals the rest of the way.

After a night in Chattanooga with old friends, C. and S., we get up and head out early. We laugh at the huge mega-stores selling fireworks at the Alabama-Tennessee border. And then they both just leave me be. We don't even discuss it, they both know.

Because with each mile inside Alabama, I become quieter. I relax, sink deeper into my seat. I stop hearing the radio. I don't hear my family talking to me or to each other. I am gone to them.

The hills are gentler over the border in Alabama. The old-growth trees stretch for miles. The grass glistens in the morning dew. And the water. Ponds, lakes, rivers stretching in every direction. North Alabama is covered in bodies of water.

The landscape draws in my eyes first, mile after mile. My body is so calm and so still that I lose the ability to speak. My eyes fill with tears. And then, unseen by others, my soul lifts from the seat. It slips from the car and drifts through the glass. I'm out.

I am floating, over glassy sheets of water that exist nowhere else on earth. Water that visits me in my dreams, lapping at the base of trees I knew so well in childhood. I am flying on the fingertips of clean, cold wind.

Alive again, kicking and running through the air, free. I am home. Thank you. I am home.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

She Left Us Stories

Cyn had reason to be skeptical of my schemes. When we were little, the small, blue-eyed blonde was the no-nonsense one, fierce. And I was full of fancy.

In fifth grade, R. tore up my class picture and handed it back to me, announcing he "liked" Cyn instead. He then asked for her photo. Forget it, she said, get lost. Plus, she told the stringbean boy, "I hate your fat guts and always will." Then, she jumped on the playground swing, leaving him standing literally in the dust, speechless.

So I remember preparing carefully when she came to my house not long after that. We had been spending most of our time together at Cyn's, where we were free to roam. But sometimes Mother insisted.

I decided we would go fishing in one of the ponds in the woods. I had seen Miss A., who babysat us and did a bit of ironing for Mother, carrying a huge terrapin down the old road along the woods line. She and her husband smiled and laughed as they told my father about their catch from the pond that day. They said they were making turtle soup that night.

Mother wouldn't let Daddy give me any gear. I was 10 or so and prone to drama, excessive grieving over dead bait in fishing pails. And during my one and only fishing trip, I screamed every time I caught a fish, which was frequently. I don't know why the fish were ignoring my uncle and father, who were in the same boat. They spent the day baiting my hooks and taking off the fish because I would go limp and refuse.

But seeing Miss A. and the terrapin had seized my imagination. Cyn had been peevish. So I asked for fish hooks and bait because Cyn had talked about fishing. Mother gave us things she and her brothers used when they were children. I was unsure, but she was adamant, so I packed everything up and inserted bullwhip and hunting knife into my elastic waistband, hand-me-downs from my brother. Then I tied a black satin cape around my neck. This last item was, well, fashion.

So, off we went, jumping over the grassy ditch spanned by my father's wooden footbridges, running past the huge oak with the rope swings and the barking bird dogs. We ran past their pens with bamboo poles flailing, a black-haired girl and a blonde, and one black cape floating in our loud, laughing wake.

I will never forget the path to that pond. Through the clearing with the old tree houses, we moved past the gnarled tree where we stole honeycomb when the bees were quiet. Then a quick bounding run through the strange bright light and eerie quiet in the middle of the woods. The spooky place that didn't make sense because the leaves were so thick overhead that I never understood where that light was coming from. But soon we were out of the ghostly light, climbing the old fence, careful of the rusting barbed wire with traces of old blood left by the careless, the unsuspecting, the clumsy.

Because at the top of the barbed wire, stretching high and balancing, we could see the water of that pond flashing in the sun, the touchstone of my childhood. Yes! Just there! And I would run for that pond, fast, feet nearly soundless on the dirt banks, taking me to the tree with the big long limb that soared over the water.

With Cyn that day, we set up our fishing gear. It looked strange. My mother had given us safety pins to tie on the end of string for the bamboo poles. And for the bait? Raw bacon. Mother insisted she and her brothers had actually caught fish using these. And I believed her.

Cyn didn't. She had three brothers and knew if there were fish in that pond they weren't going to be snagged by bacon and safety pins. But we climbed into that tree and threw the lines in anyway. I stretched out on my favorite limb, the black cape fluttering in the breeze.

Cyn was irritated, argumentative. She thought she was going to be bringing home fish. But she was stuck in the woods with an idiot who thought safety pins were fish hooks. She made fun of them. I defended. I made up stories about the buckets of fish my uncles had caught.

Then she started in on the pond. She didn't see any fish. "This is an old cow pond," I think she said. And then the cape. Why was I wearing that thing? What if people saw us? They would think we were stupid. They would think WE WERE JUST GIRLS!!! A frequent argument.

I dismissed her claims. Cyn and I were not easy-going children. But she got me, finally, on one point. I was lying on the tree limb with the black cape tied tightly around my neck. It was flowing down toward the ground. The sun was beating down. She kept talking to me, but I acted like I was about to fall asleep.

"You are going to fall off that tree limb and that cape is going to break your neck, Glimmer." I remember her words, clearly, to this day.

She was afraid. It took me years to comprehend that. But I remember taking the cape off and dropping from the limb. The girl who told off my young heart's first assassin was uncomfortable. So, forget the cape.

For the rest of the day, we played in and around the pond like the children we were, little wiggling snakes and all. Cyn's unease dissolved in the sun and the water.

Because she had been an ordinary girl, like me, just one year before. Then catastrophe struck. Her father took her brothers to a football game and never came home. His heart failed him.

Cyn understood, in a way I did not, that disaster unspools in the blink of an eye. That even a child must watch and be careful. Or those you love will vanish. So Cyn watched and controlled and fretted. Because she could not bear another hard loss.

But her good nature won out over the years. She turned the hard and the fanciful into stories. She worked with flowers and lightened her tales with laughter, drawing people to her along the way, so many people. Through her illness, we returned to the stories time and time again, the fishing, her "Tromper" in the woods, flaming boats sent down the creek into luminous southern nights.

And now she's gone on ahead. So I am the holder of the stories. I do not have her deep voice or the bright smile that framed the words lilting from her lips like a song. But I know them, nearly word for word. They glow like the candle I light when I put down the tales and pass them on.

She watched over us for nearly half a century. So the words are something. They are something.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Lightening Up, For Now

No more somber posts for the rest of the month. That's how I am getting myself out of trouble. If anyone is strong enough to penetrate the veil from the other side, it would be Cyn. I can hear her. Sort of. She is saying, "Okay, you stop that right now. I mean it. Lighten up, dude."

So, I have a candle burning beside me. And I'm ready to chat.

I want to tell you that after I heard Cyn was terribly ill, I talked to an old friend, LC, a doctor of naturopathic medicine. We had just gotten back in touch after years of not hearing from each other. Naturopaths treat by utilizing the body's inherent ability to heal. They go to medical schools just like doctors, but study ways to tap the body's immunity using alternative methods instead of drugs.

LC immediately offered to present Cyn's situation to his naturopathic medical school, have the institution take her on as a case. Cyn was polite. But she declined. I had left her information, printouts, etc., on alternative healing. But she was hard-headed.

Or maybe she just remembered some of the things she heard me say about the people I ran around with after I moved to D.C. from Alabama, back in the day. When I worked for a company that pretended to hire actual grownups to work there.

I met LC back then, when he was just a boy, really. He was in college, a friend of a man I worked with I'll call V. V. wore black suits and had a stern expression that made him seem as though he was glaring at everyone all the time. He worked with the company's Latin American desk, it was called. After I got to know him, he said he didn't like to take vacations because "we are Latins, you know, if we leave the country, we will be overthrown."

And he wasn't stern at all. He was the least stern man I've ever known. Someone introduced me to V. one day and told me he covered the Lima, Peru nightclub scene when he was so young he wasn't even supposed to be in the clubs. He simply bluffed his way into them.

He continued that style when he went to college, in Boston. One holiday season, he was trying to rent a car with a couple of other Peruvian students and didn't possess something they needed (a credit card, I think). So V. decided to tell the rental agency clerks that the female student with them was "Miss Peru. And we urgently need to drive her to California for the Miss Universe pageant."

V. and his cohorts stomped around the office, going outside to pretend to use the pay phone, conferring in Spanish and calling each other fake names like "Che" in fake deep voices. They thought somehow this would help their case. The bluff didn't work. They never made it to California.

The kidding continued past college. After I had known him for a while, I heard V. was telling people I was a "black widow." That I claimed to be married, but no one had actually met my husband. I ignored this. I hadn't been an editor on the foreign desk long and still was laboring under the misinformation that I was to help save the world.

Then one day I accepted an invite to have coffee with E., who had just transferred to the foreign desk. He was a Tennessee gentleman who had an impressive background as a foreign correspondent. We went down to the deli in the first floor of the building, run by some very intense men, one of whom had barked forcefully at me when I asked him where he was from: "Palestine!"

E. sat with his back to the Deli counter, across from me. We sipped coffee and chatted. E. was telling me about his time in South America when I looked up and saw Mr. "Palestine" holding up a knife with a huge, scary blade, glittering in the sun through the plate glass window.

