Selective Memory

“…you must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education but some good, sacred memory preserved from childhood is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days.”

Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov


I don’t know if anyone ever described Dostoyevsky’s work as “scintillating,” but I loved his books. Thinking of them, though, I have to laugh. When I was writing The Brothers Path, and I was (briefly) in an online writers workshop, one of my “classmates” asked what I was trying to do, be Dostoyevsky? Like there was something wrong with that as an aspiration? My novel, The Brothers Path, has no central protagonist, and that may or may not be a failing, but since the story IS about six brothers all living in the same historical moment in the 16th century, contending with the sudden smorgasbord of alternative Christian faiths, and it’s a book about a family not about a person.

A long time ago I did a dramatic reading of a play for a graduate seminar in James Joyce. The professor had invited my friend, O’Donnell, to read his play and he needed a “Maeve.” It was fun, and I met the chairman of the English department, Sherry Little. She was amazing. We got to be friends and the three of us would sometimes meet in Irish pubs and read to each other. As a result of this, when an opening for a lecturer appeared in the Creative Writing Department at San Diego State, she nominated me. The jury of the Creative Writing Department categorically said, “NO. She doesn’t have a masters in creative writing.”

“No,” said Sherry, “but she can WRITE! And she’s been teaching writing for years!”

“Not creative writing,” they said, and that was that. I was disappointed, but the three of us went out for Guiness, discussion, poetry and stories. I figured I’d gotten the better end of the deal.

The quotation from The Brothers Karamazov has stuck with me since my Dostoyevsky days back in the mid 1980s. I believe it is true. I suspect that those memories emerge when things are dark and in some small, quiet way move us forward out of whatever trench we’re in at the moment. I also suspect that we horde those memories and keep them where we can see them. I say this because all the abuse my mom heaped upon me has never been in front of my mind; in fact, my aunts had to talk to me straight to get me to look at those events as they really happened. I’m grateful for those talks and the truth revealed, but at the same time, except for a deeper personal understanding of myself and “mistakes” I made as a result of deep-seated fear, my life has gone on in its comparatively optimistic look-at-the-brightside kind of way. In fact, I didn’t look at what she did as “abuse.” It was just the way she was.

The holiday season brings up memories for most people, I think, and I hope for everyone it brings up good memories from childhood, but I know that’s not the case for everyone. I’m grateful that, for me, it is. Sure, some of my good memories involve Lutefisk, but… Anyway, the thing about memories is we can make new good memories.



Featured photo: My family on Christmas Eve, 1961. We opened our presents Christmas Eve as was traditional in my mom’s family and over much of German speaking Europe. Christmas Day was for more serious, less materialistic, endeavors such as dinner and playing with presents though there were stockings with an orange in the toe, some walnuts, small toys… I still have the stocking on which my grandma embroidered my initials.

No Lead in My Studio (So far…)

Yesterday I went to the museum in Del Norte to collect some money and restock my notecard offerings. It was a good weekend for me financially, and I was able to buy surfaces to paint on. Not the BIG canvas, but some pretty good sized panels and a linen canvas. With all drugs, you can be happy with “cheap Mexi” until someone gives you something better. Last summer I painted on oil-primed linen and I don’t think I’ll ever be the same woman.

It’s a small painting — 8″ x 10″. It turned out that this oil-primed linen is a wonderful, wonderful surface. For the last little while I’ve been trying to figure out how I could organize this technology myself, stretching and priming my own canvas, and it turns out I don’t want to. A lot of the stuff that becomes paint and related substances is poisonous. Some of it is very poisonous. I had to draw a line. Sometime down the road? I don’t know but for now…

The woman who runs the museum is also my friend and as you might know if you read this blog regularly, she lost her husband this past summer. They were married for 58 years. I’ve been listening/talking to her about it all this time and, recently I’ve heard something different in her voice which is she is beginning to see what she CAN do now; she’s looking into the future.

I spent some time Thanksgiving chatting with a friend in Switzerland who lost her dog not long ago. Through a lovely concatenation of events, she has a puppy, but the emptiness of the loss is still eating her up. I can imagine — but don’t know — people saying “She was just a dog,” and the kinds of things people say when losing an animal is out of their experience. Obviously, I don’t feel that way, but I have lost 25 dogs so I have a lot of experience losing and recovering.

