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.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A House Cursed

I should have known the house was all wrong. I had a visceral dislike for it the moment I walked through the front door into the cramped dining room. But then I made a beeline for the back, to breathe, and it was there in the tiny yard shrouded in an otherwordly mist that the spell took me.

I didn't even flinch when the owner volunteered that she had a "nervous breakdown" in the little bathroom on the third floor. "Oh, the painters were here then, you know how it is when your life is disrupted," she quickly offered in an attempt at solace.

The elderly couple hadn't left for the showing of the century-old brownstone, painted pink in this case. They talked about how they fell in love with the small back yard because it reminded them of their time in Japan, the Tokyo posting. And then there was the black iron balcony framing twin French doors off the living room on the second floor. And more French doors leading from the study to a large back balcony. These doors, framed by a big clanking iron security gate, stayed open in the summer, making for sweet cross breezes.

And I have to mention the staircase that curved from the second floor to third, the one that hid the long-haired cat whose belled collar I heard every morning for weeks before I finally opened my eyes and saw his face an inch from mine. He had slipped in through the study's gated door and finally made his way up the stairs into the bedroom to stare me awake.

We had to have the house. We made an offer and it was accepted on the spot. But the cat, the breezes, the back yard didn't make up for the bad times in that house. We made the purchase in good faith after a separation, demonstrating our resolve to stay together for good, despite our problems.

But the first night we stayed there, I woke up screaming at the top of my lungs, causing several neighbors to come pouring out their back doors to see who was under horrible attack. The bedroom window was open and I had dreamed men were climbing in through the windows, menacing, evil men, intent on doing me great harm. As I screamed, these nightmare men had crawled over to me, taken my ankles and wrists in rough hands and were holding me down.

My screams finally woke me up. But I walked around in a daze for a couple of days after that nightmare. And in a way, I didn't wake up again until I left that house, and that marriage, seven years later.

One Sunday night, after a visit to see friends at their beach house in New Jersey, I was dosing on the bed. I was not really asleep, drifting really, when I heard a noise in the shadowed hallway and looked up to see a specter -- what I thought was a tall man dressed in black. He wore a tall hat. He turned his pale face toward me and I knew in an instant that this being did not wish me well and I gasped. Suddenly I was fully awake and he was no longer there.

The weekend had been so peaceful. But I was then seized with such anxiety I slept very little and during the next few months wasted away from lack of appetite. I continued to work many hours, perform at high levels, keep up a very active social life. But inside I was falling apart. Because I could not admit this, it manifested in physical symptoms. I went to doctors, who could not pinpoint a source.

Finally, a physician in the neighborhood who treated many patients from the nearby halls of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that my problems were not physical in origin. She suggested I had perhaps had been taught from an early age to repress negative or unhappy feelings. And those situations can't always be maintained in a healthy way.

My move into an old house that needed repairs had been the trigger that caused "the pot to boil over," she surmised. She had seen it happen many times, she said, gesturing toward the government buildings. "You would be surprised. It is nothing to be ashamed of. You are in good company."

So, maybe that was it, I thought. I was relieved. At least for a while. But what I didn't tell the doctor was that my marriage was a wreck, a mistake from the beginning, and I'd known it for a long time. I was putting off that reckoning. But the walls of the house were closing in on me, especially at night, when I often awoke not knowing where I was, on my knees in the bed running my hands over the walls trying desperately to find an opening, a way out.

Maybe the marriage had spawned the menacing man in black, and the first-night nightmare.

But my personal situation had nothing to do with what happened with the elderly couple who sold us that charming rowhouse on Capitol Hill.

They told us they were moving to a house nearby that was easier to negotiate physically. The old house was three stories and they bought one that was two stories, which I thought was interesting. The husband was lame, rapidly losing his ability to walk at all when he lived in the house we bought. We did not want to pry as to the reasons and the wife was vague. She was nervous, twisting locks of hair, talking too much, too fast. She was desperate to be out of that house.

When we saw them a few months later, we were shocked. They were thriving. He was not running a race, but he was not the frail, gray, twisted man who could only shuffle a few feet. And she had blossomed. Happy, chatting with anyone who would listen, she was on her way to the hairdresser. It was as though both had found a fountain of youth.

And in a way they had. They had left that house, passed it along to someone else. A couple who suffered in silence both separately and together. I wasn't the only one with pain. My husband had been held up at gunpoint around the corner and had suffered a bizarre malady involving a debilitating pain that felt like a thick cord or band tightening around his torso. No cause was ever found. Pain pills were prescribed and eventually the symptoms went away.

Eventually, I grew to hate the house. I wanted to move. But my husband dug in his heels. He loved the house, the Hill, and wouldn't hear of it.

One thing led to another. Marriage counseling was unsuccessful. We broke up. I moved out.

Away from that house, parked on couches of friends at first, I was numb and hurting at the same time. But I was sleeping, finally, for the first time in years. And I could breathe.

Was it the house? Was it cursed in some way? Who knows. My ex moved out, remarried and by all accounts is perfectly happy.

And now and then when I'm on the Hill, I drive by that house. I slow down in the car, admire the French doors, the iron work. I remember the seductive charm of a study with a spacious balcony overlooking a hypnotic back yard that fills with morning mists and an otherwordly glow at twilight.

