Mar 052013
 

Rich baseball

It is August 11, 1978. A humid morning succumbs to another blistering New England afternoon. Potbellied cumuli gather low on the horizon in an otherwise pristine cobalt sky. Colleen is twelve, three years my senior, an insurmountable chasm of days standing between us. I am already madly in love with her. She lives next door on Walter Street in Worcester, Massachusetts. For fifteen years, our bedroom windows will stare unblinkingly at one another across ten yards of space. Blue eyes (of course), a demure grin, tan legs, and a habit of staring straight through me when she speaks. From time to time, a tiny cluster of heat blisters forms on her lower lip like a welcoming galaxy.

“Can Ritchie walk to the store with me?” Colleen asks my mother. We are standing in my small kitchen. My sister is playing on the floor. Golden light leans through the screen windows. My memory paints this moment like a Vermeer.

There must be a split second of panic for my mother as she decides. The store is a mile away and I’ve never walked this far without an adult before. Colleen’s request challenges the very frontiers of a boy’s permissible geography. Is this okay? Even I don’t know the answer. But I am praying, pleading in silence, for my mother to say yes.

Why Colleen requests me to accompany her confuses me beyond logic, though I’m wise enough not to interrogate such confusion. After a long pause, my mother slips a dollar into my hand and tells me to be careful. A tether snaps.

While we are gone, Colleen’s father will suffer a massive heart attack and die in their living room. The margins of childhood will be forever defined by this hour-long walk to the store and back. And though I will be only a peripheral actor, a bit player in this tragedy, Mr. Gearin’s death will haunt me, too. This hour, even today, stands in sharp relief to almost every other.

Anne Carson writes, “We live by tunneling for we are people buried alive.” Why do we continue to tunnel? Why don’t  we simply breathe in the dirt and forget? Are we digging for meaning? For connection? Salvation?

In childhood, the exceptions stood out. The most vivid days were the occasional ones, when routines snapped and I was estranged from the habits of life. Maybe I’m tunneling for these.

How an overnight storm piled snow beneath my bedroom window like huge pillows. The floor heater creaked as I woke and, with frigid feet, crawled to the window. There, below me, was a landscape transformed. I climbed back into bed and listened to the whip of snow against window, my mother turning a radio in the kitchen. I held my breath until I heard: school or no school.

Or the summer day when I was five and the Fowlers’ house was struck by lightning. It was my mother’s birthday and we were next door. Colleen was there, Kelly, Cathy, Shawn, and Mrs. Gearin. Our fathers were at work. An awful boom rattled the walls. We raced to the front door and gazed into the street. The facade of the gray, two-story house literally had ripped away from its frame, so that I could see into the upstairs bedroom, as if looking into a life-sized dollhouse. A fireman leaned out from the smoldering second story, inspecting the damage. The black sky snapped again. Terrified, I reached for my mother’s hand.

˜

RichJen on couch

Colleen’s father has given her money for a handful of things. Bread, butter, a carton of milk. We follow long meandering sidewalks past the houses we know. Walter Street could double as a Dublin phone book: Baxter, Doherty, Farrell, Fowler, Gearin, McCarthy, Murphy. We curl down Paradox Drive, moving silently in front of the Bermans’ brick house, Elkinds, Jacobsons, and Flannagans. Past Sansoucy’s quarry. When we turn left onto Beaconsfield Road, we enter a terra incognita. The same songbirds chirp and the same shade cools our skin, but these front doors are unfamiliar.

What do we talk about on the journey out? If there’s a cruelty to time, it’s the erasures, the things we lose. What does Colleen wear that day? What does her voice sound like? I forget the name of purple wildflowers that we pinch between our fingers. I forget even the name of the store we are walking toward.  But I remember feeling grown up beside her. I remember how easy it is talking with Colleen, and the strangeness of this sensation, because, at nine years old, shyness and silence are my default positions around girls. What mixture of tenderness and warmth does Colleen radiate that gives me the confidence to be myself? How does she draw me out?  A word comes to mind: grace.

Twenty minutes speed past and we enter the store. A blast of air conditioning cools our sweat, brings a relief like water. We separate here, me to spend my dollar and Colleen to gather things for her father, who, at that very second, is taking his last breath.

Thomas Wolfe writes, “O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” What ghost returns? What orients the jurisdiction of memory?  Why is time as ungainly as the growing feet on a young boy?

I had a happy childhood.

Under certain wind conditions, I could smell Mrs. Sheedy’s simmering marinara sauce from two doors down. I watched the same wind turn elm leaves from green to silver as a storm approached. The sky seemed endless, full of possibilities. White vapor trails rulered across the blue as jets descend into Logan or, further south and east, into JFK. I identified them all, a taxonomy of flight: 747, L-1011 and DC-9. The planes’ contrails were as distinctive to me as faces, as nicknames.

Nicknames were a mark of respect on Walter Street. Orson, Shed, Burger, McMurphy, Sadness, Bessie. The “Big Kids” were teenagers when I was nine. They watched out for me with a tolerance and concern that, even now, seems uncommon. Somewhere along the way, they christened me ‘Head’. To have a nickname at nine amongst teenagers felt like a laurel wreath, a brass trophy with arms upraised on a pillar of marble.

Our families were Irish and Italian, Catholic and Jewish. We stood a single rung above blue collar. We shared the liminal space of upward mobility: close enough to the mills of the BlackstoneValley to still smell the grease but far enough out for new bikes and above ground swimming pools. Life was intuitive, and instincts of the body overruled the brain.

˜

Walterstsnow-page-0

Colleen and I meet back near the cash registers. Inexplicably, my father appears. He stands in line with us. He is on his way home from work and he offers us a ride.

“I’ve got to grab a couple of pizzas first,” he says. “I’ll take you guys home if you want.”

Why do I decline my father’s offer? How do I know this is the right thing? How do I know that a half-hour walk with a twelve year-old girl contains more mystery than the convenience of a ride on a hot day?

I follow Colleen up Pleasant Street. Cars whir past. It is a Friday afternoon and people are heading home early. We move past our school, the red-bricked Tatnuck Elementary, dormant for a few weeks more. Colleen will start middle school in the fall. I will be going into fourth grade.

We turn the corner, cut through the fire station driveway, and then begin to climb back up Beaconsfield Road. When it snows, this stretch of road is the most treacherous. Potholes and cracked humps of concrete mar the surfaces. Someone is sealing a driveway. The smell of asphalt rises on a breeze.

Surely I am aware of Colleen, of the proximity of her, though I have no idea what to do with such feelings yet. We ascend the steepest half of the road, past run-down American Four Squares, freshly painted Tudors and CapeCods, all of them inhaling this summer day through open front doors.

Our legs straining, Colleen points to a path and we take it. The three years between us have widened her intimacy with place. She knows the paths, the shortcuts, better than I do. One more hill before home, this one through a wooded boundary between the neighborhoods. We are in shade, beneath a verdant stand of tall trees, following a footpath.

“The point of departure must be unyielding despair,” Pattiann Rogers writes.  “We start from the recognition of that point to build the soul’s habitation.” Was this the work we were doing that day—building a habitation for our future souls? Why did the walk have to end? Why couldn’t we have just kept going, beyond our homes, back out into the woods?

Other days come back. I’d gone fishing with my friends at Cook’s Pond. Tony, Chris, Randy, Dean, Eric, Glenn, Mark. We baited our hooks with worms and watched orange and white bobbers float across the dark surface. A bobber sank. Someone hauled a fish ashore. We stood around rejoicing the catch until Glenn stuffed a lit firecracker in the perch’s gaping mouth. The slimy fish flopped in the dirt as we all laughed, waiting for the bang. But the wet wick fizzled out. Our curiosity about the world was confused, mixed with a cruelty we all assumed we would forget. Not to be deterred by failure, we grabbed an insulin needle from Mark’s lunch pail and began injecting fruit punch into the fish’s spine. It didn’t die, but contorted into a palsied horror. The fish’s back curled around, an anguished arch that I’ve never forgotten. We slipped the deformed creature back into the pond and watched as it corkscrewed into the depths, blowing up tiny bubbles.

My grandfather taught me to fish. My first catch was a ten-inch bass that I wrapped in plastic and kept in my freezer for six months as some sort of morbid trophy. My grandfather also gave me a brass 20mm cartridge from a ship in the war. A Japanese Zero had strafed their deck. Navy guns fired back.

“I saw a captured Jap pilot once,” he told me. “The little guy was shaking. He thought the Americans were going to chop off his head. He didn’t speak a word of English, but he asked for a cigarette.”

My grandfather placed two fingers up to his mouth and made a puffing sound with his lips. Why does this memory return so clearly?

The first model I ever built was a 1/48 scale Japanese Zero. It took a week to assemble, from start to finish, but the shiny Japanese fighter plane never measured up to the one pictured on the box cover. Globs of glue piled up at every joint. Thick brushstrokes of silver paint defaced the wings and fuselage. One of the orange ‘rising sun’ decals tore down the center. Still, I was damn proud of completing it.

In time, my bedroom became a crowded menagerie of airplanes in flight. Suspended on monofilament fishing thread, an F-4 Phantom, loaded with heat-seeking missiles, banked left. An A-10 Thunderbolt, gear down, lined up on short final over my bed. A Russian Mig-21, red Soviet stars on its tail, climbed out on patrol.