As I was talking with my friend at the museum I tried to support her recent decisions to paint her house and travel to Europe (yay!) with the salient point that we live here and forward. I remember the moment I realized that. It wasn’t all that long after my mom died. I was opening the garage door and suddenly had an epiphany that my eyes were in front of my face for a reason. The same with my Swiss friend. Nothing replaces what we’ve lost, but it seems to me that even in calm and ordinary times, we’re a slightly different person every day than we were the day before. A big loss hastens the transformation.

I think that’s part of the sorrow, strangely enough. We don’t just lose the person/dog we loved, we lose the part of ourself who was (in a way) an attenuation of that person/dog. I recognized quickly when I had to put my last Siberian Husky, Lily, to sleep that it marked the end of trail-running Martha even though I hadn’t been able to run for a while. The possibility of that person existing was completely gone with Lily’s passing. I didn’t just lose my beloved — and very old! — dog; I lost a big part of myself, or the way I saw myself.

These recent weeks — selling paintings and confronting the inner Wicked Witch of the West — I have realized I’ve held onto my mom without even knowing it. Part of my trauma with selling a painting to strangers was letting go of yet one more finger of that woman whom I loved in spite of everything.

Maybe I’m Not the Only One???

The other day I sold a painting to a stranger, a nice young couple who were in love with all my work and spent a long time looking at all of it. It was the opening of a holiday art show at the local museum in Del Norte, Colorado. 

I have never sold a painting to a stranger before, not in those circumstances, face-to-face. I found it weird, embarrassing, uncomfortable. I don’t think I showed that. On an abstract level I was able to be THE ARTIST, but I turned the conversation away from my work to them. It was a way out. 

By the time I got home from the event I felt very strange. It took a while to understand WHAT I was feeling. 

I was feeling ashamed. 

It’s a “thing” to blame our parents for our neuroses so I don’t feel so good moving into that territory right now, but here I go. 

I have always been an artist, specifically a painter. I have loved painting since I was a LITTLE kid. Among my dad’s souvenirs was a pencil drawing I did when I was 6 or so presumably of myself as a grownup. I’m standing in a big room. I’m wearing a long dress (like all little girls want). Behind me is a window and from the window you can see a mountain range. All around the woman (me) are sleeping dogs. In front of me is an easel with a landscape on it.

And here I am. THAT lady. The three things I love most in my life are dogs, mountains and painting. I always wanted to be an artist, have dogs and live in the mountains. 

I don’t know how we come into this world, if we come in with a pre-programmed job description (like the Dalai Lama) or if it’s completely random. I SENSE there’s more to it than being completely random and in my case it certainly has been. I have always known who I am but not how to get there. Who tells us that the self is a destination, in the sense of destiny? I fought hard several times for my own survival; as a kid against diseases, as a woman against abusive men. Until my therapist (long story) explained to me (after listening to me for hours) HOW I’d been raised, I didn’t fully understand that my home was an environment in which I’d been used as a scapegoat to enable my mom’s alcoholism and that I would — naturally — feel more comfortable in environments where I’m not appreciated and even treated badly. 

Most of all, my mother hated that I am an artist. She hated it vocally and publicly and all her life. When she died, I found some of my work rolled up and stashed in the guest room closet. I also found a couple of small drawings in a scrapbook of clippings about me and my life. The woman had (obviously) no clear perspective about her feelings for me. I can’t say the same about my feelings for her.

I don’t have any feelings for her. I have somehow integrated both the good and the bad from that woman and live it every day. The good is good. If she’d lived in MORE of the good about herself she might not have been bitter, angry, hateful and drunk. The bad? It’s landmines and I stepped on one Saturday when those people bought my painting and rhapsodized over my work. I realized that though I’ve sold several paintings, they had all been bought by people who know me and like me. On some level my mom’s voice has said, “Well, they like you, so they bought your painting. I don’t know why they like you, but they do. If they knew you like I do, they wouldn’t have bought your painting.”

She actually DID say things like that. Publicly. Until she died.

SO my job is to get her to shut up by recognizing that I know a lot about painting. I’ve looked at paintings all over the world and done a lot of other things to “self-teach” myself. I’ve written a prize winning novel about a medieval painter. I like my paintings — not just doing them, but looking at them. I’m interested in how to do them and what I learn from them. I have painted since I was a child. It’s not a new thing. And, most of all…

Post Script: Contending with Fardles

I really appreciate all the kind comments to my glum post this morning. After I wrote it I got the idea that maybe I should tackle a doable project that’s been weighing on me emotionally and physically (to some extent) so I headed out to the garage.

