Monday, May 29, 2006

A day of birds

The day started with the birds, and a photograph of two young women in the February snow in 1923.

One of the dogs and I were up very early for a morning ramble through the vacant lots and back streets of our little town. The grass has grown high in the lot nearest our store building, and is flowering in wonderful plumes of purple and whitened green. The blackberry vines that ramble at the street edge are full of starry white blossoms and bird's nests. The grass is sprinkled with yellow rattletrap flowers (they are kind of like snapdragons) and blue flax. An old rose grows up a pine tree and opens one bright red blossom after another.

The sparrows have hatched many of their little ones, and dart back and forth feeding them. The ravens perch boldly and make their many sounds: sounds of water gurgling, sounds of murmuring and clicks. The blue jays scold loudly, the little swallows dark about.

My dog Champ, the one with the nerve damage and the bandaged foot, always wants to fly when he sees the birds. The ravens are particularly tempting to him: they seem to enjoy hopping to bushes nearby, fluttering to the large oak trees, quirking their wise raven heads and inwardly laughing. Champ jumps up, and reaches the end of the leash, and looks at me with reproach.

My youngest child used to watch the ravens with much care, and ask me to teach him how to fly. These days he no longer believes I have that power. Back when he was smaller, and conscious of many things the rest of the family did that he could not, at least not yet, like walk or run (he walked at last when he was past 3, at a birthday celebration my mother arranged for me--it was a grand celebration)--when Gabe was smaller I think he figured the family did other things he couldn't do. Things like flying. And so he'd ask, and never be content when I'd say "my love, I don't know how to fly".

He still insists that the whole idea of dying, by the way, is silly. "It's a lie" he says, very sternly, when anyone tries to be philosophical and say "well, we all must die someday". No one dies, he tells us. No one at all. And especially not him, and not his papa.

It's interesting to listen to his beliefs. I don't really discount them either; Down Syndrome or not, my child is in touch with things I may not understand.

But today, as I walked with Champ and talked to the ravens and the little birds as well, and gazed at the forest covered hills that ring our town--a thousand shades of green, a flash of dogwood blazing white--and up at the white clouds in a blue sky--it was with a sense of great delight and gratitude. It was almost as if I could fly. I love these hills with a passion that is as sharp as my love of my children. It's a physical longing, a connection. The white flowers of the blackberry fill my heart with comfort.

This is what my brother means, I think, when he writes me about the peace that passes all understanding. He has these moments as well, with his cat, in his garden, along the banks of his northern river.

And it's what my youngest brother too expresses as he talks of his green fields.

When I was little I worried a bit that I loved this world so well--the hills I wandered, the flowers, the little birds. I don't worry any more--I'll meet the face of the universe wherever it shows up for me; so what if I am so simple it shows up in the raven cry or my dog's comical wiggles?

The snow picture? One my grandmother sent to my grandfather. She and her best friend Ruth are clowning in the snow, faces shining with cold and mischief. Yes, the letters continue. In the most recent my grandfather mentions the name of a friend or mentor who, he says, raised rather than lowered the average goodness of the human race. The name is the one they'd give my father a year later. In 1923 they are discussing war. My grandfather cynically says it will simply take a few good speeches and some flag waving and a brass band and the country will be ready for yet another war to end all wars. My grandmother says she cannot bear to think so; she hates war with ever fiber in her being.

And she continued to do so, seeing her sons to two wars, her grandson to another, her husband having fought in the first world war. I remember talking with her during the Vietnam War when she said that she supported my peace activism a hundred percent.

She was quite the spitfire, my grandmother. But by February 1923 they are both being open about their love for each other, trying to figure out if he should go north--where the snow is still falling, witness the photograph--or if she should venture to Los Angeles and see oranges on their trees.

I know the oranges won out, somehow.

Meanwhile, back in 2006, after a busy day at the bookstore, I went out to plant some sunflower seeds sent me from an Indian tribe in North Dakota. While I was pressing them into the ground one of the street guys came up. "Do you have food in there now?" he asked, staggering a little with drink. "well, no" I said at first, thinking he was asking about the lunches I often serve here--the last one was wonderful little spiced turnovers with sauce, brought to me by the guys who work at the local market: they'd been trying to learn some new tasties for the deli; they had extra, would I get them out to people? Well, sure thing. But today...I quickly amended my "no". Let's see, I said, I'm sure I can find something for you.

