"When everything else has gone from my brain ... what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that."
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
I've sometimes argued with folks about the existence of this day. "May has 30 days," they'll say. "We're sure of it." And in the old days, when May 30 was Memorial Day, May 31 did seem like an afterthought. An inconspicuous date tucked between two showy months. A sliver of a possibility. An opening.
I know May 31 exists because it's my birthday. But now that I'm older I wouldn't mind if we skipped it every year. I would still be here, would still exist (non-existence being the chief reason to embrace the birthday when it comes, since it is ever so much better than the alternative), but I would be spared the reminder that I'm another year older.
It's not that I'm a birthday dreader. I've always approached the day with an attitude of celebration. It's just that time moves so quickly; there is so much to do and an ever-declining amount of time to do it in.
But May 31 is still on the calendar, and I'm still here, so there is nothing left to do but to greet the day and live the day and think about all that other stuff tomorrow.
Fighting With Fear A Daughter Learns A New War Story
By Anne Cassidy Special to The Washington Post Monday, May 31, 2004; Page C10
In the spring of 1944, my father was a tail-gunner on a B-17 bomber. Sixty years later, he was present as the National World War II Memorial was dedicated on the Mall. As he watched I was thinking of a day in 1978 when the war came alive for me, the day my father and I drove to his old air base near the village of Horham, England.
Ever since I was old enough to listen, Dad had regaled me with war stories: meeting girls under the clock at Victoria Station in London or pedaling through the countryside on a bicycle to buy strawberries from local farmers. He would mix the berries with milk and take the concoction up in the unheated B-17 on missions, freezing it into a passable strawberry ice cream he would share later with friends. These were the happy war stories. Dad never talked about what it felt like to shoot and be shot at -- until the day we visited Horham.
Like many of the old air bases scattered throughout East Anglia, Horham was no longer in use. And were it not for the aid of a friendly couple who ran the local post office, we would have missed it entirely. "It's a mushroom farm now," they told us. "But the owner won't mind if you look around."
I was disappointed, expecting something more than mushrooms -- a museum, maybe, or a small plaque. Dad, on the other hand, was cheerful. He wanted to explore. At first we found nothing but an overgrown runway and some crumbled hardstands, where planes had awaited takeoff. But a few minutes later we spied a real treasure -- a couple of Nissen huts. We couldn't get inside but we walked around them.
"These are the primitive dwellings of a lost tribe of American GIs," Dad joked, posing in front of one of the chipped, dirty doors. He jokingly held a bouquet of wan daisies. He seemed to honor a fallen comrade with those limp flowers. He had made it to a funeral everyone else had forgotten.
He told me then of friends who had left from this field and never come back. He talked about how terrified he was to be crammed into the tail-gunner's seat at the rear of the aircraft. He was sure that one particular mission, the one he flew on his 21st birthday, May 12, 1944, would be his last. I guess he figured that fate would end his life evenly and ironically on the day it began. But he returned from that mission; returned to find empty seats and vacant cots left by those less fortunate; returned again to find battered huts and barren runways and mushrooms growing where so many lived their last days.
It's been half a lifetime since we took that trip together. Since then Horham Airfield has been bought and preserved. Volunteers are restoring the Nissen huts and the hospital has become a small museum. But I'd rather imagine the place the way Dad and I saw it: sodden, abandoned, peopled with the ghosts of frightened young men. One of them was my father. He was not just the happy-go-lucky, ice-cream-making GI we'd always heard about. He had fought fear and won.
So when the World War II Memorial was dedicated, I first thanked God my father was alive to see it. Then I thought of Horham. I smelled the air there, with its hint of the sea. I imagined the roar of engines. And I remembered the day that I, a child of peacetime, received a taste, just a taste, of war.
This year I am determined to know their voices, these birds we live with early and late and which come to us without cost or solicitation. Up early today I hear the first sounds of morning and quickly visit the "bird jam" site I've found ("know the birds you hear").
It is the cardinal who leads the way, at least today. It is the cardinal up early and singing his heart out. What wakes the first bird? What character of creation gives dawn this soundtrack, makes it so that — before we see, taste, smell or feel morning — we hear it?
I read that birds sing most during mating season and often from a high perch, that cardinals sing year round, and that some birds, larks for instance, sing while flying.
As for the larger question, I'll turn to literature rather than science: "Why do birds sing in the morning?" said British author Enid Bagnold, author of National Velvet. "It's the triumphant shout. We got through another night!"
Late spring in the suburbs is a season of bounty. Not only the bounty of flowering shrubs and gonzo grass. But the bounty of activities, too. When the children were young we were nearly mowed down by the recitals and school plays, honors ceremonies and volunteer teas. At this point in our lives the bounty takes a different form. Our driveway is clogged with cars, our washing machine is filled with laundry.
