Cloister

When I was a little kid I lived in Nebraska in a town whose eastern border was the Missouri River. This means that “my” Nebraska wasn’t the Nebraska of myth and legend — flat, treeless, grassland — but forest, bluff, and butte. Almost literally across the street from our house was a forest. It belonged to the Columban Fathers, the branch of the Roman Catholic Church that is concerned with books, publishing and missionary work.

The geography was a narrow strip of deciduous forest, a wide open meadow ruled over by an ancient oak tree, then a kind of road. To the right the road went past many strange relics of an arcane faith that had little meaning to a kid brought up American Baptist. At the end a life size Christ hung from a giant cross. Along the way was a “grotto” made of concrete to look like natural rock. Now I know it was meant to be Jesus’ tomb. If my memory is right, there was an angel somewhere on that very convincing concrete climbing wall (how we used it). The passage was lined with trees and, especially in fall, it was very lovely.

My brother took this from the top of the grotto. 1965


Beyond this passage was a real road but I never saw a vehicle on it. It led to the buildings of the cloister. We never went there. Instead we crossed it and went into the REAL forest. This is where things got good. There was a ravine across which we rigged a rope and tire. My brother rode that across the ravine — and I’m sure others did — but it wasn’t my thing. There were mulberry trees from which a friend and I once shook berries. There were my favorite; narrow trails to run on and, in winter, on which we could ride our sleds.

Above: a drawing I did a few years ago of my brother and me sledding at the Mission.

From time to time, we would see a monk walking between the trees, reading from a small book. I never thought they minded us being there, but in time a high fence was erected. We just went under the gate and went on as always. In the intervening years, the cloister has been built up and some of the forest is gone and the meadow is now an area filled with buildings, but…

Years and years later, when I read the life changing book, How the Irish Saved Civilization I learned something strange and wonderful. My “mission” was home to the spiritual descendants of one of the Irish monks who, with St. Gall, crossed the channel to bring books to Europe in the 6th century. Columbanus.

We live in innumerable parallel universes and are oblivious to many of those in which we live. “Here, Martha Ann, this will be very important to you someday.”

“What?”

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/06/20/rdp-saturday-cloistered/

T-N-T Boxes

Wooden boxes with T-N-T stenciled on the ends. I wish I could tell you what my dad was doing exactly. I can’t. I was just a very little kid, but I THINK they were using balloon bound radio receivers to determine how far into the atmosphere sound waves traveled. All I really KNOW about it is that the by-product of this research were these boxes which formerly held high explosives. My dad thought they were GREAT.

What’s also great, is that I wrote about them three years ago. It’s a good story. And here it is. T-N-T boxes.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/02/06/rdp-thursday-explosive/

Artists in the Family

“You have to do like this,” my brother holds up John Gnagy’s book, Learn to Draw that we’d gotten for Christmas. It was part of a kit with pencils, charcoal, a blender (a paper pencil like thing pointed at the end), a eraser, a sandpaper pencil sharpener, a plastic pencil sharpener and some paper.

Gnagy was on TV, too, but we didn’t watch much TV. Parental controls were parents saying, “No, God dammit.”

I looked at the cone my brother was copying from the book, the early pages where Gnagy was teaching about shading.

“You have to see where the light comes from. That’s how you get three dimensions.”

My brother was always able to talk about art in this kind of way, theoretically, abstractly. I couldn’t, can’t, don’t and am seriously frightened by it. I don’t know what kind of artist I am, but not the theory to reality type.

The kit ended up my brother’s. At that point I saw myself as a future designer of women’s clothing and that’s what I was drawing. I also got a Barbie doll that year (1964) and had discovered sewing clothes for her was a lot of fun. I was also painting in oils, landscapes from my mind.

The interesting thing is that my brother was a cartoonist from the very beginning, but he understood how “real” art was important to cartooning. Somewhere inside he wanted to be a “real” artist and he did some amazing “real” paintings, but there was always something missing from them. At heart he was a story teller but needed a page of squares to tell the story. His painting hero was Howard Pyle whose paintings definitely tell stories.

Years later, when we were both in our late twenties, walking on a snowy Denver street near my mom’s house, I got some useful advice from my brother. I had just taken down my one-woman show at Cafe Nepenthes in Denver. My brother didn’t seem to think much of the show — it wasn’t his “thing,” or, maybe, he was jealous. I don’t know. Artists in a family that doesn’t support art? Well, friction is inevitable. He said I was an “abstract expressionist” (which I had to look up, later, in my book, The Shock of the New) and he said my paintings were flat, lacking depth (that damned shadow thing again). I’d sold $1000+ which I don’t think my brother ever did.