I imagine we all have sadness and disappointment in our families. I have a niece I love very much but who has disappeared from my life completely. I worry about her, but I can’t find her. I know where her mother is, but her mother is mentally extremely fragile and her mother’s husband is a combination of carer and and and? I don’t know, but I can’t reach her through him. I guess they don’t really want to hear from me which is OK. BUT. My mom put together two beautiful photo albums — one for each side of my family; her family and my dad’s. They were for my niece.

This past week, a blogging pal wrote about finding a lot of random old photos in a Goodwill store. She wanted to know the stories. That made me think of a photo album my neighbor found long ago in a dump in a nearby city, an album from WW I with scenes of an army guy (the owner?) in Italy and various other places. The photos in that old album were wonderful, but I felt a little weird, a little like a voyeur. Anyway, I have had those photo albums on my mind for a while. Those and all the letters between my parents when they were young and in love, just starting their lives. With them I thought of my Aunt Jo who burned all the love letters between her and my uncle to protect their privacy. So, today I went through (and emptied!) 2 bins of family memorabilia and got rid of half of my Christmas decorations. I don’t put up a tree so????

I contacted my cousin’s daughter and asked her if she’d like the album from our mutual family. She was so happy to have it. I seriously feel like a huge burden has been lifted from my spirit. I’ve wrapped it up in brown paper and it’s on its way tomorrow. My cousin’s daughter also wanted a little nativity I bought in Mexico for my mom.

As I worked, my spirit felt progressively lighter. I have no problem tossing the contents of the other album after I take some photos to put on my Ancestry tree.

When I finished these labors I thought, “OK. Everything left is just my life,” and that’s, I think, how it should be and I’m a LOT less glum.

Another thing I found is a small silk mass-produced tapestry of a scene, I think in Hangzhou. In itself it might not be anything special, but its story is. When I was teaching international students in San Diego in the late 1980s I made friends with a Japanese student who had been a cook in a Chinese restaurant in a resort in Hokkaido. He rented a room from the Good X and me for a while which was great because he cooked. 😀 Anyway, his father and his father’s friend came to visit.

I was nervous. These men were both WW II Veterans from the OTHER side. Aki had warned me that his father was very old fashioned, very conservative and hated Aki being in the US with the “enemy.” I knew a lot more about the Chinese Anti-Japanese war than did most Americans and I wasn’t sure about having a Japanese soldier in my house. It was a little weird.

We picked them up at the airport. Aki’s dad was rigid but Japanese friendly/polite. His friend? Wow. Friendly, open, curious, outspoken. The first thing Aki’s dad did was walk through my (large) garden which was designed in a semi-Asian style (homesick). He came in the house and said, “I had no idea Americans garden!!!” The friend saw some of the Chinese hangings I had at the time (lines of calligraphy from friends in China). He said, in pretty good English. “You know China?”

I said I’d been there a year. Then he told me he’d been a guard at a POW camp. He was 18. He didn’t understand why the Chinese were enemies of Japan. Some of the guards were Chinese. The friend said a lot of things, including that Japan’s culture came from China (not totally true, but…) I can’t remember everything, but they made me think about the war — history in general — differently. I began to understand something about the intense worship many Japanese had of the Emperor and that while sides are enemies in general in particular? Maybe not. We all know that, I guess, but hearing it from this man was very special. “I had a Chinese friend at the camp. I like Chinese.” He had even been back to visit.

Their visit ended with the usual journey to “Glando Canyono” and “Ras Vegas.” Months later I got a package and thank you from Aki’s father’s friend. I opened it to find the small tapestry the Chinese man had given him. It’s a real treasure and I thought it was long gone.

Oh and yet another draft of the Pearl Buck Project… THAT’S hopeless.

Here’s a photo of the edge of the tapestry telling where it was made.

“Last Year Never Happened”

I finally got an eye exam and ordered new glasses. My local doctor quit accepting my insurance and since my insurance cuts the cost of glasses in half, I had to find a new place to go. Some of you might remember my misadventure to a new doctor here in town whose office was replete with far right conspiracy literature. In spite of that man’s truly tragic story, I had to walk out.

As the tech took my information today and filled out the forms on the computer, she asked about a bout of uveitis I had back in the 90s.

“Any cause? RA? TB? Anything?”