The suburbs seem built for bounty. Our garages groan with bicycles and rollerblades, helmets and bats. Our pantries are clogged with canned goods, bags of rice, boxes of cereal. We live a charmed life; I know that. My worries loom large sometime, but they are not the worries that plague many of the world’s people: What will I eat? Where will I live? On this May morning I pause for a moment to remember that.
An evening drive through a close-by place I'd never seen before: Clark's Crossing is a little park that adjoins the Washington and Old Dominion rail trail. To get there from our house you go all the way into the town of Vienna and most of the way out again. It is difficult to find — but worth it once you do.
For most of the drive we could have been out in the country and in another century: narrow lanes lined with vines and hedges, open fields, houses set back off the road, twists and turns and sudden hilltop vistas. The air was fragrant with honeysuckle and had a heaviness that meant summer was here. We couldn't believe we had never been this way before. And now that we know about it, I hope we come this way again.
He was graceful on his feet, a runner, a tennis player. He loved to sing Linda Ronstadt songs in a funny falsetto — "I've been cheated. Been mistreated. When will I be loved?" He was funny and he was smart. The map of Ireland was on his face.
He was the boyfriend I broke up with two years out of college. The one-sentence reason was that I wanted children and he didn't. But there was a longer story, the sort of painful lesson you learn in early adulthood, that love is not enough.
When I heard Monday that Gerry passed away, I felt, after the initial shock and sadness, a sort of reflective remorse. We'd only communicated via Christmas cards for decades; could I have been a better friend?
So I pulled out my old journals and read about those days. I laughed and I cried. I learned some things about Gerry that I had forgotten, and I realized that I had worried about him for years. I had done all I could. He was one of those people who never really found himself, a lover of life with skin too thin for this world. I wish him eternal peace.
Is it a matter of omission, the simple act of not mowing? Or is there something else involved, some sowing of seeds? I'm wondering about meadows and what makes the one I visit so kind on the eyes.
It is not the regularity of the plantings. There are no rows of tulips, no artful arranging of azalea and dogwood. No, it's the very randomness that appeals to me, I think. The buttercups, the chicory, the tall grasses gone to seed, the flat blades and thin blades, even the occasional cat tail — all mixed up together. Like a bouquet of wildflowers that draws its beauty not from any one blossom but from all of them mixed together.
Yesterday, when I was on a woods walk, an unleashed shelty ran by me. I've seen this dog before and thought he might be allowed to run along the paths unsupervised. But when I saw him 20 minutes later trotting down the main street of our neighborhood, I knew I had an escapee on my hands. The little guy wouldn't let me close enough to read his tags, so I followed him until he darted into a house at the end of a cul-de-sac. He was safely home.
What impressed me about this dog was his self-possession. He seemed to know where he was going. He was never lost. He was just out exploring. He was the perfect illustration of what self-defense experts tell us: Always act like you know where you're going, even when you don't.
Today — on the date some Christians predict the Rapture will happen, believers will enter heaven and non-believers will be left behind until the world officially ends October 21 — we decide to hammer out the dates for a family vacation. Which puts us in the ranks of the nonbelievers, or at least nonbelievers based on the predictions of Christian author Harold Camping.
When I was a kid I worried a lot about the end of the world, a result of strict Catholic schooling and an overactive imagination. But since then I've fretted about all sorts of other things — from finishing my homework and finding a job (when I was younger) to the myriad concerns of raising children, which if you're looking for things to worry about, are pretty much unlimited.
What keeps us sane, what keeps us going, is making plans anyway. Lighting the candle in the darkness, that sort of thing. It's the only way to go.
The cars are unloaded, the bags unpacked, the laundry, well let's just say it's "in process." The young adults are back, sort of. And it is a culmination, is it not? A glorious jumble of conversations and cooking styles and inside jokes. It is like surfing a very big wave, though I have never surfed. It is, I should say, like that drawn-out pause at the top of the roller coaster, catching the breath before the fun begins.
On these mornings-after I tiptoe quietly through the vanishing darkness. I turn off movies, put away cereal boxes, even (supreme pleasure) tuck blankets around sleeping children.
And then I claim the early morning. It is still mine.
My blog post counter is a little off, but sometime in the last few days I wrote my 400th post. To celebrate, here's a photo of a favorite woodland path. It's not one I've walked often lately because it's part of my "short loop," but looking at it here, the late day sun slanting through the trees, I think I'll find a way to include it more often.
What you don't see in this photo is the dog pulling on his leash, my attempts to hold him and the camera, or the thicket you must plow through to reach this canopied clearing.
What you do see, I hope, is a landscape that asks for understanding and that offers, at least on clear May afternoons, a brief measure of peace.
