Family Tree

There’s a man on our family tree that is a mystery to my generation.  His name is there, Lawrence Carr, and his death date, 1930.  That’s all.  No pictures that I could find.  No specific details of his life before he met and married Ellis, my father’s sister; no details of their life together – except this one – he hung himself in the barn after losing everything in the 1929 stock market crash.

I peer over photographs of over eight decades ago, looking for clues.  Who was this man?  How was Ellis impacted by this early marriage that ended in shock and sorrow?  How did the rest of the family react to his short stay in the family?

Charley, Crile, Katie, Ellis Dean and friend, c 1925

Charley, Crile, Katie, Ellis Dean and friend, c 1925

I found this picture of the family in Daddy’s old photograph album. It was taken a few years prior to 1930, probably about 1925.  On the far left is my grandfather, Charley and my grandmother, Katie, with their daughter Ellis, and their youngest son, my father Crile, on a bridge of rough-hewn boards that span a low creek at the edge of a canyon, the walls of the creek held in place by a retaining wall of stones to keep the water from washing the hillside away.  The girl at the far right is about Ellis’ age and is probably a friend or cousin, but I know nothing about her.

As the photograph is in black and white, there are no colors to jump out or inform the mood, rather there are shapes and designs that vary from dark to light, from pattern to solid, from small to large, from rugged rocks to dainty detail on the hats.  There are hints as to the lives lived by these people captured in a casual photo on a cool day.

This is a family that lives and works on a ranch with sheep and horses and cattle just outside the small town of Moriarty, about forty miles northeast of Albuquerque.  Moriarty is flat land covered with sagebrush, some desert plants and a few houses scattered around one main road with a short line of small businesses.  The family’s home, known as the Dean Place, is about five miles out of town, toward the hills.  The town hasn’t changed must in the years between then and now, so it surprises me how trendy this family is dressed.

Grandmother Katie wears a shin length, heavy, dark coat with a wide fur collar and fur cuffs; her hat is a 1920’s cloche with a wide brim that is low on her face, her eyes shaded. At the top of her hat, there is some small decorative piece that reaches for the sky above.  It is small enough that using a magnifying glass doesn’t give much detail, but this is a stylish hat that covers all of her piled up brown hair, gone gray at the sides.  She wears dark stockings and dark, leather flats that lace up the front.

Ellis is about fifteen to sixteen years old, slim and with a vibrancy that suggests energy even as she stands next to her mother.  She’s about the same height as Katie, which suggests she will be taller by the time she gains her full height.  Ellis’ hair is styled in the late Twenties, short, flapper style, bangs drawn across her forehead; her dress is Twenties style loose, straight, ending just below the knee, low waisted and long sleeved, wide lapels along the collar with a contrasting placard opening at the neck; she wears dark hose and low heeled Mary Janes. Her hat, a beret, sits on the crown of her head above her bangs. The look on Ellis’ face is lively and alert; her smile wide, her eyes bright.

My father, Crile, is about five and is perched on the bridge railing between his mother and father. His ankle high leather shoes lace up the front, he wears heavy cotton pants and a long sleeved shirt with either a cowl neck or a scarf around his neck.  The lens caught him with his eyes closed, which is unusual for this wide-eyed child who smiles big for the camera.  I’m told they called him “Hap” as a boy because of his happy nature.  Life on the ranch meant hard work but it also meant freedom to explore and to grow into responsibility.  He told the story of packing up a frying pan, a rasher of bacon, a bedroll and a canteen of water then riding out into the desert on his horse to camp overnight by himself.  He was twelve.  His parents didn’t fear for his safety nor were they afraid he couldn’t handle himself.  He did it for fun.

His father, next to him in the photo, tall and slim, a full head taller than Katie, perches comfortably against the rail, his ankles crossed, hands in the pockets of his cuffed suit slacks, his shirt a long sleeved white and his tie, thin and dark, stops a full three inches above his waist.  His light colored hat is a ten-gallon with a wide brim that hides all of his brown hair with hints at gray to come.

This family, far from a large city, seems right up with the times. Perhaps they copied clothing from the Sears, Roebuck & Co catalogue.  They might have gone in to Albuquerque to window shop.  Katie sewed, as did most of the working women of her generation, so as many clothes as possible were made at home. There was plenty of food for the ranch family but actual cash was more rare.

Daddy’s album has no more pictures of the family until about ten years later.  The world did not stand still in that time, nor did the family. The children grew and matured, spread their wings and made choices. Those choices led Ellis and Lawrence Carr together.  Ellis was twenty when she became a widow in 1930, so this was a marriage of her youth.  Daddy talked about how strong willed she was.  She had determination and drive to be something different than a school teacher like her mother or a wife on a ranch.  She moved into Albuquerque after high school and went to secretarial school and I’m guessing it was sometime in those days that Lawrence Carr entered her life.

This was The Roaring Twenties and those years carried with them a feeling of excitement and prosperity for those who had money and for those who could dream of making something of themselves.  The Great World War was behind; the future ahead was bright. The world economy was riding a wave of excess, people borrowed to have the capital to live life to the full, banks allowed borrowing heavily against the value of investments and the speculative bubble of stock values grew until 1929, when the market made a correction that burst the bubble.  Many investors lost everything

Production of goods, that had taken off when money was flowing, were no longer affordable by most as there was no money to pay for goods and food and so businesses and farms began to fail.  The world of the jazz age and gangsters lost their glamour in a wave of financial panic that affected even Europe as Weimar Germany had built up its economy on American loans.  As America demanded payment of those loans, its economy fell and Germany’s politics were ripe for the rise of Nazism.

The Stock Market crash was not the only news of the day.  1929 was the birth year of future Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, who was born in his grandfather’s house in Atlanta, Georgia.  In Chicago, Illinois, gangsters working for Al Capone killed seven rivals and citizens in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  JC Penney opened its Store #1252 in Milford, Delaware, the last state in the Union to have one of their stores. The growth of the nationwide chain indicated the prosperity of the decade only two weeks before the stock market crash of 1929 would ensue.

In other depressing news, The Teapot Dome scandal came to a close when Albert B. Fall, the former Secretary of the Interior, was convicted of accepting a $100,000 bribe for leasing the Elk Hills naval oil reserve. He was sentenced to one year in jail and a $100,000 fine.

Plummeting stock prices led to losses between 1929 and 1931 of an estimated $50 billion and started the worst American depression in the nation’s history with the economy not fully recovering until war production with WWII.  Some investors took their lives.  Lawrence Carr was one of them.

Still, many found hope and a reason to push forward.  Penicillin was first used to fight infection in 1929.   1930 saw many firsts: Mickey Mouse cartoon strip began; first radio broadcast of “The Lone Ranger”; Planet Pluto was discovered and photographed by Clyde Tombaugh, American astronomer; the first red and green traffic lights were installed in Manhattan, NYC; Clarence Birdseye developed quick freezing for foods; Gandhi began a 300 km protest march; “Blue Angel” starring unknown Marlene Dietrich premiered in the US; synthetic rubber was first produced; Britain, US, Japan, France and Italy signed a naval disarmament agreement; BBC radio reported on April 18, that on this day “There is no news.”; the Great Salmas Earthquake in Iran killed 4,000 people; the sculpted head of George Washington was dedicated at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota; and the Chocolate Chip cookie was invented at Toll House Inn, Whitman, Mass.