Sandwiches are always a quick option. I had cheese and lettuce and even some pickles; a handful of crisp apples, some nuts and raisins. He was happy. I also brought some food to the quiet young man who reads science fiction ("It keeps me out of trouble"). I put aside good books for him, and often talk with him as I work in the parking lot garden. He grew up in orphanages and foster homes, like many who are wandering the street. It's easier under the stars than in the institutions, in his opinion. Someday I'll hear more of his stories, perhaps.

Or perhaps not. They pass through, they pause sometimes. A little like the birds.

As I was preparing to sit and finish the huge and beautifully written and heartbreaking new book by Robert Fisk (The Great War for Civilisation) my daugher showed up. "Mom, there's a bird over in the laundromat, and she's frightened". It was a break from Fisk's eloquent stories of war, and war, and war.

The little blackbird was indeed frightened. I tried to coax her, herd her, catch her. It was the woman who cleans at night who thought of a towel, and we used it to safely snatch her, unharmed, and release her to the freedom of the air. She flew quickly to the green hills I love.

The pomegranate has just begun flowering. The crescent moon is lovely in tonight's sky.

Sometimes it is the smallest things upon which we rest our hearts.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I was supposed to take care of him

(advance warning: this is not a light story. You may want to skip it, and wait till I post about my gardens or the birds).

I came across a photo of my brother as a baby. I have two brothers, the youngest a farmer who is busy sending me still the lovely letters of our grandparents (I am now in January 1923, and my grandfather is writing "I would rather talk with you than with anyone in the world" as he starts yet another letter from California to Wyoming. I am hoping my grandmother relents soon.). It is the older one, born when I was three, whose photo turned up on my desk. He is a beaming, wiggling baby, bundled up because he was a winter child. Thin and serious I am standing beside him, my hand on his small, fat arm. My face is a little petulant. I have been crying, my light, thin hair has escaped from its curls and straggles across my tearstreaked cheeks. I no longer recall what upset me.

I do recall the night he was born, and how upset I was that the sister I had hoped for had not come. My mother in her wisdom assured me some days later that God had realized my family had a girl already--and how could another girl be as lovely and wonderful as I was? So, to complete the family, here was a boy, my little brother.

"And you must always take care of him."

Due to her battle against cancer much much later I truly did take care of my youngest brother. But this winter brother, with his jolly dark eyes and his dimples--ah, he was to become my companion, torment, delight. He was the dearest thing in the world to me, though we'd squabble and fuss. We played endless, imaginative games. We were each other's great allies in a world that changed and shifted, in which our father was so often absent, in which we so often had to move.

When he was 3 I saved him from drowning--he had fallen into a narrow Japanese fish pond while our parents were talking with furniture makers. I couldn't swim, but I could stretch out and down and pull him out, sputtering, crying, and very wet. I had nightmares for weeks about not being able to get him out, of him slipping from my grasp--but fortunately, in real life, we held on well.

He was a charming, outgoing child. His face was covered with freckles, his eyelashes thick and dark. By the time I was 6 he was almost as big as I was. By the time we were teens he loved to tease me by introducing me to his friends as his "little sister" (he'd tell them I was a few years younger than they were, and went to a special school. They believed him). He was tall, handsome, brilliant.

He had a gift for art, and shared many of our mother's other talents as well--he played the piano with passion and skill and composed beautiful pieces.

He was the sunny child, the favorite son, the darling of us all.

And from here the story would be told differently, I think, by each of us. But as it is my version, I will tell it as it happened from my view.

It would be wrong, though, to put casuality in the narrative I am about to begin. The pieces may not connect this way, except perhaps in my own mind and heart.

Dark nights before I left home. Quarrels between my brother and my father. They became physical. I remember how I put myself between them, and how I sobbed to make them stop. The harsh words, the screaming. My parents at that time drank a lot. Times were hard.

