Memoir

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The caterpillar tents start appearing
just as the leaves burst their buds,
as if someone with a white marker
were doodling in every crotch of limbs.
My dad goes into the hospital to have
a large, non-malignant tumor
removed from his lower spine,
& I picture a white knot swelling
with caterpillars of pain.
A day after the surgery he’s taking
his first steps without it, this thing
that has made almost every position
of repose impossible for weeks,
forcing him to stand or to walk
slowly for hours each day.
Now it has been thoroughly cast out
through the surgeon’s art,
excised, exposed: bulb that burned
but gave off no light.
Sexless flower. Empty tent.
Be gone. Be gone. Be gone.

Here in the woods where my father returns
in a couple days to resume his walking –
this time to heal rather than assuage —
flashes of scarlet as a tanager
snatches gnats & caterpillars from
the not quite fully opened leaves,
singing a line of his hoarse song
between each mouthful of wings,
each mouthful of spines.

You’re lucky to have a lifetime in one place, Dave — do you feel that way, or does it get to you sometimes?
Beth (via email)

I have sat on my front stoop for two hours, glass of homebrew in hand, and I can tell you that I am not in a hurry to move any place else. It’s finally sunny after many days of rain, but the temperature is still only 65 degrees in the shade, and the oak leaves have yet to reach their full extent — hell, the black walnuts and black locusts have barely begun to open. I wish every spring took its time like this! I watch a bumblebee have intimate relations with the fresh pink blossoms on a bleeding-heart. A male ruby-throated hummingbird hurtles up and down, back and forth in his U-shaped courting flight, like the pendulum of an invisible clock. I watch a rose-breasted grosbeak singing as he flies, the red triangle on his breast catching the sun like a tribute to the 40th anniversary of May 13. (Damn, I was only two years old in 1968!)

A sharp-shinned hawk circles with that peculiarly rapid flapping they do, rising from the vicinity of my parents’ back porch to disappear into the slipstream above the ridge on wings of gold. A little later, a turkey vulture glides past. I watch innumerable flying insects backlit by the sun, all drifting in the same direction, west to east, in the almost imperceptible breeze. And all the while I listen to Roscoe Holcomb piped over the Internet, that high-lonesome Appalachian blues sound. At a certain point my eyes tear up: I can’t help thinking of those tens of thousands dead in Burma and in China. Poor fuckers. Whether you live on the coast or in the mountains, the land you love can turn on you at any time. That’s kind of what I was trying to get at with my last poem — the way we are bound to a particular place on this earth, even if we are a party to its undoing, and find it devilishly hard to pick up stakes. I mean, those folks in Picher, Oklahoma: Jesus Christ.

I like the way alcohol makes me feel content and dissatisfied at the same time. Newly energized, I get off my ass and pull a bunch of weeds just as the sun is going down. As soon as it slips behind the western ridge and the shadows disappear, the catbird flies to the top of the tallest locust in the yard and begins to improvise. Beth, since you asked: it gets to me every day.

This entry is part 14 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools

Tape that doesn’t stick, reliable as the pronouncements of some close-lipped neighbor who never goes beyond the corner of the block. Tape that bends to follow the flank of a fish. Vacuuming dried begonia petals from a window ledge, I accidentally suck up a snail shell, one of three I’d had on display. It rattles briefly down the long hose & is gone. Shall I open the Shop-Vac’s fat belly & dig for it in the slag heap of dust & dead beetles? No, I’ll look for another. Snails in the woods are subject to continual Rapture — their empty shells are legion. Ditto for the ladybugs that litter every corner now that winter is past.

In an old house like this, nothing is square. The yellow blade of the contractor’s measuring tape was out of its case more often than it was in, checking the height of the ceiling every few feet. Either come in or stay outside, our exasperated parents used to tell us. On rainy days we’d spiral from the basement to the attic, leaving half-finished sketches to go try on costumes from a huge carton of old clothes.

Tape that doesn’t stick, like the tongue of snake. I had a friend in grade school who particularly enjoyed this game of dress-up. We’d switch between oversized suits & oversized gowns without a second thought. One time we even dressed as a newlywed couple & paraded downstairs to show my mom. I don’t recall her sharing our enthusiasm. As far as I was concerned, it was adulthood we were parodying, not gender roles per se. We laughed to think what kind of fop such clothes would actually fit. But now I can’t fit into my own jeans from five years ago, & as for my erstwhile friend, some neighbor said he came out of the closet as a homosexual & moved to Florida with his lover, not necessarily in that order. I know if I were gay, I’d leave this area and never look back.

Tape that doesn’t stick. Yesterday morning I wrote 25 lines, dense with slant rhymes & alliteration, & in the evening I retracted them & left just two words on the page, a fragment of an ode:

Steel
snail.

They are on vacation with their oldest granddaughter, who will turn 12 in a few days. En route to the historic district of one small city, a building collapses half a block ahead. A huge cloud of dust rises up; traffic slows to a crawl. The grandparents take a quick glance and look away, but the girl watches intently as emergency crews pull a body from the wreckage. “He’s still alive,” she announces.

They decide not to take the walking tour after all, and continue driving to the next state park. As soon as they get out of town: “Tell me another story, Grandpa!”

“He makes up these exciting adventure stories, starring boy and girl detectives just about Eva’s age. I don’t know how he does it,” Mom tells me later. “I can’t do that. The only stories I can tell her are things I remember — true stories. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t make things up the way your Grandpa does.’

“I told her about England — I was just a couple years older than her when our family went over there. She wanted to hear all about it. I told her about the friends I made, and how everyone revered the teachers so much. I explained the way the school system was back then, how kids’ futures would be determined by what kind of high school they attended. She didn’t think that was right.