He pointed to the murderous looking weapon, then mouthed, "You want?" I frowned. What in the world? He gestured to the knife again. This time, he pointed the tip of the blade in the direction of E.'s back. Then he used his free hand to make a quick slashing motion across his neck. "You want to borrow?" he mouthed again, with emphasis. Oh. My. God. I remembered V.'s craziness about the black widow thing. He was obviously bored and had been down there acting up.

And then, E., the lovely man I had just met, saw that I was no longer paying attention to him. So he started turning around to see why. And "Palestine" pretended to be filing his nails with the saber. I had to tell him what V. was up to, and E. laughed like the good sport he was and is, but I swear he was nervous around me for a good long while.

And "Palestine" continued to offer me murder weapon loaners whenever I went in, which ended up being not such a bad thing. Because I always was waited on tout de suite, and given extra items, no charge, after being identified as a possible serial husband killer. I mean, respect in the big city is hard to come by. I had to take mine where I could get it. I was, after all, very busy pretending to believe I was saving the world.

It was V. who introduced me to LC and his brother, French-Nicaraguan college students in D.C. They had worked with their mother, a network television news fixer in Managua and that's how V knew them. LC was funny and sweet and fell in with our group of friends immediately.

LC and I were such good friends that he was one of the first people I told when I split up with the husband no one ever much saw. Yes, readers, I allowed him to live. But LC graduated and went to medical school in the upper northwest. I remarried and had a child and we simply lost touch. When I heard about Cyn I had just found LC on Facebook. When I told him about her plight in passing, he immediately wanted to help.

We talked on the phone. It was wonderful to hear his voice. It was as though only a few weeks had gone by instead of years. We laughed and caught up and conspired to "fix" Cyn. It would be hard. She would need to change everything. Lifestyle, diet, emotional, spiritual, everything would need to be tapped.

But she couldn't be persuaded to try that route. She didn't say why and I knew I couldn't make her. Especially a Cyn, whose will was mammoth.

I don't understand why she had to leave. But I am learning to look at what she brought to us. As Spellbound said in a comment, "I have to believe she accomplished what she came here for."

So I am looking at what she did manage, at least in my life, the micro view I guess. She brought LC back into my life, for one. And I am hearing from people from my hometown I've been out of touch with for decades. I mean, my classmates have always been quick to plan a reunion. If no one was interested in a big one, we had a small gathering, at a restaurant or a home. Cyn was a big part of that, she loved a get-together, wouldn't miss one. But I am amazed at the people I am hearing from now.

Because each day brings another person, someone I knew as a little girl or met as I edged toward womanhood. All of them I thought had been lost to time.

So one by one we open the circle, extending a hand and bringing in another person here, another one there. Then we grasp hands again, making a larger circle, holding on tight and closing in and moving toward and around a tiny figure in the middle, someone we can no longer see but know is there. Because she is drawing us in, her pull unfathomable but, now, seemingly without limit.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Big, Great Heart, Gone

Cyn, my wild tomboy friend, died at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Her body gave out. The body that made so many childhood journeys with mine. The ones I was fortunate to have and knew it even then.

Slipping from our houses into the glowing summer nights of the deep south. Sinking, knees first, into grass and mud to launch burning shoebox boats from the creek bank, watching them float in flames into tree-lined blackness, with only stars to light the way. All for the simple joy of it (August entry, Wild Gratitude).

Later, we were spirited young teenagers who had the idea that we were the physical equals of our athletic older brothers. So we played pickup football and baseball with them. Then we fished and played tennis nearly everyday in the summer. In our minds, we were excellent natural athletes in no need of lessons. Or tennis shoes even. An old Polaroid shows Cyn in loafers on the tennis court. All we needed, we felt, were old rackets. And cute outfits.

We knew we would live forever.

Which is why I did not write in August about Cyn being sick. My husband says we knew this was coming. But I didn't, really I didn't, despite everything.

At Christmas two years ago, Cyn came to my son's birthday dinner in Alabama. We were hosting it there during a holiday visit. Already thin, Cyn was losing weight and doctors couldn't say why. "Stress," they suggested. A few months later we caught up at my niece's Alabama wedding, where Cyn, a self-employed florist, had done the flowers. No expense was spared on this wedding. My sister-in-law wanted Cyn and nobody else would do. As usual, the arrangements were the most striking thing in the rooms. Cyn, who taught herself to play the piano by ear as a child, was, simply put, an artist.

At the reception, we sat outside on a wall ledge and Cyn talked. She was still losing weight and exhausted, drawn. Doctors still said they couldn't find anything wrong. "I just feel there is something wrong. I know it somehow." But then she put on her usual cheerful facade. She would not fret for very long in front of others.

A short time later, she had a medical crisis. She was diagnosed in the E.R. as having this, then that. After a series of unnecessary treatments they removed her gallbladder. Then they decided none of that was the matter. That she had a faulty heart valve and COPD -- inherited. The same thing that killed her father before he was 40 and her older brother, my brother's friend. They sent her home with portable oxygen tanks.

Even more horrifying was the fact she did not have health insurance. Pre-existing health issues, a husband who left her, etc. The lung doctor kept telling her she was the heart doctor's problem and the heart doctor repeatedly shuffled her off to the lung man, saying surgery was impossible with her lungs in such poor shape. Cyn wasn't supposed to live this long. But the last time I saw her she looked so good I was amazed. She sounded good. She stuck around, defying the odds. She even went several times to Tunica, Miss., to gamble with friends and family. I thought she was going to make it.

But the past few weeks, she went downhill. Something happened during the weekend. Another crisis, then a seizure. And her body gave out.

She was a fighter. Although she would give away her last quarter if someone asked.
And although her life seemed straight out of Jerry Springer at times, with two marriages and some nightmarish betrayals, she stayed one of the most optimistic people I've ever known. That's what people loved most about her.

Which is why I cried on and off most of the day. And why my oldest friend J., who unfortunately got the call at school where she teaches, broke down too. J. is an Auburn graduate who has pulled for Alabama for two years because the Crimson Tide's bid for a national championship was giving Cyn such joy during her bad times. If you know anything at all about Auburn-Alabama football rivalry, you will understand this sacrifice J. made out of love.

Because Cyn turned her sadness into laughter, even after being told repeatedly by doctors that they couldn't help her. "You won't believe what happened next..." and then she would laugh a deep-throated laugh and start the tale. What others cried about, Cyn turned into material to laugh at.

She was one of a kind.

So I'm distraught. And I'm angry. I'm wondering what could have been done to change this outcome even though that is futile now. I can't focus on that right now.

I'm thinking instead about something an Irish musician/artist/poet told me a few months ago, Lucy, Lucy has a knack for words that take the heart and flood them with light. So it wasn't a surprise when she suggested a radio program that talked about an experiment by a Massachusetts area doctor who sought to measure the mass purportedly lost by a human body when the soul departed the body upon death (Radiolab, Sept. 18, 2009).

In 1907, Dr. Duncan MacDougall weighed six patients while they were in the process of dying. The entire bed was placed on an industrial-sized scale. And when the patients died, MacDougall found that the bodies lost on average of 21 grams within a short time. He suggested this was the weight of the soul.

So I am sitting here, not 24 hours after Cyn's soul left her body, and I'm looking out the window at the cold, dark, rainy night. And I keep wondering, "Where is she?" Because a soul that big, that generous, someone that expansive and full of life cannot just be gone.

I really do want to know. Cyn and I were friends for half a century -- little girls who were already friends when her father died much too early, partners in a foursome of girls who sang in talent shows. We refused to enroll in home economics in high school, taking science instead with a classroom of boys. After I graduated from college and took a newspaper job in a new town, Cyn showed up at my empty apartment on move-in day with my mother, having filled the truck bed with second-hand furnishings and the like from her home and shop. She knew I wouldn't bother.

And now I can't accept that she's gone. I need more time. There are journeys ahead and where is she? We thought we'd live forever. I need a little more time. With my bare feet in the mud of that creek bank beside Cyn's house. Little wild girls streaked with mud, twirling and dancing by the water under the moon, cheering the fire we had set in makeshift boats and in our hearts.

I want her back. I need a little more time. Please. I need her back.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

What I See in His Blue Eyes

No lectures, please, about going overboard during the holidays. I won't listen. I'm not going on a spending binge. But there are times to live large. And this is one of them.

Growing up, the moods brightened at my house perceptibly around Thanksgiving. My father, initials JC, took off work at least a month at the end of the year to spend time with family and to go quail hunting. Except for Sundays, he would be gone by the time we got up.

I remember hovering near the back door, watching for a glimpse of his green-clad figure as the shadows grew from gray to black in the woods behind the house. Then profound relief, as warm as the sun, would claim me when I heard his pointers rustling and barking. JC had whistled and waved them home. And in a few minutes he was there too, game bags full of Christmas quail.

JC was happiest out in the wilds. He was born on a large farm in a remote section of Tennessee, part of a big extended family living along a river bend that still bears our last name.