And I left home, working my way through college, dazzled and distracted by my ambitions, my love affairs, my writing.

And my brother was thrown out. He was..oh, was he 16? maybe as old as 17.

And my parents divorced.

And I would look for my brother in the streets of the beach towns, and when I found him I would take him home to my tiny rented cottage and feed him, and beg him to stay. And I knew he was taking drugs whose names I didn't know, and I knew he was so sad, and I longed to be of help. But he'd laugh, and tell me he was fine, and leave.

And there was the night I woke screaming from a nightmare, with a pain across my belly, calling for my brother. I was living with my grandmother at the time, saving money for a long journey to Europe--the grandmother of those letters I'm reading now--and I told her "He's been hurt, he's in such pain". She believed me. We phoned all around, and found him in a hospital, the victim of a knife fight.

It was like trying to contain a wildfire.

The war in Vietnam was raging then, and there was a lottery, and my brother's number was a low one, a very low one. He got out on psychological grounds (I think he went to his physical on LSD, raving).

I left for Europe, traveled, went to the East Coast. Years had passed, but not many really. My mother wrote that he'd enlisted in the army, had been accepted. He wrote me from bootcamp, in deep despair.

He went AWOL. When picked up he'd been on his way to me. I was on my way back to England. "Sure, go on" he wrote, and my mother said "yes, you've been wanting this, go".

He was in a stockade in northern California. So, a dishonorable discharge, no big deal.

And then the world crashed. He'd gotten out of the military jail and was staying with our mother when the arrest came.

My family, prone to protecting me from harsh reality, wrote nothing to me. I was wandering British fields and writing poetry and gawking at everything in the British Museum. Fortunately I also had dear friends, who sent--odd letters of "how are you coping with this tragedy? Are you coming home now?"

And one sent the small clipping from a local paper about the arrest. For murder.

I wrote home immediately, asking for information, raging--how could they have thought to keep this from me? My mother filled in the details. My brother wrote from prison: Please. Do not come back. You can't do anything here.

And I stayed. I stayed in England through the months of early imprisonment, which went from the tender spring to the green summer, and into the bitter winter. I stayed through jury selection, and the trial. My dearest college and highschool friend quietly took my place, attending those sessions, talking with my mother while I walked the streets of London and wondered what heartbreak lurked beneath the smooth faces I passed.

He was found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. Had he been tried a month later, he would now be dead, because under state law it would have been a mandatory death sentence.

He served 15 years in maximum security prison. When I returned to the US I went to see him, with my mother. I had no form of identification beyond my library card and was refused admittance. The warden to whom I appealed, weeping hysterically, turned out to have befriended my brother, admiring his art and his gentle spirit, and so I got in despite all the rules.

And the first words my brother spoke to me were "How does it feel to have a murderer for a brother?"

To which I replied, with all my heart, "You are still and forever my brother, and I love you dearly".

In that maximum security prison almost all the inmates were doing hard time, for crimes that were intense, brutal, terrible. I'd talk with them. They showed me photos of their children. I'll always remember the baby I met there in prison, and her proud father who said, "I call her Regina, because she is queen of my heart". He was in for multiple murders. The baby was beautiful.

My brother's life and experiences tore open my heart and soul. Because of him, I had to recognize that all things human--even horrible and brutal ones--are also possible to me. Because of him, I talk with the guys on the street, because in every temporarily lost soul I see a flash of that freckled, loving, bright little kid.

He was paroled the year my daughter was born, and came to stay with me awhile in the woods. He cared for our mother in her last years, with gentle skill. In prison he became deeply religious, and has remained so, living a quiet and austere life in the house our mother last lived in, hundreds of miles from either my youngest brother or myself. He has a cat and a garden. His closest friend died last year, and I think he may be lonely, but he sends cheerful letters, in which he always reminds me that God is good, and cares for all of us.

Lives change in a minute. I think, though, what always troubled me most about this tale was my sense I had failed.
Because, you will remember, I was supposed to take care of him.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Living in 1922

The rains have stopped and everywhere the wildflowers are coming out. Birds are building their nests (we have swallows this year who think the bookstore building is a good cliff), people come and go, the outer world is full of crisis and opportunity.
And obligatory meetings with politicians, and board meetings, and demonstrations, and free soup for the street folks, and deadlines.