Life went on for most, but not for Lawence Carr.  All I have are pictures of the family before he joined it and after he was gone.

Bud and Ellis Neel, Bruce, Crile, Katie and Charley Dean 1935, Dean Place, Moriarty, New Mexico

Bud and Ellis Neel, Bruce, Crile, Katie and       Charley Dean 1935, Dean Place, Moriarty, New Mexico

The next photo I have of Aunt Ellis was taken in 1935, around five years after the death of Lawrence Carr.  The original photo is tiny but with a magnifying glass, I could see intriguing details. It looks like a spur of the moment photo as the family is arranged in front of a car (probably a late 1920’s Ford), the flat, empty high desert of New Mexico stretching out behind them, the car hidden by the people standing in front of it.  There’s Grandfather Charley, dressed much as he was ten years before: long sleeved white shirt and dark, thin tie that ends three inches from his waist and dark suit slacks.  Grandmother Katie wears a light blouse, a slightly darker, flared skirt that ends mid-calf and a sweater with a ruffled border down the sweater front.  Both Charlie and Katie are in their mid-fifties by this time, their hair has gone white and they are looking older and less energetic than they did in the 1925 photo.  A row of bushes directly in front of the car hides most of the feet in the photo, but the dust that blows across the desert can be seen on Charlie’s and Katie’s serviceable shoes.

The oldest son, Bruce, is looking in his prime at twenty-seven with a dark mustache, slicked back, dark hair, long sleeved, white dress shirt, dark slacks and light colored, thin tie.  Both his arms and his ankles are crossed as he leans casually against the fender in front of his brother, Crile, who at fifteen sits on top of the fender and rests his chin on Bruce’s shoulder. Crile’s face is shaded by a light colored, banded, fedora hat tipped down over one eye. The weather must be warm as Crile is wearing a cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up above the elbow and light colored cotton pants, his work shoes covered with dust.  Crile looks like contained energy, as if this pose won’t last long.

To the left of Bruce is Ellis, who is again up to date in the latest fashion with a short sleeved, light colored blouse tucked into Katherine Hepburn style palazzo pants; her hat a close fitting beret. Her smile is wide and her body is slightly angled towards the man to her right, F.M. “Bud” Neel, her second husband. Bud is angled toward Ellis, her right hand tucked into the curve of his arm.  Bud wears a light colored shirt with sleeves rolled above the elbow, light pants and dark belt and his hat is a wide brim fedora.  He looks strong, confident and in control.  Ellis is taller than Katie in this photo but still more than a head shorter than Bud.

My father, Crile, must have told Mother the history of his family, but by the time we kids were old enough to care to listen, it was Mother who was the historian and told the stories so it was from her that we learned Ellis had been married to Lawrence Carr before she married Uncle Bud.

We spent our growing up years in California and Nevada while the rest of Mother’s and Daddy’s families were in Moriarty and Albuquerque, New Mexico.  About once every four years we took trips back across the deserts of the Southwest to see extended family which made us mostly strangers who had to get reacquainted on each visit.  I don’t recall a time in those trips that anyone talked of Aunt Ellis’ husband, Lawrence.  A suicide by one’s first husband would hardly be topic for polite conversation.  Instead those trips were jam packed with visits with the living as we moved from house to house, making full use of their generosity to feed and house two adults and four kids.

Uncle Bud was a genial person who loved to tease and never met a stranger. I remember him fondly.  I remember he and Ellis were deeply devoted to each other and their relationship, at least to my childhood and teenage eyes, was strong and exclusive.

I’ve often wondered if Bud was the opposite of Lawrence; if Ellis was swallowed by the relationship in response to the loss and betrayal of a young husband who couldn’t handle stress and difficulty.  Not that she was retiring or shy or house bound, after all this was the girl who left the small town ranch for the big city of Albuquerque, who wore pants that scandalized her conservative family and who worked for more than thirty years as legal secretary to an Albuquerque attorney, but her life outside the work world was Bud and his life with horses and the Shriners.  Bud and Ellis had no children, which added to their two-some solidarity.  Some portion of their summers were spent at their cabin in the mountains above Albuquerque and included involvement in the lives of Bruce’s children as well as Bud’s nieces, but we kids, the children of Crile, were too far away to be included in those times.

Still, Daddy and Mother stayed in touch with Ellis and Bud and saw them whenever a trip to New Mexico was possible.  After I grew up, Daddy and Mother began going to the extended family reunion in New Mexico where Ellis and Bruce and their spouses got together with their cousins on their mother Katie’s side.  I took work vacations and met Daddy and Mother at three or four of those reunions and enjoyed getting better acquainted on those trips with Ellis and Bud, and Bruce and his wife, Bertha.

The last time I was able to spend time with Ellis was in Albuquerque when she was ninety-nine.  Bud had died nearly thirty years earlier and she had sold her home in Albuquerque and had taken an apartment in an assisted living community.  At that time she had a two bedroom apartment with a full kitchen but didn’t like cooking so used her walker to go to the dining hall for lunch and dinner.  She was pleased to see me and was anxious to go with me across town to another assisted living home to visit Bruce’s wife, Bertha, ninety-eight, in her one bedroom apartment.  Uncle Bruce had been dead about twenty years.

Ellis Neel, May 2010

Ellis Neel, May 2010

On this trip we were again semi-strangers who needed to get acquainted.  We talked about family and about Ellis’ house and her life after giving up her home.  I thought I might not have another chance, so I found the courage to ask her about Lawrence Carr.

“Who?” she asked as we stepped into the elevator on our way to the dining room.

“Lawrence Carr?  Your first husband who killed himself?”  I pushed the button for the first floor.

“Oh,” she paused as she thought, “that was so long ago.  I’ve forgotten,” she said as the door opened and the sound of tinkling silverware and chatting people drew us from the elevator.

She was tiny and frail with a full head of short, white hair.  She carefully made her way ahead of me into the dining room and found a table.  Lawrence was not mentioned again.  It had been nearly eighty years by that time and she had moved on.

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Handyman – Protector

image:Mother's flower garden

image:Mother’s flower garden

 

Rock strength rescues fearful female,

bug halts in skitter across the floor,

spider loses its web

faucet leak, blown fuse, garden weeds

coughing carburetor, flopping slapping tire

dead battery, stopped up gutter –

no match for Daddy’s prowess.

 

Yet, not quick enough

or rescue sufficient

for Mother.

She fussed

worried

nagged.

 

Resolution required but patience,

Understanding carved from busy schedule;

Payment a smile, a hot meal,

cool lemonade.

 

Their dance of need and service

swung round and round across the decades.

 

Until he was gone.  Until I stepped into his

too big shoes.  Until I flopped around

unbalanced, sagging

under her “honey-do list.”

 

Her slightest whine, her merest look

should telegraph her need, right?

It did for Daddy.  I demand she ask.

I demand of myself that I wait for her to ask.

 

“Oh, for a man!” she laments when

anything goes wrong.

 

She lost her handyman, her dance partner. I lost

my pillar of strength, bedrock

who had freed me to wander far away,

secure the foundation would never waver.