Here’s one of the paintings from that show — not really a Modigliani knock-off.

At that point, I was taking a break from painting and was doing linoleum cuts having seen Picasso’s in the National Gallery earlier that month. I was talking to my brother about them and what I was trying to do. I explained how I felt making art was responding to a divine impulse. I told him how I was having a little trouble with the knives I used to carve my linoleum. “It’s easier if the linoleum is warm,” I said.

His response, “Well, Martha Ann, if you want to talk to God you have to play Black Sabbath backwards at 78 and you need some emery paper, honey.”

Fast-forward 20 some years to San Diego. My brother and his then wife came to visit from Northern California. On my wall was a “thing” I’d spent the whole summer making. It was the dark summer of my mental breakdown, but the products were pretty nice.

“Did you do that?” my brother asked.

“How I spent my summer vacation, Kirk.”

“Dammit, Martha Ann. You ARE an artist.”

He wasn’t entirely happy about that, either.

Hippy Fords of July

One of my favorite cartoons done by my brother depicts me, Aunt Martha and him in the backseat of our car. It’s supposed to be an afternoon we all — and my mom — went up on the Gold Camp Road near Colorado Springs to look at the golden aspen. In real life, my Aunt Martha was driving. She kept looking in the rearview mirror and saw my brother reading a comic book instead of looking out the window. She would then yell at him to “Look at the aspen!!!” My brother might not have put my Aunt Martha in the driver’s seat, but he accurately depicted the sense of the day and each of our personalities.

A cartoon my brother did for my Aunt Martha’s 80th birthday

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/10/12/rdp-saturday-shadows/

1955, the Longest Day of the Year

“What are those?”
“Mannequins, honey. Come on. We need to get you some summer pjs.”
“What kind?”
“Baby dolls. How about that? Would you like that?”
“What are they?”
“Like these.” She pointed to a child mannequin. “Like those.”
I liked them! They had little red roses, lots of lace and a ribbon at the neck.
“They’re pretty!”
“All right then. How about these?” She held up the same but with yellow roses.

It was a rare occurrence for us to be at a store. I don’t think they had much money — dad was working at Denver Research Institute and mom was a stay at home mom. Stores then were not open at night, either, but for some reason – a special longest day of the year sale? – this evening stores were open. While I can see the stores in my mind’s eye, I don’t know where they were exactly. There were no malls back then, but this was not “downtown” Englewood, Colorado, either. Unless it was and I was just too small to know, to have a context. That could be. This is one of my earliest memories.

“It’s the longest day of the year, kids,” said my dad from the front seat. “You know what that means? That means the sun is over the Tropic of Cancer. It’s closer to us today than any other time in the year.”
“Longest day of the year?”
“Yep. The sun won’t go down until after 8 o’clock tonight. You’ll be in bed before the sun goes down!”
My brother and I were at the 7 o’clock bedtime. I was three.

“Go wash your face and brush your teeth and I’ll bring you your new pajamas,” said my mom. I ran into the bathroom and did as I had been told. My mom showed up at the bathroom door when I still had foam in my mouth. “Here you go, baby. When you get them on, come out and show me how they fit.”

I liked them so much. I came out and showed my mom and dad my new PJs. My brother had new pajamas, too. “OK, kids, let me tuck you in.” My dad picked up my brother and took my hand. My brother was still in a crib. Dad pulled down the shades so it would at least be a little dark. “You’ll be sound asleep before the sun goes down,” he said.

It was the longest day of the year! I was too excited to go to sleep right way. I watched the daylight in the lines around the sides of the window shades. It went from the bright white of Colorado day, to the golden slant of sunset, to the soft blue of dusk before I finally closed my eyes.

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/set-for-solstice/

Magical Valentine Across Time

I spent six of my formative years — probably the six most formative years — in a small town in Nebraska. I loved it there. It was a Norman Rockwell world with ice cream socials held after Little League games at one church or another, a world where kids were free to go everywhere by bike, where the public swimming pool was surrounded by woods, and winter ice-skating was on a pond in the middle of a forest.

It really was like that. This isn’t just nostalgia. I was a happy kid.

Besides the town and the life it provided my brother and me as kids, I liked all the opportunities my mom and dad put in front of me. Life was great. I didn’t know then that the preparation for life I got was, a lot of it, going to fall by the way in the social tumult of the sixties and seventies, family tragedies, marriage, divorce, grad school, all of it.