˜

Grampa Tisdell

Colleen brushes back thorny bramble as the path continues. We are almost home now, just a few hundred yards left. We cross the Edinburghs’ front lawn, and slip through their side yard. The grass is worn flat and gray-brown. The path skirts along the edge of the Deans’ house with their lush gardens. A red, wide-plank fence defines the yards. The Deans own the florist’s shop in Tatnuck Square. Every year at Halloween, the Edinburghs pass out nickels while the Deans pass out baskets of treats, whole candy bars, caramel apples wrapped in red cellophane. From here the path jogs right, behind the Markowitzs’ house. They have a two story game room that I’m never allowed inside. Once, I left a banana peel in their yard by accident. Mrs. Markowitz knocked on the front door, insisted I come back and retrieve it.

Wild flowers and tall grass gives way to a copse of white-barked birch trees into the Sheedys’ backyard. Mr. Sheedy is an air-traffic controller. His wife loves Elvis Presley. They have a son, an old dog, but no car. Yellow taxis take them to the grocery store, to work.

Are we still talking as we approach the Bessettes’ huge front lawn? The Bessettes are my neighbors on the other side. They were the original family on Walter Street. A large field, remnant of the original farms, wraps behind our backyards. Crab apple trees line the field. Once, they planted and sold Christmas trees in the field, a whole grove of evergreens like a perpetual holiday.

Colleen and I stop in the shade of a flickering birch. We are so close to the end. The air smells humid, the afternoon light beginning to soften.

Emerson writes, “All loss, all pain, is particular; the universe remains to the heart unhurt.” Loss radiates out from the center of this moment. The innocence that is Childhood cannot escape unharmed, despite what Emerson says.

In front of us is an ambulance in the street, lights flashing. A fire truck idles further down. There is an indecipherable second before either Colleen or I can register what’s happening.

We inch forward. The distance from where we spot the flashing lights to my front door is no more than thirty yards. To cross this ninety feet of space is to cross a galaxy.

Perhaps the great shame is that I only think of myself. Is the emergency at my house? Who is the ambulance for? I feel a twinge of relief when I realize that whatever is happening, is happening next door. I’ve forgotten that Colleen is just inches away.

Why don’t I take her hand? Why don’t I at least say something? Of course, I am nine. What possible words do I possess?

The most amazing thing is that we keep walking. In lock-step almost. Neither one of us breaks into a run. Neither one of us thinks to turn around. We simply walk forward in silence.

In the driveway is my father, still in his work clothes. Half the neighborhood stands together on my front lawn. The scene appears almost festive except no one is talking. No one is smiling. They all turn toward us as we approach, but no one speaks.

We come astride my front steps. Colleen stops, but I keep walking toward my father. He is, of course, safety. He can orient the confusion for me. A second later, Cathy, Colleen’s older sister, appears in my front door. Her face is red and swollen. My mother is standing behind her.

“What is it?” Colleen asks. She is so brave then, standing alone, apart from the rest. Just a twelve-year-old girl asking for an explanation.

“It’s Daddy,” Cathy says to her from behind the screen.  “He’s dead.”

Then my mother does what I’ve failed to do. She comes down the stairs and takes Colleen in her arms, brings her inside. The screen door closes. I stand next to my father and the others in the driveway. We watch and wait.

˜

Richie 1

Chekhov writes, “Happiness is something we never have, but only long for.”  I disagree.  I’m certain that I had a happy childhood. But perhaps happiness can only be understood when it’s held up against sadness. Contrast defines and focuses the feeling, and this happens slowly, after decades. On that bright summer afternoon, I learned something about love and joy, something about death and sadness. I caught a glimpse of life that I have never forgotten.

I walked a mile from my home with a girl I loved. Neither one of us knew what that walk would mean. We never could have guessed at the way world would suddenly change by the end.  And more than any other, that single hour taught me about the precarious, precious and magical nature of being alive. How it can turn in an instant. How we never know what’s waiting.

Childhood was an island unto itself, sacred, broken, pure. Those days were both a paradise and a prison, as all such islands must be. Memory was the penance, forgetting the sin. I’ve left out so much. So much has disappeared, like, cumulus clouds and the smell of asphalt on a summer afternoon. To snare even the outline of such things demands the habits of organized lunacy.

—Richard Farrell

Richard Farrell

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Richard Farrell is  the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of Vermont College of Fine Arts students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including short stories, memoir, craft essays, interviews, and book reviews, has been published or is forthcoming at Hunger Mountain, upstreet, A Year in Ink Anthology, Descant, New Plains Review and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.

For more NC Childhood essays visit our Childhood page.

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Jan 012013
 

  Me at the age 4, having just finished a violin lesson. Circa 1985.

New Year’s Day, the beginning of  Numéro Cinq‘s fourth year of publication — we have a lovely example of a set essay, a beautiful, poignant, shocking evocation of a Manhattan childhood from Tiara Winter-Schorr. NC publishes three set essays: Childhood, What It’s Like Living Here and My First Job. And by set essay, I mean an essay written to our guidelines, not exactly free form (though, of course, in the hands of a terrific writer the set essay always departs in imaginative ways from its guideline roots). We have had some wonderful results from this project. See the slider at the top of the page for more stellar examples of the Childhood series. And don’t forget that Melissa Fisher’s “My First Job” won the $1,000 3 Quark’s Daily Arts & Literature Prize in 2012. After you read Tiara’s latest contribution, take the time to browse the set essay archives and see what our contributors have accomplished.

dg

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Prologue: Exile in the City

My story begins when my grandfather slaps my pregnant 19-year-old mother to the ground in the backyard of his house on Smith Street in Glens Falls, NY. She is carrying my brother and engaged to a black man she met at college. My grandfather is a decorated World War II soldier who weds himself to German pride and American patriotism. He knocks my mother back into the muddy spring earth when she reminds him that her own mother is Filipina and his marriage is interracial. My grandmother sits on a swing, silent but crying. The child doesn’t deserve to live, he says. Get out, he says.

Days later she is in New York City, noticing that the sky here is never a uniform shade of black but rather a deep red shot through by light from yellow street lamps. She moves through the whole city in a span of nearly 40 years. My brother and I are both born in different corners of the city, but he dies in Glens Falls near Smith Street, on his first visit home, the first time the family has tried to remember itself since his birth. Almost a decade has passed. A day comes during this reunion when he is biking down a dead-end street with our cousins and is killed by a man named Ralph Midgette who is drunk behind the wheel of his vehicle. My grandfather uses his army training to run a heart pump, trying to keep my brother alive. My brother dies three days later. At Ralph’s trial, my mother asks the court for leniency because his wife will be left alone to support five children. The court grants her request.

My mother returns to the city under a red night sky to begin another period of exile, one of grief and searching. Four years later, I am a clump of cells stuck to her insides and her search is ended. She waits for me and walks through Times Square on nights when I do not stop kicking. She teaches me the city streets by the rhythm of her muffled footsteps.

 

Love

I am born during an autumn storm, the kind that is composed of continuous rumbling thunder and spurts of lightening. My mother’s water breaks in bed and I am born in a flash, in less than an hour. I sleep in a bassinet next to her hospital bed instead of in the nursery down the hall with other babies. She lives only for her children but she is also an art teacher, a photographer, a runner, and a reluctant wife. My father is an art professor, a painter, a writer, and an asthmatic.

Love is always fresh between them, the kind of freshness that makes a tone of voice warm even in the coldest of times. Over the years, they pass me artifacts of their love: a gemstone belt buckle from my mother, a silver ring with the sign of Christ from my father, stacks of photographs that also seem to be memories.

My parents — Justin Schorr and Sharon Winter (holding me as a one-year-old) — 1982

Is he your real father?

People ask this rudely before I am old enough to understand. Yes, he is real from the time I am born, mopping his paint-splattered floor 17 times before my mother arrives home with me.  He puts his name on me and my birth certificate so he will never be reduced to a step-father.  At night he sings to me in a flat voice that is all gravel and we dance across the living room until I rub my eyes into his neck, fighting sleep. He has a sharp smell that hangs around him, a mix of turpentine for his work and peppermint candies for his indigestion.  His canvasses cover the white walls, mazes of color, gobs of paint like gems and smears of nameless shades.

My mother straps me to her chest and we move from the darkroom to the bedroom to the kitchen, where steam from the pots and pans make me sweat. I remember straining my neck to watch her hands develop film in one room or chop vegetables in another. Eventually, always listening, she turns me facing outward so I can watch. I am probably a year old by now. I become fascinated with watching by the time I am two. She gives me my first camera, a black plastic Olympus with a sliding lens door, when I am two and a half. I take pictures of her from the ground up, so she is enormous like a towering religious statue.

Home is 106 Morningside Drive, a building sitting at the top of a long hill which rises above Harlem. Apartment 83 is half art studio, half home. The hallway is an endless passage that leads into a jungle. The jungle is actually a double living room with an archway that is entirely obscured by plants. Six-foot trees lean into wandering Jews that snake down into the wide leaves of a dumbcane. Then there is a green creature with leaves like giant four-leaf clovers that can cover me entirely when I am two. A palm tree bends against the ceiling, entangled with a wall of green leaves and reaching plants. The wall of deep and light green leaves separate the double living room and takes a space large enough that I can disappear in the greenery.

I learn to run like my mother. I use her white cowboy boots and round sunglasses to do it. The boots are stiff, too stiff to let my knees bend but I run anyway and I keep running the passage until I fall. I do it again. The hallway is also lined with my father’s paintings, gargantuan squares of pastel color and splashes of white and black. They are secure, like him, stuck down solidly and easy to use as a way to steady myself during a burst of running. My mother stands at the end of the hall every day, ready to help me put the boots back on or carry me away after a bad fall.

I do not hear my parents argue until I am at least ten years old, but my father moves out when I am three and does not return home until he is nearing the end of his life.

