Epiphany: Stand-Ins for Innocence

IMG_8752Every Christmas these little guys and their compadres make the trek downstairs and settle in under the black Labrador retriever angel-topped tree to observe our comings and goings, to be among us for awhile,  and to serve as stand-ins for the innocence in the world that is so often wounded, unprotected, and has such a soft, small voice.

IMG_8751

Oh sure. On a conscious level I understand they are only bits of fabric and fluff. But just try to handle one of them roughly, or to  keep from smiling when you hold the stuffed bear with his beer gut wearing a “Hug Freely” t-shirt. Can’t do it. They call forth tenderness.

IMG_8753

And every year I wonder, “Oh little guys, where will we gather next year? Will it be here in this edenic wood?  Or will we be portable, off on some exploratory archipelago-hopping adventure?

IMG_8755

Keep your Snoopy-in-the-sky heart sunshades on, sweetness. Dishes, tables, beds, desks, lamps and chairs may go into cold storage, but not you, not your friends.

IMG_8754

You will travel with us wherever we go; reminders of home’s core, children we love (of all ages, for are we not all children?), the evergreen innocence of love,  and our own inner child which must be protected so we can continue to grow.

Dedicated to my beloved sister, Flo, on her birthday. She inspires me with her dedication to her family and her art, her gift for loving, and her wisdom. She is ageless.

Nettie’s Patterns

Self portrait 9-20-2013 trying to figure out how the webcam on Buck’s laptop works. What does she see in there?

A memory shard poked me today. Something I had forgotten. My late mother, Nettie Moore Phillips Jones, was a fine seamstress before the accursed spiderwebs set up housekeeping in her mind. She had an artist’s eye for pattern, a sculptor’s appreciation for the feel of various fabrics. She could take a Simplicity, McCall’s or Butterick pattern, unfold its tissue-thin paper, and know just what to do to turn it into a pretty dress.

1-scan0037-1My child’s eyes saw her pleasure in the project, from an idea in her mind and the study of patterns that would accomplish her goal, to the excitement of going to a fabric store to select her materials. I remember the raw smell of dyes in the rows upon rows of heavy bolts of brocade, cotton prints, Peau de Soie, eyelet. She pored over a city of buttons, yards of colorful rickrack, acres of bright thread.

When Mother began a new sewing project,  she took on an air both serious and deeply joyful that I cannot recall sensing from her in any other setting. It strikes me hard this morning to realize this was a playing out of her artistic dreams and longings in the only way available to her.

Early onset organic brain syndromes produced seizures, dementia and personality changes that took away her ability to sew. Our Mother was gone long before her death in 1989 at age 73.

I recognize that deeply joyous, intense state of mind in myself when I’m “in the zone” with writing, when I feel a feather of an idea and proceed to write an entire bird on the page. Some days it’s a scrawny chicken-like bird, ugly and ill-tempered. Some nights it is dressed in peacock feathers and breaks your heart with the song of a lone mockingbird on a fence post.  But whatever it is, however it looks or sounds, it is my joy.

I hear the same ripple in the voice of my artist sister, speaking of her work, and in the voice of my birder/photographer/writer brother as he anticipates his next adventure in the natural world, and in the low voice of my younger brother whose near-death experience with bladder cancer brought him a poet’s love and a survivor’s need for daily sunrise walks on the river and bays where he lives. Our older sister found creative expression later in life through singing in her church choir, but a traumatic brain injury two years ago was an avalanche and whatever might have been on the other side is now a slow scraping process to a new path, like building a highway with a metal spoon.

The house is quiet this morning. I’ve been working upstairs at my desk since 6:30, rewriting the synopsis for my novel-in-progress. The original synopsis was written ages ago. Strangely, it was an encouraging project, because I realize I’ve come a good distance down the road, and there is much more “there” there now than before. The characters and I are soul mates, and I hope to bring them through their travails as tenderly as a mother would shepherd her flock through a treacherous midnight wood. It has become a labor of love, not a notch on the belt.

