Star Catching by Moonlight

tabby-ginger-cat5

Beauty

Miss Rose lived in a white clapboard house set in a rambling garden where Tabby-Ginger hunted each day. Roses grew in tumbling hedges along her borders, guarding the gate of her frail white picket fence like thorned harpies, their long claws and green hair crowned with red petals. Of all the souls who visited there, Tabby-Ginger was more frequent, not because he was best liked or made welcome, but because he enjoyed the shade of her well established hedge. Whenever Miss Rose saw his ginger tail drift out into the sunlit furrow between the lawn and the hedge, she threw rocks. Miss Rose disapproved of interlopers in her garden; even girl scouts, neighbors and relatives were unwelcome. As for Tabby-Ginger, he did not mind her rocks. They mostly missed, so he mostly came to sleep away the day.

Miss Rose led a solitary life, a life without children, dogs or friends which suited Tabby-Ginger very well. He too enjoyed solitude, doing what he could to avoid worldly chaos. The cat and the old lady were a well matched pair, both unsocial, cantankerous and always opinionated on the subject of what was and was not proper. And so it was a strange thing to be woken one night by the sound of Miss Rose’s bare feet crunching through the browning summer grass, her body swaying in her pioneer night gown, its long lace edged sleeves and ankle length hem glowing with moonlight. It was a strange thing indeed to see the solidly rational old woman twisting and turning, eyes closed, hands outstretched, cupping for starlight just as a beggar cups his hands for much needed bread.

Rising to a sitting position, Tabby-Ginger shook out his dusty sun burnt fur, washed his front paws, and watched the distressing spectacle unfold. It would be wise to move to another garden with a different hedge, he thought. After all, one needs a respectable yard, free of commotion, in which to sleep. And yet unseemly as it all was, he remained transfixed by Miss Rose’s flowering madness. Never in her stone throwing sanity had she been so fascinating; unhinged, she was almost…yet being but a cat, the word escaped him. Miss Rose lifted her hands to the sky, her fingers plucking starlight from the air. Her silver hair, so long it ran in a river down her back, was lit with the light of a million galaxies that gleamed in the silver of each strand. In that moment Tabby-Ginger found the word he felt running through him. He understood the feeling and its meaning. It lived in the iridescent blues of torn butterfly wings, in the jewel-like-faceted eyes of a half killed dragonfly. Miss Rose was…beautiful. The cat remained mesmerized as the full consciousness of beauty swept through his feline soul. And yet even in the midst of his awakening a baser part of his brain asked, whatever will the neighbors think?

Tabby Ginger watched star-beams (those rarely seen silvered celestial fingers of light) kiss her hair, fill her cupped palms, and creep down her moon-bright arms to gather like an immaculate heart at her breast. Miss Rose drooped under her brilliant burden, her arms too filled with light sought, light caught, light held to stand the burden: her swaying soon became so unbalanced by the weight of her catch that she fell slowly, softly to the grass. Concerned, Tabby-Ginger walked towards her on callused old paws that made no sound. He needed to sit with her, to understand the magic that made his heart lift and then collapse under the weight of its magnificence. So he rested in vigil over the woman who threw stones and tended roses while he remembered.

Miss Lilac

He’d not always been a skulking no-man’s-cat. Once, he’d had a home and a garden all his own. It was filled with lilies and iris, daffodils and forget-me-nots. There were fewer thorns in those long ago days when he’d been sought after, searched out, and chosen from the box. A dozen brothers and sisters had mewed and bounced, hissed and swatted around him and yet from among the frolicking rabble Miss Lilac had chosen him. He never knew Miss Lilac’s Christian name. The Sunday cake lady called her Mrs. Joseph this and Mrs. Joseph that but Joseph wasn’t soft or feminine so he called her by the scent she loved best. Like Miss Rose, Miss Lilac was old and solitary and tended flowers. From her flowers she made perfumes to sell. For herself she made lilac. The scent of spring proceeded her through the darkest months, the snow months, the cold months when Tabby-Ginger’s coat grew thick and daylight hardly shown. Miss Lilac was an elder, an old one, a silvered lady so ancient in her methods that she could make lace even in her blindness, her needled fingers twisting the long white threads into patterns as intricate and gossamer as any spider’s web. This was her magic, her body swaying-star catching-magic, done with needles that spun whole worlds out of thread.