Life.

Most of my education was in public school. Then, because my parents hoped that the rigor of a private school would help my incorrigible little brother who refused to learn anything in public school, I went to Brownell/Talbot, an Episcopalian school in Omaha, for sixth and seventh grade. It was a combination of girls’ finishing school and college prep school. My brother was “uninvited” after the first year, but I flourished and found my first ever real friend. It was two very happy school years for me.

I was also a Rainbow Girl. Rainbow is, “A Masonic fraternal order for girls of teen age.” We wore formals to our meetings. We had “dinners” for our parents and for visiting Rainbow Girl Lodges and visiting officers — local, state and national. They were always beautiful events with centerpieces, table favors and name cards, all handmade by us girls. We were taught that this kind of extra-effort showed others that they mattered to us.

The girl I was from 12 to 14 imagined that all these thoughtful, petty things would be part of my adult life mixed in with world travel, art, adventure and athletics. I guess I imagined 45 hour days and did not fully understand the freedom of childhood. 🙂

By the time I was fifteen, that world had vanished not only from my actual existence (we moved away from the little Nebraska town to the vastly more sophisticated Colorado Springs), but almost from my memory. By then, fate was taking my family to some dark places.

And THEN…

My friend Elizabeth invited me to join her and her husband for a Valentine dinner at the local Methodist church this past Saturday. I was nervous because it would mean meeting new people, but I trust my friend and she said it would be fun. When I asked if I could wear jeans, Elizabeth said, “It is kind of fancy.”

I wore my “best” clothes which are velvety, brown cords, a black cashmere sweater and a gold necklace. I haven’t had REAL fancy clothes in a looonnnnggg time. Besides, I couldn’t imagine the dinner being very fancy. This is Colorado, after all…

Monte Vista United Methodist Church
Erected in 1922 in the Prairie architectural style it features fifty-four original geometric stained glass windows and a fifty-seven pipe Estey organ.

The Methodist church is a splendid arts and crafts building. I’ve wanted to see it for a while. Luckily, we arrived when there was still enough day to light the amazing stained glass windows.

Half of this massive cube of a building — built of glazed bricks — is the sanctuary. The other half is a meeting hall where the dinner was held.

Candles and fairy lights, a dozen beautifully set tables, red tablecloths with white lace over them. Centerpieces, handmade table favors; our red, cloth napkins, rolled to look like roses, sat in our coffee cups. Silver. The hosts — people from the Methodist church — wore tuxes and formals as they served us dinner.

We found seats at a table with the minister of the Disciples of Christ church and his wife. The minister stood by his seat until we three ladies were seated. I have not seen that kind of chivalric behavior since I was a girl, but I saw it many times that night.

Dinner was lasagna, salad, and cherry cheese cake. We were served red or white sparkling grape juice (these are Methodists, after all) by the minister of the church who wore a tuxedo and a red bowtie. From time to time, an elegantly dressed Methodist would come and check that everything was fine at our table.

That dinner was a REAL Valentine. Not only was I with some of my favorite people here in Colorado, but I was in a beautiful place surrounded by living relics of a lovely, gentle life I thought had vanished. The sweetness of it sank deeply into my heart, and I thought, “It’s been here all along.”

Handmade Valentine Quilted Wall Hanging (Photo by Elizabeth Shank)

Mom’s Illogical Demands

“We spent all that money on raincoats for you two! You didn’t even take them to school!”

“We didn’t know it was going to rain.” Wasn’t that HER job, to say, “Take your rain coats it looks like rain”?

“Get in here. You’re drenched. Get in the tub.”

“Me first,” says your brother, knowing there are cartoons.

OK now that made sense. Come home from school with your little brother, you’re both soaked from the rain storm and she tells you to get in the bathtub.

“Why?” you ask.

“You’ll catch your death. NOW!!!!”

You both run to your rooms. You wonder what you’re supposed to do while your brother is in the tub avoiding death.

“Get out of your wet clothes!!” yells your mom. “Throw them down the basement stairs!”

You take off your school clothes and run through the house in your underwear, open the basement door and throw your dress, slip, and socks down the basement stairs. Now you’re more or less naked in wet panties. This is madness.

“Billy! Get out of the tub, dry off good! It’s your sister’s turn!”

You hear the water begin its journey down down the drain.

“Dry off good! Maureen, get in there.”