 

She wobbles without him.

I carry on.

We miss him.

Cornbread

cornbread in iron skillet

google images:simplyrecipes.com

How hard can it be to make a pan of cornbread?

We grew up eating cornbread with a big pot of pinto beans.  Two or three times a month.  Maybe more.

I must have seen Mother make cornbread back then.   Plus, I’ve watched her make it many times since moving back into the house when Daddy got sick.

She does it from memory in no time at all.  In fact, the day she collapsed with heart failure, she’d made a pan of cornbread just a few hours earlier.  That’s kind of amazing.

I find a recipe and start pulling the ingredients together.

“This summer,” Mother lifts a hot pot of brewed tea leaves and pours it into the gallon pitcher, “I’ll teach you two how to cook,” her cheeks are red from the heat of the boiled water. They match the red polka dots on her sleeveless white blouse.

I’m sixteen and intent on making a new dress.  I lean over the kitchen table fitting a McCall’s pattern onto three yards of soft gray cotton.

“Uh,” my fingers dig out a straight pin from the pin box and I pin the sleeve pattern to the fabric, “I need to make my dress, Mother.”  The dress will have a double row of buttons down the front and decorative white plackets.  I saw a photo of Audrey Hepburn in a dress similar.  I have visions of how classy this dress will look.

Mother turns back to the counter, opens the sugar canister, scoops sugar and dumps it into the hot tea.  She’s looks slim and healthy with tanned arms and legs from days spent digging in her flower and vegetable garden in the back yard.  I wish I were that slim.

“I can’t, Momma,” Winzona, thirteen, blond hair flying, breezes through the kitchen on her way to the back door, “I’m playing ball with the kids on the street.”

Mother hasn’t made cornbread in months.  She hasn’t cooked anything in months.  “Mother, how much oil do I heat up in the iron skillet before putting in the batter?”

Getting food on the table is up to me these days.  She may be losing weight because I’ve been cooking high protein/low carb stuff.  Which is how I eat and how I feel best.  Might not be how she’d feel best.

So, how hard can it be to give her some bread that she can slather up with butter?  Low fat butter that is.  Mustn’t aggravate her acid reflux.

“What?”

Talking to her has woken her up in her chair in front of the TV.  She mutes the TV and I repeat my question.

“Just enough to cover the bottom,” she answers and turns the TV sound up again.

I get the eggs, milk and salt mixed in with the corn meal and flour and slide the skillet into the hot oven.

Whew.  That wasn’t hard.  I’m rather proud of myself as I clean off the butcher board island and put stuff back.  Corn meal goes on the counter by the sink; Lite Salt goes on the counter by the stove; recipe goes in the pantry in the recipe box.  As I reach for the recipe box, my eyes catch the ingredients list.

Uh oh.  Forgot the cup of oil.  Quick, get the pan out of the oven and stir in the oil.  The hot air hits me in the face and flutters my hair back.  I squint to keep my contact lenses from drying out.

Oops, the skillet was hot going in so the batter is all ready getting crusty.  Oh well, can’t be helped.  And anyway, at least it now has more liquid.  It should be ok.  Maybe.

“How will you survive and take care of your own family,” she pours hot tea from the pitcher into a tall glass filled with ice, “if you don’t learn to cook?”

“Mother, look at this pattern piece,” I hold up the collar pattern.  Maybe she’ll get off the cooking kick if I distract her, “do I put this on the bias of the fabric?”

The cornbread smells great.  Looks golden brown when the timer goes off.  The hamburger-tomato-squash stew is hot, the fresh vegetables are sliced; the table is set.  We’re just about ready.

“Sweetened Iced tea, Mother?”

“Lots of ice, please.”

I pull the cornbread out of the oven using two hot pads and two hands.  The skillet is heavy.  Which is part of the reason Mother isn’t cooking these days.  Too much pain in her twisted fingers.  Not enough energy or strength.

I look critically at the cornbread.  Ok, Mother’s cornbread normally has a nice rounded top that rises above the skillet.  This one is pretty flat and doesn’t look much thicker than when I put it in the skillet.

Was I supposed to add baking soda?  Pull out the recipe and check.  Yep.  There it is.  How did I miss that?

“Hope it’s edible,” I set it on the table and cut Mother a slice.

She butters her slice and takes a bite.

“I forgot the oil and had to add it after it was in the oven.”

“Did you put in baking soda?”

“I confess.  I did not.”

Mother takes another bite, “it tastes ok.”

“Just pretty dense and flat,” I salt my stew.

We eat and watch TV.

The last couple of months have been rough for Mother but she’s feeling better and again gets dressed every day; she takes care of her hair, walks to the front drapes to close them as it gets dark in the evenings, moves around the house again.  My cooking just might be the incentive she needs to decide she can find the stamina to get back to the kitchen.  I’ve seen her push herself to do other things she wants to do.  Like get out again on Sundays to go to church.

“How will you take care of yourself,” Mother washes the strawberries we bought at a roadside stand, “if you don’t learn to cook?”

“The same way I took care of myself and ate just fine since I left home forty years ago, Mother.”

She mutes the TV at the commercial and says carefully, so as not to offend, “I find it works best to get all my ingredients together before I start so that I don’t forget anything.”

“You say that like I intend to do this again,” I ladle another serving of stew into my bowl.  “Cornbread is up to you, Mother.”

Softball

flowers in a sunny meadow

google images

We were twelve.  The sun shone.  Our hunger had been satisfied with grilled hamburgers and watermelon.  We sat Indian style on the grass.  He was cute.  Short blond hair, light brown eyes and nice smile made me happy to be with him.  He slowly leaned sideways, until his head almost touched his knees.  I watched his head lower, his face turned toward me, his eyes on mine.  I was fascinated.

KA-WHACK!  A softball smacked my forehead.  Pain exploded and my world spun.  I was knocked backwards like a bowling pin, my legs still tucked under me.  The world went upside down, voices whirled around and echoed from someplace far away; my ears rang like falling stalactites cracking on hard cavern ground.  Everything went black.

The softball game stalled.  Light came back and hurt my eyes.

“Didn’t you see it,” he asked?

It hurt to shake my head.

Someone yelled, “Is she ok?”

The men and older boys resumed their game.  My head still spun.

“Honey,” my mother called, “come over here.”

I got up on wobbly legs, climbed back through the fence and went to the picnic tables where my mother sat with the women and small children.  I needed sweetened iced tea and something cold for my throbbing head.

I didn’t need my mother fussing over me; telling me I should have known better than to get close to the ball field.

Meadow.  An impromptu baseball diamond in a grassy meadow at a Saturday church picnic.  But, it was pointless to correct her.  She would worry if I were wrapped in cotton.  As for me, I felt embarrassed and abandoned that no one had protected me from that ball.  Who was the outfielder, anyway?

In the summers since that sunny day, I never did do much baseball watching.  Didn’t get into the sport.  After all, I wasn’t there for the game, all those years ago.  I was there with the cute guy.  Apparently it’s a guy thing to watch the game and talk to a girl…and assume she’s aware of the game and will see the ball flying right toward her.