“And of course I told her stories about the relatives, dwelling on the parts that I thought would interest her. I told her about that time back in Maine, waking up at 4:30 in the morning and telling Bruce, ‘Nanna just died,’ and finding out the next day that she had, at that exact time. And then when we were singing hymns at her funeral, bursting into tears when I got to the third verse of ‘Beneath the Cross of Jesus.’ It turned out that had been Nanna’s favorite verse of any hymn. It is a very pretty tune.” She starts to sing it.

I take, O cross, thy shadow
For my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than
The sunshine of His face;
Content to let the world go by,
To know no gain nor loss,
My sinful self my only shame,
My glory all the cross.

The granddaughter’s eyes go wide. She wonders if she will be that clairvoyant herself when the time comes. That night at the motel, she and her Nanna stay up late watching a DVD of the old musical “Oklahoma.” Grandpa watches a little bit of it, then retires to the bedroom. Too much tension and violence, he says. It would disturb his sleep.

coyote tracksDo farm kids still play fox and hounds? I loved being the quarry, with a half-hour head-start to try and make my footprints in the snow lead elsewhere than to me. This was back before the eastern coyote arrived on our mountain, so there were still plenty of red foxes in residence — Reynard was my role model, not Coyote.

It always seemed too easy: with the whole mountain at our disposal, I had hundreds of acres in which to hide my skinny frame and sit out the clock. I learned to walk backwards in my own tracks and to run in huge circles, to keep an eye out for likely vines and south-facing slopes with bare rocks. Places with odd echoes could be used to throw my voice — a taunting yelp.

I’d look for a likely thicket, laden with wild grapes, because if a flock of winter birds settled in around me, it was as good as a spider web across the door. I had to watch my scent, though, because the deer could give me away. A deer snort can be heard a long way off.

After an hour and a half of running, I loved the return to stillness as my heart stopped hammering and I focused on every rustle, listening hard and hoping to hear nothing but the wind. But it was also fun to cut it close, and spy on my brothers the hounds as they panted up the far side of a ravine, the smoke of their breaths signaling zero, zero, zero.

view of Tussey Mountain

hidden message

The Hidden Messages issue of qarrtsiluni is continuing to unfold. As usual, the second month of the issue is busier than the first, with a new post going up every day, so be sure to check back often. There’s a lot of really powerful stuff going up.

writing on the snow

I wasn’t looking for messages, hidden or otherwise, when I went for a walk with my camera yesterday morning. I did get some pictures which I hope will be good enough for a post I’m planning to write for the next Festival of the Trees’ special edition on fruit trees and orchards.

When I was still a mile from the house, a snow squall blew in, and I got some pictures of that, as well. It was exhilarating to walk along the crest of the ridge with 40-mile-an-hour winds whipping the trees back and forth and at times reducing visibility to about ten feet. (During those times, of course, I kept my camera under my coat.) Unfortunately, not everyone was out on foot: I learned this morning that the whiteouts caused accidents and pile-ups on highways all around Pennsylvania.

Yes, we f---ing got milk

I got back just in time for lunch, looking more or less like the Abominable Snowman. At 3:00 o’clock, we headed down the mountain to my niece Elanor’s third birthday party, and moments later the power went out — a neighbor from the valley called to let us know just as we reached the bottom of the hollow. This time I forgot to bring my camera, so I don’t have a photographic record of Elanor’s high-energy antics as she whirled and tore around the apartment.

We returned to the mountain two hours later to fire up our small gasoline generator, cook supper, and keep the pipes in my parents’ house from freezing as the temperature dipped to zero (-18° C). Sometimes when the weatherpeople say “cold front,” they really mean it! Fortunately the wood stove in my living room and the earth-sheltered design of my laundry room are enough to keep my own house warm. But the generator requires refueling every hour and a half, and it’s a two-person job, so Dad and I had to stay more or less awake until the power finally came back on at 2:30 in the morning. Oddly enough, when we laid bets hours earlier about when the power would return, 2:30 was my mother’s exact guess. I’m not sure what hidden messages she’d been privy to.

Here’s a brief video that should give some sense of the elemental power of the storm.

Blog subscribers should either click through to the post to view the video, or go here.

hole in ice

My parents gave me a goosedown comforter for Christmas. With that atop my layers of blankets, they assure me, I’ll never be awoken by the cold again.

ice bubbles 2

The feathers — or parts of feathers — must be allowed to clump, it seems, but not too much. “Made up of light, fluffy filaments, the down clusters expand and intertwine to form air pockets” within cells of cotton cloth known as baffle boxes, says the description on the packaging.

curled leaf

Electric blankets have never appealed to me; I love the idea of maximizing the body’s own heat. I like to imagine that they were snow geese whose breast feathers will be keeping me warm, though I’m sure they weren’t.

UPDATE: Yep, it’s warm!

autumn footbridge

Fans of 19th-century poetry in particular might enjoy my mother’s nature column from October 2004, October’s Bright Blue Weather.

Dad and I shared a love of the outdoors, of poetry, and also of operettas. As a teenager, I would sit up until midnight with him, watching the old Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy movies on television. One of our favorites was Sigmund Romberg’s Student Prince. As we drove that October day, I sang Romberg’s “Golden Days” — a song of remembering the “golden days, in the sunshine of our happy youth.” And, indeed, Dad reminisced about other Octobers as he “oohed” and “aahed” over the spectacular color. Now that he is gone, a golden October woods reminds me of that “Golden Days” afternoon with him when the sun backlit a shimmer of golden, scarlet, purple, and orange leaves. And every time I look at our stream, I remember Dad reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Brook” whenever he drove up our road.