The parents lived in the "big house," the grown children and their families in smaller homes scattered nearby. They were prosperous farmers who celebrated holidays together, gathered for a main meal around a large table. On these days, the matriarch, Miss Becky they called her, brought out a bottle of whiskey and poured shots for her sons to enjoy, a reward for their hard work. This horrified my grandmother, a hard-line Methodist not used to these ways.

Then, tragedy struck. A horse threw my grandfather, a handsome man with thick, coal black hair and big, luminous blue eyes. He started being plagued by seizures. One day, at home alone with his little blue-eyed middle child, my father, he began to seize. It was over quickly. My grandfather, W., was dead. He left three little boys and a wife, who quickly packed up and whisked her boys away from the river to live with her own family.

These were kind people, stalwarts, profoundly religious. They were also poor and fiercely proud. The large, festive holiday celebrations were over. Holidays, in fact, were very simple. The boys were loved and taken care of, JC had nothing but good things to say about this side of his family. But I know now his days faded from bright to gray after his father died.

Yet, life goes on. He grew up and went to war in Europe, where he survived terrible things. He married and became a father. His wife was a teetotaller, too, so the holiday toasts he had revived for a short time as a grownup ended again. But still, with JC, holidays were times of celebrations.

On the Saturday before Easter, for example, he would disappear for hours. Then he would return, proud of himself, producing a box from the car with a flourish. Inside were exquisite corsages. I remember perfectly formed, quivering orchids for Mother. For my sister and me, tiny red roses clustered in dainty, artistic nests of greenery, secured by long pearled hat pins.

We tried to imagine the florist who made such inspired treasures in the middle of the Alabama sticks where we lived. These were not ordinary corsages. JC was mysterious. "Oh, a friend of mine makes these," he would say, mentioning a community by the river near my hometown. Mother's Day yielded similar surprises.

JC cared little for furnishings, accessories, trappings, embellishments. He wanted to be gardening if he couldn't be out hunting, trudging through woods and fields with those sleek bird dogs he raised and trained with chickens bartered from farmers with promises of quail.

But as Christmas approached, he rummaged through boxes in storage and pulled out lights, stringing them over bushes in front of our house back when they were costly and easily broken, before decorating in this way was popular.

Then, on Christmas Eve, he would vanish again. Through dinner and the opening of presents, JC was the happiest person at the table, especially when the grandchildren started arriving. Then, with the evening over, JC would finish the boiled custard he asked Mother to make every year, his mother's recipe. And this normally tight-fisted man would fish out a bank envelope and distribute $100 bills. To everyone, little children included. Even Mother got one.

One Christmas Eve something even more amazing happened. I was quite small. I heard sleigh bells ringing outside my bedroom window. I got up and looked, but couldn't see anything. I wasn't asleep, I had just gone to bed. No one heard the bells but me, or claimed them, which was unusual. Mother didn't believe in "telling lies" to children, Santa and the tooth fairy included. So anything along the lines had to originate with JC.

I can see him now. Hidden behind the bushes, dressed in hunting camouflage after a long day in the wilds with the dogs, crouched low, knees brushing the browning grass, shaking a rack of sleigh bells borrowed from a farmer over by the river.

Ringing sleigh bells, steaming dishes of Christmas quail, colored lights gleaming on a dark night. Trembling orchids and roses that left us speechless. Golden custard from an old recipe and $100 bills, all of it, held in hands that bequeathed not just material goods but layers of wonder, mystery, peals of laughter.

Because in the giving JC opened an airway for life's breath, which flowed into cold, dark shadows that had been still and silent around a large table for nearly half a century.

So don't pity me the tangled lights, the cinnamon roll baking, the wrapping and mailings, the long drive I insist we make through Virginia and Tennessee into Alabama, which is still home to me after 30 years of living elsewhere. The endless details that exhaust me to the point that sometimes I have to take a nap halfway through the Christmas Eve celebration.

And when I rouse myself long enough to hand over a $100 bill to my son, after all the gifts have been opened and put away, I see more than just his luminous blue eyes.

Because the holidays give us permission to celebrate life with all the surprise and wonder it deserves. We should throw everything we have at it, energy-wise anyway. Because I am not just doing this for myself, for presents, or for my immediate family. I am recovering what was lost, long ago. Filling those blue eyes with light again. I am living for the many, around that big table, JC right in the middle of them.

This one's for you, especially, all month long. Merry Christmas, Daddy.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Just Living

(For S.B. -- "cat hoarder")

Some of the posts about my childhood have been called gothic. B. at is mainly the one who says that. But the tall Texan loves a scary story no matter how much he pretends otherwise.

However, nothing in this blog is as gothic as the first weeks of life endured by an odd, fascinating creature I still know in Alabama. And I often think about the lesson he brought to me.

I'm not an animal person, really. I admire them from afar. Too many early heartaches with the cats in my life and then with dogs a mixed bag of that and the toddler experience of being dragged by a collie who did not understand that its leash had gotten caught around my neck and that is why people were chasing and screaming at him. Then there was the cocker that bit me in the face when I bent down to say hello.

But this story is about Buddy the cat.

We had made the long drive from northern Virginia to Alabama for Christmas. The stress of urban life falls from me in distinct layers with every 25 miles or so covered. Once we cross the border of Tennessee into Alabama, I am always struck by the utter darkness, penetrated only by distant Christmas lights, that time of year.

And then finally I'm home.

Within minutes my sister generally comes through my mother's back door. And that year she held something in her arms. It was Buddy. My son went straight for him. Then my husband started arguing for a "turn" holding the cat. They bickered. I was in my cat ignoring mode as usual, trying to best him at his game.

This was Buddy's story.

Buddy and several siblings had been owned by a woman who had a dog, a Jack Russell terrier. Maybe several dogs. But pretty quickly the Jack Russell killed a couple of her cat's new kittens. The owner had the animals separated, the cats in the fenced back yard and the dogs inside the house. But the Jack Russell was determined. He was, after all, a terrier. He kept getting out. Eventually, he had killed the mother and most of the kittens.

My niece, who was doing her medical residency at a hospital, had heard about the first killings. She was the dog owner's neighbor. She was working long hours and had a dog of her own. When she found out the back yard next door had continued to be a killing field, she had had all she could take.

She asked for the remaining kittens. She had no idea how she was going to save them, she couldn't keep them, her resident manager had made an exception for her dog and anyway he was not the kind of animal to accept tiny kittens either.

She arranged time off, swapped, cajoled, begged. She got the two kittens, put them in her car and headed for north Alabama after a long shift caring for humans. She had precious little time. She called her family, asking for mercy for these kittens. She would not take no for an answer. Two of her aunts couldn't say no either, after hearing the story.

My sister took a look at them. The little gray and white one crouched down low, staring at her. His eyes appeared to be crossed. Was he traumatized by all he had been through? Would he be difficult and hard to handle? She moved a bit closer. He jumped at her, held up a tiny paw and swatted her gently, eager to play. She picked him up and he cuddled, purred loudly and fell asleep in her arms.

This was the one. Perfect.

He behaved the same way with everyone he met. He mesmerized and charmed. He was the most curious cat I've ever seen, even for a cat. My sister's other cat would snarl and beat him up and Buddy would enjoy it, come back for more. It was as though he was happy for the attention, any attention, as long as he made it through alive.

My husband fell hard for him too:

My mother even fell for him. My mother doesn't even like animals. She would go to my sister's house "to see what Buddy is doing."

I did my best to ignore him. Someone recorded how well I succeeded.

He's all grown up now. But he acts like a wild thing, not really a domestic. He's huge. He lurks and sneaks around the house and ambushes anything that moves. But then you grab him and the purring starts and he's asleep on a lap, out cold, soft and warm.

He's one of a kind. He just got on with it. He lives life fully, hard, to the max, without as much as a glance back at those horrible times. I think about that. I remember that. He is telling us all something.

And yes, those eyes look to definitely be crossed.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

There Is Still More To Say

Late at night, absorbed in writing, something wrenches me into a sharp alert. I smell smoke. I'm certain of it. But no one smokes in this house. Still, I look around, peer from the window, get up and sniff the hallways.

The smoke is only in my mind. It is attached to a decades-old memory so resolute that I not only smell smoke, but seem to catch in the corner of my eye an ephemeral outline of a tiny woman balancing a long black cigarette holder, tendrils of smoke curling into the air. Professor H. Relaxed, sweater thrown over her shoulders. With a diamond ring glittering on her smallest finger, she holds forth in the large, high-ceiling old room.

"God that's it," she would say, in a deep, distinctive, gravelled voice that gave the impression of stage more than manuscript. "You've got something there. Go deeper. Write that."

Professor H. taught expository writing. I needed a senior year elective and V. recommended her. She told us to write our non-fiction essays on subjects that moved us. Go for the simple, she said. Forget lofty, that's artificial. Comb your memories. "Give me you."

I had scribbled diaries forever, journals, I had boxes of them. I brought a few back to school from home. They were from the early years. Growing up "like a wolf in the woods." Stealing honey from the gnarled tree with bamboo sticks. Hiding in a tree under the cover of black night. All the early hurts. Watching. Listening. Taking all those notes. I was bursting with essays.