The room has darkened while I write. It is truly darkness at noon. I am surrounded by three windows and a set of sliding glass doors that look out over the forest. The giant old Longleaf pines sway. A moaning wind slips in through an opening in one of the double-hung wood windows near my desk. Thunder rumbles grow louder and a jagged streak of lightning tells me the generator may be called to duty soon. Just now, a heavy curtain of rain falls, quickly making a waterfall from the second story roof onto the concrete below.

And you know what? It just doesn’t get any better than this.

Patriarch

BUCK REGALED ME WITH ALL SORTS OF ENTERTAINING STORIES when we were courting thirty years ago.  “Courting” is one of those sweetly anachronistic words that is fun to type, rich in images from an earlier century. Heh.  I laugh, but as a matter of record our courtship and marriage did happen in the latter third of the previous century.

One of his stories involved a beautiful blonde-headed toddler of a cousin named Marianne. Her parents lived in Washington, D.C. and little eight year old Buck, five years her senior, had come to visit. They fell in love, in the way of young children, and romped all over his Aunt Marguerite’s and Uncle Muegge’s house until young Buck outdid himself trying to impress Marianne and went sailing off a second story landing and bounced off the wood floor below, alarming the adults and bruising more than his ego.

Marianne lives on Pawley’s Island, South Carolina now. Like Buck, she has grown children and grandchildren. She lost her beloved Jon last March after 44 years of marriage. Let’s just say I cannot imagine and do not want to ever become a member of that club.

In a brave, intentional effort to emerge from a chrysalis of grief, Marianne came to see us last week, a side trip on her way to spend a week with old friends of hers and Jon’s in a resort on Anna Maria Island on Florida’s west coast. We took a field trip to Joe Patti’s Seafood Market one day to fetch cocktail crab claws and fillets of fresh red snapper, went to lunch at a wonderful new restaurant, IRON, another, but mostly we sat at a small round dining table in the Longleaf Bar and Grill right here at home and talked until the dinner, wine and ice cream were long gone and the short, fat candles sputtered. We brought out fragile old photo albums. We laughed, cried, and marveled together at the unexpected twists and turns on the road between childhood and old age. My fingers linger when I type “old age.” It feels presumptuous; inaccurate. Do I include myself? I don’t think 61 is “old.” Buck at 75 is not “old.” Where is the line? Is one old at 85? I know people whom I consider old (as in old fogies,not old souls) at 43.

And yet, a time may come, with longevity, when one is the eldest member of a particular blood-tied clan. I rather suspect it may be a peculiar, lonely feeling.  Saturday morning, as Marianne was about to leave, Buck said, “Well, I sure don’t feel like it, but I guess I’m the patriarch.”

Marianne said, “You sure are!”

Just Life

It’s Thursday night, I think. Buck and I got back home to Pensacola last night. We made our way from Maggie Valley to Asheville and turned west on I-26 toward Columbia, South Carolina, where we picked up I-95 South to Savannah. I’d love to say we lingered in Savannah’s old town over a romantic dinner and walked along the river, but that would be a lie. Instead, we ducked sheets of rain and dodged wind gusts until about 5 o’clock. We found a bed and a delivery veggie pizza in a Hampton Inn at a motel city called Gateway South on the Jacksonville side of Savannah. Buck, dear soul, found a liquor store and bought me a fine bottle of single malt Scotch sippin’ whiskey to celebrate the eve of my 61st birthday. I didn’t hurt it too bad, though, anticipating the next day’s fasting for our annual Mayo Clinic wellness physicals.

We spent the evening talking about the romantic journey of our history together. We talked about our Maggie Valley stay, the visits with friends, the nice people we crossed trail with, how sweet it was to stay at the  “Awesome View” cottage, managed by Carolina Vacations, and how superb it was to live for two weeks in a Smoky Mountains’ rain forest garden.

I came away determined to garden again, despite arthritis that cramps my hands and shoulders, despite hungry deer that eat up all the proceeds.