A cloud crossed the moon pulling Tabby-Ginger from his thoughts. In the sudden darkness Miss Rose glowed brighter, her starlight pooling across her chest. Is there beauty in every human being? Tabby-Ginger wondered, still struck by the woman before him. A young cat would run; a timid cat would hide. He thought. Only a mad old cat like me would stay to watch.

God Cake and Lace Magic

In the long ago years when he was fresh and new to this world, Tabby-Ginger knew a woman who arrived at Miss Lilac’s home each Sunday bringing God cake (that baked good made especially for those who forgot to go to church) and thread, (spun from the cradle of murdered caterpillars dropped before wings could spread into boiling water.) The God cake was set by without ceremony, but the thread was caressed and celebrated, gone over and described in such detail that even Miss Lilac could see its color through the touch of her fingers. The thread was so soft that it was the only thing Tabby-Ginger wanted to sleep on. But sleeping on it made Miss Lilac angry so Tabby-Ginger slept on her instead. During the day he would hunt through the flower garden, sleep under the full shade of the lilac, or wander into the house to beg milk. Miss Lilac had little but she always had milk enough to fill a saucer. Then, finding his place on a pile of scavenged magazines in the kindling box, he would watch Miss Lilac weave webs of caterpillar thread into table clothes, lady’s lace collars, and bedspreads sparkling with stars as big as a grown man’s hand. It was magic, Miss Lilac magic, but Tabby-Ginger didn’t know that then.

Looking down now on Miss Rose, he could see beauty’s hand decorating his life in hindsight. There had always been a beauty in his existence, yet before this night he’d never been aware enough to see it. Now, awake to her presence, Beauty spread her colorful palette across the remembered canvas of his life. He recalled the beauty in his mother’s whiskers, the sparkle of her large green eyes, the pink glittering touch of her loving tongue. He saw the beauty in Miss Lilac, in the twist of silver hair held high with pins to the top of her head. There was beauty in a warming fire, in sunlight poured through lace curtains, in intricate shadows cast across hand hewn wood floors, and in milk set out in a chipped china saucer. That was such a long ago time, he thought feeling his heart grow heavy. For where beauty’s power can lift a soul to exaltation, it will-in that same moment-weigh the heart with its absence. Every memory that formed in the old cat’s mind was transformed, made majestic, beautiful, before fading into the bittersweet emptiness of loss. What is this feeling? Tabby-Ginger breathed a sigh, his heart so heavy it was want to break. Before him Miss Rose lay unmoving, as still as death.

Going to the Gone

Miss Lilac died in the winter. Having outlived her husband and all her twelve children, she had no one to light a fire or keep her warm. It was a kind death, a falling to sleep and never rising death, a good mother’s death…still…the silence of it…the loneliness…had been terrible. Tabby-Ginger did what he could to warm her, fluffing out his coat, bushing out his tail, spreading his body over hers but he was only one cat, and being one cat his efforts were not enough. And so she passed away while he tried to warm here. What have you found in the secret place? He needed to know. Will I go with you? But Miss Lilac was no more than a husk wrapped in a worn counterpane and could not tell him.

Tabby-Ginger knew many things. He listened and he watched and he read the world as easily as the katydid read the weather. For a katydid knows more of sheet lightning, more of the long thirst called drought than the newspaper man could ever guess at. Tabby-Giger knew Miss Lilac had left for the place called gone; he knew this in the same way he knew the lady who delivered Sunday God Cake bought the lacework for less than its value. Tabby-Ginger knew this because he slept on books and magazines, newspapers and letters. Being a cat, he liked to be where humans were, to know what humans knew, and he knew that he’d seen lace stars the size of a grown man’s hands pictured on the paper. He understood what the blind woman could not see. And he understood that death, no matter how it came, was final.

But what comes after the last breath, after the stillness? Is death a beginning or an end? The questions persisted, but the answer eluded him. Every cat knows the well crunched vole never stirs but how can that rule apply to humans? Miss Lilac had not stirred, had gone to the gone, leaving him a no-man’s-cat which never felt right.