Dry off and then get wet. You’re cold now, but you were fine before. Shivering, you go into the bathroom, turn on the water and get into the tub. “Can I have bubblebath?” you yell.

“I don’t care!” she yells back. “Just get into that tub.”

Your brother passes by the bathroom door in his pajamas. His red-blond hair spikey from being dried with the towel. He makes a face at you as he goes by.

“Stop looking at me!” you yell.

After a while your mother yells again, “Get out of there and get dried off. I need you to set the table.”

Life is an unsupportable burden. First you’re in trouble for getting wet in the rain you couldn’t predict or prevent. Then you’re yelled at for not getting into the bathtub already peopled by your brother. Then you’re yelled at for being IN the bathtub. You heave a sigh reflecting deep world-weariness as you let the water out of the tub. You drag your legs over the side, take your leaden towel from the rack and endure the effort of drying off your skin.

“I’m coming,” you yell back.

 

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/10/27/rdp-saturday-drench/

The Cast

“Mom!!!!”

“What happened?”

My little brother held his arm as if it were a bone china tureen filled with hot soup, not that he’d know or care at all about what bone china is.

“I fell out of a tree up at the mission.” The Columban fathers had a mission a block from our house. It was acres and acres of deciduous forest. It was our playground, our happy place.

“I’ll call your father.”

She didn’t drive.

I don’t know what happened next. I don’t know where I went — probably to a neighbor’s  or maybe (I think) my grandma was visiting — or where the bone was set, but my brother came home with a cast on his forearm.

“Simple break,” said my dad. “No reason for hysterics, Helen.”

“I broke my arm,” she stuck out her left arm so we could see the crooked bit. “It never healed right.”

“Helen,” sighed my dad, “there were no hospitals.”

“She sent David for Dr. Festy.” David being her older brother.

“Had to set it with boards in the kitchen, right? They did the best they could.”

“My poor boy. Mother gave me castor oil.”

“For a broken arm?”

“I wouldn’t stop crying.”

My dad shook his head and laughed. That was my grandma. What do you do on a dirt farm with ten kids, no car, no phone, two Percherons, a 7-year-old with a broken arm? From where I sit now, castor oil doesn’t seem that crazy.

“Well, it ruins our vacation,” said my mom.

“Why?” asked my dad.

“Kirk won’t be able to do anything. He has to be in a cast for three months!”

That did not turn out to be the case. Kirk did everything a two-armed kid would do except play Little League which he hated, anyway.

At the end of the summer, we went to Montana on the train as usual. The days were long, hot, sweet and filled with family. There were sunset games of Red Rover and lots of running in the tall grass of the pasture between grandma’s house and Aunt Jo’s. There were backyard picnics with fried chicken, red Jell-o mixed with fruit cocktail, potato salad and pie. The grownups sat in lawn chairs smoking in the darkness while we played monsters with flashlights.

One afternoon our cousins came over to stay with grandma and play with us. My brother  was playing in the ditch (not supposed to because of the cast) with the two youngest cousins, girls, while I tried watercolor painting with out a brush — I was trying to use the bristly ends of some wild grass. It didn’t work. Kirk and my cousins came screeching in through the backdoor. Kirk had caught a sucker with his bare hands. This was a marvel, a feat previously only accomplished by my mom.

“Mom! Look what I caught!” He held the fish carefully in both hands.

“Where’s your cast?” asked my mom, turning pale.

“I don’t know,” said my brother, suddenly realizing how seriously he’d messed up. It turned out he’d been slipping that thing off for weeks when he didn’t want to wear it.

I still have an image in my mind of that tow-headed kid in the Hawaiian shirt my mom had made him during the months she and my dad were living in Honolulu and we were living with Aunt Jo and Uncle Hank in Montana. We’re in a doctor’s waiting room. The chairs are Chartreuse, the tile floor black and white. Kirk and my mom are called into the examining room. They get up and Kirk leaves the cast on the chair.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/broken/

Time Passages

“OK, let’s synchronize our watches.”

We look down at our left wrists and, with our right hands, make small movements, adjusting our imaginary watches.

“O400, we attack.” We tip-toe to the bushes — mostly honeysuckle — and look through the branches across the next yard at the enemy. They are also synchronizing THEIR watches. We get down on the ground, crawl on all fours to the fort that is the newly installed central air-conditioner.

“Debbie! Junior! Come in here now! I told you to wash the dishes before you went out to play and those dishes are still on the table!”

We stand up. Debbie and Junior call out from their yard, “We’ll be right back!” My brother and I sit down on the central air-conditioner unit to wait.