Images of these perfect blooms will stay with me all through the heat of our Pensacola summer. We’ll be hunkered down here in the air-conditioned destination resort until September, when we’ll head to Bernard, Maine on Bass Harbor, back to the fabulously rustic “Captain’s Quarters” owned by the very dear golf croquet champion Jeanne Fernald. Got a note from Jeanne today, and she tells me there is still vacancy in July and August at Captain’s.  Shoot me a note if you’re interested and I’ll tell you all about it. We have stayed there at least three times in the past. Great place  — has its own lobster dock, and isn’t far from Acadia National Park.

This sweet little flower is on a vine I spotted this morning on an early walk down to our very own Longleaf Preserve gate. Early morning’s are the time to walk, while the air is still fragrant and cool. Our doc at Mayo said we should keep on keepin’ on, that our formula, whatever it is, is working. We’re apparently poster kids for the older set. Heh.

I’ve been talking to and writing back and forth with my brothers and sisters. Sweet wondrous folk, dear to my heart. Hard to think of old age, separation, illness and, you know. You know. The part I don’t want to think about. None of us do.

Our good friend, Betty Hunter, brought us a bottle of Pear Gorgonzola salad dressing when she and Jim came to see us in Maggie. I used some today to dress a salad of butter lettuce, Carolina Gold smoked turkey chunks, walnuts, red onion slivers, walnuts, and dried cranberries. Just about the best stuff I ever put in my mouth. Ooh, it was good.

Ain’t it pretty? Sockeye salmon in a teriyaki sauce with brown rice, baby spinach and wok-grilled red peppers and onions. Who says healthy eating is some kind of sacrificial act?

And doing a lazy backstroke in the cool blue open air pool surrounded by tall Longleaf pines, singing mocking birds,  flights of swallows,  the high drone of a circling helicopter, and the drifting perfume of vining honeysuckle, can you tell me that it really does get any better than this?

My Mother’s Daughter

I am not by nature a liar; or maybe I am, and it is only the years of loving Buck and wanting to be worthy of his love that have curbed my natural tendency to self-protect, lie, color and shade to add a pretty, if thin, patina.

“Daddy’s little girl.” That was me. I don’t even remember much about my mother except for early vignettes and later psychosis. The early stuff was a real mixed bag.

She couldn’t stand a messy refrigerator.  I remember watching her meticulously remove the cap from a bottle of ketchup stored in the refrigerator door, wipe accumulated dried bits from the mouth, dry the bottle, and replace it on the refrigerator door shelf.

She was thrifty, but had an earnest desire to climb the middle-class ladder.  Like so many women of her era, Heloise’s Hints were required reading. I’m pretty sure that’s where she learned to take the last bits of bar soap, melt them together, and roll them into balls. Somehow she managed to melt the blue Zest separately and then combine it with the white soap so that each ball came out marbled with blue and white. These hand-crafted soap balls turned into decoration for the bathroom.

Before I was born, she took my half-sisters, both pale as night-blooming Cereus, one with white-blond hair, the other with finest red, and transported them far from the Mississippi farmlands, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins they had known into the exotic heat of Miami, Florida with her new husband, a man with black hair, high cheekbones, sun-darkened deep olive skin, flashing eyes and teeth: my father.

Three babies came, and the older girls had to take care of my brothers and me; their mother’s “new” family. The sisters were given to understand that mother had traded up, and this new family would get it right. Their job was to change our diapers, bathe us, play with us, read to us, and generally shut up and fade into the wallpaper like good half-sisters. When my dad died at age 51, he had become a successful home builder, sweet as sugar and gentle as a lamb. But at the time those young girls were first required to call him “Daddy,” he was still a primitive with potential, and rough as a cob.

No wonder my oldest sister left to go to nursing school as soon as she could and then married when I was six. The other girl had to drop out of college after a terrible horse-riding accident and come back home. That must have been awful for her. I loved having her back. She was the spark of life that made my day. She was naughty and a rebel and an in-your-face rule breaker. And she stood up for us kids.

Mother had a strange way of punishing us. If my brothers and I got into some kind of tussle, everybody got punished. We had to go cut our own switch from one of her strong, springy shrubs. After the punishment, when we were still mad and upset, we had to hug each other. “Now hug your brother. You know you love him, don’t you?” That technique insured that we could never, ever hug each other comfortably, even as adults.