With Miss Lilac, he’d known comfort, kindness, and home. Without her everything had changed. A no-man’s-cat is friendless, homeless and hungry. His fur loses its luster and the cold of the homeless is so terrible that some winters it seemed wiser to give up than to go on hunting, seeking and surviving. Remembering the cold of winter made his coat bristle, is whiskers twitch. How many more winters could he survive? The question frightened him. Maybe that was why he watched over Miss Rose, counted her shallow breaths, and checked for the signs of stillness that led to the stillness that does not pass.

The Way Home

The last of the day’s heat drifted from the earth while the starlight chilled the garden with an otherworldly cold. Miss Rose lay in the grass; the starlight fading from her to light the walkway, silver the lawn, and frost the flowers. It touched the earth with its monochromatic tones, leaving the pale bloomless world looking hollowed and shrunken. Moment by moment Miss rose did not stir. Has she gone to the gone? Tabby-Ginger worried, rising to his feet to pace before her. She is still…too still… With a sudden panic Tabby-Ginger called her name, his deep feline voice breaking up the silence. “Meee…Rowwww…” He rubbed his nose against her nose and batted her chin with his paw. Though he was not hers and she was not his they had shared the beauty of the garden…the sparkle of spring dew on new buds…the light breath of a butterfly’s wing stirring the scented summer air. Besides, hadn’t she thrown rocks, and hadn’t he dutifully run?

No she cannot have gone to the gone, he thought, jumping onto her chest. Gently he caressed her with Eskimo kisses, nose to nose, whisker to cheek. Then, fluffing out his fur, and bushing out his tail, he warmed her with his ragged self and purred life back into her. When the stray cloud uncovered the moon, then cat and woman were fused in one pool of chillingly bright light.

“Mee…roww…” Tabby-Ginger called. “Mee…roww…” he called again, his broken teeth nipping at her chin. Then a movement, a breath indrawn, stronger than the last. Do not go the gone… Tabby-Ginger cried. Miss Rose opened her eyes.

Tabby-Ginger watched wonder and confusion dawn and fade to loss and sadness. Had the starlight been a dream dreamt on sleepwalking feet? Tabby-Ginger saw the question in her eyes and knew the magic of the night was fading in her memory. Humans, ever rational, demote magic through uncertainty; all the worlds wonder cast away in their ceaseless search for reason. Still, an indisputable knowing passed between cat and woman as holding him to her chest she sat up.

Peace

One surveyed the other with the respectful gaze of enemies made acquiescent by proximity. Without words each knew that their stalwart, well organized souls, were bound by the inexplicable events of the night. Miss Rose understood the sparkle of care in the old cat’s eyes and the cat saw the loneliness and confusion that shimmered in the woman’s pale blue gaze. Their memory of gathered starlight, whether dreamed up illusion, or miraculously reality, bound them.

When Miss Rose straightened her gown and rose from the lawn, Tabby-Ginger proceeded her in the same way he’d once proceeded Miss Lilac toward the house and up onto the porch; settling himself with proprietary ownership at the door. Miss Rose stared at Tabby-Ginger, her expression questioning whether her house needed a cat. But after the momentary hesitation she allowed him to enter.

For Tabby-Ginger, this was no small victory. This was a gain in earth, a movement of the ginger cat’s Maginot’s Line, his domain repositioned from the distant hedge and sunlit rose beds to the warmth of a homey house where no rain or snow could ever find him. Entering the kitchen, Tabby-Ginger spotted a pile of newspapers in the kindling box near the cook stove. Making himself a bed, he let his eyes close with feline contentment and purred the soft purr of the well housed cat. This is right. This is good. He thought. I will make this house my home.

Comfort led to sleep, and sleep led to dreams in which Miss Lilac spun a world, his world out of thread; her silvered lacework spread out from the place called gone to where he lay, luring him with its soft comforting warmth all silky, smooth, and inviting. The dream called his old bones to home, while his gentle knowing answered, soon…soon…I will rest with you soon. But the dream was broken by light footsteps and the sight of Miss Rose holding a saucer of milk.

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When Henry Beeped

diving block

Henry BEEPED, the digital sound echoed through the pool deck so perfectly that the swimmer before him dove, a perfect arch of girl slicing through the water, streamlined, rising without breath into a free and furious stroke. The official raised his hand, the whistle blew as understanding dawned and the girl was removed, ejected, disqualified from her race. Henry had BEEPED, not the starter so the race was done.