 

Wonderland

My mother and I walk relentlessly because we both have jumpy, energetic legs accustomed to sprinting. We start at Mondel’s Chocolates. The darkness under the awning is always deceptive, a bit scary but also enticing because of the window overstuffed with all three kinds of chocolates, the milky kind that slides easily to the back of my throat, the dark kind that puckers my mouth as if it is lemon, and the silky white kind that is too sweet and smells like vanilla. Rows of these multi-colored candies rise above my head so far that I can tilt my head back until I am dizzy and still see more rows of raspberry-drizzled chocolates and truffles decorated with tiny red flowers made of sugar frosting. To one side are the stacks of chocolate and to my other side is a tower of stuffed animals like jungle animals tied to a skyscraper. Gorillas at the top and tigers at the bottom are large enough to almost frighten me, but the smell of melting dark chocolate that hangs persistently is a constant reminder that this place traffics in magic and wonder. Kaleidoscopes hang at different angles from the ceiling, the paper kind that shoots simple patterns of color toward your eye and the glass kind with crystal that spins out the most intricate patterns your childish eye can detect. The world fragments into a million pieces and comes together again in shifting sequences of light and color. Look into a kaleidoscope and you are down the rabbit hole, the smell of liquid chocolate in your nose and the constantly shifting patterns of light and dark, candies and tigers and odd flashes of colored glass that tumble toward your eye like gemstones.

"Wonderland"                  Mondel's Homemade Chocolates, NYC 1985Mondel’s Homemade Chocolates, NYC 1985

Kevin is a homeless man who haunts the streets between Morningside Drive and the lower sections of Broadway around Columbia University. He sings. I am holding my mother’s hand, leaving Mondel’s, and I hear a deep sound like I only hear on the rare occasions we go to church. He is a tiny man in dark clothes that are torn in different places. I remember his shoulder being exposed to the cold sunlight. My mother drops my hand to search her pockets for money as he keeps singing. The tone is as soothing as the lingering smell of melted chocolate. I see Kevin again on these walks and eventually in front of the building where I live. One year, my mother brings him upstairs to give him a piece of my birthday cake and he sings again, this time happy birthday. Days before, he intervenes between her and a potential rapist as she arrives home late from work. I know unspoken rules are broken when she brings this man into our building but I am proud and his voice takes me back to Mondel’s that cold day and the warmth of my mother’s hands.

Sometimes we stop for wings and fries at The West End Gate, an expansive dive bar where William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg notoriously performed on a regularly drunken basis. The tables are etched by knife carvings that have dates I cannot fathom, like 1968 and 1977. I remember tracing my finger into the carvings and listening to stories of poets who used to spit lines of lyrical obscenity on a small raised platform in the back of the dive. It is a place of old poems and mysterious men and loaded nachos. It is a continuous fall down the rabbit hole and into wonderland. The world opens into a kaleidoscope of shadows, colors, banquets of candies, and long concrete streets dotted with homeless singers and lost poets.

 

Borderland

My father teaches art and architecture at Columbia University, a sprawling red-brick and white limestone array of structures. My mother earns her doctorate here so the campus is a constant in my life, coloring more memories than I can count. The lawns and open plaza with two overwhelming fountains that spout water straight into the air and back into a surrounding pool are two places on campus that substitute for a backyard. All the faculty children play here, running the noisy and shaky ramp meant for wheelchairs and pulling brightly colored flowers from the manicured grounds. I find my place at the edge of the fountains because here ladybugs collect and frequently drown. I remember bursts of red flowers, so distant from my perch on the fountain’s edge. The red shells of the ladybugs are more compelling and my favorite pastime becomes rescuing the water-logged and semi-conscious creatures from the fountain.

 "Borderland" Columbia University, circa 1987Columbia University, circa 1987

One autumn I bring home a rescued ladybug even though my father tells me it is dead. I keep its tiny body in a box my mother gives me. The box has a tan seashell as a top, and it is lined with mirrors on the inside and mother-of-pearl on the outside. The motionless ladybug lay there on the windowsill through a blizzard and then a thaw. When the air is warm enough, I open the box. I blink, and the ladybug vanishes. Maybe it blew out the window, my father says. Ladybugs hibernate, says my mother. She has flown away with the spring air.

Columbia sits at the border of Harlem and also slightly above it, perched at a higher elevation. This means that Harlem is first a picture out of my living room window. The late 1980s in Harlem means rows and rows of burn-out buildings. Police sirens and the Mr. Softee ice cream truck jingle are sounds from below that slip in through open windows. The windowsill is a place to sit because at night there are fires burning in the park that separates our small area from Harlem. During the day, you can see into the park and it looks like a vast and desolate wilderness. In fact, in the 1980s, it is a kind of no-man’s land reserved for junkies and homeless people. Not many people cross this border but one day I am sitting on the windowsill and three shots ring out. Suddenly my mother is there and I am carried away. Later, I hear my mother and my father talk about the black Exeter student from Harlem who was killed by a police officer for no clear reason other than the fact that he had crossed the park and started walking up toward the university. The rationale behind his killing remains controversial, a symbol of the clash between an ivory tower and the forgotten ghetto beneath it.

"Borderland" View of Harlem in 1985, from the living room window of apt 83.View of Harlem in 1985, from the living room window of apt 83

Harlem is not just a place of fiery nights and distant gunshots. Harlem is also the manic bustle of 125th street, where motorized cars hang from toy store ceilings. My mother buys me one with whitewall tires, 1920s style. The smell of African incense and the roasting meat from street vendors is not the smell of melting chocolate like at Mondel’s. This is the smell of the street, food and religion and grease all rising from the pavement. There are men like Kevin who live in the street but none of them sing when we pass by.

The last time I remember seeing Kevin I am coming down a winding staircase of a building that belongs to Columbia. My mother is with me and when he sees her, he tell us both that the university guards arrested him for using the bathroom to pee and this is why he has been gone so long. I am ashamed when he says this even though my mother calls them pigs for taking him away. I am ashamed of the dangerous park and the clean white buildings and the guards in their blue suits that call me honey when I pass by to go to my father’s office.

The borderland that is Morningside Heights is a collision of poor and privileged during the mid to late 1980s, but apartment 83 with its jungle of plants and windows onto other worlds is still a place of quiet love.

 

Gems and Bones

The first time I see a six-foot amethyst geode I am standing in a darkened room surrounded by towering gems that have been carved out in the center like narrow caves. These gems are housed by The Museum of Natural History, a place my father brings me regularly so we can stare up at the gigantic stones. Above us in a room as bright as the gem room is dark, a skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex is encircled by a metal gate as if he might escape. I am four years old and easily able to imagine a time when monsters roamed the earth but the bones are bleached white and held together by shiny chrome screws, like the skeleton hanging in my mother’s darkroom. My father and I ride the escalator between the gems and the bones, going back and forth to examine each. The dark purple hues of the amethyst and the striped green malachite are like his paintings, except the colors to do not crash and collide like they do on canvas.

 "Gems and Bones" My mother's darkroom, 1984My mother’s darkroom, 1984

My father’s smell of turpentine and oil paint comes from his hours locked away in a painting studio at the university. I visit him there a few times, shocked and delighted by the way he splashes paint at the canvas and by the way his balding head and calloused hands are spattered with color specks when he is done. There are rows and rows of wooden easels, some cracked and repaired and others freshly varnished. This is his factory, a place where his smell becomes the smell of art and safety, where canvasses appear and are hung like smashed geodes mounted on the walls.

My mother’s darkroom doesn’t scare me, even though the light is pure red most the time and the skeleton hangs in the corner against a black velvet background. The jaw is loose so she lifts me up and I snap it open and closed, as if bones can come alive and speak. I name him “skellie” and soon my mother is teaching me to develop film, shaking canisters and watching images appear like magic as the chemicals seep into the paper. The darkroom makes me dream of gypsies because of tarot cards pinned to the walls and the clutter of religious items. Pictures of my late uncle and late brother are scattered about and here in the darkroom is where I begin to learn about my brother’s death. The red light colors everything. My mother’s hair looks almost black. Family stories sound like magic tales about long-lost people. She plays Stevie Wonder songs as we work, and when we leave the darkroom, the plain white light of the living room is like wandering out of Wonderland and into reality.

 

Violin

My grandmother goes by “nannie,” the name French children use for their grandmothers. She doesn’t want to be called grandma. The French excuse comes up when I am fifteen and I am bold enough to ask why I cannot call her grandma. I want something irrevocable, some variant of grandmother. It is late in her life and we have fallen in love over mixed drinks and shopping trips and manicures during her rebellious months-long trips to visit me and my mother. She tells me lifetimes of stories, the life she lived as a wife and the life as a violinist denied to her.

"Violin".      My grandmother, Virginia de Borse, circa 1921My grandmother, Virginia de Borse, circa 1921

The first time I try to learn to play the violin I am four and unhappy. I sit for a photo after the first lesson, scowling and frustrated by sore fingers. The teacher has forceful hands that pushed my fingers to reach the notes. That year my grandmother sends a miniature stuffed terrier with a note attached to his neck: “He is afraid of thunderstorms. He is lonely.” By this time my grandmother and I have met several times, but I never remember her afterwards. I remember the house on Smith Street. The attic. A violin she has refused to play since my uncle’s suicide and stories of lost chances to go study in New York City when she was young. The terrier sits near my violin at the top of my closet until the night of a storm that brightens the sky above Harlem with thick bolts of lightening like streaks of daylight breaking through. I watch from the living room window and then take the terrier out of the closet. I wonder if he is really lonely. You were born in a thunderstorm, my mother reminds me.

