Rocks & Roots
My mother picked up a green bell pepper and placed it on the cutting board. We were at the close of the growing season—the table was heaped with peppers, fresh from the earth. In moments, she had gutted and sectioned it. We were making pickled peppers, something Mom did every year. I was fourteen—this was my first time helping. “You do the yellow chilies,” she said. “Cut them in half, then take out the seeds. We’ll put a half pepper into each jar—they’ll add a little heat.” I nodded and set to work. The peppers felt smooth against my skin. They were lovely to look at. A little heat would be good. Looking back now, more than fifty years later, I have to say, yes, a little heat is good—until it’s not.
Corduroy, I thought, early last fall as the leaves turned and daily temps began to fall. I need a pair of cords. Before I go on, I’ll note that what you’re reading here isn’t about buying slacks. What’s on my mind is love, which is what’s usually on my mind, but my musings today are a bit unusual. They’re about love, and car thievery.
I’ve spent the last month remembering youthful hours in the sun, glorious hours—bikini-clad, canoeing the Wisconsin River, and later wearing hip sunglasses as I backpacked, over a span of years, in the Utah mountains. Those memories now rise up with less luster as I’ve found myself treating wonky spots of skin on my nose, spots with the potential to become cancerous. Every night before bed, I’ve coated them with a “chemo” cream and in the morning washed it off. As the cream began its work, I met with creeping dismay the frightening person who suddenly gazed back from the mirror. Nose harshly red, scabbed, angry—she would scare a child. My mother used to say, when I was still at home and would make some sort of ugly face, “Keep it up and it’ll stay that way.” I’ve now completed the treatment, but at its height, I’d look at my nose in the mirror and think, What if it stays this way? It’s been a time of wrestling with who I am, why I am, and whether to be embarrassed about either. There’s a saying: “Vanity, thy name is woman.” I’ve pondered that idea mightily over the last thirty days. I’ve also been thinking, more importantly, about my grandmother Hilda.
I don’t know much about motorcycles, except that men seem to like them. My first year of college, I planned to be a writer. I was taking a creative writing class, and that detail about men was reason enough for me to write a motorcycle poem. In it, a man is waxing his bike, and a woman watches. I had little romantic experience at that point, but I already knew that the human need for love was going to drive me artistically. Now, I’ll get bored occasionally with the status quo—doing more of the same, in the same way. So instead of crafting here a well-behaved essay, with tight focus, I’ve mixed it up. Today’s piece winds between the search for love, the ways of teachers, and the methods and idiosyncrasies of poets. Are you scratching your head, thinking, “Those things go together?” Yes, they do—so follow along, and I’ll illustrate. I don’t know about you, but it’s reassuring to me to hear other people’s stories, to be reminded I’m not the only one walking some wobbly blacktop through life.
I need this picture. Do you? I need Heaven on earth. The photo, which I took earlier this fall, captures my most peaceful experience of the last twelve months. It’s been a hard year. My mom passed suddenly last November, when I was already feeling for myself the woes of growing older. Then there’s the daily news. Reading it, watching it, can make me want to shut down. I know I’m not alone in the anxiety I feel—but I suspect I may be alone in my habit of speaking it out loud. Heaven on earth? Is it possible? I’m a down-to-earth sort, and I know it’s on us to bring that sort of peace into this world—that idea of our hands, God’s work. I see it, especially, as being on women. We’re understood, in collective lore, to be caregivers. While I know with every cell of my body that “caregiver” is too narrow a definition, I don’t see it as being generally untrue.
The man in this photo is my grandfather. He’s just lit a fire in the sauna. You’ll notice the sauna has no chimney—it’s a savusauna, a “smoke sauna.” The smoke from the stove swirls around the building’s interior, then out the door. My family is Finnish by descent. I’ve been doing a lot of meditating lately on the importance to us of “sauna” and “the family farm.” My grandparents bought the land in the early 1920s. My mother was born there, and she and my dad eventually owned it for forty years. After Dad died, Mom made a hard decision—to sell the farm and relocate close to me. The whole extended family felt wretched about her selling, but we were accepting of reality. I was the one who walked the house a last time. It felt symbolic, a thing to be done with reverence, putting that key into the lock for the final time. Losing the farm was a family trauma, and of course, the mind needs structure and meaning to deal with such things—and equally of course, with structure and meaning, things that happen become signs and portents.
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.