Peak Life

google images:Colorado Mountains

google images:Colorado Mountains

I wake with a start, anxious, then remember: all it takes to be a success, according to Mrs. Shenks, my third grade teacher, is learn the steps and practice deep breathing. Anyone would see you have what it takes and you’ll go far. I try to remember that whenever I wake up in a cold sweat and find the front door pigeon flap on the tent moving and Tommy no longer snoring next to Mrs. K. That I’m the one who wakes up is par for the course. At least I know how to breathe deeply at 14,000 feet, so I slide on flip flops and grab the night vision goggles and head out. A flashlight would be helpful, but the light could let anyone watching know I was outside the tent. Why that bothers me, since we’re alone, I don’t know, but the thought that someone could be watching makes me leave the flashlight behind. Still, the night vision goggles keep my eyes from fogging up, so that’s something.

Mrs. K is up gargling by the time Tommy and I get back to the tent.

“Did my baby wander away again?” Mrs. K buries her nose in Tommy’s breast feathers and talks baby talk. He squawks and flaps his wings, but I know he loves her, too, regardless.

Four years on the Peak and counting. Not a word from the Capsize Foundation in all that time. You’d think since they sponsored and financed the hiking experiment that sent Mrs. K, Tommy and me up this mountain that they might like to know how we’re doing. You know, that the two women and the bird they abandoned on this 14,000 foot Peak are still alive and all that.

Mrs. K and I had been sporadic traveling companions after we’d met on a week’s tour of historic ghost towns of the Southwest. Seemed natural we’d team up since Mr. K was a workaholic who never traveled and I wasn’t going to let being single keep me from traveling. Still, I almost didn’t come on this one when the Capsize Foundation announced that Tommy, a pet bird in a cage, would be our traveling companion. Hike up a mountain with a pet bird in tow? Didn’t make sense to me, but what could I do? Mrs. K was keen to come. Probably because she was distraught over Mr. K’s unexpected fatal heart attack, but she wouldn’t make the trip alone with just Tommy, so I gave in and agreed and here we are.

The plan was, we’d hike up, Tommy riding in style in a floating, feather-light cage attached by tether to the pack mule. We followed the GPS to the camping spot and the tent they’d set up for us. The tent was a big part of the experiment, probably more important than Tommy or Mrs. K or me. It’s one of those specially formatted movable dwellings that are transparent in the sunshine and opaque in the dark, even with a fire burning inside. It’s impressive how they designed a tent that has a working loo, particularly on a rocky peak.

After we spent seven to ten days on the mountain, The Capsize Foundation extraction team would arrive in the high meadow and air-lift us out. So they said. The three of us were in ok shape when this trip began but we weren’t the outdoorsy type who love to camp and scale mountains or rub two sticks together to make fire. Still, the money was good and it would be a short term lark, right? I’ve always thought most people can stand most things if they know it’s for just a few minutes. Famous last words.

We’re long past the decision to stay on the mountain, but there are times when those early days play over and over in my mind like the repeat button on a You Tube video.

“Here’s what I think,” I’d said on about day seventeen, “let’s just leave the tent where it is and hike down.”

“Through that?” Mrs. K turned a slow circle in the center of camp, her arm outstretched, her index finger pointing to the dusty, foggy clouds that billowed 360 degrees around the peak, “That is not normal and I’m not setting a foot into it.”

The clouds or whatever it was had been there since we got up on day four. On the edge of the horizon but never coming in close to us; while above us, brilliant sunshine or rain or clouds or dark of night, but always those clouds on the horizon. It was weird.

“And anyway, we were promised a helicopter ride down,” Mrs. K turned back to the tent door, “not another hike.”

Just as I suspected. Mrs. K was mostly rejecting the idea of more exercise.

I had other concerns. We were down to the last of the provisions. What would we eat if we stayed? Were any predators lurking in the forest ready to make us their dinner? None of those concerns would be lessened if we started hiking down. Did it make sense to start down and miss the helicopter? I could go on my own and send help back, but what if I didn’t make it? Mrs. K and Tommy would be left up here by themselves. So it was decided. We’d wait on the helicopter. As well as news about what had happened down below that had made the never-ending-fog-clouds.

We held out as long as we could before eating the pack mule, but sacrifices had to be made.

~

google images: Colorado Mountains

google images: Colorado Mountains

“It’s one year today, Tommy,” we’d followed a fox and caught two rabbits, “good job on spotting our dinner.” I bagged the rabbits and headed back to camp in the warm afternoon sun.

“We’d be in big trouble if you weren’t so good at finding us edible wildlife, Tommy,” a hawk cried somewhere far off and Tommy flited from my shoulder and darted ahead, “you’ve have to admit my knife skills are well-honed. Had to be, to keep up with your instincts.”
We’d done ok in the last year. I’d slowly let go my big-predator-anxiety since we never saw or heard any big animals. Tommy and I were out exploring most of every day while Mrs. K puttered about the tent like happy homemaker. The one thing that never changed was the billowing-dusty-foggy clouds.

“I’ve never seen such clouds, Tommy” I stood on a hill just up from camp, a gentle breeze riffling my hair and Tommy’s feathers, the sun warming the tops of our heads. “Did you see the clouds of ash when Mount St. Helens blew?” I shaded my eyes and looked west, “Gray ash everywhere.” I turned back north, “But if it’s ash or smoke why does it stay around us but never get here?” We turned and headed south to Camp. “Something strange has happened down there, Tommy.”

~

We made it through the days and nights and those few minutes experiment for good money stretched into years and here I am, mountain climber extraordinaire, my shape firmed down to Senior Prom size, while Mrs. K, who rarely moves outside Camp, is bulking up to major predator size. Tommy, well, Tommy just keeps going, alert and strong.

“I guess I should have paid more attention to Nova or Nature on PBS, Tommy, ‘cause I sure thought there’d be coyote and bears and deer on this mountain; maybe elk or caribou,” I stooped and picked up the butcher knife and gutted pheasant we’d caught, “but none that we’ve seen.”

Tommy landed on my shoulder and we wandered along the creek, “I agree, Tommy, we’ve done fine. Lots of rabbits, squirrels, fox, fish, badgers, beavers. Just nothing BIG.”

“You’re right, Tommy, best to stay positive.” Tommy saw something move and darted off toward the brush at the edge of the tree line.

He may not be concerned, but I am. Lately we seem to be running out of small, foraging animals and Mrs. K is getting some warped conscience at this late date about eating meat. And why do most of the animals Tommy and I hunt down these days look like a skewed image of how they should look? Plus, the flavor is off, whether we steam or roast our kill. Weird. Just like those fog-dust-clouds.

This winter went like they all have. Not too bad in the climate controlled tent. It’s mostly a matter of positive thinking through the cabin-fevered weeks. Tommy and Mrs. K are happy enough to sing duets, which do nothing for my clogged sinuses, believe me. Food’s an issue by the time we get to late spring as the trench I dig in the snow, just outside the tent door and use as a snow-pack food locker, starts to run on empty. On snowy or foggy or overcast days, the tent stays opaque which really stretches out the irritation since the three of us can’t see outside, so we end up staring at each other, hours on end.