“Not Cool!” a mother yelled, striding toward him, the sobbing rejectee running on wet feet to her coach. Henry felt the weight, the reality, the price of having counted down the time to start too quickly, of anticipating the buzzer, making its sound so perfect-yet imperfect because it fell in the wrong second, the before second, the quiet second when all the deck was still.

“I didn’t mean…”

“Not Cool” the mother repeated while his team mates glared.

“I didn’t mean. I was just…” but he couldn’t explain the counting or the sounds that happen in his head, the perfect rhythm of the world living in synch inside his mind to surface in involuntary noises; digital-analogue-mimicry rising from his cords without permission. So he stood, the girl cried, the team glared and the meet went on.

“Swimmers take your marks!” the starter called, “Ready-set-BEEP!” It was the free, the hundred meter free, not the fly or the back or the breast. Definitely not the breast. Henry dove, a perfect arch of boy rising, springing, slicing into streamline perfection to break not with arms extended cutting the water with the tearing strike of free but the prayerful, elbows bent motion of breast. Rise, plunge, rise plunge as swimmers past in blurs of speed. Rise, plunge, rise plunge, hands prayerful, extending, parting, colliding again into prayer.

Coaches yelled, the official raised his hand, parents shook their heads embarrassed by the boy whose actions no one could account for, understand, fathom. At one minute, fourth-two seconds, the whole pool waited as the last swimmer returned, focused fully on doing the wrong stroke, the punishing stroke, the prayerful stroke that cannot make amends for a girl’s tears or the accidental BEEP!

The Shame in Bare Shoulders: Part 16 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

Jenny, Eleanor and Zara (front row center)

Jenny, Eleanor and Zara (front row center)


On my seventh birthday my friend Zara gave me a sun dress with red, white, and green pinstripes. It was the most beautiful dress I had ever owned. I loved it the moment I saw it and wore it as often as I could. In my candy cane stripes and with my hair twisted into cinnamon-rolls like Princess Leia, I felt beautiful.

A heat wave hit Salt Lake City, driving the temperatures up well over 110. The heat made breathing painful. Each breath came like the drag of sandpaper over skin while the sunlight was so bright it blinded. I walked to school in my sundress under the shade of the box elder trees. I felt happy. The world was bright and warm and nature buzzed and shifted like a symphony around me. I walked into school, set my lunch bag in the bin and walked to my desk.

“Eleanor.” When I looked up my teacher was frowning at me. “Come here.” Rising from my desk I walked to her. What had I done wrong and why was she looking at me like that. “Girls are not allowed to show more skin then a tee-shirt reveals. You know the garments rule don’t you?” This last question assumes I’m Mormon, while questioning how I could have forgotten the LDS rules of modesty. I feel confused.

“I’m not a Mormon.”

“The garment rule still applies to you.” Her response is terse, her eyes sharp. “Mrs. Smith, please take Eleanor to the lost and found and find her something appropriate to cover herself with.” Mrs. Smith, our classroom aid takes my arm as if I’ll run away and forces me before her to the office. Inside the secretary rises, her eyes concerned. By the look on her tired old face I can see that my shoulders have upset her.

“Eleanor forgot to wear a sweater over her sun dress. We’re going to take something from the lost and found.” I don’t rise my eyes. I’m too ashamed. My little striped sundress with its pretty spaghetti straps is a humiliation. I feel too naked and too ashamed to look at the ancient secretary as she leads us into a side room labeled lost and found.

I watch Mrs. Smith sort past tee-shirts and hooded zip up jackets until she finds a knee length cable knit wool sweater. “Put this on and do not ever wear that dress to school again without a sweater to cover your shoulders. It is immodest and ungodly to show so much skin.”

“But it’s hot out.” I look at my feet, my voice imploring her to take pity on me. “Couldn’t I wear a tee-shirt over it?”

“No. You’ll wear this sweater. It will help you remember the garment rule.”

Sliding into the sweater I find it itchy and hot. Mrs. Smith buttons it down the front so that my shameful little sundress disappears beneath it. Not even the hem can be seen at the bottom. I watch Mrs. Smith roll up the sleeves before sending me back to class. When the bell for recess rings I unbutton the sweater and walk to hang it on the peg.