Yesterday, I drove through torrents of rain, along slick roads, past swollen streams and sodden fields. I came to appreciate as never before the merits of the windshield wiper, its various speeds barometers of my mood: intermittent meant a light mist and hope of dry pavement to come; medium speed was a persistent drizzle that I could handle, stupefying in its metronomic regularity; fast meant a heart-pounding deluge, truck spray all but obscuring the road ahead.
For hours I drove with wipers on and then, almost home, a benediction, a clearing, wisps of fog on a mountaintop, a brief show of sun and a shy, hesitant rainbow. I wish I could have photographed the hills as they emerged from cloud cover; they looked as fresh as new creation.
Late yesterday I learned that the space shuttle Endeavor blasted off for the last time yesterday. I knew its final lift-off was in the works, but hearing the news on the way home from Suzanne's commencement was a fitting way to cap a day that was about endings and beginnings, about leaving the known for the unknown.
Today Suzanne graduates from college. Family and friends have gathered to wish her well, to celebrate her achievement and to send her off into this new time of her life. A phrase from the baccalaureate yesterday stays with me: We are who we are because we were here together.
I think about my own college friends — one of them my husband!— and how I treasure them more every year. I think also about my own college graduation. Once my parents arrived it was the beginning of the end.
Suzanne said as much to us yesterday. The real Wooster, the Wooster that has been changing and sustaining here these last four years — that ended a few days ago. So this weekend has been a long goodbye to the campus and the way of life she had here; to friends who (though she will stay close to many) will not be here, in this particular composition, again.
For us it is a goodbye to a place that seems tucked away in time and space. While Suzanne will undoubtedly return here we most likely never will. As of today, she is an alumna. We are just “the parents of.”
Due to the rain and cold, graduation exercises will be in the gym today instead of the oak grove. But the azalea and lilacs are thriving, the rain will soon give way to sun and fresh-washed air, and this place is filled with exuberance of lives that are just beginning.It is a happy, happy day. (The girls four years ago, after Suzanne's high school baccalaureate.)
Yesterday I went for a walk in the suburbs of Lexington, Kentucky. Growing up I didn't think of them as suburbs; we called them "subdivisions." If pressed, we could walk downtown from our outlying area. But suburbs they are, with the wide lawns and good schools to prove it.
I squeezed in yesterday's stroll before the rain, and the entire walk had a sense of fullness and portent that sharpened the sensations. I have a circle route I walk when I'm here, and it takes me through an older neighborhood, into a new one and then back into the older one again. I noticed the locust trees, their fallen petals dried in piles on the street. Phlox is blooming here, and roses in profusion.
A circle walk is a calming practice; it brings you back quite naturally to where you started. Not unlike a visit home.
Yesterday, for the first time in years, I drove to Kentucky in a car with manual transmission. Instead of gliding through the turns in an above-it-all van, I was shifting and downshifting all through the two-lane part of the route.
Driving a manual car takes more brainpower than driving one with automatic transmission. My mind was on the immediate needs of the road ahead. This is good news for people who think too much.
The last two nights I have been watering the new plants as the last bit of light left the sky. It's a pleasant way to see in the evening: the stilling dark, the birds with their last full trills of the day; the gentle sizzle of the water as it leaves the hose. I can feel my shoulders loosening, my jaw muscles, too. The cares of the day peel away. My heart is full; I'm ready to sleep.
If I’m lucky my day begins with daylight. But often it starts much earlier. For some reason I wake up at 4:14 or 3:35 or some other random, bleary number that's seared into my sleep-deprived brain by that first glimpse of the digital clock.
It’s then that I wish for the soft landing of the analog timepiece. Yeah, it’s early, a little after 4, or half-past three. But just how early it’s difficult to say. Maybe I looked at the clock wrong. Maybe it’s almost 5. I like the fuzziness, the offhandedness of such a beginning. I’d rather not know exactly when I started my day.
My first home of memory was a two-bedroom house in a lot full of sunshine and two spindly trees. Our landscape was seared with light. The subdivision was called Idle Hour, named for a farm by that name. As the years have passed, Idle Hour (the neighborhood) has remained stolidly middle class, full of tidy little homes made of brick or fieldstone. The extra wide streets have kept the place perpetually young, looking wet behind the ears, just established, even though it has been around for years.
On my walk yesterday I passed the last stages of a new development in our neighborhood. Most of the houses are completed but the last few are still in process. One of those houses is just a frame and I spotted two workers balanced easily on its roof joists against the blue, blue sky.
The sight of a half-finished house reminds me of my childhood. The hammer and saw are the soundtrack of my youth. I will always associate that buzz and hum with life itself. With herds of children, like young deer running from yard to yard, pressing their noses against the screens of the cool houses next door (the house next door was always cooler, even though none of us had air conditioning) to recruit more members for a rag-tag game of spud. Everywhere we ran or skipped or pulled our wagon in those days we heard the sounds of new construction.