“No. My doctor decided it was just random, like maybe I got the flu in my eye. My dad had it, too. At the same age.”

“What about your dad? Did he suffer from RA?”

“No special cause. He had MS. The doctor just told us that MS patients get sick easily.” My mind went back to the nights my dad slept in the living room in a recliner because he had to sleep on his back, and one of us — mom, grandma, me — had to put drops into his eyes every hour.

“I have MS,” she said in a soft voice. “I don’t let anyone around me who’s sick.” She laughed.

“You have MS?” asked her. She appeared to be in her late 30s.

“Yeah.”

Suddenly we were talking about my dad and other vision problems he might have had. I asked, “How are you doing?”

“Pretty OK,” and she told me about meds that are helping her a lot. I would never have guessed. She had words for things, for symptoms and treatments that didn’t exist when my dad was alive (he died in 1972).

My entire heart went out to her and inside I didn’t feel like joking around (which we had been doing). I felt like hugging her, but I knew I had to keep it up. I told her that my dad let himself be a guinea pig for new treatments. I said, “He always said, ‘It’s not for me, Martha Ann. It’s for the future’.”

Then she asked, “Is your dad still alive?”

“No. I lost him a long time ago.” I’ve never referred to my dad’s death that way. I don’t like euphemisms. No one “passes” in my lexicon; they die. But today, I lost him because, in that moment, he wasn’t “dead.” he was in that room with that brave, humorous, open, lovely young woman, our dark humor and exchange of knowledge. I could almost kind of believe that my dad heard her and saw us and knows that things really DID get better.

We talked about the newer research linking Mononucleosis in adolescence to MS, to the theory that Scandinavians are more prone to the illness than others. Plenty of African Americans show up with MS, but skin color does not reveal ancestry. Research into the causes continues and it was a strange relief to talk to someone about it. I’ve remained interested. There’s no reason in the world that I wouldn’t show up with it in my future. I think about it every time I fall for absolutely no (obvious) reason. She was open with me about her fears, another brain lesion which they can now find with the brain MRI. In my dad’s lifetime MS was never accurately diagnosed until an autopsy was performed.

She finished her tasks and went to get the doctor. He was awesome. He asked when I had my last eye exam and I said 2019. “Oh well,” he said, “Last year never happened?”

Not strictly true, but it really does feel like we are picking up where we left off as much as possible. Godwilling, 2021 has found us further ahead than 2019 left us and that in spite of the losses and fears, we have learned a little something. Sometimes when you don’t feel like it, you learn — as I did, today — that we have learned a little something.

This Post has Gone to the Dogs

These are my pals — Teddy Bear T. Dog (little guy) and Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog (“Yeti” gives it away, I think). They are dogs. I’ve always hung out a lot with my dogs but I feel a bit more “together” with these two as a result of the necessities of the past year.

Dogs are very good at “together.” Recently another dog visited — Frosty — and he soon found his way to be together with Teddy and Bear. (My house is not as ugly as it looks in this photo)

As you see, they are “togethering” like the pros they are

He came together with his person who discovered a lot about Frosty. Until their visit he thought his dog was a pain in the butt but learning how well his dog traveled, how much his dog enjoyed it, how well his dog fit in with other dogs, and seeing that there are dogs worse on a leash than his own (Teddy was a little nuts on our mutual walk), my friend has realized Frosty is a prince among dogs — and he is.

Frosty and his human. Sangre de Cristos in the background. I’m sure Frosty doesn’t remember, but he was born in the San Luis Valley.

It’s no secret that I like dogs. I like being together with them. I don’t have many photos of me together with all my dogs over the years. We didn’t have camera phones and most of the time when I was out being together with my dogs, we were the only beings in the wide world. Here are some of the few photos of some of the great dogs I’ve been together with.

Maggie, Truffle and Molly — my first three dogs

Nostalgia is Deadly

Ask Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It’s been a very long time since I read 100 Years of Solitude but many things from this novel have followed me throughout my life, one of them is Marquez’ warning against nostalgia. Of course I underlined it in my copy of the book which, like many of the artifacts in Marquez’ novel has vanished in time. So trying to find it for this post is pretty impossible unless I want to go buy a new copy and read it over.