“Put it back on and button it up.” Mrs. Smith walks towards me, her fingers grabbing at the sweater, forcing me back into it.

“But it’s hot out.”

“Which will help you remember the garment rule!” I’m forced to watch Mrs. Smith button the heavy sweater up to its last button, the rough wool scratching my chin. Then I’m forced out of the air conditioned school and outside, but I can’t run and play with the other kids. I can’t even walk out into the heat. I stand at the shaded entrance, too sick with heat to step out of the shade.

“No loitering at the entrance. Come out please.” Looking up I see Mrs. Smith standing five feet before me. I walk to where she stands at the top of the playground stairs and try to keep my eye sight from blurring. I’m so sick with heat that it’s all I can do to stay on my feet during recess.

“Why are you wearing that heavy sweater?” A girl asks. She touches the sleeve, her fingers recoiling from the rough wool.

“The garment rule. My dress shows my shoulders so I have to cover up.” No one else talks to me that day. I’m shunned for breaking the rules, for being immodest while the reality that I’m not a member of the church sinks into more than one mind. When the final bell rings, marking the end of school, I try for a second time to take off the sweater but am told I can wear it home and return it the next day.

When I’m safe at home I am sweat drenched and covered with red scratches and hives. My mother stares at me in confusion the moment I step through the door.
“I showed my shoulders.” I tell her. “I broke the garment rule.”

“I didn’t know.” She keeps saying, too shocked to grasp what’s happened. “It was so hot,” she adds, still lost in the sight of my red roughened shoulders, “I didn’t know.”

The brightly colored pinstriped dress hung in my closet reeking of shame and licentious transgression until I finally outgrew it and gave it away. The dress is gone but I feel the shunning and the shame like I felt the hair shirt I was forced to wear on a 110 degree day; it burns, and it hurts to this day. So I cut the necks out of my tee-shirts. I wear bare shouldered gowns. I refuse to bend to self-righteous people who say that a girl who shows a shoulder is a bad girl and I won’t give an inch to buttoned-up self-righteous people who shame and injure others in the name of religious propriety. We are as god made us. We are glorious. We are women.

The Sanctuary of a Story: Part 15 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

green world

Everything is safe in a story. Stories have beginnings and middles and ends. If the storyteller is kind then the story ends well. Though not all stories end the way we want, a good story, a story worth the telling should leave you with something that makes you think, makes you feel, and makes you see the world in a slightly different way. The very best stories leave you awake, aware, nourished; feeling fully connected and alive. I know stories, I live in stories, I hide in stories when the world becomes too shrill, sharp and blinding.

I sit on the edge of the world. As far away from humanity as I can hope to go, while my shaking fingers twist thin willow switches into ornate braids. Today I am an ancient girl, a timeless nomad, making what I need from the bounty of a vast green country. The air is cold, fresh, and pure. I taste the wind, feeling it as it wriggles in the folds of my gown; its rough spun wool smelling of grasses and smoke and earth. I am a part of the earth. The earth is a part of me. Together we make beautiful things.

The bracelets I weave are a gift. They calm my nerves, help me to breath, and fill me with a silence that restores my peace. I take a smooth black rock from my pocket and place it in the middle of my braid, twisting the thin willow switch in circling patterns around it. When the stone is secured and centered I tie off the ends. This braclet is for my mother. I lay the strip of willow and black stone on the ground with the other two I have made.

Girls walk towards me. They whisper in low tones, their bright modern colors destroying my illusory peace. I’m forced to sit up, to smile, to act…normal.
“What are you doing?”
“Making willow bracelets.”
“Can we see them?”
“Yes,” I look down on the bracelets that lay on the grass where I sit.
“They’re beautiful. Can I have one?” The girl is kind. She’s always been kind. Her name is a memory I can’t catch. I lift up a bracelet with a pink stone and help her tie it around her wrist.
“Why don’t you come play with us?” Her expression is curious, not judging. I would like to play with her but just being forced to speak to her has constricted my breathing, sending my stomach into knots. I need to be alone, in silence…free.

“Thanks but I like being here.” The kind girl smiles softly, her right hand sliding over the pink stone bracelet like a gesture of understanding. I watch them walk away, whispering and wondering why I sit alone. I try again to remember what it was to be timeless, to be alone in rough spun fabric I made myself, to be unindebted to a world without center, but the time has gone. With the ring of the bell I am forced to gather my things and head back to class.