But I also loved to listen to her. She had been friends for years with Scottie Fitzgerald, the daughter of F. Scott and Zelda. She had been in the Navy and traveled the world. She loved to talk, but more than that was an excellent listener.

The Alabama she knew through Scottie's tales, channeled through the southern aristocracy of Zelda's Montgomery, was a different universe from the northern part of the state. I grew up in the Tennessee River valley, surrounded by the Appalachian foothills. Our speech patterns, mannerisms, cultures, mores, all of it, worlds apart.

And Professor H. loved that. She wanted to hear more. Always.

And I had plenty of material to work from. Faded pictures, yellowed journals, scrapbooks. Mementoes from my time working in the mental institution as a volunteer. The wooden planks patient J. drew and colored on:

So many things. Boxes my husband in years since has tried to get me to throw away. "Let's clear away the clutter," he implores. What? The clutter?

This is my life. I've winnowed and thrown away and ditched so much. I have a few small boxes, still. Precious things. I can't lose them, not yet. They still need to be remembered, written about, witnessed. These pieces of paper and wood and written word are the reasons I can conjure up the detail that brings the visions to life here. Why I still remember.

Pictures, for instance. Uncle H's farm. Where the fox hunts started out. They're gone, H., my father, and recently their younger brother died in his 90s. The dogs they raised are long gone. But here, on these pages, they are waiting for their chance to bolt into that sweet fine night, blood and hearts pumping, strong, young, free.

Because when I write their stories, those who have vanished into the ether coalesce into vibrant life one more time. For mere moments, yes. Only for moments. But in that time, their memories take on the glow of flesh and blood and life. Like the black-haired boy R.G., who a couple of years ago drove to the river where we all used to go growing up. He got out, moved around, got back into the car. He did this for several hours. And then he took a gun and killed himself. What happened? Why? I ask and no one can tell me. Because they just don't know.

So I put away the few boxes I have left. And bring them out now and then and smell smoke that isn't there and hear Professor H. who isn't really there but still she is whispering, "Yes, that's it, that is exactly it."

Because there is more to say, still. Chances for resurrection through the careful ministrations of a few who help to reconstitute them, in a manner, for a few precious moments. Through an act so simple yet spiritual when it occurs. Which snaps the lost in those moments back into the sun and wind and rain. Into the fullness like a patchwork quilt long folded and gathering dust in the shadows. Allowing them breath and the full measure of their absolute vibrance.

It is happening now. You are making it so. Because you are here, reading these words, devoting your time and your care.

These are last portraits. And sometimes, through the long missing of the lost, they are finally what they should have been all along and us with them.

Shimmering, exquisite, cherished. Loved.

And through it all, ever remembered.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

In Venice, Eyes of Wonder

I arrived sleepless in Italy, greeted by long security lines and dogs sniffing for drugs and explosives. But the brilliant Venetian sun, magnified by the sea, hypnotized me the moment I stepped from the airport. It sent me reeling. I made my way to the dock where I settled into a water taxi and before I was ready the craft had dispatched me to the canal-side hotel.

I buried myself in the work. These were not happy days. The marriage was not going well, to put it mildly, and I did not know what to do about that. Divorce was out of the question, I thought. At 34, I felt old before my time, shriveled, absent from myself.

So, on the first day of the conference, I stared sulking from a window while the techs tried to make the computers work. I glanced down to see a couple of heavily armed soldiers watching. One was gesturing to me. Was I in trouble? Leaning on something forbidden? I looked closer. He was blowing kisses. The other was smiling, broadly. I blushed! I laughed. I returned the air kiss.

Venice had only begun to charm. In the mornings, I got up early and made my way to the conference site. Strains of opera drifted from alleyways. Had someone left on the stereo and a window open? Was an opera singer up early, practicing? No, I was being serenaded by the garbage collector.

And my commute. No road rage, no packed underground subways. I walked from my hotel to St. Mark’s Square, where I boarded a vaporetto that cruised on the water to the conference site on the Lido. At night, I returned the same way. The gentle rocking, the sweet mesh of waves in the lagoon washing away every last vestige of workday frustration.

By that hour, I was more than ready for the Venetian night. For enjoying the friends I was rapidly meeting. For adventures in food. The food, northern Italy’s pure flavors, unsullied by layers of sauce or other attempts to gild the lily. I will never forget this food and crave it to this day. Only once, in Chicago, in a small, quiet restaurant that a young nephew led us to, have I ever come close.

I walked and walked and walked. At home, I am known for having a terrible sense of direction, being constantly lost. But in Venice, I knew where to go, by instinct. Some streets in the city of bridges and dark, twisty passages weren't marked at all, or if they were, the signs probably were from half a century ago, I was told. Directions rarely made sense. Maps quickly became outdated.

But I felt confident there. So, people soon were stopping me in the street, asking for directions. Italians too. "Non parlo italiano," I was forced to confess. Often, they looked at me skeptically, then hustled away as I repeated "Scusi!" to their retreating backs.

All too soon, it was time to go. I was crushed by this. The work had been good, the food, the fellowship stimulating. And I never want to leave the water anyway. But Venice had revived me in such a way that I simply did not want to go back to my life. To the problems. To the marriage I knew in my heart of hearts would not survive.

But I packed up because I had to, could not delay another day. I had one last lovely breakfast on the small patio at the front of the hotel -- tapping the shell of the soft-boiled egg nestled in a flowered egg cup, spreading butter on the soft bread with chewy crust, pouring hot milk from a small white pitcher into a steaming cup of steaming, strong coffee.

My bags were brought down and I settled up with the front desk.

I stood there in dread. I worried my heart would grow heavy again with the same weight I had brought there. That I would lose the transfusion of life Venice had given me.

And then it happened.

A young man who worked at the hotel, who barely spoke English, rushed to me in the moment before I stepped into the boat holding steady in the canal at the side of the hotel.

“Signora?” he said.


“You are leaving?”


And in that moment, he brought forward the arm he had been holding behind his back. In his hand was a bouquet of tiny pink roses. Shyly, he handed them to me.

I did not know what to say. This young man had waited on my colleagues and me a couple of days at breakfast. I practiced the few words of Italian I had learned with him, encounters that lasted minutes in all. We had barely spoken. He was quite young. I looked around, thinking he had made a mistake, that he wanted to give the flowers to someone else. But who really? I had seen people leave throughout my stay and had seen no flowers.

In the end, I could say only one thing, since I did not speak his language and he barely spoke mine. And there was no time.

I said “grazie. They are beautiful.” Over and over I said this. I held out my hand and he took it and we stood for a moment. He bowed at the waist and helped me into the vessel. And the craft sputtered and strained, slicing through the canals and the foam, into the saltwater lagoon and finally the sea.

I held onto the roses for dear life. Through the boat ride, onto the airplane. I clutched them as we hurtled through the air to Paris, on another leg of my temporary assignment abroad. I was meeting my husband there, and forgive me, but the truth is I was not looking forward to that.

The roses held me together, somehow. A floral embrace, they kept me floating in the sun, water and music of an ancient, sinking city where I took my first full breath in many years. Where I saw myself in a mirror and for a moment did not recognize myself because I was so caught up in the full flush of marvel. And where, simply and unexpectedly, for a short time but more than enough, I was looked upon again with the freeing, glorying, rejuvenating eyes of wonder.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Lies I Told Myself

I forgot most of the truth I knew by the time I graduated from college. My recovery took a long time even to begin. And it is still a work in progress.

I made up ridiculous things and believed them. For instance, during one of our heated moments, I told Mother that she was "afraid of life." I was in my early 20s and on my way to Paris on vacation, which caused a spat I won't detail. She was wrong about some things, but not others, and if I had remembered even a few truths, I could have saved myself and others a great deal of heartache down the road.

This is what I said during our heated scene: "You and Daddy don't know anything about the world. You hide from it. You are afraid of life."

They knew plenty about the world. Mother, 89 now, admits she doesn't care much for change. She's not alone in that. But the truth is her actions did not teach me or anyone else to shrink from the world.

Take the blue holes, for instance.

My siblings and I learned to swim in rivers and creeks. Mother got us acclimated to the water early, even when the water wasn't really warm. She held us aloft on outstretched arms and talked us through the stroking and kicking. After a certain amount of time, none of us yet school age, Daddy led us into the middle of golden green water rippling in sunlight that threaded through trees lining muddy banks. And he let us go.

We thrashed violently, went under, swallowed water, coughed and screamed. Then instinct and self-preservation took over. As Daddy walked backwards, eyes carefully on bobbing heads, we grasped desperately for the hands he held out just beyond our reach, then triumphantly as the instructions from Mother kicked in and our brains connected with limbs. At last, we were swimming.

Even then, in rural Alabama, there were swimming pools around. But why flail around in small concrete tubs of chemicals when so much sweet natural abundance was available. We never knew what we would find at creeks, rivers and lakes, which were alive with possibility. A heavy summer rain made the water run swift and hard, while a dry spell meant lazy drifting on inner tubes.