I almost stop, but then think better of it. Instead I step on the gas and drive quickly for the bridge over the Potomac River, another state in more than just one sense of the word. And then 10 minutes later I slow down and breathe because I have reached, with great relief, a world where the ghosts and nightmares stay away.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wild Gratitude

Frank McCourt's death brought C's house to mind. The author's stories of poverty, about being bitten by fleas in a bed crowded with siblings, sent me hurtling back to that small place nestled in a narrow curve in the road, at the edge of a creek, in danger of being overtaken by the deep woods.

That house was a magnet.

C and I were in fifth grade when her father passed away. The former school truant officer had moved his family for a better paying job. Like my father, he couldn't bring himself to settle in the city near that job, so chose a farming village near the Tennessee line. But a heart attack struck him down as he watched his two oldest sons play football. He wasn't even 40.

He left the woman he had married when she was still a girl, five bewildered children ages 3 to 14, and no money to speak of. Relatives who could have cushioned the blow were back in Tennessee. But the new life in Alabama was their dream, and she was determined to stay. Somehow she scraped by.

The house was bedlam. C's gentle mother filled the house with pets and guests, children especially, and placed no time limits on visits. We ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches, mountains of them, washed down with Kool Aid. On Saturdays, the tall, skinny widow cooked a country breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and white gravy on homemade biscuits, puffed to perfection with soft White Lily flour.

I don't know what my parents were thinking. Sometimes all three of us, my brother, sister and I, spent entire weekends at C's house. In the summer, I seemed to be parked there pretty much fulltime. We acted like other kids in the daytime, went to the pool, tennis courts at the school, played piano and baseball.

Pale and exhausted by day's end, C's mother retired early. The two oldest brothers and mine went out with a teenage pack, to town with girlfriends before coming in late to sleep a few hours. So there in the lush green Tennessee River Valley, four girls aged 10 and 7 or so, and a little blond-haired brother who would not be ditched, headed out into a night unpierced by streetlights.

We hoarded material for small boats we put together to float down the creek that ran beside the house. These we hid away until midnight. We needed solitude for the boats, no cars on the road.

Then we found an old coffee can and hid. When a car drove by, one of us threw the can and yelled "hubcap!" This was supposed to make the driver stop, thinking he'd lost a hubcap. No one ever did. Until the night someone (not ME) threw the can with such pitiful aim that it hit the car. Then the driver was mad. He stopped. And hauled his full self out of the car cursing. We scattered into the protective thickets of the woods, into places such a big man could not negotiate.

Later we retrieved the boats. C and I, small and wiry, were captains with opposite styles. She was a stern taskmaster, barking out orders. She had two brothers and more expertise in the building arts. My parents kept me pretty closely under their thumbs at home. So at C's house, the enthusiasm and imagination I kept bottled up as a matter of course, through seemingly endlessly hours in church and other obligations, exploded out of me.

Laughing and yelling, we piled kindling into the boats, old hoisery, balled up newspapers. Then out came stashes of matches. One at a time, we placed the boats on the edge of the creek, lit the contents and pushed them off, into the water's current.

We jumped up and down, danced on the creek banks, cheered our handiwork. We stared in awe as the flames curled into the sky, spitting sparks high as a burning boat drifted down the creek, through the drain pipe, and out again past the winding country road. We were mesmerized, following as far as we could on the muddy banks, feet wet, falling in at times, keeping our eyes on the boats and on the red glow from the fire. Finally, then, even the faint orange melted into black night.

The last boat offered up to the stars, the sky and the moon, we straggled back to the house. But we weren't done. We thought somehow this pagan act would draw space aliens to the property. Older brothers encouraged this. So we would crawl out a back window onto the rock ledge of the house, halfway between ground and roof. We stood out there, flattened against the house wall, staring into the night waiting for a sign from the outer limits.

The space men never came to visit.

By then the energy was ebbing in the younger kids. Little brother might be passed out on the living room floor. And our little sisters were not far behind.

So, C. and I usually moved back outside. This time with cigarettes filched from her brothers. We sat in her mother's car in the driveway into the early morning hours, listening to the radio (WLS-Chicago had a powerful signal), smoking, pretending to inhale, talking about ditching our hometown when we grew up. We planned for the time we would no longer be children. When we could call the shots and do what we wanted. A new life.

In the cocoon of night we whispered, scanning the skies for lost space aliens, our feet streaked with dried mud from creek dancing. Breathing in sweet clean air, we celebrated water, fire and earth, a blanket of dense trees hiding us from prying eyes and rules.

Eventually we stumbled into the house and slept like kittens, four to a bed, my friend and her sister, my sister and me. We woke up in the morning scratching flea bites, mosquito bites, chiggers picked up while sitting and lying in the grass, nasties that dig in deep and resist departure.

But I never wanted to leave. Because for hours, days, nights and even weeks at a time we were free. The truth is I've never been so free, not before, not since.

Yet this isn't a lament for lost youth, a wish to go back.

It is a thank you letter, an expression of profound gratitude for having been there. Bearing witness in words for a time when the life pouring from me matched my surroundings. Young, wild, bare feet running through the creek, the deep south night soaking through my pores, into my bones and my blood. Sustaining me. Keeping me. Cradling me through the rest.