Kids run with soccer balls, girls laugh, skip and play. I walk with my head down, trying not to see all the colors, feel all the noise. My mind grasps at a vanishing blue sky, an endless, enfolding expanse. Wispy clouds call to me through aluminum edged windows as block walls separate me from my true self, my green self, my free self. The story I embodied retreats, is saved for later, buried deep. Yet its memory lends me calm in the riot of noise that only stills when the teacher calls the class to silence.

The Nazis Next Door: Part 13 of Rain on Cloudless Day

fruit
Granma lives on 5th south in an old home that was once converted into a duplex. It has two kitchens and two living rooms, two bathrooms and two bedrooms. Daddy had to knock down a wall just so Granma didn’t have to go outside to enter the other half of her house. Granma’s house is magical. Like Alice’s Wonderland, it is all topsy-turvy and back to front. It has two different front doors with different shaped door knobs. All the sun floods into the south side of the house, the side with the yellow kitchen where we bake bread and make pudding.

From every window on the sunny side of the house I can watch the Nazis. From the living room I see the ancient grandmother push her push-mower in the front yard. Through their kitchen window I can see her daughter who is Granma’s age. In the backyard I hear the young daughter playing with her son, a boy my age.

Granma is in the garden pulling up weeds and gathering vegetables. When the basket is filled with food we walk over to the Nazi’s house. I feel a chill go up my spine every time the old grandmother looks at me. I’m so filled with the stories of war that I’m always a little afraid she might want to shove me in an oven. The click, click, click of her old black push-mower comes to a stop when she sees us. Her toothless smile and the black scarf she wears tied tightly under her chin, draw the wrinkles and folds of her face into a new symmetry. She wears an old black dress that reaches to her ankles. On her feet she wears black leather boots. Her fingers grip the push-mower and are gnarled and twisted from almost a century of hard work.

She only speaks German. Granma says she’s too old to learn English and doesn’t need to. I hear the creak of the front door as the old grandmother’s daughter comes to greet us. She takes the basket from Granma and welcomes us into her garden. She picks apricots and peaches, apples and tomatoes, placing them into a second basket that she gives to us. Looking around, I see the boy wants to play. We think up a game while Granma and her friend talk. The click, click, click, of the old push mower picks up again and the hours slip by in the easy flow of a long hot summer day.
ww1

When the sun casts long shadows I am thirsty with running and pretending. Going into the house I walk behind my friend who fills two glasses of water. We wander into the small front sitting room to rest. On a table beside the old Grandmother’s chair sit two pictures, one of a very young man in a World War I German uniform and the other of an equally young man in a Nazi uniform. Both pictures are black and white but as crisp as the day they were taken. These pictures remind me of the black and white picture we have of Granma. In it she is twenty-two and wearing her ATS military uniform.

“Who are they?”

“This is my grandfather,” he points to the Nazi’s picture, “and this is my great grandfather.” He gestures to the World War I soldier.

“Where are they now?” I look for other pictures of the two men but don’t find them.

“They were killed. Great Grandfather died when my grandmother was a baby and Grandfather died when my mother was a baby.”

I nod my head, thoughtful. Looking up at my friend I realize that he has his grandfather’s large dark eyes.
ww2

It’s late when we walk home. I’m thinking of all the men my Granma nursed throughout the war, of all the suffering and death. Looking up I ask,

“How come our enemies are now our friends, Granma?”

“Those ladies were never our enemies. They were farmers like we were.”

“But their men fought in the wars. I saw the pictures.”

“Yes they fought.” She’s silent for a moment. “It was a terrible time but it’s in the past now. Let the past be the past, let the dead bury the dead.” Smiling she adds, “and let’s you and I make a pie.”

I smile, my thoughts turning from loss to the light crusty joy of hot peach pie. I realize in that second that Granma isn’t angry or sad anymore because Granma is too alive, too busy living, too alight with life to waste time being angry. Angry isn’t fun so it isn’t worth her time.

We make a pie and we talk about everything we loved about the day. My heart glows happy even as my eyes grow heavy because I see life, I see living, and I understand what it takes to truly thrive. When Granma tells us to have, “no regrets,” she is really telling us not to let our past ruin our present. Let the dead bury the dead, share food and friendship with old enemies, and turn all life’s peaches into magnificent pies.