Dad yells from the house, “How many times do I have to tell you not to sit on that goddamned thing!” We jump off.

In this the twilight moment between summer and fall, the sun seems to hurry toward the end of the day. Just a month ago we’d have had HOURS left to play, but now our dad’s shrill whistle summons us inside before Debbie and Junior have finished the dishes.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/synchronize/

TNT Boxes

When I was a kid, we had lots of TNT boxes lying around. Empty ones, but still they had “TNT — Highly Explosive” lettered all six sides. They were wooden boxes and really handy for making shelves, footstools and playhouses for one’s little girl. My dad did this for me when I was two. He took a bunch of TNT boxes and painted them green (the family favorite color and left over from painting the living room) and set them up in the back yard. I don’t have a strong memory of the playhouse, but I have a picture.

TNT

My cousin Linda and I thought that was pretty uptown. You can only see a couple of the TNT boxes in the photo. The TNT boxes form the foundation for the end of the “table” where my cousin is sitting. (Some youngster will find this photo and post it on Pinterest as “Mid-century Modern Childrens’ Playhouse.” Just wait)

He used the TNT to launch rockets carrying radios and weather balloons. And, of course, in the early 1950s there was still a lot of Army surplus stuff left over from the war. They were kind of like this, but with the tops off and no locks and different words.

573818747191c234599c887b45505821

Thanks Pinterest! for this photo of a “vintage” dynamite box.

 

Later we lived two miles from the nation’s largest gathering of B52 bombers, and, as it was the height (interesting use of the word ‘height’) of the Cold War, the possibility of detonation was real. I knew at a young age what a megaton was and how powerful our nukular arsenal was. My dad explained it to me through the familiar unit of 50 pound TNT boxes. I think he drew a picture.

That was when my dad told me about Alfred Nobel and how his invention had changed the world of warcraft (see what I did there?). TNT made him rich, but it also left him with feelings of great remorse that led to the Nobel Peace Prize.

“For some reason, peace is harder for people than war, MAK.” I understood that fine. I lived in a family where tempers flared, not in a family in which people got angry and sang Mr. Rogers’ song about what you do when you’re mad.

Some people’s dads flew bombers during the war; some liberated Rome; some were there supplying the fighters on Guadalcanal, like my Uncle Hank. Some stood in the Marine color guard in Nanjing when the Japanese surrendered, like my Uncle Stocky. Many died what we call a “hero’s death.” Not my dad. 🙂

The featured photo is of my dad sitting in front of La Jolla Cove. It wasn’t until I saw a photo of myself leaning against that railing in the exact same place that I understood where he’d been during the war, or the geography behind, “You’d better pray you never have to clean a latrine with a toothbrush, MAK.” This was his fate after, “…getting drunk in Tijuana, busted down to buck private and thrown in the brig.” By the end of the war, this had happened to him twice. When he was mustered out, he was a Tech Sergeant.

I am proud of his war achievements somehow. They included taming a coyote dog and making him a pet. I think my dad might not have been quite like the other kids…

Postscript: I just found his wallet with his discharge papers. He was: Radar Repairman; Gun Laying Equipment Expert; Expert Rifleman (no wonder: he hunted with his dad all his life). He had a Good Conduct  Medal and a Victory Medal and was stationed in the American Theater. He went to school in Davis, NC for radio and radar repair.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/detonate/

The Great Divide

When I was a little kid growing up in a Denver suburb, and once in a while going to the mountains (but not often; the folks weren’t outdoorsy types, even though they liked it OK), my dad would always talk about this wondrous mysterious thing called “The Great Divide.” This is the backbone of the continent, no small thing. “We’re going to cross the Great Divide!” he’d say and if there was a chance, we’d stop on the great divide and look at it.

If you’re standing on the top of a mountain — Loveland Pass — it’s going to be awesome, anyway, but if it’s ALSO the Great Divide! WOW. And then mom would say, “Water that falls here,” and she gestured with her right hand (because we’re oriented north out here) “flows to the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean. And on this side,” she gestured grandly with her left hand, “The water will flow to the Pacific Ocean.”

“Think of that kids,” said dad who, it seems to me, was never short on wonder.

Later in school I got in an argument with my teacher over the nomenclature of this wonder. “Continental Divide? I think not. It is much MORE than that. It is the GREAT Divide!” At home my dad set me straight, and I learned a lesson that’s always been useful. There are often several correct names for things. Don’t argue names.

That goes for God, by the way.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/divide/