I’d had all I could take this week so I spent yesterday sitting on a boulder on the edge of the snow covered high meadow bundled up with a blanket over my jacket of beaver pelts. It’s cold enough my eyes are starting to dry out and I’m feeling numb but I don’t move. I stare into the sky for some sign of life. I figured out long ago we were not in any airline flight path though I held out hope that maybe Google Earth knows something is going on up here. Or perhaps the astronauts on the ISS since it orbits the planet about every ninety minutes. But it’s too high up, apparently. Ironic. We’re so high up no one knows we’re here.

Still, I’m hopeful that some life, somewhere, still exists. The recent storm seemed to clear off the last of that foggy, dusty, acrid cloud that has obscured the scenic overlooks for years. Those clouds were with us so long that it seems surreal they’ve finally floated away. Whatever it was, surely just North American was affected, or maybe just Colorado. Wouldn’t our Peak have crumbled away if Armageddon had decimated all of Earth?

God and I have regular conversations about this. And about all the eternal issues. Usually when I’m out and away from Camp. God isn’t someone Mrs. K is used to talking to. Tommy and God are genial friends, which is fine, but sometimes a girl just needs a one on one with the Creator, if you know what I mean.

“So, anyway, God, as I was saying yesterday,” I make my way alongside the creek, checking for signs of fish underneath the ice, “if life is going to continue and humankind is supposed to go on, it’s going to take more than just the two sets of ovaries and the bird living on this mountaintop,” I find a good spot and carve a hole in the ice. Then dig in my rabbit skin pouch for one of the worms I found burrowed into the ground under a layer of leaves and pine needles in the forest and hook the worm on my hand-carved pole, “it’d be an immaculate conception. Which is totally doable in my book.

“I’m fit. I could parent.” Not that I was all that interested in parenting in the “Valley Days” as I refer to our previous lives, but life moves on and one adjusts. “I’m up for being the new mother of mankind, God.”

Back at the tent, I casually bring up the subject while I clean up my hunting knife.

“No thanks,” Mrs. K says, “Tommy’s enough for me.”

He just squawks and hops away through the pigeon flap.

“Now you’ve upset him,” Mrs. K fusses, “all this talk of kids.”

I doubt Tommy is upset in the way she thinks. He tells me he always wanted little cheepers to bring home the worm to and he’s been denied the natural order of things as well. I don’t tell Mrs. K this. She has a jealous streak.

“Not just to have a kid,” I say, “Mankind. Human beings. Those creatures God made in his image.”

“Humph,” Mrs. K huffs, “can’t see what good that would do since it was human beings that left us here,” she uses a paring knife to sharpen a twig into an eyebrow pencil. I found a bush with branches that have a black, soft inner core that does quite well as eye make-up. The day I made that discovery was a big one in terms of keeping Mrs. K on an even keel. Putting her best face forward is important to her.

“But then,” she critically examines her eyebrows in the small mirror, “I suppose you can’t really blame God for what people do.”

I pull on the moccasins I made from grey pelts from fox kills in years one and two, grab my bow and arrow and head toward the High Meadow. Tommy likes to float on the air currents there.

“See anything moving, Tommy?” He lands softly on my shoulder and I trudge north through knee-high snow drifts ‘til he darts ahead and starts circling.

It’s good hunting with Tommy going into a long discourse on the differences between marmots, prairie dogs and squirrels. I gut the squirrels and stick to my position on the subject. We’ve never found a marmot on the Peak.

Mrs. K is watching for us as we return to camp. Tommy and I get quiet. I try to stay out of the relationship between Mrs. K and Tommy. She says she isn’t interested in raising any children but boy does she fuss over “my little sweetie” or “my baby” as she refers to him.

Tommy and I are more of an equal partnership working together to make this life doable. I don’t think Mrs. K would have survived in the wild on her own. Well, to be fair, I was clueless when all this began, but hunger and cold can make one inventive.

“There’d better be some berries or herbs or grasses to go with whatever you two killed out there,” Mrs. K tosses plates on the table and slams the skillet on the stove.

She’s looking wild-eyed. Tommy flies to her shoulder and bobs and peeps. Mrs. K doesn’t calm.

“Juice. We need juice,” she throws the melamine bowl into the sink. It bounces twice, quivers on the counter and falls face down on the floor with a clunk. “Red juice,” she digs in the silverware drawer for the butcher knife and draws it across her palm, leaving red dots. “Juice,” she licks her palm. Tommy squawks and flies to the back of the sofa.

~

“Tommy and I agree, God. Mrs. K is losing it. Big time.” I pull feathers from what looks like a cross between a pheasant and a grouse. “What we need is thunder and lightning or a deluge that threatens to invade the tent. Anything. Something that will distract her.” Some event that will stop her thinking about the never-ending-sameness in Camp.

“Which was part of my point, God, in talking about continuing humankind,” I bag the bird and the feathers separately and head downhill toward Camp. “Immaculate Conception would certainly change the subject and make us think about something other than just the three of us. Plus, I kind of like the idea of being part of something big.”

I didn’t see it then, but before we came to the Peak, I just went with whatever came along. And now that I’ve had to make the choices needed to survive, well, living a safe and easy life just seems dull and meaningless.

“Back to Mrs. K, God; any change of subject would be a good thing about now.” Tommy and I had to get tough to survive, but Mrs. K lives in Camp as if she was in town. With a grocery down on the corner. Pretending we’re not out in the wild. Every now and then she starts to crack under the strain. Mostly she holds it together, but this time it’s not looking good and I have no clue about a solution.

“Not that the three of us are the best plan for continuing the human race, but if we’re all you’ve got, God, then Mrs. K needs a little help here, don’t you think? Ok, that’s all I’ve got to say.”

There are days when God’s a better conversationalist than Tommy, but this isn’t one of them.

~

Mrs. K was first out of the tent this morning. A rarity and rarely a good thing. The sound of her leaving breaks through my sleep and kicks off my adrenalin. Something else is different, but I’m not sure what. I try to figure it out while I get sleep out of my eyes and get muscles and brain synapses moving. I sniff and listen and it comes to me. It’s warmed up some because there’s the sound of water running. The snow pack is melting and beginning to flow. The solemn quiet of snow is always hard on Mrs. K and noise usually gets her thinking differently. Ok, God, so you were paying attention yesterday. Thanks.

Well, it’s a different day all right. Now Mrs. K’s wild-eyed in her negligee, outside the tent, her arms straight out like a totem pole. Come to think of it, she’s about a thick around the waist as a good sized totem pole. Tommy’s fluttering around her, peeping and squawking.

“Take me, Oh Great God Of The Peak,” she tilts her head back, eyes closed, “give me wings to soar these heights to another plane of existence.”

“Tommy’s the one with wings, Mrs. K,” I inch carefully towards her, “besides, I’d be lost without you.”

Her ranting and my cajoling goes on for some time and then, without warning, she puts her arms down, straightens her nightgown and marches into the tent, singing “Morning Has Broken,” in her Cat Stevens voice. Tommy and I both take a deep breath and give each other the “thank God” look.

Spring moves on which means berries and wild grasses and we get closer to warm summer days with more fish in the river and bright sunshine that brings out my freckles and turns Tommy a lighter shade of pale. How long do birds of his kind live? I don’t like to think about it. Mrs. K really dotes on him.