Poison pills and individual exploding devices were placed into the mix when we were children by this mother who loved us all the best she could, but who had a growing network of spider webs in her brain caused by mental illness created by organic disease, combined with her own childhood which spawned shame chiseled like stone tablets on her heart. She had no choice but to pass them on to her children, a heavy legacy.

Buck is the casting mold for a straight arrow. My bent shaft flies nearly true after 30 years of living intimately with and learning from this exceptional man.

And yet, when we planned an on-again, off-again, ultimately on-again road trip to the far West’s Grand Canyon country and the parks of Utah, one that would take us within several hundred miles of where my sister lives, I edited the possibility of a meet-up with her and her husband out of our plans, and my arrow rippled, went tilt, and ricocheted back to me.

The last time we saw each other in person seemed to go fairly well, but there were negative repercussions in the weeks that followed that took us years to repair. Those poison pills and IEDs I mentioned earlier. Gradually, we’ve built a relationship based on mutual respect and genuine love. E-mails with occasional phone calls have proved to be the best way for our fine analytical brains to keep Mother out of the room when we communicate.

My sister is an artist. She creates beauty from brokenness. She is at a time of life when extra drama from any quarter is debilitating and can shatter her ability to focus on the person she loves most in the world, her husband of the past half-century, and her work, including her art and her garden, which is a creative extension and further expression of her art.

And so, if you read this, dear sister, I don’t think you will be surprised to hear me acknowledge that I am deeply flawed in the ability to love department, with one exception, and you know how fundamentally Buck has had the key to unlock the massive armored door to my heart.

He would tell anyone that I am the lovingest woman in the whole wide world. And as to him, that’s not an unreasonable declaration, even for a man with stars in his eyes after all these years. But except for him, I am selfish with my time and the attention toward others I love is doled out in teaspoons.

It has been painful for me to look in the mirror these past weeks, see flashes of another woman there, and realize that I am, after all, at least as much my mother’s daughter as my daddy’s girl, hoarding love into my own little pile as though it were nuggets from a personal mining claim.

I had decided not to tell the story of our incredible trip out West; to hoard it, too, out of shame for not making the extra effort to see my sister.

But then, I read Richard Gilbert’s interview with author Alethea Black, and remembered a story of hers I read several years ago called The Only Way Out Is Through, originally published in Narrative Magazine.  Alethea had very kindly written to me back in 2009 after my story, Tenderness, appeared in Brevity. We talked about how interesting it was that both of our stories involved a deer being hit by a vehicle.

I downloaded Alethea’s collection of fine stories, I Knew You’d Be Lovely, and immediately re-read The Only Way Out Is Through.  It was even better than I remembered, maybe because I read it sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of a remote lodge in Zion Canyon National Park, Utah.

While I mulled over what to do with the huge package of experiences from our trip, Alethea’s title kept playing over and over in my mind, a rhythmic back beat, like the sound of a train running over tracks late in the night on a high prairie next to a wind farm: the only way out is through, the only way out is through, the only way out is through.

Thank you, Alethea. Your words and stories, (so often described as “unflinching,” because they are), helped me turn the magnifying glass inward, remove the arrow, bleed awhile, and go on.

The silver lining of this cloud of unresolved childhood issues is this: apparently I have finally become incapable of dissimulation for my own convenience without suffering swift, self-administered retribution.

I’ve been hiding amongst the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, playing peekaboo in the Queens Garden, rim walking in the Grand Canyon, slipping on slick rocks overhanging gorgeous grottoes at Zion, and listening to stunning, other-worldly music performed in Salt Lake City. This trip became a true spiritual odyssey, a journey to me that began with a denial, and then continued with a panoply of emotions that will be carving and shaping me for years like wind, like water freezing and thawing and freezing again: exhilaration, shame, joy, fear of physical challenges and personal inadequacy, passion, perseverance, discovery, triumph, wonder, and self-awareness.

It will take some time to show, to tell.

Marrow

Even when you have picked over the family bones for every scrap of meat, every scent like a starving hound, something in the marrow waits to tell you more.