All things natural


Posted by on Nov 25, 2010 in All things natural, Dad | 1 comment

I sat on the front step watching the lighting storm, feeling the cool damp air pressing down on my body as I hugged my knees to my chest, thinking of my father. He loved storms as much as my mother hated them, and perversely, seemingly to annoy her, he would carry me out with him to the porch to watch the wild play of light and noise. In the safety of his arms I never felt a second of fear.

I think about how many times over the years I listened to my father tell the stories of the early days of his marriage and the struggles they survived. Somehow he managed to make the worst of times seem funny and wonderfully entertaining. My father’s most amazing gift was his way with a story and even retold a hundred times we all sat spellbound, listening to every work, like a familiar and beloved book dog eared with the reading.

One of my favorite stories was about the time spent visiting with his in laws down at Echols, the rural village in Western Ky where my mother was born. It is a tiny community whose heart was my grandparent’s general store. Other than that were  a few houses, a Baptist Church,  and acres of farmland. Dad’s story was set in 1937, the first year of their marriage. Until that night my mother had always accepted her family’s actions as perfectly normal. I could always see the signs of discomfort on my mother face when my dad commenced telling about the time they were all awoken in the middle of the night, ordered to dress in their Sunday clothes, and then quick marched through the backyard and into the root cellar.

“The men,” my father intoned with an ironic seriousness, “all stood in the front, by the door.” That would consists of my placid, long suffering grandfather and his two oldest sons, Cleo and Billy, plus the kin by marriage, Uncle Bill the war hero, Uncle Hillard, Uncle Dick and my father. “The women and children were pushed to the back.” As he speaks I can see them huddled among the canned peaches and bins of potatoes listening to my grandmother predict their imminent doom with dramatic sobs and prayers.
“I think it’s gonna blow off over toward the river,” my grandfather states with quiet authority.

No Dad, the wind is blowing directly this way.” says one of the sons, but then a sharp look from his father and a loud whale from the dark recesses behind him reminds him how this game is played. The voice quickly recalculates,

“Well, if it veers a little to the south it just might miss us.” The men agrees with that assessment in a voice that is an echo of his Papa’s firm and steady grasp of the situation. My father remains silent, too sleepy and confused to understand this strange family ritual, feeling he has missed something in the news, in the air, that would justify their behavior.

The rain begins to pour down in buckets. The men shut the cellar doors and everyone sits cramped under the earth like buried victims of some mass murder, suffering but not quite dead. The minutes turn into hours before the rain subsides to a slow steady drip, and then, when my father thinks he can stand it no longer, the man we all called Papa declares it safe to head back to the house.

My Dad embellishes the story with each telling over the years until I can smell the air, feel the breath going in and out of the huddled bodies, see the tense frightened faces when the lightening flashes. Never is the story totally revealed without questioning from the rapt audience.

“Daddy,” I ask, knowing the answer from other times, “Why did you have to put on your good clothes?”

“You know punkin,” he answers with a mocking quizzical voice, “I wondered the same thing, so the next morning I asked your grandmother. Millie Burden just drew herself up proudly and told me,
“Well, if we died and they found our bodies I didn’t want them to think we were trash.” We all have a nice long laugh at the absurdity of the poor woman’s reasoning.

“Daddy,” I ask, “Why would anyone be afraid of the rain?” My father smiles and my mother gets up and declares that she needs to do some laundry.

When I married and had children of my own, my Dad told me another story, this one serious. He confessed that as a child his mother had locked him in a small closet under the steps as punishment for his misdeeds. He said he still had nightmares about the dark and enclosed spaces. My father, who stood a head above most anyone around him, whose square shoulders and barrel chest were still straight and strong at ninety years old, the man who had taught me to be as fearless as a badger had an Achilles heel. The fact that he admitted it to me melted my heart.

He’s been gone from me these four years now, but sometimes when the air smells like rain, I take a minute to slip outside and think about how often I stood beside him watching the clouds churn and the wind turn the leaves inside out. Sometimes he would just slip his arm silently over my shoulders and pull me next to him and we would stand there in wordless communion until the rain came.

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Days of Amber

Posted by on Nov 16, 2010 in All things natural, Angst, anger, anarchy, Spirit | 3 comments

The light is perfect today, brilliant and golden, like the world put on its polarized sunglasses, laughed, and then woke me early to share the joke. Even before I venture outside, the color tells me there will be a crispness to the air and a faint whisper of burning leaves. The scurry of fall is upon us; the memory of languid summer days almost erased by the press of winter anticipation. Even city dwellers who cannot tell soybean from wheat fields feel an urgency to count their metaphorical sacks of grain. The days grow shorter, the grasshopper’s summer song begins to take on a remorseful refrain, and the ant tidies up his honeypots with a dour air of smugness.

The suede jacket that has hung in my closet these long months wraps me in it’s soft embrace, like an old friend returned from sabbatical. My blood quickens as I step out into a world ablaze with color. For all appearances the earth goddess Gaia rejoices in her her lying down to sleep, but perhaps she stuck a bad bargain and is making the most of it, like us all.