~

There’s something red floating in the top of the pines. Could be just a sun flash across my eyes from staring at the sky too long, but Tommy squawks and darts around. He sees something, too.

“What do you think, Tommy?” I move through the summer grasses toward the tree line. Then stop. I’m totally exposed here in High Meadow. For the first time since the early months on the Peak, I’m frightened. There might be another person around. The hair on my neck stands up and my arm pits get wet. Tommy’s yakking at me to hurry up, but I change my direction to an angle that will put me at the tree line sooner rather than directly under the tree with the red and white flapping top.

I going to have to climb I decide, as I make my way through the pines. Whatever it is seems caught near the top of a 40 foot pine and Tommy’s not horse enough to get it lose so that it can fall to the ground.

“I can’t just leave it there without knowing what it is, Tommy. And where did it come from since we’ve never been in a flight path before?
“Did you hear a stray plane?” I move through the undergrowth with one eye on the tree and one on the ground, “I didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary.” There’s no sign someone walked away from this.

“You’re right, Tommy,” I stop at the foot of the tree with the red top, “I have to ascend.” He thinks it’s safe to climb the tree next to the flapping object. I breathe deep and start climbing (thank you, Mrs. Shenks). I can tell it’s some type of cloth. A parachute?

Definitely a parachute. I yank but it’s stuck, so I keep climbing and try to pull it up as I go so I can see what it’s caught on. Other than tree branches.
It’s caught on the best looking dead man I’ve ever seen. Well, the only dead man I’ve ever seen. “Wow. He’s a beauty.” Could be it’s just been too long since I’ve seen a man, but boy, do my ovaries react. Muscled, trim, tanned, slight dusting of five o’clock shadow; this guy could be a movie star. Wait. That’s what they said in the thirties and forties. Now they’d say, this guy could be a model. For Ralph Lauren’s Men’s Wear. Or People Magazine’s Sexiest Man of the Year.

“From the funny angle of his neck, I’d say it’s broken, Tommy.” Now that’s a shame. We could have really used a man up here. Tommy tells me to get it together and keep moving.

“Sorry, Tommy. Got distracted there.”

I work the parachute up and back so that I can get the stuck part exposed, then wrap the cloth around the guy to give him some protection from the fall. Can’t hurt him but why abuse his loveliness? Using my knife, I cut the part of the parachute that’s hooked on the tree and down he slides, a butterfly in a silky cocoon.

Tommy inspects the silky package while I climb down. Neither one of us has ever seen the logo on the parachute. It’s similar but not quite the same as the logos on the camp items we have from The Capsize Foundation. It has been years, though. Things could have changed. Assuming this is still America and assuming The Capsize Foundation still exists. At least we now know mankind still exists. That’s kind of a thrilling thought, all on its own.

He has no ID but there’s what must be a cell phone. Technology has sure advanced since we’ve been gone. It’s light-weight and probably does all sorts of things. “Too bad I can’t get this thing to work. The face on the front lights up and keeps asking for a password.

“I’ll bet there’s some sort of tracker in this gadget,” I search the pockets and zipper pouches on Mr. Beautiful’s pants and jacket. He traveled light: a foil pouch of dried food, a water bottle and a Swiss Army knife. I could have used that over the years.

Tommy’s confident someone will be looking for Mr. Beautiful.

“Agreed, Tommy,” I straighten up and look around at the sunshine, wavy grass, birds twittering, pine branches swaying in the breeze, “tracker or not, someone will come.”

google images: summer in the meadow

google images: summer in the meadow

~

Mrs. K is adamant the gravesite should be near High Meadow, not near Camp.

“My hair needs washing,” Mrs. K announces as I get Mr. Beautiful situated on the litter I made ages ago from two birch poles and covered with braided water reeds, “I just can’t attend a funeral today.”

“That’s ok,” I stoop down, my back to the litter and pick up the poles to start dragging it to the graveside, “Tommy and I will give Mr. Beautiful a good send-off.”

I know if the grave is away from the tent, Mrs. K will never go there. She never leaves Camp and she isn’t fond of funerals. Must remind her of Mr. K. Tommy and I and the nearly nude Mr. Beautiful head up the hill. I wouldn’t normally think of burying a guy in just his boxer shorts, but we can’t afford to bury anything that might be useful. And anyway, dust to dust. What does it matter if the dust is clothed?

We get Mr. Beautiful in the ground and covered up. I roll a big rock over as grave marker and Tommy perches on top of it to sing a final farewell. He does a really good “Danny Boy.” Knows all the verses.

~

The whop-whop-whop racket of the helicopter as it lands in High Meadow startles all of us. We’re just kind of frozen for a minute and then we start moving fast. So fast that Mrs. K is right with us a couple of yards beyond Camp as Tommy and I head for High Meadow.

She realizes where she is and doesn’t come any further, “Can you see anyone?” Mrs. K yells, “good thing I washed my hair Tuesday.”

Tommy flits ahead but comes back to say the logo on the helicopter is the same as the parachute.

“Yeah. I got that.” I’m prepared. I hope. Swiss knife in one pocket and gutting knife in the other. Just in case.

The pilot stands by the helicopter as two men in business suits head our way. I stop and let them come to us.

My ovaries aren’t jumping at these guys. Got it out of my system, I guess. Or just not attracted to any and everything in pants. Tommy agrees that’s probably a good thing.

The guy apparently in charge does his best to show they aren’t a threat. He’s all smiles and knows our names and says he’s so glad to see us.

This is suspicious.

“Mrs. K, I presume?” he holds out his hand as we reach Camp where she has retreated to the tent doorway, “So nice to meet you.”

“Come in, come in,” Mrs. K flutters and smiles and pats her hair, tries to smooth down her dress, which is hard to do. That dress fit three sizes ago.

Tommy and I are quiet as Mrs. K gets everyone settled with something to drink and finally perches on the edge of the kitchen chair, all perky looking as if this is the week’s excitement.

“So you see, after the accident in Dr. Wilson’s lab, and his death and all, well, the project just got shut down. Lack of funds and interest, you know.” Mr. In-Charge stops to take a drink of berry juice and tries to smile. That juice is tart.

“Wait a minute,” I say. I try to unclench my hands. Stay calm. Breathe deep. Mrs. Shenks would approve. “You’re saying we’re in some project? Under a dome?”

Mrs. K and Tommy both look blank.

“Like the Truman Show?” Now I’m yelling and that sets Tommy off. He zips around the room, squawking.

Mr. In-Charge is nervous, “No, no.” He sets the glass of juice down on the floor and wipes his hands on his trousers, “Well…yes. Except no cameras!” He leans further back on the sofa as Tommy buzzes his right ear.

“We hiked up here,” I haven’t yelled in years and it feels good, “THERE WAS NO DOME!”

“Ah, well,” he looks pretty sheepish, “you weren’t to know about the dome so it was activated once you had climbed onto the part of the mountain that The Capsize Foundation owns. Obviously, we regret you were forgotten.”

I sag back against my chair. Tommy and I are speechless. He flutters to the countertop and squats.