The Dancer, the Dead and the Madonna: Part 12 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

Bombed_Out_Church_in_Carpiquet,_near_Caen,_July_12,_1944
Granma’s Madonna scares me. She says it will be ours one day, my sisters and mine; but I don’t want it. I want to want it but I can’t. In my heart I know it has to be my sisters because it can’t ever be mine. There is no explaining the Madonna. No way to understand it but through its history which reaches back further in time than any of us know.

The war brought the Madonna into our lives. Granma nursed hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers in the war. Granma bandaged men as they healed and held their hands as they passed giving what comfort she could. One of her soldiers was a French man. She’d nursed him for months. In gratitude for his life and all the care she had given him he gave her the Madonna, one of two he had found in the rubble of a bombed church.

Granma kept the Madonna with her throughout the war. When the air raid sirens howled she would take the Madonna into the bomb shelters. The Madonna’s hair and robe are shined to a polish with all the hours Granma spent running her hands over the folds of her plaster robe, waiting for the siren that would announce the all clear.

But when I look at the Madonna I don’t see Our Lady, the Queen of Heaven-the Mother Mary. I have been raised to love Our Lady but I don’t see her when I look on Granma’s Madonna. Instead I see the bombs, the wounded, the dying and the dead.

mother mary

Her robe is the yellow of aged plaster with traces of the sacred blue paint she once wore, caught in the folded grooves of her robe. Her gown too is worn of color; its white paint only visible in a few deeply etched places. Once, the rose at her feet was a soft shade of red. I know this because a touch of color sits between the petals. Granma’s Madonna is lined with cracks, broken and repaired, her head repositioned onto its neck, her torso and base re-sculpted with glue and plaster chips. Yet it wasn’t the bombs that smashed her.

My family fought in both the world wars and only lost one man in battle. Yet we lost two women during those wars and both died at home. The first was my Granma’s sister Eva. On hearing of her fiancé’s death at Verdun, France she fell ill and died of a broken heart. The second was my Granma’s sister-in-law, a beautiful American actress who died suddenly of pneumonia during the second war. Her name was Jackie.

Jackie was a movie actress and vaudeville dancer who supported the troops by keeping them entertained. She was healthy and young and beautiful, too filled with life to die. Our family mourned her in the same sitting room where all our dead were mourned. Granma took leave from the Portland Royal Naval Hospital to sit vigil beside her coffin. Flowers filled the sitting room surrounding Jackie’s coffin and the Madonna was placed on a table at Jackie’s head. On the final night before the funeral the room was darkened and the mourners went to bed. (This part is strange to me because the custom of our family is to sit with the lost one until the funeral.) The house was still, everyone was asleep when suddenly… “Smash…”

Granma reached the downstairs sitting room, her brother, Jackie’s grieving husband beside her while all the rest of the family made their way down behind them. Opening the door they saw the Madonna in pieces on the floor, a huge hole in the wall where she had struck it. No one was in the room. No one had flung the statue at the wall. Jackie lay as she had, stilled by death, quiet and cold in her satin lined coffin. So who had smashed the Madonna? No one knows.

No, I do not want Granma’s Madonna. Just to think of it gives me chills. When Granma places it in my sister’s small hands I am filled with an ancient, haunted kind of fear.
fire survival

Hefelton Farm: Part 11 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

GarDen
Mommy and Daddy are going. My sister cries a little, her tears turning to a forlorn silence. They are not going in a bad or permanent way but rather on a three day marriage retreat to “work” on how to be married. I don’t understand this. Their marriage is as permanent to me as the Wasatch Mountains. Mountains don’t need work so why should a marriage? I keep asking questions but no one offers answers. Granma says the time will fly by and before we know it they’ll be back.

This is the first fracture I have seen in my family, the first fault line to run a jagged line through the comfortable security of my childhood. I see it like a dark edge cutting us until my stomach hurts and I’m gnawed by worry. They’re not all right. We’re not all right. Our marriage needs work means our world is not all right.

“I miss mommy.” I stand beside my sister on Granma’s front porch, looking at the road that took our parents away.

“I miss Daddy.” My sister whispers, her small hand slipping into mine.