I don’t. But it might be this:

“Dazed by two nostalgias facing each other like two mirrors, he lost his wonderful sense of unreality, until he ended up recommending everyone to leave Macondo, to forget how much he had taught them about the world and the human heart, to shit on Horacio and that wherever they were they would always remember that the past was a lie, that memory had no way back, that every ancient spring was irretrievable, and that the most foolish and tenacious love was in any case an ephemeral truth.

I don’t remember everything about Marquez’ story — it would be impossible since I read it in the late 1970s at the recommendation of one of my high school English teachers, Miss Cohen, who became my friend. But I remembered the moral of the story. There is no looking back. Putting an antimacassar on my easy chair (or Bear’s easy chair) will not bring back my grandmother or the childhood hours spent in Billings, Montana, or the world as I believed it to be.

It really WASN’T better back then. People were not happier back then. The prosperity that we look back on was not the same thing to people living in those times. A case in point from my own life was my mother. My dad died of MS in 1972 and my mother never moved beyond that moment. As time passed, the time she had with my dad became this sacred relic. His shirt hung in her closet with the pens in the pocket even though that shirt had not been to work since sometime in the 1960s. My mom was a kind of performance artist with clothes, as it turned out. When I cleaned out her dresser after she died all that was in it was the jewelry left to me in her will and, in a bottom drawer, a black, baby-doll negligee. Nostalgia drove my mother into an insane bitterness. Imagine a mother saying to her only daughter who’s sitting with her in the hospital, “He was MY husband. I slept with him.”

I was there for most of their marriage and my dad talked freely and openly to me — which he probably shouldn’t have, but he did. I viewed my mother’s nostalgia as guilt. Her wish she had done many things differently turned into a conviction that she’s been cheated by life. She grew to see herself as a victim. Not a victim of the bad luck of having a husband who died young but as a victim of an unjust fate that stole from her a great love with whom she’d been happy while all of her OTHER sisters still had their husbands. She believed she’d been singled out by malicious forces to suffer in loneliness. In real life my parents fought all the time.

As a nation, many Americans have been hornswoggled by nostalgia. MAGA is political nostalgia that has captured the aggrieved imaginations of people who remember a past that never existed. The echoes and consequences of that past — as it really was — are all around us in the form of climate change and lingering racism. Our past is like my parents’ marriage in many ways. Yeah, there was the good stuff but there was also a lot of bad stuff, enough bad stuff that, as a people, we continued to move forward, almost in spite of ourselves.

One day, as I was opening my garage door in San Diego, I had flash of insight. I was, at the time, worried about my brother who was then in the hospital with complications from alcoholism. I had been thinking, “How did this happen? How did he get so broken? How could that have not happened?” suddenly my brain said, “Our eyes are in front of our face for a reason. And, if we turn around to go the other way, we still go forward. Think about it.”

I believe I actually said, “Whoa…”

By now it’s late (Ormai é Tardi)
Vasco Rossi

By now it’s late!
Look at time…“fly away”! 
By now it’s late!
By now it’s late!
And what a nostalgia…
What a nostalgia! 
By now it’s late!
By now it’s late!
And life
Goes on running away! 
And what a nostalgia…
And what a nostalgia!
And what a nostalgia!
And what a nostalgia! 
By now it’s late!
By now it’s late!

Featured photo: My grandmother and my brother at my grandma’s house in Billings, MT, probably 1959 or so…

My Submission to a Local Literary Magazine

Tasked to write about “A year like no other,” this is what I submitted. It’ll be nice to see my grandfather’s story in print if they accept it. ❤

The Hole in the Ground

We’re surrounded, inundated, addicted to, swamped by, trampled under, a cacophony of noise, news, social media, opinion, some presented intelligently, logically, some mindless, emotion-driven noise. I keep very quiet about a lot of things right now in this world of absolute, black and white, all or nothing points of view. I miss calm and rationality, and I wonder if I miss something that never existed. Some of the people I love most espouse views I deplore. Out of love, I hold my peace. We’re all in the same boat there. From my perspective, facts and science are too often ignored in what I see as a rebellion against reality. These tiring puzzles swarm around us like yellow jackets at a hummingbird feeder. 

Now I’m tasked to write a story about “a year like no other.” I’ve thought about “our year,” of course, our hardships. The thing is, humanity has lived through worse. My parents and grandparents lived through worse.