I am thankful it is Sunday and I have time to reflect. I need physical and emotional recovery from two nights out this weekend and the excitement of my first real birthday party since I was a teenager. Two weeks before the party I began to wish I had ignored my natal day as I have so often in the past. The week before I am unexpectedly teary. On Thursday, the day before my birthday, events unfold both at work and in my personal life that make my sojourn in my own private purgatory a bit more bearable. Friday afternoon I send out all my work evaluations at ten minutes of three and make my escape before anyone can email me. Friday night I find myself surrounded by supportive loving friends and family, and I sat there drinking it in like the woman who has everything.

I am acutely aware of how lucky I am when I see envy on the faces of strangers and casual acquaintances. It makes me ashamed about all the times they might have seen the same look on my face, just for a second, just before I turned my head. We are greedy creatures we humans, and I more than most. The words from  Leonard Cohen “Bird on a Wire” play on the soundtrack of my life:

“I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
he said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
she cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”

I give myself over to a moment of selfishness on Saturday night and tried to explain my restlessness to the man I married. The words don’t come out right. They never do, they never will. I live in a place of abundance, surrounded by love. No one could ask for more, and yet, I do.

After the band played its last song Saturday we stepped out  into the cool dark of evening, flushed from the dancing. I lifted my hair and let the air evaporate the dampness from the nape of my neck. In the car I fingered the amber talisman on my bodice, an ancient palliative against aging and evil spirits…

The morning sun found me on the sofa, my charm still encircling me, guarding me. Its honey yellow color echos the light of the day and an unimaginable morning forty million autumns ago when resin dripped like butterscotch from a wounded Mesozoic tree, now long extinct. In an eye blink of years from now the memory of my current struggle will be reduced to lines on paper, less important to the universe than the flotsam this amber trapped before it hardened. Unanswered questions that shot like sparks from the fire inside my soul will be long cold, and my restless spirit will lie still and silent. Today I am taking inventory. With a burst of grasshopper regret I realize that the dreams I stored in the summer of my life may be insufficient to take me through to the end. Perhaps I need to run faster than I ever have before to find a place I am not even certain exists. It may be that my run must be in solitude and sacrifice, but not to try is to deny my birthright. The rustle of  leaves beneath my boots seems to whisper, “Hurry, hurry.”

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Leap of Faith

Posted by on Oct 10, 2010 in All things natural, Death and renewal | 0 comments

At first I look only at my toes as I position my bare feet close together on the rocks at the edge of the quarry cliff. Poised, I stare down for a brief unblinking moment at the flat face of the water far below. I am seventeen, trim, tan, immortal, and surrounded a crowd of college friends. Quickly I lift straight slim arms over my head, cross my thumbs and make my hands into the point of an arrow. Bending at the waist I push off, head first, eyes open, stretching my body long and taunt to become the arrow shaft, my feet the feathers. I fly straight and weightless though air that is hot as exploding firecrackers, always falling down toward the cold soundless black surface of the water.  As it rises rapidly to meet me I fill my lungs with air and shut my eyes against the expected blow. The dive is clean, but the water more shockingly cold than I anticipated. My reflexes slow slightly, but as a colder thermal layer overtakes me I bend the arrow’s tip upward, arch my back to slow my descent, and begin my resurrection. A third bitter cold thermal skims briefly over my torso before I start to rise. My arms reach up now, cupping water in my hand and pushing it forcefully behind me.  My mind reviews the whispered rumors of sunken horror in the unknown depths below me, making seconds seem to hang like hours as I point my body to the murky light of the surface. Suddenly my head smacks square into the warm sunlight and I suck the hot air in big gulping breaths. I arch my neck and see my friends far above. I smile, wave, and pretend indifference as I try to estimate the extent of my idiocy. Is the cliff thirty feet, twenty five? I am not good at guessing and the passing years have only magnified it in my mind.

I swim to the shore where the less reckless are gathered and shimmy up onto the rocks exhilarated. Still shivering, I find my feet and walk past them to scale the cliff and jump again. Once is never enough when death is being cheated.

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A Minor Occurrence

Posted by on Jan 23, 2010 in All things natural, Angst, anger, anarchy, Death and renewal | 0 comments