  Me at the age 4, having just finished a violin lesson. Circa 1985.Me at the age 4, having just finished a violin lesson. Circa 1985

The house on Smith Street smells like Avon products from my grandmother’s cache of beauty products and vanilla tobacco from my grandfather’s pipe. I am about four the first time we meet. He lifts me on to his lap while I struggle to tie my shoe, frightened that he is even bigger than my own father. He tells dirty jokes and tells me stories from the Old Testament. The details of the jokes are gone but the story of Jacob’s struggle to reconcile with God in place of his own brother is with me. My grandmother is a woman who sits behind a wall of silence, even when she giggles or rises to vacuum.

I find the attic hidden behind a door with a short flight of steps that are too steep for me. The attic is a place of living ghosts. The beams of the ceiling are exposed and cobwebbed but the lighting is bright and the stacks of clutter seem to have their own logic. I look down from the beams and see a wooden bench. He sits on it, a white plaster shell of a former person. His face is unpainted and expressionless, a face made of places where bones might protrude. Night in Glens Falls is blacker than the city and the window behind him throws my reflection back at me with his and we are doubled and I am scared. But not scared enough to run and I watch him in his hunched-over position. This is the closest I have come to a likeness of my Uncle David other than in photographs, which usually show a dark-skinned man cooking or wrapped around congo drums. I have seen plaster casts before in my parents’ art studio but nothing like this, nothing that captures the hollowness of a man whose death was ruled a suicide.

After learning the smells and finding the attic, I remember leaving Smith Street for the first time. I am afraid of my grandmother. We are eating dinner and the crack of her palm against my cousin’s cheek is like the gunshots I hear back in the city, but this is closer and this is my cousin who can punch numbers into the phone pad and make it ring back like magic. I remember the sound and feeling sick in my stomach. My mother’s voice was louder than the slap and angrier. I don’t remember when we left, only standing in the street facing my godmother while my mother and grandfather talked on the porch. My grandmother and cousin did not come out of the house. The day was cold, the kind of barren cold that sets in after Christmas when nearly every day is the sky is grey or white. My grandmother goes silent, along with my grandfather, for four years.

When I meet my grandmother again I am ten years old and I think of this attic in a home where she raised seven children and gave her hands over from music to ushering her children and grandchildren in and out of life. I am 15 before she ever mentions death to me and then it is only to say, “I live with it every day.” My grandfather is at her side when she says it and he nods but neither look at me.

By the time I am ten, my grandmother is living in central Florida, a lush overgrown place where alligators wander onto highways and lizards dart across sun-scorched grass. I visit with my mother twice, once taking a road trip down the east coast on our way. The sun toasts my skin two shades of darker each time I am there. My grandmother is quiet in Florida, nearly silent, just as she had been in Glens Falls. My grandfather still tells Old Testament stories, although now his mornings begin with whiskey. The house is sprawling and modular this time instead of brick. The southern sun pushes through every curtain until even shadows disappear. My grandmother wears black boots, pointy and shiny like a witch. She stares at them so much in her silences that I start to stare with her. She stares at them especially when my grandfather speaks. Gook, he says to her, and she never talks back. He says it one day when we are sealed indoors, hiding from 103 degrees of spring heat. I am hot and angry about this place where people use racial slurs and the heat does not relent for even a day. Where’d you learn to hate? I ask my grandfather. Why am I even in your house, old man? I think to myself. He waits for my mother to chastise me but she doesn’t. When he answers, he does not tell me why he hates:

At the height of my military career, I am an intelligence officer over a battalion of men. I make decisions in a split fraction of a second because men’s lives depend on me. One day I am guarding my camp and an Asian woman is pushing her baby carriage, back and forth, back and forth, over a bridge. As she passes, explosions begin that carry through the camp. I wait long enough to lose at least one man. When she is within sight, I stand up and shoot her in the head at long-range. I make sure the baby dies with her. I had to do it.

Days later, a storm takes Florida that is mythic in its darkness and battering rain. Tiny frogs stick to the windows with suction cup feet. I am afraid to go outside. I sit on my grandmother’s bed with her, her white German Shepherd, and my mother. I listen to her tell my mother that the war still lives in my grandfather so vividly that he has slept every night with a gun under his pillow since he came home in the 1940s. The gun points toward her head and does every night, she says, but she is also pulling out her violin as she talks. The antique violin, casketed in a peeling case she has kept since tenth grade, is made of wood so old that I count the tiny cracks along the edges when she opens the case. The story of being forbidden to attend Juilliard by her mother stays with me. She would not be a mother or a wife if she had been allowed to pursue music, she says. She promises to give me the violin then, and silently I pledge to learn to play.

The second time I try to play the violin I am using my grandmother’s instrument and she is flying between New York City and Florida with uncharacteristic bursts of independence. I am 15 and for a moment her silences are punctuated by the roar of engine jets and the squeaking of  her violin bow in my hands.  My grandfather makes one trip with her and lays a shotgun across my mother’s kitchen table. I wander in and out to get a snack before I realize what he is saying. No one will break my family up or take my wife, he is saying to my mother. The violin is yours, she is saying to me as she packs.

I never learn to play my grandmother’s violin. But it stays with me, always with me, shrouded in its case from 1935,  like a living memory. I am still exiled in New York City but also rooted here now, in this city where my grandmother was forbidden to go and where my mother was left to wander alone. When my grandmother leaves, passing her violin to me, I know I will never see her again.  And here, in accepting what is given to me, my childhood draws to a close.

—Tiara Winter-Schorr

Tiara Winter-Schorr

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Tiara Winter-Schorr decided to become a writer 12 years ago in one of Douglas Glover’s classes at the University at Albany-SUNY. She received a BA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and is beginning an MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the summer of 2013. She lives in Manhattan with her mother. See also her earlier essay “What It’s Like Living Here.”

Sep 242012
 

Tom Bauer, a Montreal writer, pens here a brief, poignant addition to the NC Childhood Series. Bauer’s writing is telegraphic and elliptical, yet he manages with few words to evoke the mind and memory of a child: the inexplicable nature of childhood, the mythic adults, the fear and confusion. The photo at the top seems iconic (the father looming, in focus); the one at the bottom moreso (the author inhabits only a corner of the picture looking dazed and uncertain). Lovely to add this to the collection.

dg

——–

I was born in the Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg, 1963. We always had animals in the apartment at Roslyn Court: a skunk waddling along the long wooden hall, cats bounding on tables. My father taught animal behavior, my mother worked in a zoo.

My father liked to carry me around on his shoulders. I pulled his hair once so hard he cried. I was standing on the couch in his study. I’m not sure if he was genuinely hurt, or fake-crying, but I was afraid I’d hurt him. I felt sorry about it. I think I remember this because it jolted me with fear at the time.

My father liked to stand at one end of the long hall in the Roslyn apartments and send me to the other. He’d open his arms and shout “Tovarich!” and I’d run down the hall into his arms. It was one of my favorite things.

My father was German and his voice was sharp, his accent rough. In his study was a wooden Afghan stool made of yellow leather, a tripod stool. His chess set, which I still have, contains a roll-up chess mat made of vinyl. The pieces are large and wooden.

His books smell of cigarette smoke. I looked through them all throughout childhood, memories for each: issues of Avant Garde, books of cartoons by Mordillo, the drawings of Heinrich Kley. He had a big record collection with Indian music and spoken word recordings of various poets, and liked to cook curry and burn incense. There were always pungent smells, cooking oil and cigarette smoke, the smell of empty beer bottles.

At night I would sometimes sneak out and eat brown sugar from the bowl on the kitchen table and watch the woman across the way taking a bath. I got in trouble for things like that, getting out of bed, getting into mischief. They tied me in my crib when I was little. I don’t remember that, unless unconsciously, in my limbs, the occasional anxiety passing through. They told me about that later.

I remember looking out the window waiting for my mother to get home. It is getting dark, sunset on the river, an evening view from five floors up. I am anxious for her to get home, the kind of feeling one gets in a dream. It might have been a dream, I don’t know. Sometimes dreams and memories get all mixed up.

I remember riding in a car, must have been a friend of my parents as they didn’t own one, probably going to an Italian place, maybe on Lulu Street, where I snuck wine from my parent’s glasses when they weren’t looking. If I think about it now it must have been a game. They must have seen me take the glasses and sneak the sips.

Apparently I ran along the street afterwards leaping at low-hanging branches, snatching leaves, crying out: “It’s spring! It’s spring!” I don’t remember that, it was one of the stories that get told, but I’ve heard it so often it feels like a memory. I can see the tree, the early evening air, my father calling my name, can hear the sound of my boy voice.

Later memories, after I was five and we moved to Montreal, into a house, are stronger, harsher. My father’s angry face, his belt, and shouting, warning me not to steal again, the forbidden smell of my mothers purse, her wallet, the sick feeling of taking coins and later getting caught and punished. Sometimes he used a bare hand, which hurt too much. I preferred the sting of the belt, less severe. There are many memories like this, vivid, clear, my mother overseeing from the doorway of my room, the bare wooden floor, the window near my bed, books and clothes on the floor, a half-finished plastic tank model, the smell of the glue and not getting the pieces to fit right, watching from the doorway as I’m told to never do it again, promising through tears, begging, the sick feeling in my stomach as I fear the pending spank, and crying.