A day on the living water never yielded the same result. Were the little round eggs I found peeking from the side of a sandy creek bank snake eggs or turtles? And that little dark snake bobbing his way toward me over the tiny rapids -- poisonous or not? Best to run first and ponder it out later.

And the rope swings and grape vines. Think of it -- holding onto one of these, we would take a running jump and soar from a cliff or bank over the vast water many feet below and then drop. It was exhilarating, making that first jump and surviving. Then climbing up the banks to the top, swinging out over and over again, dropping endlessly into the dark, cold water below.

There were no life guards to keep us from doing senseless things. So we learned to self-police, to look out for each other, to administer first aid with what we had on hand. We kept injuries from our parents and took care to minimize bloody evidence so we could go back. I still carry scars from cuts that should have been stitched up.

So, raised on creek, lake and river swimming practically from birth, we always wanted to explore new ones when traveling. "Mother, can we find a creek today? A river maybe?" She almost always obliged.

More than once, she showed us what she was made of on these trips.

I remember scrambling from the back of a car deep in the Tennessee wilds, bent on beating everyone to the water's edge. I ran clutching a towel, long grass whipping arms and legs, bare feet slapping the cold, hard dirt path.

I heard them before I saw them. Low, coarse voices, curses, a laugh, something making a fast jittery clicking. I stopped, the sweat on my upper lip, neck, forehead running cold.

Men blocked the trail. They wore overalls and rumpled work clothes, squatted, slouched in and around the path, their faces mostly covered by straw hats, crumpled up cloth ones. Some were yelling at a pair of dice on the ground. And nearly all were holding or drinking or wiping backs of dusty hands across mouths after sipping from canning jars filled with clear liquid.

They glared at the girl who had interrupted them. Their break from harsh labor, or forgetting about none to be found, mouths to feed, of the pious and rules they never wanted and chafed under. For a few stolen hours under the cover of brush near a creek nobody bothered to go to much anymore. Until that afternoon. Until that shivering little pest of a girl.

I turned to run, calling for Mother. My voice high and breaking. But Mother, walking a brisk pace in front of her niece, who had also brought her children, did not break stride. She kept her eyes on the water. She was comfortable there and would not be intimidated. She had grown up in that countryside, roaming with older brothers and her childhood friend Bish. Bish, who asked her to marry him before going off to fight against Hitler. But he didn't come back. His plane ditched in the English Channel and he drowned.

That day, Mother brushed by me and walked straight on the path. I remember grabbing her skirt tail, something I had not done for years, probably pushing my sister away from her traditional position. My grown cousin walked behind in silence with her four little children, one of them a baby.

I should not have been surprised by Mother's nonchalance. It had been only recently that a man acting a fool menaced our car on the back roads of Tennessee. The man's car hit ours in the back. I remember being very afraid as Mother pulled over, got out and went to inspect. The man got out of his car and snarled. He was wiry thin, in jeans and cowboy boots. And I could smell the whiskey a car length away.

Then she turned to him. "Why did you hit my car?" A look of surprise on his face and the bluster dissolved. She told him there was no damage. She would not be calling the police or the insurance company. On one condition: That he go home immediately and lay off the bottle. "Yes m'am," he said over and over, "I shorely am so very sorry, m'am, just beggin' yore pardon, m'am." Then he mentioned he was grateful Jesus had spared them from injury and damage. Which was enough. And Mother drove us away.

With that same resolve, she held steady at the sun-dappled creek. She kept her eyes on the water, which was just hidden by lush green foliage in a Middle Tennessee made even more luminous by summer.

Seeing her, the men suddenly began to move away from the path, hats came off, fruit jars wordlessly whisked from sight. Several nodded to Mother as we passed, others averted their eyes. She nodded back, ever so slightly moving her head.

But she kept her eyes on the water and hustled everyone ahead of her, following along last.

Maybe someone recognized Mother. She had been gone from Tennessee only a few years at that point.

But she wasn't about to be thwarted from her day at the creek. Not because she wanted to swim. I've never seen her in the water except when she was teaching us. I think now she was intent on making sure we could swim in all conditions, even in colder weather sometimes, to make sure we could handle it. She said Bish's drowning made no sense, that he was an excellent swimmer. She may have wondered whether the cold killed him.

And it's funny, my brother built a house on a creek bank, another on a lake. I go to the water every chance I get. It breathes life into me when I've hit bottom. And when I'm happy, it is the first thing I think of, getting to the water, I breathe easier there, in every way.

When Mother goes, she sits and watches, like I do. Her eyes scan the landscape, settling on small bobbing waves, then moving down into the depths. She is drawn to the water because she has been searching all these years.

And I understand now, finally, that she is waiting. And that she is most certainly not afraid

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Cat, Crosses, And Moonlight

I wasn't going to tell this story, ever, I banished it more than 30 years ago. But last week at dinner, I told S. we had gone to a restaurant that felt haunted, which shifted the talk to ghost stories. J. tuned us out, so there it was, without warning, looming in my mind's eye. The old resistance was abruptly worn away.

So I'm sitting now with the filmy shawl I wear when I need comfort draped across my shoulders, skimming my bare arms, partly wrapped around my wrists. I rustled around searching for it before I started the telling. Even though I wasn't cold. I needed it because I was beginning to shiver just a bit, a fine, barely perceptible tremor in my very core.

This story happened in college. Sophomore year, a late fall night, but still so humid it felt like the middle of summer. I was alone in the dorm room. I hadn't seen much of my roommate for a while. We had active social lives. Plus, I didn't care for her boyfriend one bit, and she knew it.

Then she came back to the room. She was rattled. Accustomed to her dark moods, I spoke, but mostly ignored her, probably studied or pretended. It had gotten late and I remember getting ready for bed.

She didn't want me to turn out the light.

She was leaning back on the bed, chain-smoking. Her mile-long legs pulled up, clasping her knees close to her chest with her arms. We had the mattresses on the floor, as was the custom then. I sat on my bed, which was near hers. And asked her why.

"It's not good," she said, her deep voice cracking. Too many long, thin Kools. It was then I noticed. She pushed her long, thick black hair away from her face with a thumb, dark eyes glittering, her face even paler.

She told me she'd spent the day at a farm with the boyfriend who gave me the creeps. "You're not going to believe me," she said, but the stress pushed her thick drawl into a jittery pace I had to strain to understand. "I swear I met a warlock."

I took a deep breath. Okay... here we go. We'd talked about this kind of thing. Laughed about it. We both had messed around with Ouija Boards as kids, scared ourselves at sleepover seances. But she been raised in a fundamentalist household like mine. We ditched those churches the second we got to college. But still, we didn't believe in witchcraft. Did we?

Then she started to talk.

The warlock was real, she insisted. He focused on her like a laser. He lived at the farm with a woman, a witch. He kept talking to her, though. She was special. She had talent, potential. He wanted to see her, to spend time with her. She felt like he was seeing right through her. Like he was hypnotizing her. He was mesmerizing, and she couldn't turn away, from his eyes. He was charming and hypnotic and at the same time horrifying and evil.

She felt as though she was in the room with the devil himself.

Whoa, hold on, time out. She kept talking fast, dropping to a whisper, and I was having trouble keeping up. But I told her that could not be real, the warlock thing. He was making it up, having a laugh on them all, making fun of the girl from the country. He was not for real.

Then she told me something she had not shared in all our late-night dorm talks. Her dabbling had been more than sleepover fodder with girlfriends. She'd gotten in deeper, with other friends from school. She asked did I remember a murder a couple of years back, strange circumstances? Yes, of course I did. Well, she wasn't there, she had nothing to do with it. But that girl got in even deeper than all of them, died in a spell gone bad.

She was crying then. And suddenly I was cold, freezing in fact, and aware for the first time in a very long time that I was so very far from home. I could see the newspaper in my mind and remembered the story, the girl my age, her body found cold and alone in a dark shed. Candles, there were candles surrounding the body. Black candles. Her boyfriend had been arrested. Case closed.

I reminded her of that. Humans, not the supernatural, were involved there. And she had encountered the same situation out at the farm. All she had to do was not go back. Simple. Another case closed. Time for bed.

And then I heard it. A cat. Meowing loudly, yowling. Just outside the window. I could not believe what I was hearing. It just could not be. I got up and ran to the window.

And there it was. In the light of a nearly full moon, a large black cat, glowing green eyes, sitting underneath our dorm window howling at us.

"Get away!" I hissed through the screen. "You get away! Scat!" The cat didn't move. "I MEAN IT GET AWAY!" The window was open. I slammed it shut. The cat hunkered down. It was uncanny. I pulled the drapes. V. was in a panic, again she was crumpled against the wall on her bed, face in her hands.

"It's him, he's here, he's come for me," she whimpered.

"The hell he is," I said. Some words to that effect, I don't remember exactly because I was furious. I didn't really believe the cat was, well, him, the warlock, or whatever. But she believed the warlock had somehow appropriated the cat's visage for the evening. Or become one, or something, I'm a little fuzzy on that one still. But I definitely was spooked by her reaction. I also was sleep-deprived. And I was (am) superstitious enough to not want to take chances.