I have photographs to prove it. They were the “typical” pioneer, westward moving people, starting in the seventeenth century when the first one was shipped to Barbados from Scotland as a prisoner of war and worked as slave on a sugar plantation. At some point, for some reason that I do not know, he got his freedom, moved to Maryland, set himself up as a tobacco farmer then slave-owning planter, had children, some of whom didn’t stay home, but pressed westward across the Cumberland Gap, and so it went. Others? Arrived at different times. Some, Mennonites from Switzerland, arrived in 1743 escaping decades of religious persecution. Others fled the “starvin’” in nineteenth century Ireland, others hunger in Sweden. It’s the story of a lot of us.

My mother’s parents left their farms in Iowa to settle in Montana in the early twentieth century. Among their notable achievements was the founding of the first cemetery in Belfry, Montana. Why? Because their little boy died of pneumonia. Childhood mortality was a common feature of life until, well, today. My heart-broken grandmother couldn’t bear to stay in the beautiful valley (through which runs a tributary to the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River), so they moved east, to Montana’s high plains near Hardin, Montana. 

My grandmother — descendant of those Mennonites — and my grandfather — descendant of that Maryland planter — scraped out a life during the Great Depression. The whole family — parents and nine kids —  lived in a two-room log/sod house. They rented it and worked the farm for someone else. Down the road was the well where my grandmother filled the family cistern, a huge wooden barrel fixed to a sledge and pulled by the family’s two Percherons.

The horses were their livelihood. At one point, my grandmother supplemented what they made from the farm by driving the horse drawn school bus to pick up the farm kids and take them to school.

My grandmother and the horse-drawn schoolbus. Six of those kids are hers.

“At school, the town kids got hot chocolate for the snack,” my mom  — who was born in 1920 — used to tell me. “Because we were poor, they gave us vegetable soup. It wasn’t fair. We were poor, but we never went hungry. We lived on a farm. We had lots of vegetable soup, but we never had hot chocolate.” Their clothes were made of flour sacks and passed from kid to kid as were their shoes. My mom told the “uphill in the snow at forty below” stories, but I know the place, and those stories were true. Closing school for snow days or until it was 10 above zero? That wasn’t part of my mom’s life.

Every December, my grandfather read James Russell Lowell’s poem, “Snowbound” to his family, and got them through the winter by reading from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo every evening. Reading aloud and reciting poetry were their entertainment. They had no electricity.

Like any kid, I got sick of hearing my mom’s stories about the Depression, but they sank in. I grew up with a sense of gratitude for the advantages I’ve had, among them that my mom grew up in a family that valued education. 

My dad’s story was a little different. His granddad came over as a child from Ireland and ran away from home (Philadelphia) to work on ships that sailed the Great Lakes. He married a French/Finnish/Canadian woman and they ended up in Missoula, Montana, where they had two kids. My great-granddad was the sheriff of Missoula for quite a while. My granddad married the daughter of two Swedish immigrants. My grandmother’s mom, still in her 20s, died of diabetes, leaving behind three kids. My dad’s background was comparatively “urban” — his dad was a building contractor and store owner in Billings, Montana. My dad signed up for the army when he was 17, but he never saw action. His dad signed up, too and spent the war in the Aleutians. 

So here were these people — my people, all of our people — living ALL of this — drought, economic depression, world war, diseases with no cure, for which there was no vaccine, a world where stepping on a nail could kill people, where many had experienced the Spanish Flu epidemic, where kids died of polio or were crippled for life, living through the fear and deprivation brought by a World War. Like our world, it was a time of rapidly expanding technology (cars, typewriters, telephones, electricity, refrigeration, vaccines, antibiotics). I was always amazed that my Mennonite grandmother lived her whole rural, horse-driven life and then, in 1958, sat with six year-old me in a big easy chair to watch Sputnik on a black and white TV. She never got used to the telephone. When it rang she invariably jumped up and cried “Oh my Lord!” She sang hymns all day. 

In 1941 my grandfather (the descendant of the Maryland planter) wrote a short story that is a “photograph” of his world. It’s also the best short story I’ve ever read. Here it is:

The Hole in the Ground

S.A. Beall, Hardin, Montana, 1941:

Between my place and town there is a hole in the ground. A long time ago I noticed some boys digging. I stopped and looked. A small hole. They built a fire and I furnished the marshmallows. We roasted them and then they forgot the hole in the ground. Some played marbles and some flew their kites, but the next spring a new bunch of boys enlarged the hole, built a fire, I furnished the marshmallows and by then it was time to play marbles and fly their kites so year after year a new bunch of boys would enlarge the hole and finally we organized a club. We named it the hole in the ground. I was too old to dig so they elected me an honorary member with the title “Dad.” Every spring a new bunch of boys dig until the hole is big enough for a basement and then came Pearl Harbor. I would go to the depot to see the boys leave. Just boys they shout, “Bye Dad.”