When we first moved to that house there was a vacant lot on the opposite block. It had been a Pom Bakery factory before we got there, torn down by then. Nothing left but yellow-earth, rubble, stones, some ruins at the far end of the empty lot. The kid next door, whose front door was painted white, was older. He had a basement full of stuff, including a BB gun, and a work area where he made things with tools and a vise. He was always inventing things. Many boys were like that back then, inventors of objects, tinkering with things in basements. Even I did a bit of that whenever we went to the suburbs to visit my mother’s parents, and my grandfather would let me into his basement with hammer and wood and I’d sit down there and bang nails in, smelling the soft odor of pine, the silvery smell of the nails and metal hammerhead.

The kid next door took me across to the field, around in the rubbly parts, digging out odd-shaped bricks of some kind of orange bubbly plastic, deformed, almost molten, like cauliflour billowing out around the basic shape of a brick. He told me it was “Hash man! Hashish!” At that age I didn’t know what hash was, which probably took all the fun out of it for him. He asked me once to stand on the street and wait for a police car to go by, then shout: “Ew, it’s the fuzz!” I did, and he laughed.

—Tom Bauer

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Tom Bauer works in television, researching shows for Discovery and History channel. He has had fiction and poetry published in Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Headlight Anthology, and in the anthology In Other Words: New English Writing from Quebec. His stories have also been short-listed for the CBC Literary Competition and the Quebec Literary Competition. He lives and works in Montreal.
Author photo by Karin Benedict.
Dec 092011
 

Herewith a lovely, meditative essay on the conjunction of poetry, memory, and childhood from Nancy Eimers. The essay draws its inspiration from Proust and the art constructions of Joseph Cornell and draws to a close with Mary Ruefle’s Now-It, an erasure book made from an antique children’s book about Snow White. Nancy Eimers is an old friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In March NC published poems from her new collection, Oz, published in January from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her three previous collections are A Grammar to Waking (Carnegie Mellon, 2006), No Moon (Purdue University Press, 1997) and Destroying Angel (Wesleyan University Press, 1991). She has been the recipient of a Nation “Discovery” Award, two National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships and a Whiting Writer’s Award, and her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary magazines.  Nancy teaches creative writing at Western Michigan University and at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

dg

 Charmed Objects: Poetry and Childhood

By Nancy Eimers

 

The genius of Cornell is that he sees and enables us to see with the eyes of childhood, before our vision got clouded by experience, when objects like a rubber ball or a pocket mirror seemed charged with meaning, and a marble rolling across a wooden floor could be as portentous as a passing comet.  —John Ashbery

 

Image from Webmuseum at ibiblio

Joseph Cornell’s Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) is a brown box with metal handles on either side. Here is a list of its contents.

—blue cloth
—blue thumbtacks
—a map of the moon
—three glass discs
—light blue egg, in a cordial glass
—doll’s head, painted blue and gold
—three white wooden blocks
—white clay bubble pipe

Really, they are ordinary things, in one world or another.

If you visit Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, you must keep a distance.  You will not be allowed to open the box and play with the bubble pipe.  Not even if you bring a child.

Now, a look at the box.  But not an image.  Words are the medium here.

Oh roundnesses you can feel in the palm of the hand. The moon’s at the center, silvery blue, and dominates.  Carte Geographique de la Lune.  The doll’s head, cheeks scarred, has been smiling now for how many years?  Also a silvery blue, the doll and the egg are bathed in the thought of the moon.  The discs of glass are laid at the floor of the box; if you picked one up, the rim might cut your hand.  Every circle is synonym to a bubble: doll’s head, egg, bowl of the pipe.  Even the craters of the moon.  One of the books Cornell loved was a series of lectures delivered in 1890 by a scientist, C. V. Boys, to an audience of children, on soap bubbles.  You cannot pour water from a jug or tea from a tea-pot; you cannot even do anything with a liquid of any kind, without setting in action the forces to which I am about to direct your attention.

 Image from Rocaille

I haven’t seen that soap-bubble box except in a book, but I’ve seen Untitled (Forgotten Game) in Chicago’s Art Institute.  A pinball-like game of a box with holes behind which there are pictures of birds cut out from the pages of old books.  Inside the box there are ramps down which a ball is meant to slide.  If you could open the little door at the top and insert a blue rubber ball, if the ball were to slide down the ramps and reached the bottom, a bell would ring.  That it doesn’t ring is part of a terrible sweetness.

Forgotten game, blue-silver moon, recessed birds, egg in a cordial glass, to what forces have you drawn our attention?

“Perhaps what one wants to say,” said sculptor Barbara Hepworth, “is formed in childhood and the rest of one’s life is spent in trying to say it?”

 *

I remember a gaudy, jeweled pin worn by my grandmother.  I say “gaudy,” but I didn’t think it was gaudy then.  Costume jewelry is made of less valuable materials including base metals, glass, plastic, and synthetic stones, in place of more valuable materials such as precious metals and gems, explains Wikipedia helpfully.  But I hadn’t read and wouldn’t have been helped by this sentence then.  The jewels, their blue and pink sparkles, enchanted me.  They seemed almost to say, there is this other world.  The pin is lost forever, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers somewhere between Oz and Kansas.  But I feel the pull of a former feeling, not subject to reason, proportion, knowledge of anything likely/unlikely to happen.  In memory, where I am holding it in my hand, the invented and the real haven’t quite parted ways.  You can’t get beauty.  Still, says Jean Valentine, in its longing it flies to you.

I think this will not be an argument but a meditation—held together by asterisks, little stars—on how charmed objects, long lost, come back sometimes in poetry, present only as words, touchstone, rabbit’s foot, amulet, merrythought, calling us back, calling us forth.  What are they, now that we’ve lost them?

*

The Child Is Reading the Almanac

The child is reading the almanac beside her basket of eggs.
And, aside from the Saints’ days and the weather forecasts,
she contemplates the beautiful heavenly signs.
Goat, Bull, Ram, Fish, etcetera.

Thus, she is able to believe, this little peasant child,
that above her, in the constellations,
there are markets with donkeys,
bulls, rams, goats, fish.

Doubtless she is reading of the market of Heaven.
And, when she turns the page to the sign of the Scales,
she says to herself that in Heaven, as in the grocery store,
they weigh coffee, salt and consciences.

In an almanac there are moons, full and half and quarter, and there are new moons that look like black moons.  There are meteor showers, tides and eclipses.  Signs of the zodiac.  Questions of the Day.  Why is the ring finger sometimes called the medical finger?  Weather predictions.  Three misty mornings indicate rain.  Fact and prediction, the seen and the unseen intermingle; the strange is detected in the commonplace, and the commonplace in strangeness.  No wonder the child in this early twentieth century poem by French poet Francis Jammes has been tempted to set down her basket and read.

Jammes “wrote of simple, everyday things,” says the introductory paragraph on the torn yellow book jacket of my copy of his Selected Poems.  And inside the book, in the introduction, Rene Vallery-Radot marvels, “From a little provincial town there rises a voice that ignores all the gods, that tells of life simply, not at all systematized in theories.”  In a photograph just inside the cover Jammes, an old man in round black glasses and a long wispy beard, looks down at a page he is writing on.  For all we know he was writing this almanac poem. The child must have stopped on her way to or from the market (to sell the eggs? having just bought them?).  Perhaps she wonders if even an egg, like the animals in the market, has its counterpart in the stars.  The wondrous almanac testifies that as things are on earth, so they must be in heaven: how miraculous, how natural, that Heaven resembles an earthly grocery store on this most ordinary of days!

Still, Jammes remembers enough not to oversimplify, or presume.  On earth, scales are also associated metaphorically with justice, even by a child.  And like any child, this one must have done something, committed or contemplated committing some small act, a rebellion or peccadillo for which, in some small way, she’d paid, or feared to pay.  She spoke harshly to the donkey.  Maybe she broke an egg.  She dawdled on the way to the market.  Whatever it is, she keeps it secret.  Let us not trespass.

*

It is because I believed in things and in people while I walked along those paths that the things and the people they made known to me are the only ones that I still take seriously and that still bring me joy.  Whether it is because the faith which creates has ceased to exist in me, or because reality takes shape in the memory alone, the flowers that people show me nowadays for the first time never seem to me to be true flower. —Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

In her autobiographical story “In the Village,” Elizabeth Bishop invents or remembers this from her childhood:

We pass Mrs. Peppard’s house.  We pass Mrs. McNeil’s house.  We pass Mrs. Geddes’s house.  We pass Hill’s store.

The store is high, and a faded gray-blue, with tall windows, built on a long, high stoop of gray-blue cement with an iron hitching railing along it.  Today, in one window there are big cardboard easels, shaped like houses—complete houses and houses with the roofs lifted off to show glimpses of the rooms inside, all in different colors—with cans of paint in pyramids in the middle. But they are an old story.  In the other window is something new: shoes, single shoes, summer shoes, each sitting on top of its own box with its mate beneath it, inside, in the dark.

The child is bereaved, though she doesn’t entirely know what this means.  It is for her too new a story.  Her father—her mother’s mate—like one of those shoes, has been closed inside a box of his own, but forever, unlike the shoes.  This story is one of those houses with its roof lifted off, so the writer, so we, may look inside.  But we may not enter.

Memory affords glimpses: of a flower, a doll or a shoe in a box, a marble rolling comet-like across the floor.  “My life,” writes Tomas Transtromer:

Thinking these words, I see before me a streak of light.  On closer inspection it has the form of a comet, with head and tail.  The brightest end, the head, is childhood and growing up.  The nucleus, the densest part, is infancy, that first period, in which the most important features of our life are determined.  I try to remember, I try to penetrate there.  But it is difficult to move in these concentrated regions, it is dangerous, it feels as if I am coming close to death itself.