And in all of this, I have been living, in the evenings, back in 1922.

In 1922, in the autumn and winter, it was cold in Wyoming. Rain fell for days on end in Southern California as well. And a 27 year old schoolteacher and a 31 year old house carpenter /small time baseball player were writing to each other almost every day.

The ball player started the correspondence, hoping the schoolmarm would forgive his boldness in doing so. He'd been slapped once for his pains, he writes, and even at a distance the slap still stings a bit--but he's willing to go slow and be politely respectful.

She responded immediately: "your letter surprised me in more ways than one and as for slapping you one, well, I'm still capable of doing it again"

But within a few letters he is declaring his "true and sincere love".

She, however, is being quite nonemotional.

The letters came to my youngest brother in a box from our uncle. Each day my brother scans one into his computer and sends it to me. He's read the whole boxful, which lasts from October 1922 until March 1923--but he says he's not giving away the ending.

I know the ending, however, since in July 1923 these two married, and in spring of the next year my father was born.

I just don't know how they got to that end. Here my grandfather is writing about a great book he's just encountered--the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam. He says it is full of profound philosphy, so deep he has to read only a few quatrains at a time.

She retorts that she is acquainted with that gentleman's book, and thought it was improper--all that "do as you may" stuff, all those dancing women and all that wine.

I think my dear grandfather must have won her over on this one though (they discuss it a bit more some letters later), for when they married one of the gifts was a lithograph that used to hang in their bedroom, Maxfield Parrish's rendition of the Loaf of Bread and Jug of Wine and Thou Beside Me...verse, in which the lovers gaze at each other as they sit beneath a very Southern California oak tree. It was a picture I loved as a child, and which I spent hours staring at. I loved the blue of the sky--Maxfield Parrish blue--and the snowy mountains; the rocks, the enthalled lovers. When I was 18 my grandmother gave it to me, and it hangs now on the wall beside my desk at the shop My partner scorns it as "a picture suited for a bar"; I laugh at him as my grandfather probably chuckled over the school teacher's qualms about the poetry.

He sends her roses from California. It is snowing in Wyoming, and the boarding house fires are small and my grandmother's feet are so cold she practically sticks them into the flames to warm them. The roses last for more than a week, and in each letter from her they are mentioned: still glowing, though the snow has reached blizzard proportions.

"What color do you think the roses were?" I email my little brother. He thinks red, of course. But I picture them in my mind as a huge, carefully packed and sent bundle of the tiny pink roses my grandmother so loved all her life long.

He sends her candy from California. He writes about his ball games, about his carpentry, about all the books he is reading. And every so often he darts in a word of love, and darts out again.

She admits to having friendly feelings towards him "and possibly more". She writes of her students (she has a classroom of 45 children of all ages, and one day marches the whole group down the mainstreet of the little rural town to go see a show "It was as if we made our own parade"), of her spats with her best friend Ruth, of visits to shows, of books, of making fudge.
She is woefully homesick for her mother--such a young 27 year old she seems. He, the youngest of a family of 12, whose father had died during his son's time in the army in the first world war, writes "there would be something wrong if you did not miss your family".

It is so odd, and so sweet, to meet these young lovers through their letters. My grandfather died when I was 13, leaving me some of his books; my grandmother, who missed him every day of her life, survived him for decades. I remember sitting at her feet the day of his funeral, looking at the tears falling down her face, wishing I could say something to her, but simply holding her hand and listening to all the people who came to give condolences.

He quotes poetry at random; he makes silly jokes. She pretends annoyance, and then relents.
Today in 1922 it is nearing Christmas. She will be taking a train to her old homestead, arriving at 4 in the morning. "It will be dark, but I want to surprise them. I will be very bold and pretend to be brave and walk quickly". He is thinking of traveling down to the Mexican border for Christmas. He has just met an old army friend, who has told him some of the old gang have already died. He thinks time is fleeting, and we must live honestly and well while we may.
Like it or not, he says, "this is the real thing, this love I have for you".