We hear the trot of tiny feet as four poodles run passed us. Granma walks behind them.

“Do you miss your Daddy?” my sister looks up at our tall strong grandmother who is so wise and brave that I can’t imagine her ever needing or missing anyone.

“I miss him,” she says, her lips forming as sad, wistful smile.

“He was called Frank William,” I offer up his name as conformation that I listen, that Granma’s stories matter. “He was a farmer, a carpenter, an undertaker, and a black smith.”

“…and a sheep herder,” my sister looks up at me, scowling because I forgot.

“A shepherd.” Granma corrects her gently, “Yes we kept hundreds of sheep on Hefelton Farm. There were sheep and pigs, cows and geese, ducks and chickens. I had my pony Topsy and we had our giant Sire horses.”

“And the bull!”

“The big mean bull!” My sister adds.

“The biggest meanest bull that ever grazed on Dorset grass.” Granma settles down on the porch bench her eyes fixed on the garden, her words conjuring up a huge red bull in our imaginations.

“I had a penny farthing bicycle,” she begins, “the kind with one huge front wheel and one tiny back wheel. It was impossibly heavy, old and hard to ride. I was peddling home in a hurry on the day it happened. I’d done something terrible and was trying to make it home before anyone knew I’d even gone. Hefelton farm was so big that it was easy to lose track of people. I rode my bicycle up the lane and left it in the shrubbery to the right of the drive.”penny farthing

“Because of the geese.”

“Yes, the geese hated my bicycle. They would honk and bite at it and me, making so much noise that the men would come out of the hay fields and barns just for a laugh. Those geese gave me terrible bruises. My plan was to sneak up through the front pasture to the house and pretend I’d been in the garden all morning. I ducked through the wooden fence and ran as fast as I could for the house. The geese were in the lane grazing but they hadn’t seen me. It was then that I heard a great bellow of noise. Turning, I saw my father’s massive bull emerge from the shade, his nostrils flaring. He was coming towards me at a steady gallop, his horns lowered. I know he hadn’t been in that pasture when I snuck out. The ground shook as he ran at me, coming faster and faster. He was almost on me when I jumped through the fence, landing in a heap on the other side. The geese saw everything. They came running and honking into the lower garden, their long necks outstretched, their wings flapping. I ran for a nearby oak tree and swung up into the lower branches. All I had to do then was catch my breath and wait for the geese to go away. But then it happened. Theresa? My mother called. Looking through the branches I saw her standing by the farm house with the constable I had thought I’d outrun.”

“What had you done?”

“I had pinned a lit string of firecrackers to the constable’s coat tail. You should have seen that man jump.”

“What did they do to you?”

“I was caned and sentenced to a week of weeding the vegetable garden.”

“That evening when the men came in from the fields I was still on my knees in that garden, my arms and bottom whipped red with welts. My father laughed when he saw me there. Theresa Phillis, he said, you spend more time in that vegetable garden than you do out of it. When are you going to behave yourself? ”

“Never! I said, glaring up at him.”

“Well if you are going to be wicked I suppose it’s a good thing you’re also fast. That’s when I knew he knew about the constable and the bull. Everyone knew. I was the talk of the village and somehow that made it all worth it. I loved my father and he loved me. I loved my mother too but she made loving her hard.”

“Did your parents’ marriage ever need work?” I ask, still missing my parents.

“In those days there was no such thing as working on a marriage. You were married and that was the end of it. Marriages didn’t break, they endured.”

I think about what it would be like to live when Granma did. I like the farm, her pony and all the adventures but I don’t like the caning or the never ending hard work.

“Is it terrible to be a grownup Granma?” I ask.

She doesn’t answer for a bit. I watch her think, her face reflects her father’s death, the war, her exile from the village for having a war time child that wasn’t her husbands. Then there was the divorce that took my mother from her father and the immigration that made England only just a memory. All the starving and death, work and sacrifice for a life of instability and uncertainty.

“Is it awful?” my sister asks, her eyes big and sad.

“No,” Granma shakes her head, “it’s the biggest adventure you will ever have. No regrets. Not ever.”

“No regrets,” we repeat the words like a promise to her to be as tough as leather as strong as iron, as enduring as Granma? But how can we know this is a promise we can keep? After all, what is there yet to regret?
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