It seems indecent to post her picture here, this wild thing, mute and still in death. I do not know if she died from hunger or, struck by a car on the road, she limped here to rest. Before I found her I had followed the story her hoofs made in the deep snow, crossing back and forth, x and o, circle, and around again. I saw where she had scraped the snow back searching for food by the tree, and there a branch shows her teeth marks. When I am almost to the edge of the water the unexpected smooth brown fur startles me. I freeze in place and watch her, waiting for an explosion of motion when she realizes I have found her sleeping place. As I stare at her belly for a tell tale sign of breath I walk back in my mind through my noisy passage to this spot. No living deer would be within miles of the clumsy ape that rules this forest, my feet like thunderclaps across the still landscape. As minutes pass and she stays there, motionless, I notice how the snow covers her front hoof, how the crystal ice on her rough coat catches the sun and clothes her in precious gems like a woodland fairy. Back inside my warm house I think back to reading a story to my eldest son from an old book that had belonged to his great aunt, Deer In the Snow, by Miriam Schlein. It was an idyllic tale of young children who lived with their parent in the woods where game was abundant. They notice three deer that seem to be hungry and the father goes to the feed store and buys oats and alfalfa so the children can keep them nourished all winter. The book was written in 1956, long before deer suffered from overpopulation. In fact in the 1930’s the white tailed deer came close to extinction in the US. It is difficult to imagine today as recent estimates put the deer population at around 30 million, enough to qualify as a nuisance in suburban and even smaller urban areas. Yet here I am looking at the picture of one fallen deer and I cannot help feeling sad. I suppose if I had known she was hungry I would have tried to feed her, even realizing it would be a stupid thing to do. It’s just that there is a difference in the millions of deer that trample down our suburban flower beds or throw themselves in the paths of cars and this one dead helpless creature lying nestled in the snow, glittering in the sun, under a sky as blue as cornflowers. It is always thus when we are directly confronted with natural selection. I suppose in that stopped clock way Joseph Stalin was correct when he stated that, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Today under my tree, by my lake, during my watch, a lovely creature breathed her last breath, hungry, cold, and alone.

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Snitched Melon is Always Best

Posted by on Aug 7, 2009 in All things natural, Dad | 0 comments

Summer has always been my fourth favorite season but somehow this particular August has caught me in it’s languid little trap. I realized it finally when I touched the watermelon on my kitchen island with the blade of my sharpest knife. The cracking sound of a ripe and ready to burst melon echoed through the empty room and the smell of it told me everything I needed to know about the taste. The only thing that kept me from cutting off an enormous chunk and heading out to the deck to eat it, juice washing down my face and hands, was the little black dress and high heels I had put on to go shopping later. Perhaps that’s what has got me about summer this year. I suddenly notice that I have had no time to lie back in it’s embrace and enjoy.

In my mind’s eye I see my father in his work overalls and teeshirt cutting into a melon out on the side porch. It is one of the big oval stripy ones with seeds. He cuts off a thick slice and bites into the sweetness. Then turning toward me, mouth too stuffed to speak, he shakes his head back and forth in affirmation of delight. Soon he spits the seeds rapid fire into the green grass and bites again. Like a movie picture going to dissolve, the light slowly fades on the scene and he is gone again, a figment of my imagination, long dust. Then this story comes to mind…

My Dad, age 15, a tall gangly lad, slipped quietly into Mr Johnson’s watermelon patch under the cover of darkness. He moved quickly to pick three of the best melons, one under each arm and one in the front of his bid overhauls…

He stretches out the words and illustrates with a tug at the front of the freshly ironed dark blue ones he is wearing now. In his poverty ridden childhood they were threadbare hand-me-downs, soft with age…

The melon fit snugly against his chest as he plotted his escape path. Suddenly a noise of cracking branches echoed in the still night air. Knowing Mr. Johnson had a shotgun and might be on patrol, Dad “took off running” toward the dirt road that led home. As he skimmed across the ditch his foot rammed into something big and he fell flat on the muddy bank. The melon secreted against his body smashed, pouring sticky sweetness down his chest. Such was the quickness of the fall he never let go of the other two. Ignoring a muffled grunt from the ground he was on his feet again in seconds making his escape. The next morning, bathed and in fresh clothing, he ventured into the general store bold as brass, despite the fact that Mr. Johnson’s team and horses sat outside. He heard the farmer’s voice raised in anger before he was fully in the door. “Nearly killed me he did, broke a rib I think! Those good for nothing hooligans! If I ever get my hands on that one…”

Dad listened to the back and forth typical of the close rural community, trying to look nonchalant. The truth of what he had tripped over began to dawn on him. It was Mr. Johnson himself hunkered in the ditch watching over his precious crop, shotgun loaded with birdshot. He never got off a single round in the darkness such was the speed and stealth of the accomplished young melon rustler.

The mischief in my dad’s blue eyes had not diminished in the 30 intervening years. The story he told was as fresh as white sheet flapping on an old fashion clothesline on a hot August day. I remember how hard he worked, more than any man I ever knew, but he knew how to sit it down when work was done. Today he would be pleased with me. I’m going to take a lesson from him and sit for a hour in the cool shade, while the watermelon days last.

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Posted by on Aug 22, 2008 in All things natural | 0 comments

I need to go down to the river again

And walk out beyond the shallow waters

To where the sand becomes rock,

Then drops out from under my feet with a sudden intake of breath.

The cold green water

Will wash over my head

And I will lie back gratefully in the embrace of the familiar.

How many generations of fish have lived and died while I was absent?

Their kin have no remembrance, but will still nibble kisses along my arms and legs.

The ancient sun will laugh, and warm my back until I roll to face him.

The river does not care, nor the fish, nor the sun.

Perhaps that is where my father waits for me.

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