Weeding, digging, mixing clay soil with peat moss and sand, preparing the ground for growth — for many years I have planted annuals on Mother's Day. It is a chore that takes me, if only for an hour or two, into another world. The part I like the most, of course, is the end point of all the preparation — spading the newly friable soil and tucking the begonia or impatiens plants into it.
The timing of this task does not escape me. Every time I do it, yesterday for instance, I think of the metaphorical aspect of this Mother's Day chore, of planting the tender-rooted flowers, of launching them into what I hope is a season of profusion. The teenage years have changed the way I think about this metaphor. I worry more about the hazards, the hard-packed clay, the weeds that choke, the rain that doesn’t fall, the deer who breakfast on my garden.
The horses this Derby aren't up to speed, I've read. Foreigners ("furriners"?) have bought the best mares and sires and whisked them away. They are breeding now on other shores, their progeny are bypassing American tracks; they are racing in Europe and elsewhere.
I don't compare times. When the horses pound the back stretch and round the final turn, they always seem fast to me. But I wonder if there is a collective failure of nerve, an unwillingness to take risks. I wonder if we've stopped looking for the bright eyed foal who can't behave himself. If we are too enamored with ease.
We bought our house for its luscious old trees and we learned the hard way (tomatoes, peppers) that we’ve didn't have enough sun to grow vegetables. But in the last few years, enough old oaks have tumbled and enough light peeked in that I decided to plant some lettuce seeds in the garden. Besides, lettuce is an early crop; it sprouts before the trees leaf. I would have a semi-shadeless backyard on my side.
Still, on the blustery March day when I planted the tiny seeds, I had little confidence that they would sprout. I’m skeptical of vegetables, surprised and pleased when the ground produces, well, produce.
But a few weeks ago the miracle happened — seed, soil, water and sun made food — and the last few nights I've stepped outside and picked a few bright green sprigs of leaf lettuce to add some crunch to our club sandwiches. It’s a simple pleasure. But sometimes a simple pleasure is enough.
Yesterday I wrote about searching for morels. Today the story continues. When we looked for morels we found other treasures, too: shag bark hickory, sassafras root, wild oregano, a luna moth just emerging from its cocoon, a hog-nose viper that could curl itself in a circle and play dead, three box turtles and a huge wild turkey.
Part of it was that we put ourselves in a large wild woods where these plants and creatures grow and play; another part was that we were training ourselves to see.
When I walk I'm often lost in thought. I'm not looking for food; I'm certainly not looking for hog-nose vipers or box turtles. I wonder what is coiled in the leaves and slithering through the ferns in our own suburban woods. Maybe nothing as exotic as what we found in Brown County Indiana, but surprises, still.
(No box turtles were harmed in the taking of this picture. This little guy was admired and then sent on his way.)
Whether by plan or by accident, our brief stay in Indiana came during morel season. And Tom's brother Phil is one of the most hawk-eyed morel-hunters around. We went for a hike with Phil on Saturday and came back with more than a quart of the wild mushrooms. We cleaned the morels, soaked them and sauteed them in butter. Then we served them with steak and salad.
The morels tasted musty and rich. Eating them was like eating the woods. Every time I took a bite I thought about how precious they were, how they took so much effort to find, but how rewarding it was to discover them tucked up under a pile of leaves or hiding next to an old decaying log. Wild food. It tastes good.
We went to Indiana last weekend for a gathering of Tom's family. And it was there, by the shores of a rain-water-swollen Lake Monroe, that we heard the news of Osama bin Laden's death. We had just begun to realize that our cache of Scrabble letters was far more than the board (or our attention span) could use when we got a call telling us the news. Those of us with Blackberries and iPhones (this does not include me) found news sites were crashing from all the hits. So since the cottage has no television or wi-fi, we cranked up the radio in the old stereo receiver.
As we bent toward its sound, I felt we were drawn not only into a new, post-bin Laden era, but also into the past. We were like the people in "The King's Speech" listening to George VI rallying his fellow citizens, minus the sonorous soaring of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZU03byh6O1M
We strained to hear the scratchy sound coming out of the box, the narrow frequency fading in and out during the president's brief announcement. We were startled from our lethargy, hungry for information, searching for a community in the airwaves.
I’m a writer and editor, the author of "Parents Who Think Too Much" and a freelancer published everywhere from the "New York Times" to "Woman’s Day." I’ve been scribbling my thoughts in one tattered notebook or another for most of my life, but this blog is the first time I’ve gone public. I'm glad you've landed here, and I hope you visit often.