Maybe it is important not to explicate our childhoods.  Or simply, merely impossible?  Cornell, from a journal entry, May 13, 1944:

 . . . stopped by pond of waterworks with cool sequestered landscaping—gardens & here had one of profoundest experiences + renewal of spirit associated with childhood evoked by surroundings—it seemed to go deep through this strong sense of persistence in the lush new long grass—the most prominent feature turned out to be “no trespassing” sign

Water, hiddenness, the cool, such things return for a moment from—exactly when and where?  What did it look like there? We can’t quite know, we can’t see inside.  No trespassing.   But the grass is/was lush.

Talking about her younger brother Joseph, Betty Cornell Benton recalls this scrap from their childhood:

Late one night he woke me, shivering awfully, and asked to sit on my bed.  He was  in the grips of a panic from the sense of infinitude and the vastness of space as he was becoming aware of it from studying astronomy.

From an earthly point of view, a comet is stationary, seen at night—then remembered in daylight—then seen—then remembered—over the rooftops.  It is there for a time.  Star with a wake of light.  Then it is gone.  That too is remembered.

*

“Stove” is one of the six end-words of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina.”  A Little Marvel. Brand new, that model would have been painted silver.  Through daily use, it would have grayed; open the door and it would be blackened inside.  MARVEL: the name is on the door.  It dominates like the map of the moon in Cornell’s soap bubble box.  Above, below, on either side there are swirls and curlicues forged in the cast-iron, resembling serious, stirred up clouds.  It has four legs, curving outward, stubby and braced.  In an early twentieth century village, a stove was a daily thing in anyone’s house, but to a child it must have seemed marvelous, like Saturn’s rings.

I have only seen photographs of the Marvel; but they were not photographs of the real thing.  All I found was a salesman’s sample, 16 inches high, still advertised on eBay but already sold.  That ship had sailed.  And a toy Little Marvel, complete with two ovens, burners and lifters.  Nickel plating over cast iron.  All complete and in very good all original condition.

A child in me is entranced.

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

House.  Grandmother.  Child.  Stove.  Almanac.  Tears.   Six end-words, like miniatures on a bracelet.  (Even the tears have their charm.)  Each time the words, all nouns, come back, they are in their original form—no juggling with word play or parts of speech, no punning or homonyms.  Simple words, like primary colors, or figures from an old storybook.

Or they are like comets, passing before us seven times from the early twentieth century, Great Village, Nova Scotia.  As in the story “In the Village,” there is death at the nucleus.

tears/house/almanac/grandmother/stove/child
child/tears/stove/house/grandmother/almanac

And so on.  In the ordinary world a grandmother is trying to amuse a child.  Each time a word comes around again it feels sadder.  Even tears get sadder; the teakettle weeps, the teacup fills with dark brown tears.  To the grandmother, tears are recurring, equinoctial. The child senses something.  Unspoken grief is working its magic: the almanac begins to resemble a bird; the stove gets philosophical; the world grows cold.  The almanac knows what it knows but won’t say what.  How much does the child know, what is she warding off?  The poet senses something.  Does the child miss the man in the drawing?  How much can even Bishop have known of the child she was?  “Early Sorrow” was the poem’s original title.  Then withdrawn.  Explication fails, or it is irrelevant.  The child sees little moons in the almanac fall down like tears.  The poem ends, as it began, in present tense.  The child draws another inscrutable house.

That moment of wonder and puzzlement goes on orbiting but it is in the past, forever out of reach.  So are the stove and the almanac, ancient tears, the worried grandmother and the inscrutable child.  All in the past, except for the house in Great Village.  (. . . it is difficult to move in these concentrated regions, it is dangerous, it feels as if I am coming close to death itself.)  That house is still there.  You can visit it; you can go inside; you can even arrange to stay.

*

In her art review of the Ann Arbor exhibition “Secret Spaces of Childhood,” Margaret Price describes certain characteristics of childhood hide-outs:

Almost always the entrance to a secret space is guarded, to protect the privacy and sometimes the fragility of what lies inside. . . .  Moving through the doorway into the space itself is often a rite of passage, and often the point of access is the most highly charged area of the whole secret space: usually elusive, always exciting, and sometimes dangerous.  Often they, or their entrances, are small . . . . being small of stature confers the privilege of access.  A hideout cannot function for a person too large to fit into it.  On the other hand, a child’s small size is a    passing attribute, and children know it.

Peering into the windows of a dollhouse, I feel almost an ache of pleasure.  I think this has to do with its smallness; the feeling is paradoxical.   I am charmed by the inaccessibility; and I yearn to be small enough to step inside.  If I could grow small enough to enter, the house and furniture would no longer seem miniaturized to mini-me and so would have lost their mystery; but I might find among the toys in its nursery (for in a dollhouse there is almost always a nursery) a tiny dollhouse, and who knows, perhaps an even tinier dollhouse inside of that dollhouse’s nursery, and so on and so on, as if longing were satisfyingly infinite.

Is remoteness integral to a certain kind of charm?  In a silk-lined box I keep my charm bracelet, a mercury-head dime and a single clip-on pearl earring.  I know they are there, but I hardly ever look.  I like the look of the hinge that fastens the lid.

from the Art Institute of Chicago

On the basement floor of the Art Institute in Chicago you can visit the Thorne Rooms, a permanent exhibit of miniature rooms behind glass.  These aren’t so much dollhouses as interiors, 68 rooms that, “painstakingly constructed,” as the museum website explains, “enable one to glimpse elements of European interiors from the late 13th century to the 1930’s and American furnishings from the 17th century to the 1930’s.”  The rooms contain exact reproductions of period furniture, carpets, wallpaper, chandeliers, other objects—all somehow failing to interest me, I finally realized with some disappointment the last time I visited.  Perhaps it was more petulance I felt than disappointment; I had come in the spirit of a former child, and being there felt more like studying than play.

What bewitched me, though, were the windows.  Out every window there was a view—an exterior—tiny, intricate gardens with bushes and flowers; patios; benches; trees; and an artificial light from a source that wasn’t visible.  I started over, room by room, looking not at interiors but out the windows, craning my neck to see as much as I could; it was tantalizing, I couldn’t see everything.  Shining faintly into miniature rooms in the basement of a grand museum, the light seemed remote, a late-fall, old-world light.  Out of every window of every one of the 68 rooms was a little world a child might just have begun imagining . . . .

Or perhaps it was simpler, perhaps I just wanted to be inside looking out.  In fact, it occurs to me that may be why (at least in part) I’m so happy when it snows: as opposed to looking into dollhouses or the windows of other people’s lighted homes at night, I finally feel as if I’m inside something.

*

A charm is a miniature object worn on a bracelet.  A sombrero.  A bell.  I am childless, who will I give it to?  You can’t hear the tinkling of the tiny bell for the tinkling of the bracelet when you pick it up.  The use of the word charm as trinket did not occur (was not recorded) until 1865.  But charm has meant “pleasing” since the 1590’s.

It wasn’t until Elizabeth Bishop arrived in Brazil and found herself, for a time, enormously happy, that she began to be able to write of her childhood in Great Village.  She says in a letter to friends, “It is funny to come to Brazil to experience total recall about Nova Scotia—geography must be more mysterious than we realize, even.”

Of course she meant some geography of the interior.

Even from the simplest, the most realistic point of view, the countries which we long for occupy, at any given moment, a far larger place in our actual life than the country in which we happen to be. —Marcel Proust

*

Ghost stories written as algebraic equations.  Little Emily at the
blackboard is very frightened. The X’s look like a graveyard at night. The
teacher wants her to poke among them with a piece of chalk. All the children
hold their breath. The white chalk squeaks once among the plus and minus
signs, and then it’s quiet again.

This is an untitled prose poem from Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End.  I have been that child, puzzling over the signs and portents on the blackboard, messages sent by way of math, of grammar, or even handwriting, strange row of continuous l‘s or o‘s.  In a way, it seems like a minute ago.  Did the teachers know how wildly some of us may been mistranslating what they were writing on the board?  Numbers especially, and their plusses and minuses, went beyond the explanations of words, beyond even paragraphs.  I am a teacher myself now, though white boards and dry erase markers have replaced the powdery chalk.  I am still a little frightened, like Emily, standing in front of the class.  The white boards haven’t solved or eliminated the mystery, yesterday’s propositions, assertions, and mistakes still lurking under today’s.

Though the blackboards of my childhood were almost always green, the first blackboards were black, made of slate.  For a newer generation of blackboards, the color green was chosen because it was believed it would be easier on the eyes.  As for the chalk, I can still feel the powder on my hands as I lay it back in one of the crevices of the metal rim.  I had been asked to do a problem on the board.  Or to outline a sentence.  Or maybe I hadn’t touched it at all but was sitting at my desk, watching my teacher, mentally tracing the swoops of her hand (his hand) as it held the chalk.  Oh mysteries of the chalkboard’s palimpsest, yesterday’s sums or sentences only half-erased.  And let us not forget the mystery of the chalk itself, composed partly of limestone, the sum of fossilized sea animals.

