Rocks & Roots
My mother passed away in November, and ever since, I’ve been writing about her and my dad, who passed nine years ago. This is the third such blog post in a row. These last months, I’ve been writing in threes. I expanded one of my poems into three parts and called it a triptych. Then I put three thematically linked short stories into a chapbook—sub-titled that too, “A Triptych.” The number three has always seemed magical to me. Now, I’m aware that most readers will scroll on by when a writer is talking literary-crap, especially when she gets metaphysical. But this isn’t about writing in threes. It’s an apology to those who follow my blog, for writing yet another piece about my mom and dad. If you accept the apology and stay with me, you’ll get to meet my parents when they were young. In fact, you and I can sit behind my mom in her senior year study hall! We’ll think about love, about the people who raised us. Even when we’re adults, we don’t really know them. In those familiar people are (or were) people we never met. In them, there were lovers, people seeking and growing in intimacy. That part of them, we can’t quite imagine.
The photo above is of the dormer window in my mother’s apartment. Her little nest felt so festive that afternoon, with the star in the window and holiday lights on the table. None of the personal belongings you see in the picture are there anymore. Nor is my mother. She passed away in that room, last November. You wouldn’t know, to see me on the street, that I’ve been moving through a season of grieving. I haven’t garbed myself in black, or covered my head, or slashed the hems of my clothing. But I’ve felt as if I could, if times were different. Mourning feels to me like walking chest-deep through water, each step held back by the drag of the water. But on the early morning of March 12th, I looked up into the clear, dark sky, and everything changed.
It’s Christmas, the darkest time of the year—and I’ve got my Christmas Eve Candle out and ready. This Christmas is the first since both my parents have passed on. The photo was taken on their honeymoon. It’s faded and creased, but that doesn’t hide how sweetly in love they are. Mom passed a month ago, just before Thanksgiving. Dad left us the week before Christmas, nine years ago. It was at the time of his passing that the candle first became the Christmas Eve Candle. It had started its life as a unity candle—but it’s not a run-of-the-mill wedding candle. No, this candle has a history.
This photo is of my father’s mother—my Isän Äiti, in Finnish. Grandma Olga is the second woman from the left, standing with her cast mates in some sort of play. The others, I don’t know. An older cousin sent the photo to me, without details. I don’t know when it was taken, but from the style of the clothing, it could have been in Finland before she emigrated. I was only twelve when Grandma passed, and it’s bothered me that there wasn’t time for me to know her. As I write this, it’s Thanksgiving week, and that has me thinking about family. It’s important to me to know who my people are. For many days now, I’ve been searching my memory for Grandma Olga. What I’ve found is that I know her more than I knew. I’ve also found that, in looking for her, I found myself.
It started May 25th, when a hen turkey walked her slow and careful walk past our patio. The trees in this photo border our narrow back yard. They loom above the house. Our dog loves to sit out on the patio, on my husband’s lap, and gaze into the woods. There’s a gully hiding there, with a stream that drains a nearby wetland. We’re close to the Mississippi, and the water in the gully flows to the river. All sorts of wildlife move through the yard, just outside our patio doors—deer and bears, squirrels and chipmunks, an occasional skunk and a diversity of birds. Watching those wild creatures go about their lives reminds my husband and me that we’re part of that leafy world. Our window on nature reminds us of our own humanity, the impulse in us toward compassion and sympathy. That reminder has never been more needed than this summer, 2021, a summer mired in pandemic, but also, thank God, a summer of turkeys.
This old photo of me captures a moment with our family cat. I was in college, studying literature, and I was home for Christmas. People from my small upper Michigan hometown are forthright folks. When I’d first left for college, crossing the border to Wisconsin for freshman year, they freely shared their opinions about studying English lit. Most thought it fine, but one person memorably furrowed his brow and asked, “Why would you study that?” Then he counseled me to take a class in shorthand so I could support myself. I didn’t do that. I wanted to be a writer. So I went off to study what other writers had done. My favorite thing about a university is that you meet people from everywhere. I loved taking my more urban college friends to my hometown, driving up from Madison in the wee hours. I’ve been thinking a lot about one of those trips. The memory is a mess of emotion, tied up in love and loss, and lately, in realizations about the thin line between generations. I should warn you—there are flying saucers involved.
My father loved a good flood. Where I grew up, along the Michigan/Wisconsin border, there was a lot of open country for a flood to roam. Of course, floods aren’t always well mannered—they’ll hollow out the ground beneath roadways, roil and crash through a town. Still, there’s something beautiful to see when water summons its power, washing away all in its path, bringing life and renewal. My parents had grown up in the area, too. The photo above is of my dad. Notice that the road behind him is covered with water. He and Mom were on their honeymoon and had just bought that new car. My father was raised on a farm, was practical in the way of someone who knows the earth’s cycles. He’s been gone from this world for eight years now, eight years of missing him, especially in the spring as the snow melts and waters gather.
When I was small, I began having a recurring dream. I was on my own, with no adults along, traveling the world aboard a wooden sailing ship, the sort of ship that billowed its sails through the Errol Flynn, seafaring movies my parents used to watch. The crew of my dream ship was a happy group of penguins. The birds could talk. They were charming and kind, pointing out dolphins or seabirds overhead, roughhousing, getting into exuberant tussles. Each wore a sailor’s cap and a belt—no pants, just a belt. The only thing the cook knew how to cook was spaghetti! That suited me fine. I loved my mother’s spaghetti. I would have eaten it morning, noon, and night, just as my sailing penguins did. In the dream, I felt loved, free. I had the penguin dream repeatedly, until at some point approaching puberty, the dream never came again. Some of the things I’ve written—poems, a narrative thread in a story or play—have grown out of my dreams, usually my wildest dreams. But recurring dreams are the most interesting. They offer powerful clues to what’s going on in the hidden self and, in my case, are a wellspring for art.
I gave the ball of dough a final pat, washed my hands, reached for my phone. My husband was nearby, playing with the dog. It was January 6th—Congress was tallying Electoral College votes, but our TV was turned off. I didn’t care to watch members of Congress object to certain votes, from certain states, making claims of election fraud without any evidence. I spent most of my working life teaching freshman composition. Wherever I taught—community college, private school, or university—even the freshest freshman-comp student knew better than to advance or accept unsupported claims. It’s a good life skill. You can ascertain a truth through evidence, but acting on feelings without proof is a way to get duped. Evaluating electoral counts certified by the states wasn’t Congress’s constitutionally assigned task, nor was it their right. I don’t believe that people in Congress are fools, so I had to conclude that something disingenuous was happening—something for show. I wanted to keep tabs on what was happening at the Capitol, but not get too preoccupied. So the TV was off and I was making an apple pie. As American as apple pie. It seemed symbolically right, on such a significant day in our national election cycle. But before the pie was in the oven, I was calling it my Insurrection Apple Pie.