Mr. Along for the Ride, who turns out to be Mr. Attorney, finally speaks up, “You’ll be well compensated, of course. “ He goes on about liability waivers and transportation back to civilization and the great contribution we’ve made to research, yada, yada, yada.

Tommy and I just stare at each other. We’ve been in a protective bubble. My great survival in the wild outdoors was all a sham.

~

Civilization is far more irritating than I remembered. Noisy and dirty and crowded. And that’s just at The Capsize Foundation compound. We’re debriefed and poked and prodded. They run tests and more tests and are careful to make sure we have any and everything we might want.

We check out medically and psychologically, surprise, surprise. Turns out Mrs. K needs a “little medication” which will help with her weight and her coping abilities.

Tommy is quite elderly, they tell us. They think he’s lived longer than other birds of his type. They’ve given him a large, new cage and a friend and he seems content. I’d like to discuss the whole experience with him but he’s busy. Chirping to the female in his cage.

And me? Well I’m healthier and more fit than I’ve ever been, considering. Hooray for me.

Tomorrow’s the final ceremony in our honor and then they’re springing us loose. That is if we want to go. They keep saying that. I see the light in the researchers’ eyes at the thought of more poking and prodding. I’m torn. I feel like everything was a sham, yet I have this urge to go conquer mountains. Flee civilization. And something keeps nagging at me to not just walk away without getting a big settlement. Just in case. Of course the settlement would be even bigger if I’d stay, which in my book is more reason to get out of Dodge. When they want to pay you stay, something’s weird.

Mrs. K is more centered than I’ve ever known her. Other than the fact she’s preening like a male peacock around that little pea hen, Dr. Foster, who’s been handling our re-entry into the real-life world. He seems quite taken with her as well. He blushes every time she calls him Dr. F.

~

It wakes me in the night. This knowledge that I did accomplish more on the Peak than I ever thought possible. That I’m no longer captive to the Peak. Unless…I want to be. And there it is. I want to be. Not the same Peak, necessarily. And not under a protective dome. But out there. Somewhere on a mountaintop in the true, wild world. Using the skills I learned. Carrying forth Mrs. Shenks teaching: breathe deep and learn the steps. You’ll do fine.

“Thanks, God,” I turn over to go back to sleep, “I needed that.”

Except I can’t go back to sleep. I keep thinking of unsaid explanations and innuendoes. Like when they said I was fit, “considering.” And the slipped phrases when the researchers and technicians forget we’re within hearing distance. Finally I get up and head down the semi-dark halls toward the lab where Tommy is living it up in a big fancy cage with his new feathered friend.

Voices come to me around the corner of the long hall, “…cloned wildlife…..food source…..species of bird ….living long…..unusual pheromones…..Mrs. K…..manipulated weather.…. the human psyche……aging process…”

The voices trail further away as I reach the lab. I’m pretty sure I’d just as soon not know all the details of why we were there and what they were doing to us. If those years taught me anything, it’s that you make life what you want it. No point in negative thinking.

I’m careful as I push open the door. No people inside. Still, I try to be as quiet as possible as I make my way over to Tommy’s cage. He’s snoring. I’ve missed that sound.

“Tommy,” I whisper and rattle the side of the cage, “Tommy.”

He fluffs himself awake, yawns and stretches.

“I’m leaving tomorrow. Headed for another mountain, somewhere. I don’t know where, but I’ll get you out of here if you want to go with me.”

He looks me straight in the eye and tilts his head like he always does when he’s about to give me his opinion. But then he squawks half-heartedly, shivers his feathers back in place, snuggles closer to his new companion and drops his head on his breast. He’s snoring pretty quickly.

I stand and watch for a bit. He’s my fellow survivor. My co-hort. My only bird friend. Maybe he wants to retire and enjoy the good life. He was always able to ignore both Mrs. K and me when he wanted to.

“Goodnight, Tommy.”

~

“Look here, Tommy, a postcard!” Mrs. F reads the address, peers at the postmark and turns the card over to study the photo, “She’s sent us a photo! She looks so capable in those animal skins.”

She adjusts her glasses and looks closer, “I believe that’s a hawk on her shoulder,” she says as she turns from the open door, “and of course there’s a knife dripping with blood. She’s just killed something.

Wonder who took the photo? She’s smiling so she must be happy whoever she’s with.”

Mrs. F pushes against the big wooden door to close it, “Just wait ‘til Dr. F gets home and sees this.” And somewhere deep in the huge, comfortable, beautifully appointed house, Tommy squawks and flaps his wings against the safety of his cage.

Family Moves

I am twelve years old when Daddy calls a family meeting. We come together in the living room, the doors, windows and curtains closed against the deepening dusk. Outside it’s rapidly cooling down after a seventy degree, sunny, Southern California, winter day. I’m in the middle of family. Safe in the familiar routines. Cozy. We six against the world.

Little island of light and warmth
hold me tight, keep me safe,
here no dark dreams creep.

I sit in the middle of the sofa, excited and a little anxious to know what’s coming. Changes are not rare. Family meetings are rare.

Quiet, fervored wish.
Calm, budding hope.
Past anticipation’s dashed dreams.
Restraint. Restrain.
Be quiet, good little girl.

Mother looks relieved to settle back on the threadbare sofa after her day washing, cleaning and cooking, her stamina as faded as the design on her worn housedress.  Winzona, nine, dirty and grass stained from sliding across the front yard in a game of dodge ball, sucks her thumb and leans up against Daddy’s left side at the opposite end of the sofa from Mother.  Daddy, white T-shirt tucked into heavy cotton work pants, sort of perches on the edge of the sofa with his in-charge-alertness that he has on Sundays at church when he’s praying or at the front, speaking to the people.  Larry, thirteen, sits on the floor, Indian style, knees bent, legs crossed with bare feet pulled behind his knees; his white T-shirt neatly tucked into jeans, one knee poking through loose jean threads; his hands busy coaxing the purrs out of Buddy The Cat, whose contented hum deepens as he settles into the deep cavern between Larry’s crossed legs.  Trevie, fifteen, blond, wavy hair Brylcreemed into place, pulls over one of the metal, Formica kitchen chairs and sits. He’s alert.  Trevie always has a plan; is always on the move.

“How would you like to learn about our new home?”  Daddy opens the World Encyclopedia, Volume M-N, to the section on Nevada, “I’m being transferred to the Nevada desert where I’ll be testing rocket fuels.”

It’s 1962. The space race is heating up.

Caution fades, joy leaks.
Adventure! Off to new places.
No worries. This safe world is just
moving house, right?

Over the next weeks, as Mother packs up everything we own, we read and reread everything the World Encyclopedia, Volume M-N, has to say about the topography, the weather statistics and the historical information of Reno and Sparks, Nevada.

I know the decision to move was made between Daddy and Mother before we kids even knew a thing about it.  And before that, it was made by Daddy’s bosses at North American Rockwell, or Rocketdyne as we know it.  But this one somehow feels like a family decision where we all have a part. All the moves in the past just happened as a normal course of everyday life.  This one holds the portent of great adventure.

~

google images:Sears, 1960s

google images:Sears, 1960s

And we’re off!  We’re shopping at Sears for coats on our way out of California to Nevada.  We’re headed to serious cold weather, where winter means freezing nights and possibility for snow!  Some man is taking random pictures, trying to get shoppers to commit to visiting the Sears Photography Studio.