*

Vivien Greene, whose family moved repeatedly when she was a child, devoted much of her adult life to the study, collection, and restoration of Victorian dollhouses.  She had seen her own beloved house in London bombed and split open in the Blitz.  It seems that rift was decisive: after that she and her husband (the novelist Graham Greene) permanently lived apart.  (Graham, who wasn’t interested, said Vivien, in either her dollhouses or domesticity, had already formed what they used to call “another establishment.”)  “Houses have influenced my life deeply,” wrote Vivien Greene in a brief essay called “The Love of Houses”; “They have entered into dreams, made me stand enraptured, suddenly in unexpected places, filled me with a longing to possess; or they occasionally frighten.”  Fear of . . . bombs?  Of ghosts, of moving yet again?  She doesn’t explain.  In the evenings during the war, she used to sit behind blackout curtains working on her dollhouses, tearing down old wallpaper, adding the new.  Greene was the author of several excellent books on vintage English dollhouses.  They are filled with exquisitely old-fashioned and discursive descriptions of staircases, windows, doorways, furniture, even the crockery.  At one point, she writes, apropos of nothing,

 As some people ask and need to be stripped of ownership, so we can believe others are hardly fully alive, complete as persons, until certain material things, a horse, a place, a boat, have been loved and owned and afterwards remembered.

*

“In the lyric you can stop time,” said Ellen Bryant Voigt in an interview; “you pick that moment of intensity and hold it. The narrative moves through time.”  In Michael Burkard’s poem “The Sea” nothing really happens.  There is instead a kind of lyrical parallelism that advances no narrative but deepens the shades of emotion.

It could have been worse but for the sea. The watch of it. What was it
Chekhov wrote?—”Self same sea”—Yes. Yes. It was there, as was my mother’s
family, in Nova Scotia. There beyond the sloping meadow near Aunt Dorothy’s
farm, there from Cousin George’s kitchen window. The sea and its often daily fog
permeated everyone, everything. And because there was no electricity in those
days, only candles, lantern light, and no plumbing, it seemed almost a sea more in
the air than in the sea. You could not shut it out.

The poem travels sideways, or inward.  Certain words appearing numerous times, sea, there, now, as if, become on one level sheer sound, a force, a mystery.  They don’t so much stop the moment as return to its vivid pastness, over and over again.  There is something bygone and sepia about the scene described.  “There” suggests something in existence but away.   The landmarks in the poem are family names, a meadow, a kitchen window.  And the sea.  Which is also a kind of weather, an intrusive force or guest.  The residents of the poem are mired there, in a world miniaturized by memory.  Here is the rest of the poem:

And the lanterns we ate by, sat by—how small! Yet this permeated as much as
the sea, as much as the fog from the field, the conversion of one cowbell to
another cowbell in the fog, the red-yellow light flickering, now against a deck of
cards, now against faces and hands playing the cards, now being carried with one
or by one off to sleep. Sleep by the sea, as if the sleep were to last a thousand
years, as if the summer were a medium for color which could become
permanently framed, wearing only so slowly for another thousand years. Self
same lantern light shadows, sea and shadow of sea, and her face there, a thousand
years ago, only to be seen a thousand years hence and then to stay beside her face
for as long as ever is.

The fog doesn’t so much occur as seem always to have been; the family members play cards, listen to sounds, fall asleep.  Memory’s village: perhaps everything wasn’t always filmed over with sadness?  “A thousand years” means one thing to a child looking forward, and something else to an adult looking back.  Is the face that appears the face of the speaker’s mother?  On one side is there and ago, on the other hence and ever.  Stay is not an accomplishment but a plea.  Ever: at all times; always.  Matched by is, the moment stopped in time.  He doesn’t say “forever,” though.  He is, we are, outside the time that is “as long as ever”; it is already over.

Cowbells, by the way, come in various colors and sizes, but the ones I hear in the poem sound silver, and tarnished.

*

We move through time, like characters in a story.  The objects we loved with intensity seem timeless.  Is this because we let them go?  And yet, resurrecting the thought of them, don’t loss and accomplishment co-exist?  The story goes on and we go with it, but part of the story is what we’ve lost.  In “Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp,” Zbigniew Herbert asks forgiveness from three charmed objects:

Truly my betrayal is great and hard to forgive
for I do not remember either the day or the hour
when I abandoned you friends of my childhood . . . .

His “friends” are: a pen with a silver nib, illustrious Mr. Ink, and a blessed lamp:

when I speak of you
I would like it to be
as if I were hanging an ex-voto
on a shattered altar

Herbert’s elegy might as easily be to a soap-bubble, or a forgotten game.  But not to the story that edited them out.

I thought then
that before the deluge it was necessary
to save
one
thing
small
warm faithful

so it continues further
with ourselves inside it as in a shell

There is that moment when we touch something for the last time.  But the child can’t know, as Herbert says, still addressing his “friends,” that “you were leaving forever / / and that it will be dark.”  Against that dark, the poem saves one thing, something that, reimagined, paradoxically remains miniaturized but it holds us: it is we who dwell within.

But before we leave that dark, W. G. Sebald has something else to say about it:

. . . in the summer evenings during my childhood when I had watched from the valley as swallows circled in the last light, still in great numbers in those days, I would imagine that the world was held together by the courses they flew through the air. . . .

Some yearning of the child’s imagination, Sebald suggests, forged those patterns of meaning in the flights of swallows.  If, like the swallows that have diminished in number, some freshness in our early imaginings gets lost along the way, poetry yearns for the “half-created” in things we once perceived.  A Marvel stove, school chalk, cowbells, a blessed lamp, a silver nib, things that once ordered the dark—or were ordered by it.  If nothing can bring back the hour of splendour in the grass, still, isn’t there something swallow-like and mysterious in our yearning, resistant yet integral to the very passage of time?  Poetry imagines the traceries that might once again hold things together, lost possessions, past and present, worlds real and imagined.  It restores the lost moment, shoe, cowbell, basket of eggs or blessed lamp, utterly itself; it is we who are changed, because we know it is lost.

* (last little star)

In Now-It, a collage-and-erasure book Mary Ruefle made out of an old children’s book called Snow White or the House in the Wood, she has pasted the words “the cry of the button” beside the picture of a streaking comet.  Oh you here and there, you cry and streak, all that’s precious in the commonplace!  Now that button and comet have found each other, the child in me believes nothing more need be said.

—Nancy Eimers

———————————————

Works Cited

Art Institute of Chicago, website on Thorne Rooms.

Ashbery, John. “Joseph Cornell,” Art News, summer 1967.

Bishop, Elizabeth.  “In the Village,” in The Collected Prose.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984.  261-2.

Bishop, Elizabeth.  “Sestina,” The Complete Poems.  New York, Farrar Straus Giroux: 1983.  123.

Boys, C.V.  Soap-Bubbles and the Forces Which Mould Them.  Memphis: General Books, 2010 (reprinted).

Burkard, Michael, “The Sea,” My Secret Boat.  New York: Norton, 1990.  22.

Cornell, Betty Benton, quoted in A Joseph Cornell Album, Dore Ashton, author.  New York: De Capo Press, 1944.

Cornell, Joseph. Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters and Files.  Ed. Mary

Ann Caws. : New York: Thames & Hudson, 1993.  105.

Greene, Vivien.  English Dolls’ Houses of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979.  23.

Greene, Vivien.  “The Love of Houses,” The Independent (London), Nov. 29, 1998.

Hepworth, Barbara.  From notebooks.  Quoted in Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Museum, St. Ives.

Herbert, Zbigniew, “Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp,” Elegy for the Departure.  Trans.  John and Bogdana Carpenter.  Hopewell, NJ: Ecco, 1999. 127-132.

Jammes, Francis.  “A Child is Reading the Almanac,” Selected Poems of Francis Jammes.  Trans. Barry Gifford and Bettina Dickie.  Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1976.  23.

Price, Margaret.  “Secret Spaces of Childhood: An Exhibition of Remembered Hide-Outs,” Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2000.  248-278.

Proust, Marcel.  Remembrance of Things Past: 1.  Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin.  New York: Penguin, 1954.

Ruefle, Mary.  Now-It.  Carol Haenicke Women’s Poetry Collection, Rare Book Room, Western Michigan University.

Sebald, W. G.  The Rings of Saturn.  Trans. Michael Hulce.  New York: New Directions, 1999.  67.

Simic, Charles.  “Ghost stories written,” The World Doesn’t End.  Boston: Mariner Books, 1989.  13.

Transtromer, Tomas.   For the Living and the Dead: New Poems and a Memoir. Hopewell, NJ:  Ecco, 1995.  25.

Valentine, Jean.  “Then Abraham,” Break the Glass.  Port Townsend: Copper Canyon, 2010.  16.

Vallery-Radot, Rene.  Quoted in Introduction,” Selected Poems of Francis Jammes. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1976.

Voigt, Ellen Bryant.  Inteview, The Atlantic Online, Nov. 24, 1999.

Dec 062011
 

Here’s a lovely, wistful addition to Numéro Cinq‘s amazing collection of Childhood essays. Liz Blood grew up in Oklahoma amongst siblings and dogs. But this essay focuses on the universal passage from innocence to knowledge, the sad realization that idylls of childhood are shadowed by the opaque mysteries of adulthood. You grow up wondering, always, what you didn’t know, didn’t understand, at the time. Liz is a nonfiction student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program. She teaches English at a school in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do, South Korea. See her “What it’s like living here” essay published earlier on these pages.

dg

 

Childhood

By Liz Blood

Nixon

A neighborhood black Labrador made puppies with a neighborhood Dalmatian and the litter was up for grabs. My mother piled us—me, eight; Emily, six; Rebecca, four; John, two—into the metallic brown Mercury she drove then and we headed down the street towards the park. I hung my head and arm out the passenger window and, as we rounded the corner to the blonde-brick two-story, I saw him. Nixon—though he didn’t yet have that name—an all black puppy, running nonstop circles around the inside of a small, white wire-fenced pen. If my mother had taken any hints from this rambunctiousness, they were quickly ignored. We squealed in delight at this puppy, and squealed even louder when, after coaxing him onto his back with lots of petting, we discovered of a diamond-shaped tuft of white hair on his chest. This settled it, he was special in our eyes, and we took him home to the backyard.