So I knew exactly what to do.

I had a small cross necklace in a jewelry box. I dug it out. I placed it on the windowsill. "Good trumps evil," I told her, looking grave for the first time that night. "Always. You know that." I knew K. would not be home (they didn't call her "late date K. for nothing). But she never remembered to lock her door. So I ran up the stairs and nosed around. She's Catholic, I knew she wouldn't let me down and she didn't. I found several armaments.

I placed those crosses on the windowsills too. And I dusted off the bible my mother sent me to college with and read from it: "I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety." Psalm 4:8

I didn't believe the cat was a warlock, I told V., but I was cloaking us in the Lord's armor so she could sleep. She wrapped herself in her long back cape and stretched out on her bed. I slept in my clothes, ready to throw out another layer of prophylatic spiritual fencing, if need be. But I remember sleeping hard, unaccosted by cats or warlocks or bad dreams.

My roommate and I did other some strange things as we grew up in the coming years. But we never warred against alleged witches-warlocks-cats or even talked about that night again.

Yet, to this day, I've given cats a wide berth. I don't for a second think they are evil. But now and then a certain black cat will remind me of that night. Often, the cats just hate being ignored and make a beeline for me. And I like to one up them at being, well, cats.

Thinking about that night, I watch them from the corner of my eye until I'm absolutely certain we've not made acquaintance in another time and place, under an almost full moon.

Certain we haven't, my hand moves toward my neck -- is the cross there or in my purse? No church owns me, I don't even go now, but the weapons and armor were burned into me decades ago. If something scary ever decides to show, I'm up for the fight.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Forever Out of Reach

Last week I strolled into a hobby shop, looking for glass bottles for the wire art I never get around to making anymore. The garrulous owner was sitting with his back to me and thought I was someone else and cursed -- or so he said, I didn't hear that. I was already not listening. Because I sensed with a physical chill that something was happening.

I found something in that shop, which evoked a series of memories. And a startling realization I wouldn't have made otherwise.

I knew it before I even saw. The place was filled with models of planes, cars, ships, trains. The owner was apologizing for his language, saying he was really "so very sorry m'am..." but again I could not keep up with the patter because I was looking for it, something I'd been in search of for decades.

His cohort came in, the curses subject, maybe in jest, although maybe not because this man was carrying a pizza, so I put a stop to the apologies with an abrupt, "But do you have Flakbait by any chance, the B-26 bomber?" I didn't need to explain. I knew this would separate the wheat from the chaff.

And it did. The shop had nothing to do with bottles and wire art and the like. But it carried a nice, large model Flakbait at quite a decent price, the plane my father flew in during World War II in Europe. The one he served in as a gunner-engineer. The plane pocked by enemy fire that had been in the Smithsonian for a while, cut in half so I could stare inside through the plexiglass, take my son there, my son who never met his grandfather. But they took the plane away and stored it somewhere in Virginia, I lost track of it. And when they did that I lost that piece of my father too.

But last week, after that strange encounter in a distant strip mall I seldom visit, I walked out of the shop cradling in trembling arms the beautiful, detailed replica of that plane. And the owner gave me a discount, unasked. "Because you have a connection to the plane. And your father was a hero."

I will eventually give the plane to my son, who never met his grandfather. But not now. I want to keep it for myself, he is a teenager and won't appreciate the gift. And I need it. Because this collection of metal and plastic does not conjure up the romance of an era for me, heroism, the simple days of war for the "right" reasons. Instead, it evokes a mystery.

These days, with him gone for nearly 20 years, I am edging closer to that inaccessible part of the man, even though I know he will forever remain for the most part undisclosed. He was not one for introspection, self-analysis. He was happiest when in motion, outdoors, in action. But somehow, I am compelled to try to piece together bits of the mystery. Because in the missing, maybe I will find the lost measure of the man.

Why? "You are just like him," echoes in my head sometimes. It isn't true. It never was. Or maybe it was, before. Not now. Maybe, in ways. It's a muddle. Like life.

I will not start at the beginning. But in the middle.

We were not a musical household, but my sister and I took piano lessons. As my playing improved, my father became interested. He had not cared as my sister and I banged out chords and early pieces. But as I began to play the very simplest classical, he would come into the room and sit on my bed.

I was surprised by this. Although my father occasionally listened to Schumann, and tried to interest us in the composer, our house was usually filled with a cacophony of noise from the televisions and radios my father and brother set up to obessessively follow their sports teams and whoever else was playing in the universe. Also, just the general background noise from five people in one house.

On the nights I played, my father got very quiet. He sat and stared into the distance. And then, as though spent, he would stretch out on the bed. Sometimes, when I finished and turned to look at him, his hand would be on his head, shielding his eyes, as though in pain. And I thought I could see his eyes glistening. Tears?

He said, by way of explanation, that "they played this music in London, in Ireland, during the war. It was in the pubs and the restaurants. Not like here."

My mother and father raised us in north Alabama, where old gospel twined with the high, sad lament of Hank Williams drenched us through the pores. Sprinkled with drops of bluegrass. Then, as I grew older, this was layered, lavishly, with Motown, jazz, the blues. Not classical.

My mother seemed to be agitated by his behavior about the piano music. I didn't understand why. I felt she was blaming me, somehow, for something. She hovered, darting through the house, her tensions rendering me silent and fearful in one moment, then overly loud and brash in the next, characteristics that have propelled me through life. I stopped playing soon after, but that's another story, not part of this one.

The actual fact of the war was not something my father yearned for, that I know. It was horrible. He rarely spoke of it. He calculated where to drop the bombs. Then went into the bubble and fired turret guns. After surviving many missions, crash landings, deaths of comrades, woundings of airmen next to him, men he helped get to the ground alive with rudimentary medic's skills, he refused the offer of an air transport back to the United States. Instead, he returned home by boat. And he refused to board a plane for 40 years.

"I know I could smell the gasoline. You're not supposed to on an airliner. But once they turned on the engines, I know it would happen," he would say. He finally did, to visit me in Baltimore. Which freed him to travel to WWII reunions in distant places before his death. He loved them.

But there was one reunion I am left wondering about, a reunion he never had. The woman he loved in England, during the war. The woman who corresponded with my grandmother, whose address was in family bible. My father never spoke of her, but after he died, my mother did.

My father did not know my mother before the war. He knew her brothers and even her fiance, who was killed in that war along with one of her brothers. My father came home from that war and sat down beside my mother on a bus. They started talking and realized the common ties, and griefs. Before long, they were engaged. And married.

Soon after, my father handed my mother a letter. It had been forwarded by his mother in Tennessee. We were living in Texas then, where my sister and I were born. The letter was from his former lady love in England. It was unopened.

My father said his mother told him there was talk about the Englishwoman coming to the United States to visit, or maybe she was already here -- New York, New Jersey, details were fuzzy. My mother clearly was not happy, many years later, discussing these details. She told me my grandmother "really liked this Englishwoman," even though they never met. My father had no plans to open the letter. "You are my wife. I'll let you decide what to do with it."

My mother took the letter and threw it away. Unread, unopened. They never discussed it again.

I wondered about that, late at night, staring at Flakbait, watching it carefully for clues that night after bringing it home from the shop. Did my father leave London planning to send for his love later? Had they broken up? Had it been unresolved? So many questions.

I think about this woman. Her letter refused, thrown away. Maybe she jilted my father.

It hit me then. That's who he was thinking about, the woman from England. As I played that handsome old upright piano, verging on young womanhood, he sat in my room, tears filling his eyes, staring into the distance, traveling in part of his mind over the vast ocean to other rooms filled with music quite like that. In another country, another life, another war. The tears were about loss.

For what had been, for what could have been. He was not a man who looked back, who regretted. But for those few times, for a few minutes, I am sure of it -- he did.

My sister has my grandmother's bible. I badgered her until she retrieved it from safe place and carefully paged through the fragile pages to the thing I wanted. She read it to me over the telephone. The Englishwoman's address. I wrote it down. I look at it and read it out loud to myself now and then.

Where is she now? Did she have a family? Was she responsible, caring, honorable, someone who took good care of her family? And despite those things, did she still have another quality her family puzzled over. The same as I do now: A vast, inaccessible space unknown and unknowable, forever out of reach.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Men, Guns and a Reckoning

The road between my house and Y's was the Grand Canyon of prohibition. My parents quietly forbade us to step foot in that yard. And her folks reciprocated, with outrage and bluster. But the line of demarcation was breached, frequently, with stealth. And then with courage.

When Y's family moved in across the dirt and gravel road, we were happy to see girls our age spill from the car with Georgia plates. My father was uneasy. He had bought land adjacent and behind our rural Alabama home -- woods property -- and considered the acreage across the road. We had lived for a while in a Texas city where my sister and I were born, but my father was unhappy there, caged, he needed wide open spaces.

However, he also was the kind of man who saved 30 cents for every dime he made. He never bought on credit. So he had hesitated about buying the extra land, and was too late.