My picture shows me shy, barely smiling for the camera, arms crossed over my flat chest; my short sleeved, white blouse with Peter Pan collar, buttoned down the front and tucked into a pleated, plaid skirt.  The photo is in black and white, the colors in that plaid skirt lost with the past.  My chin length, dark brown hair has Shirley Temple rows of curls across the top; the sides sort of fluffy, like tight curls brushed out.  I’m standing in front of a stack of jeans in the boys department.  This is so rare.  Shopping together as a family.  Shopping at a store for something ready-made instead of watching clothing take shape on Mother’s sewing machine.  Having our pictures taken.  How did Daddy afford to pay for these pictures?  I feel the newness, the strangeness, the adventure.  Just don’t look for it on my face.

All reserve and shyness.
Eyes betray no excitement.
I’m long practiced.  Hold it all in.
But don’t pinch me to test for life.
I can strike back.  Ask my sister.

~

I did just fine at six different grades schools from kindergarten through sixth grade and starting a new school is just one of the things that happens. No big deal.  So, why does starting seventh grade at Dilworth Junior High in Sparks, Nevada, make my stomach hurt?

There’re the six different classrooms a day with six different teachers.  That’s new.  There’re the over one hundred kids in the seventh grade.  That’s different.  That’s more kids than I’ve ever been with in one grade.  There’s the fact that the seventh grade class all seem to know each other.  They started kindergarten together.

Expand little island of safety,
carry me through the halls.
Resilience take hold in the lunchroom.
At least don’t embarrass me in the locker room.

For the moment I can forget school.  The Truckee River is at flood stage in Reno, so school is let out early and Larry and I walk the mile or so of blocks at the edge of downtown Sparks from the school to our motel room.

“You’re off early, too?” Mother says as Daddy sweeps into our motel room, grinning and pulling off his heavy work jacket.  She’s wiping down the tiny counter space of the kitchenette portion of the large room where we’ve lived for a few weeks.  The room holds two double beds, a sofa, a roll away bed, a small bathroom and an even smaller closet.  Close to the kitchenette wall there’s a kitchen table, metal legged and Formica topped with six unmatched chairs crowded around it.

Winzona doesn’t have to go to school yet.  Until we know what part of town we will live in, Mother and Daddy have decided she could wait.  Hardly seems fair, but then, it feels like the baby usually gets special treatment.  If I were nine again, my stomach might not hurt.

“Get your coats, we’re going to watch the flood,” Daddy bounds across the room to the closet to get a change of clothes, then shuts himself in the bathroom.

“What?” Mother fusses, “watch the flood? That’s dangerous.”

Trevie, just arrived from his walk from Sparks High School, tosses his school books on the sofa, “What’s dangerous? Where are we going?”

Mother’s looking frazzled.  I wonder if living in one large room in a motel makes her stomach hurt?  Or, if it’s Daddy’s fearlessness?

The six of us pack the car tightly, warming up the interior and fogging up the windows.  Safe.  Together in a small space.  The motel is miles from the flooding river.  School may be new, but family is still family.

~

The wind whips up the collar on my coat and keeps flipping my hair in my eyes.  It stings my cheeks with each lash of my hair against my face.  The rain has stopped for the moment.  We’re standing on a bridge in downtown Reno, looking at the rising water.  Torrential rains for days have dumped so much water, there’s no place for it to go.  It just keeps getting higher, reaching its fingers up.  Reaching for the heavy, gray and black sky.

google images - Truckee River Flood stage, Reno, Nevada

google images – Truckee River Flood stage, Reno, Nevada

Rush, water rush.
Blow, wind, blow.
Crash, mighty power,
overwhelm petty fears, small
jealousies, school hall woes.
Eternity, huge
versus
 puny, momentary upset.

“Let’s go, honey,” Mother looks anxiously at the river and then back towards the car parked on the street.

I’ve never seen a flood.  Not in sunny, Southern California.  I’ve never seen so much out of control water.  It’s like the world is alive.  It’s like the leaden, heavy skies are breathing life into the high desert.  I like it.  I like the purple peaks that tower over the valley, their tips covered in white.  I like the cold nights and the thunder and lightning.  It’s the flip-side of never ending sun.  I feel exhilarated and free.  I breathe deeply and tight muscles relax.  The only thing my stomach tells me now is that its dinner time.

“Will the water come up over the bridge, Daddy?” Winzona tucks herself under his arm.

Embrace the storm.
Fly on the rain,
breathe in the wind,
relax in its grip,
float above the clouds;
up where blue skies and sun live on,
undaunted.

“Yes, it probably will, sweetheart,” Daddy hugs Winzona, then turns towards Mother, “Ok everyone, back to the car.”

Daddy’s Desk

image source: Bing images

image source: Bing images

In the top drawer is Daddy’s inexpensive silver wristwatch with its flexible, stretch band.  Without his warm flesh and steady heartbeat, it stopped.  I tried wearing it when I noticed, but it was too late.  So it lays here, the date feature, Mon 20, the time, 5:05 p.m. and ten seconds.

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

Funny that, since Daddy died on Monday the 20th.  I wonder now, did it stop the day he died, or did it run longer?  I can’t remember, which is strange, because at the time, I thought I’d never forget.

I’ve kept the yellow post-it notes he wrote and stuck on the side of the filing cabinet by the desk.  Doctor’s number, appointment reminders, police and newspaper phone numbers.  I like looking at his handwriting.  Printing, really.  The only time he used cursive was to write his distinctive and legible signature.

image source: Bing images

image source: Bing images

I was an adult before he confessed his handwriting was terrible, so he printed.  I’d always thought his familiar script was his preferred writing; neat, precise letters in a straight line, the “a” like a typewriter “a” with the tail curving across the top.  Not like the round “ɑ” they taught me in grade school.

I want to remember him in his strength; when it was easy to open drawers, when his watch ticked efficiently; when it was nothing for him to write a note to me, or to write in the checkbook.  I don’t want to think about those days he wasted away to a potbelly on a skeleton frame, the minutes and hours and days of caregiving roaring loud in my ears as we inched across the horizon toward his setting sun.

His abdomen filled with fluid as his body failed from liver cancer.  I was clueless.  He hardly ate, yet his pants were too tight to button?  I cringe now to think of things I could have done to make his days easier.

I don’t want to remember the last time he wrote.  The first time we went to the lab to have 2 liters of fluid drawn off his belly, he signed and dated the forms with ease.  The last time we went, his consent signature looked like the illegible scribbles of a two-year old.  His precise, neat printing and his one concession to cursive writing were gone.  It wasn’t long before he was gone.

Crile R. Dean

Crile R. Dean

I come often to this place that was Daddy’s domain.  I sit at the big metal desk that’s marred by years of use and run my hands over the scratched and scarred surface.  I can see how he grasped the handle of each drawer, the black paint worn away to gun-metal gray where his thumb extended to press for leverage to pull them open.  In memory I see him here.  He calls me honey.  He sings, smiles, talks ethics, politics, religion and sports.  He remains in my heart.  Until I join him, I’ll hold on to the simple reminders.  I won’t forget.