S. A. Beal sometime in the 1950s with a cow and a calf, Billings, MT

So is this “a year like no other” or is it par for the course? I do know that thinking of the brave, tough, kind, enduring people from whom I’m descended has given me both hope and perspective when I head out the door to pick up my pre-ordered groceries, stuff a mask in my pocket, or meet my friends for a socially-distanced “Covid Tea Party” in which everyone brings their own drink. In those moments we suspend our moment and enjoy conversation and friendship and, when it’s over, we say, “That was wonderful. Thank you. We need this. It keeps us sane.” When it comes down to it, in our brief historical moment, the greatest gift we have is the love and friendship we bear for each other. 

Damned Anniversaries of Stuff

Today is my brother’s birthday. He would have been 67. For a couple of months every year he was only one year younger than I, a math puzzle it took me a while to figure out. In the picture he’s 43 and I’m 45. Were in Oregon, Yachats, at a Kennedy family reunion. Our matching shirts are from Mission Trails Regional Park, the design is mine. It’s a red tail hawk flying over a map of the park. It was a great family party on the beach. My aunt reserved an entire motel facing the ocean.

November 2 is also “Dia de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead in Mexican culture, and since I’ve lived surrounded by that culture most of my life, I never forget that. It actually kind of sucks.

I decided to “celebrate” with a trip out to the Refuge with my sweet friend, Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog, while the cranes are here in full force. I don’t want to miss them. As soon as I turned on Bella, Mohammed’s Radio started to play, “We May Never Pass this Way Again” — yep. Kind of melancholy, considering whose birthday it is, but then Sirius did the whole magical radio thing and played the Medley from Abbey Road, the Beatles’ song I think of as my brother’s song. There are a lot of reasons for that, not very interesting generally, but…

I was so happy to be going out to my and Bear’s happy place and wondered, again and always, why my brother gave his life to alcohol when life is really incredibly wondrous and beautiful and amazing. Why didn’t he want it? I’ll never know and it’s a useless question. The song ended, I turned into the parking space, two guys who work there waved and smiled. They are used to me and my dogs.

And the cranes. I love watching them, listening to them, and learning about them by observing them. One thing I’ve observed is they never fly directly over me. I admire them for that. I could be a hunter. After 350 million years of surviving, they probably have that figured out but then..

…when I was barely paying attention, about a dozen flew directly over head in a V. I’m sure it was a mistake or they weren’t paying attention, but maybe they HAVE figured out that I’m just a harmless little lady standing there in wonderment. I suspect they’re quite intelligent.

Sometimes when many take flight suddenly after making a lot of racket, I can see the reason. Often it’s a raptor. I saw that today, a red-tail hawk circling a small group about 1/4 mile from me. One thing my hiking life has taught me is how to see things at a distance. It’s an art, I think. I always feel like a character in a James Fenimore Cooper novel when I spy an animal running a mile away — and I have. Last winter I saw an elk doe running hell bent for leather AWAY from something that I could’t see. I suspect a dog of some kind.

At our turnaround point, I sat down on a rock to watch the ducks on a canal and listen to the silence. It was finally so quiet that I even heard the cranes’ wings as they flew ALMOST over me. The ducks in the canal sounded like the were laughing, and there was much diving and quacking.

I could have stayed there all day.

Parental Advice

I don’t know how many girls get relationship advice from their dad more than from their mom, but I did. My dad had only ONE piece of advice and it found many ways to give it — little talks when we were in the car together, pop songs, at the supermarket, probably more. His words of advice were, “With men, MAK, follow the Monroe Doctrine.”

“Huh?”

“Well the Monroe Doctrine, honey, established the policy that the United States would not enter into binding contracts with foreign powers. It would form ‘no entangling alliances’.”

“What’s an ‘entangling’ alliances?”

“It’s an alliance that you can’t get out of. Remember, MAK. No entangling alliances.”

My mom, on the other hand, when she DID give advice, just said, “Your dad doesn’t understand that women are different.”

I think he’d figured that out, wink wink.

Then this song came out and my dad bought me the 45.



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