Then came the new neighbors. They set to work tidying, planting bushes and flowers. They were friendly. They didn't have a telephone, not many did in that time and place, so from time to time they would politely ask to use ours. And relatives would call them too.

Nosy by nature, I flattened myself on the floor and listened through a crack in the bottom of a closed door. The calls were to and from relatives, made and answered by both the parents and Y, who at 8 was already a surrogate parent to her younger siblings. They reported "everything's good!" No, nothing needed, assurances lavishly given. This was a blended family, as it is called today. Y's biological father lived elsewhere. But the telephone calls should have been a red flag, my mother said later. That this move was one of many new starts after times of trouble.

And the trouble started soon.

The parents dodged invitations from locals to attend church. Okay fine, my hometown is gentle, people are allowed to just be. Then my parents spotted the beer cans. Red alert.

Back then, this rural village was not the kind of place where people walked around showing off their alcohol habits. A flask tucked away in a back pocket was fine. Wine quietly served for dinner. Signs of hangovers at the Baptist church were not unheard of, certainly. But this was different.

The parents drank. In the house and outside. Then the fights started. The mother disappeared for days and weeks on end, with other men. My parents felt they had no choice. We were forbidden to go to that house.

We got around that prohibition, of course. My sister and Y's perfected a strange cry, a cross between a bird's shriek and an Indian call. One would screech, another would respond, and the tones set us into motion. Y and her sisters would go to the woods out back, move to the cover of the tall sage. When all was clear, they would scurry across the road to the forest behind my house. Then we would meet at the swamp or one of the ponds if my parents were home. At my house if not. Or reverse.

We learned to sneak. We could work for the CIA today, thanks to these early prohibitions and the slipping around they necessitated.

The parents mostly ignored each other. Except for my father. He tipped his hat, gave a nod, said hello. He got the cold shoulder back. And worse.

When Y's father was in his cups, sometimes he would come outside, stand in his yard and yell across the road, cursing us, calling us every name in the book. But one night, his belligerence flared.


He had screamed at us before in the night. My father had ignored this. My parents were teetotalers, into their churches. My father sang in the choir, taught Sunday school, was a community leader. He had old-school manners, wore suits and commuted into work and sat at a desk. R had a good job too, worked at the same federal installation as my father. Probably made the same or similar money. But he lacked the education my father had, wore a working man's clothes. Something about this ate at our neighbor. When he drank.

But my father was a World War II veteran, an engineer and gunner on a bomber in Europe. He calculated where to release the bombs that softened up Nazi targets, acted as a medic when other men were hit by flak, held on as his wounded plane managed to make it to the ground. And he'd grown up with guns, was a hunter from childhood. He also was no stranger to drink before he married my mother and she insisted he had to give that up.

Y's father had challenged the wrong man.

Lying in my bed, pretending to be asleep, I heard the familiar sound of the skeleton key clicking on the door to my father's pine wardrobe. The door opened. And I knew he was pulling out a gun -- a shotgun, a rifle, one of them. Heavy bare feet on the floor, the front door pulled open.

I dropped to the floor, crawled to the door and hid, peeking out.

My father stood on the front steps of the porch, illuminated by moonlight. He held a shotgun, pointed toward the sky. His voice a growl, fury barely restrained, he said, "You get back inside your house. Don't make me come over there. And don't you EVER come out here and yell your filth about my family again. Or there'll never be another peep heard from you. I guarantee it." Words to that effect.

R stood next to the road. He had a gun in his hands too. He was weaving. But he stopped dead in his tracks. He turned around, quickly walked into his house and closed the door without a sound. The night screaming in the yard stopped. Although there was plenty of drama, the mother's old boyfriends showing up, pounding on the door, police called, ambulances. A mess.

The freeze was even colder after that. We were dead to that family. Even the girls were not friendly to us for a while. But the mother had two more children and somehow the babies caused a thaw. And then one night, the mother was gone again, and the older kids were staying elsewhere.

And someone noticed a strange, orange glow coming from behind the windows of the house across the road. I woke up, my mother shaking my shoulder. "Wake up, that house is on fire!"

My mother was terrified, afraid the fire would spread. Y's father was outside, holding his head. He was drunk. There was no real fire department in those days. Calls had been made, but we were on our own.

My father was across the Grand Canyon of roads, holding R by the arm, shouting. "Is the baby inside? Get it together man, THINK! Is the baby inside the house?" R was confused, he couldn't remember. To our horror, he said he thought the baby was in the front bedroom, the room where he had fallen asleep with a cigarette in his hand, after "a couple of beers."

That was all my father needed to hear. He and a neighbor had already rigged up hoses, trying to put out the fire. It had been too much, they were driven back. But hearing a baby could be in that room with that blaze about to roar out of control was too much for my father.

He grabbed a jacket, soaked it with water, threw it over his head and shoulders and ran back into the house. I could see him through the front windows of the house I knew so well. He made a sharp right and ran fast into that place where the flames were about to engulf the entire room.

I had my issues with my father. He was moody, too quick to anger, believed in discipline by belt. But when he ran into that fire, I was seized with an ancient terror I had never known before: The earth fell away from my feet. I could not breathe. I was so dizzy I thought I was going to faint. I saw my own life flash before my eyes.

And then he emerged from the smoke, into the night air, unhurt. There's no one in there, he said. And suddenly, among the neighbors gathering one by one on the side of the road, someone from the cluster of trailers down in the woods reported that the baby was safe with one of them, had been since early in the afternoon, when R. had dropped the child off. Clearing the way for him to start his bender.

Relief. My father and the other men sprayed water to keep damage to the house to a minimum until a fire truck finally showed up. Workmen came and helped R clear up and repair. The mother showed back up and soon the family was reunited. The same hopeful scenario that had materialized countless times across that road.

Then the mother got sick. It was bad. She died quickly, died young. The older kids scattered and R lived there with another woman and a son for years, his demons tamed by age and experience, no longer taunted by his wife's wanderings.

He still sat on the porch for hours, drinking from the ever-present beer can. But he waved, said hello. And most of the time, when my father was in the yard or driveway, R would put down his can. And through the years he started nodding, standing up even. And a couple of times, before these old adversaries died, they met on the Grand Canyon of roads and stretched out their arms and wordlessly shook hands. They never spoke about the past.

But they did not need to, their gestures after years of deep freeze and animosity said everything. Those days are over and done with. We've had losses and we've endured. I'm sorry for the trouble. Thank you. It's time to settle the scores, neighbor.

They were bidding each other goodbye.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Secret In A Handbag

Aunt Re grew African Violets, old-fashioned and predictable, like her. Or so we thought. Until she died and my mother found, in an old handbag, a secret kept tucked away for three-quarters of a century.

Re was a feisty young woman, quick with a sharp comeback. She had many brothers and held her own with them. She taught herself to play the piano and loved it, spent hours picking out tunes, singing and playing ragtime, jazz.

Then tuberculosis struck. There was no cure then. Far out in the country, where the air was clear and clean, she stayed for a year in bed. She got better. Then she relapsed. But the second time the medicines existed to finally whip the scourge and she fully recovered.

But she was never the same, my mother said. The nervous energy was gone. She was sweet and loving, infinitely patient. She had wanted children, but couldn't have them. So she and her husband, who had also survived TB, became surrogate parents for their many nieces and nephews. She always seemed so happy when we were around. Laughing, joking, loving. She had a childlike quality, clear, wrinkle-free skin that just did not age. Flawless, like her African Violets.

But she grew quiet at times, too. Staring into the distance with deep blue eyes. It took several tries to break through that silence. A touch, a child's embrace.

She was the weakest physically of her large hearty clan. But lived until age 96, finally beaten by a series of strokes that left her unable to speak, hear, talk. She drifted into a coma, finally, and then was gone.

It took months and quite a few relatives to clear out and distribute her possessions. She was a saver, sentimental. She kept so many pictures of us, old letters and notes. I was quite prolific and had no memory of that. "DEAR AUNT RE: I love you. J. was outside when she wasn't supposed to, fell and hit her head. Please can you come visit? I really want you to. PLEASE!" I scrawled these in childish hand.

Even so, my mother, her younger sister, wasn't prepared for what she found in an old purse tucked away in some boxes. Inside this handbag was a book that concealed an envelope. Inside was a letter. A very old letter.

It was written by a man my aunt had known when she was young. My mother vaguely remembered the man's name. There had been talk of this man, but she was 10 years younger, so the information had not really stayed with her. Until she found this letter.

My aunt and this man, so young then, had planned to marry. But times were hard, it was the Great Depression, and he was unable to find work. So he had to leave their small middle Tennessee community. He was determined. He would find something, anything, and would settle down there. Then he would send for her. They would marry, start a new life.

But the letter said it all. In a few short lines, the man reported finding work. But he also found someone else to love. He was sorry, but it couldn't be helped. He was marrying this person. He was sorry. But he was saying goodbye.

I can see my beautiful, delicate aunt now -- thick black hair, small-boned. Her big blue eyes, fringed with black eyelashes, filling with tears. Then carefully refolding the letter, inserting it into a book and putting it away. Getting on with life, as she did always.

And never forgetting the silent ache concealed in a handbag deep within a closet. Evidence of a broken heart that endured for nearly a century.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Big White Dog

This is a dog story, strangely enough. I haven't had a pet for years. But three big white dogs have been significant in my life, the first when I was a little girl. This is the story of the first one. It's scary, so hold on tight.

When my family visited relatives in middle Tennessee, we stopped first at my paternal grandmother's house in town. My brother and father always stayed there. After a visit, my mother, sister and I would head deep into the countryside, down a narrow dirt road, to stay with the other side of the family.

In town, I had a routine. I would scramble up trees in the front yard to see whether the pennies and other small treasures I'd left in hollowed out pockets were still there. Then I'd scoot out onto a limb, hold on with both hands, ease my seat into space and roll backwards. Hanging on by my legs, crooked at the knee, I would swing back and forth. Hands and arms relaxed and dangling, sometimes I hung on with only one leg.

My grandmother fussed. "I wish you wouldn't do that," she would call in a high-pitched, agitated voice. "I just know you'll fall and break your neck," So eventually, a parent would order me to stop. "You are are worrying your grandmother half to death," my mother would say.

Eventually, I found another pasttime. A risky venture that no one knew I was pursuing -- a sheer rock bluff, a straight drop from a cliff behind my grandmother's house down to rocks, gravel and a highway.

Pleased with myself, I would wait quietly for the grownups to be distracted, then slip off, climb the barb-wire topped fence and push through trees and bushes. I would look around to make sure I was alone, turn my back to the bluff and crouch. Then I would start down, one foot first, then another, holding onto grass with fists to keep steady.

I was wary at first, but grew more confident each time. When I ran into obstacles I could not negotiate, I would climb back up and go at it from another angle.

I enjoyed the challenge of the climb. But I was more attracted to the thrill of hanging from the bluff, buffeted by the wind, watching cars go by below. I tried not to glimpse the sharp rocks that would surely be the last thing I would see if I slipped. Because I loved the feeling I got from that bluff, my body plastered on rock and dirt, embraced by the wind and the sun, suspended in a secret place.

Then one day, hanging from the bluff, it happened. A rock glanced off the cliff next to me and ricocheted to the bottom. Then another, this one larger and much closer to me. I remember being angry, thinking my older brother had found me and was pretending to try to hit me with rocks.

But the face I saw watching me from above wasn't my brother's. It was a boy about my age, someone I had never seen. The bone-thin face, slits for eyes, close-cropped hair, was grinning maniacally, and he held a huge rock in both hands over his head. He threw that at me. I ducked, it missed. He didn't have the best aim, an outcropping of rock was protecting me. I yelled at him to stop, but he laughed, a shrill, nasty laugh. Then he started moving to another position on the top of the cliff, one allowing him a better aim.

I went cold. This is it, I thought. I'm not going to lose my balance and fall on my own, this awful boy is going to kill me for fun. I pressed myself as flat as I could into the cliff face. My mind went blank. Until I heard a commotion from above. Some muted scuffling in the grass, the boy's angry voice, then finally footfalls, running.

Someone has saved me, I thought.

But still, I heard nothing from above. When I finally could force my shaky limbs to move, I climbed back up the cliff. No one was there. Nothing.

I lunged over the fence, head darting, looking out for the boy. Something had intervened and stopped him. But I couldn't see anyone.

Then I saw the white dog. He was alert, ears high, watching me from the back of my grandmother's neighbor's house, near the back porch. She didn't have a dog that I knew of, neither did my grandmother. I'd never seen this one.

He ran toward the front yard, ducked onto the porch of the big white house. So I ran after him. I got to the porch and he was gone. Nothing, no one was there.

The door opened. And Mrs. N. bid me a very warm hello. "I'm looking for a big white dog, have you seen one?" I asked, or something along those lines. She had not. No, she did not recall such a dog in the neighborhood. She knew who I was, though, had watched my siblings and me playing in the yard. She asked me in, and I accepted.

The house was full of carpets and antiques, mirrors, lace, lush curtains. She had me sit down in the front parlor and gathered up refreshments in the kitchen. These she served from a silver tray, on china, with silver cutlery.

She started asking questions, about me. Freed from certain death only minutes earlier, I talked, and talked and talked. She listened intently. A grownup listening! Interested! I was enamored, my cliff horror ebbed away.

I never told my parents about what happened on the cliff. I would have been punished and severely restricted for my foolishness. I also never saw the boy or the white dog again. I couldn't imagine the dog stopped the evil boy from throwing rocks. It seems unlikely, although someone or something did. There was one place in the fence that had been torn away and the dog could have easily maneuvered through that.

But whatever happened, the dog led me to Mrs. N., and that established a new pasttime for the visits to my grandmother's. Instead of running to the cliff, I made my way to her. After telling her my news -- silly stories about other children, teachers, fights with siblings -- she would talk. Her stories were those of a lonely old woman who needed a friend too. And she found a willing listener in the middle child from Alabama who so obviously irritated the grandmother next door with too much energy and exuberance, especially compared to the quieter siblings whose company she preferred.

Mrs. N. did not treat me as a child. She would stare into the distance, her face twisted in grief, and talk about her husband's long, agonizing death from pneumonia during a time when medicine could not save him. She could not get over this, her inability to keep death at bay, her tortured nights trying to ease his suffering. I remember her voice, specific details of his death, as though we talked only last week.

Even as a young child, I was honored to bear witness to her pain. She had granted me entrance into the carefully locked and barred world of grownup suffering. And, I am convinced, she kept me from causing more with my wild forays on the cliffs, an adventure that was certain, in time, to end in tragedy.

Mrs. N. and the white dog. The first of three big white dogs. The one who made it possible to recognize the ones who came after.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Man With A Lion Heart

I was online studying some fetching photographs taken by a talented Englishman, a former policeman who loves spending time in Greece. And these details coalesced into a hook that dipped into my brain, bringing back a distinct image of someone I knew years ago.

At first glance, P.S. could have been a casting agent's idea of an Edwardian bank clerk in London, given the right clothes of course. But that demeanor was a disguise. Confoundingly, beneath the quiet, serious, bookish-seeming exterior beat the heart of a lion, an Alpha male of the highest order.

When I met him, P. was a foreign correspondent and I was an editor. We all worked insane hours. In the United States, overnight was often the busiest shift because of the time difference.

While most of Washington, D.C., slept, my colleagues and I powered through the night on adrenaline highs fueled by vats of coffee and bad food from a dive downstairs frequented by prostitutes, small-time criminals, the occasional beat cop and us.

I stumbled upon a website recently that revealed that P. is working for a U.N. group that feeds hungry children in Africa. But until then I had imagined him still in Beirut, where he was posted in the 1980s. That impossible place of civil war, bombs and assassinations, routine artillery shelling, warships offshore. Death and chaos. And P.S. was thoroughly, thrillingly alive there.

He was on a mission, to see and understand the madness. To write about it, share it with the world. To see it through to the end.

Western correspondents were being kidnapped and murdered. Still, P. roamed the divided city. He had a daft notion, or claimed he did, that being British protected him, that he wasn't an American, the main targets. Of being invincible.

He told surreal tales of driving through streets that war had made into tunnels of rubble, vehicles and debris flaming on both sides. To gather reports for dispatches, P. and a colleague made mad dashes through the hellish landscape in an old VW with the Doors' "The End" endlessly blaring from a tape. "This is the end, my beautiful friend."

He scared us back in D.C. We fretted and worried and insisted to our bosses that P. be pulled from Beirut, be forced to leave. We demanded, we lectured, bothered him with messages and telexes and pleaded with him on the telephone when we could get through to him. Those awful pictures of hostages being brutalized, we couldn't bear to think of P. being one of them.

He resisted. He argued. He wanted to stay. Beirut was his story.

Finally, his government ordered all citizens out of the country. We were relieved. P. spent some time in D.C. and then worked from Cyprus and other posts. Several years later I ran into him again at another news agency. He was a desk jockey (an editor), married, seemingly tamed. He looked exactly the same, but I barely recognized him. The old bristling energy scarcely contained behind a misleading fake facade of calm was no longer there.

I realized how wrong we had been to try to tamper with P.'s destiny. We were worried about ourselves, really. We didn't want to feel guilty or upset if something happened to P. Our concern was personal, and selfish.

And I learned another lesson from P. I finally understood not to judge a book by its cover, one of the oldest cliches in the history of social interaction. But P. was the living embodiment of that lesson.

He was a man of average size, bespectacled, with short hair neatly trimmed, always in a non-descript blazer and tie. And he carried himself with a quiet that kept an effective disguise over his inner truth. Because this was his real story: Beneath the deceptive veneer was the heart and soul of a being at home in jungles, both natural and man-made, that jar most of us to the bone to even think about.

I have not seen or spoken to P.S. in years. But it comforts me to know he is in Africa in close proximity to his own kind, the mighty hearts, lions left to follow their own natures, on savannahs roaming wild and free.