It’s always been a dog backyard. Before Nixon we had Chevis and Bianca and Goth, but they all were old and soon would need replacing. Nixon was unlike any of those dogs, however. Where they were calm in their old age (the only ages at which I knew them), Nixon continued to act like a puppy long after he no longer looked like one. And I disliked him for this. His tail hurt when it wagged against your leg and it was always wagging. He bounded through the house if we didn’t confine him to the kitchen and, later, he became a chronic fence jumper. I suppose he had neighborhood gallivanting in his blood—after all, that is how he came to be. And even though I wanted to leave the backyard, to go beyond the fence, I couldn’t understand his need to do so. What did Nixon do out there among the wanderers? Did he mingle with the transients who asked for bus money? Did he run with the children on their way home from school? My parents warned if he did it again after so many times, they would not pick him up from the pound. I envisioned doggy gas chambers and wished he would just stay in the yard.

Continue reading »

Nov 292011
 


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Here’s a Childhood essay unlike any on NC so far, dubbed a geografictione[1] by its author, a psychogeographical meditation on suburbia by Cheryl Cowdy (who started life in Mississauga, a huge suburban agglomeration west of Toronto where many of dg’s relatives have lived from time to time).

We all live in the suburbs these days, and we’re all embarrassed by it. Here Cheryl challenges the notion that the suburbs are necessarily a cultural or imaginative dead end as she returns ambivalently to Mississauga, seeking the ghosts of untold stories – her own, but also those that might be buried within its golf course mountain of refuse.

Cheryl’s fascination with suburban spaces began long before the phenomenal success of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs album. Her Ph.D. dissertation investigated the often conflicted meanings of the suburbs in post-war English-Canadian literature. Her essay “Ravines and the Conscious Electrified Life of Houses: Margaret Atwood’s Suburban Kunstlerromane” appears in the current issue of Studies in Canadian Literature (36.1. 2011)

dg

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Mississauga: Cadence of Desire and Return

A Childhood Geografictione

By Cheryl Cowdy

To Aritha van Herk, for Places Far From Ellesmere,
from which this piece borrows generously,
most obviously in italics.

.

.

“I had a lot of luck, then, which saved me from all kinds of side-tracks: neuroses first off, and perhaps psychosis, and psycho-professionalization, from which many intelligent people never recover. Next, the militant path, and finally—this may seem strange—it saved me from the suburbs, universe of my childhood, kind of wonderful, but which is often, all the same, a cultural dead end.” [2]

.

Desire

Beneath the flight path of airplanes heading for or just leaving Lester B. Pearson Airport, the temptations of exile pass through your acoustic space approximately once every six minutes(58). Thankfully (perhaps) you haven’t experienced the same kind of luck as Guattari. Luck has saved you from certain undesirable side-tracks but not from the suburbs. Home: what you visit and abandon. In spite of your desire for escape, the universe of your childhood is a familiar ambivalence to which you reluctantly return, physically and psychically. Your dream geography if not the geography of your dreams.

Home: an asylum for your origins. A variety of exits off the 401, bringing your grandparents westward from Port Hope to Scarborough in the nineteen fifties. When the Empress of Canada landed in Montreal in 1966, it would have brought your mother, eighteen, blithe and bonny, to Scarborough too. The 401 a mosaic your grandfather pieced together from the air for the PSC Photographic Survey Corporation. Your  father spent his days piecing it together from the ground, laying humid asphalt over dirt, soil, concrete, then navigating the labyrinth of paved earth long nights moonlighting in a rented cab, ferrying the more privileged to invented island destinations.

The 401: Anecdotes accumulate along its paved shoulder; details get on here, merge, some leave by the next exit. Like the time a bunch of the guys got drunk after work and Dad streaked down the 401. Or the time he stopped his cab to help someone after a collision – only learning later that the guy had robbed a bank then had his face blown off by the cops in a gun fight. How could he drive without a face? Sometimes this anecdote drives in the lane beside another one; tall tales weave back and forth between lanes, stealing and sealing the gaps between stories and messing with their integrity.

What about Mum? Or your Gran, for that matter? Where are they? It’s almost always the fathers doing the driving. Not much material for a tall tale fitting women for bras in Simpson’s, although every woman must have heaved a story in her D-cup. Your mother tending the cash register evenings at the corner store after caring for you all day. Her escape from the explosives factory in Stevenston, Ayrshire, Scotland her one big story. After that, your mother’s stories occur in parentheses, take circuitous back routes, avoiding left-hand turns and never, never, getting on the 401.

Yes, highways are constructed and anecdotes accumulate. Can a “literature” be built here too? Is this a place from which to launch a world, a river, or even a short story? Can it launch itself? Mississauga is premeditated, its stories pre-fabricated. Fake lakes and mountains made out of garbage then turned into golf courses.  Can we transform ourselves if our surroundings are right? Somewhere there’s an exit-also-an-entrance that brings you back to or beyond the prequel.

A romantic child, you search optimistically for stories. The week your family moves to Meadowvale (Meadowjail) you notice the generic head of an Indian on the banner of the Mississauga News. Like Louise in Barbara Gowdy’s The Romantic, you look for Indians expectantly: Lake Wabukayne, the Credit River, Lake Aquitaine. (When you learn that “Aquitaine” is a European name, you switch allegiances; look for ladies in the fake lakes, under the stormwater collection equipment). Eventually you meet members of the Mississauga Nation who look nothing like the Indian on the local paper.  As you write this, the Six Nations are resurrecting their blockade against suburban development at Caledonia, resisting, like Oka, like Ipperwash, the suburban narratives with which we’ve barricaded them.

The Great Train Derailment of ‘79 was your own private Cuban Missile Crisis. For one night and all of the following day you watched Mississauga burn and waited for the knock on the door. Evacuation held the promise of Rapture, you could feel it in the texture of the toxic air.  You wished to join that community of the elect, the early evacuees who spent an entire week camping out on cots in the Square One Shopping Centre (every kid’s dream to be stranded in the mall after the lights go out). Instead, you are transported to more eastern points of the 401 – your familial origins – Scarborough and Agincourt and Flemingdon Park. Where it all began.

You will remember less about those 4 days of exile than you will about that one day of waiting.

You develop and move from one townhouse complex to another, somehow keeping track of all those unit numbers.

Complex/ kompleks/ n. & adj.n. 1. a building, series of rooms, network, etc. made up of related parts (the arts complex). 2. Psych. A related group of usu. repressed feelings or thoughts which cause abnormal behavior or mental states.  (inferiority complex; Oedipus complex). 3. (in general use) a preoccupation or obsession (has a complex about punctuality). 4. Chem. a compound in which molecules or ions form coordinate bonds to a metal atom or ion. – adj. 1. consisting of related parts; composite. 2. Complicated (a complex problem). 3. Math. containing real and imaginary parts. [French complexe or Latin complexus past part. of complectere embrace, assoc. with complexus braided]. [3]

There has to be a minotaur somewhere.

How to escape? Borrow more authentic addresses: Streetsville seems more small town, so for a time, you date Streetsville boys exclusively. Later you set your sights on bad boys from the city: Toronto: Downtown with a capital “D.” Whoring after strange places. Their addresses are rendered more exotic by the three-hour pilgrimage that takes you from the labyrinthine routes of the Mississauga Transit to the more pragmatic Toronto Transit Commission. Never getting on the 401, except the time dad snatched you back from an escapation attempt.

Escape artist, you look to Hollywood for familiar narratives, real and imaginary: Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club. It’s the 80s – you listen to The Smiths, The Cure – and so for a time you are saved by the treacherous optimism of the cynic from certain side-tracks, seductions of the dreaming screen. You seek out copses of wood in the ravine, beside the fake lake, swamp of stolen bicycles, grocery buggies, plaid chesterfields, pizza boxes, condoms, cigarette butts and underpants, beer bottles, pop cans and PVC. You aren’t picky at that time and will accept pre-fabricated nature if that’s the best they can offer. Writing place: hiding place. You write Songs of Disaffected Innocence and Experience. They never seem right.

Next the militant path. You drop out of high school for a while, sell remainders in the record department at Woolco (Square One, at last). Miraculously, you find salvation in a secondary school for the lost. When you graduate, you pick the University with the most alien geography, Montreal a universe in which to dream a different language. You step over the homeless who sleep in front of your door. You have a Murphy bed and a rat that isn’t a pet. You are only mildly dissatisfied with your verse.When asked where you are from, you can say, “Toronto.” You think you are happy.

Four months later, you return.

Return

Return: escape to embarkation/ escapation.

You’re not exactly certain how the return was effected. Somewhere along the highway you took the wrong exit, forgot to merge, got trapped in a narrative you don’t recall writing. All exits are also entrances. You should be in exile in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood along with everyone else in academe: you missed the Rapture again?

They cleaned up the fake lake, swamp of stolen bicycles and shopping buggies, plaid chesterfields, pizza boxes, condoms, cigarette butts and underpants, beer bottles, pop cans and PVC (evidence of your own adolescence may still be down there). Anecdotes accumulate, advertising copy trying desperately to disguise itself as his/tory:

“The 16 hectare (40 acre) Lake Aquitaine Park is one of Meadowvale Community’s best-known attractions. Designed in the late 1960s and opened in 1976, the park surrounds an artificial lake. This lake, considered a model by other cities, was the first stormwater management facility in the province to be a focus for a residential community. It is designed so the lake can significantly change water levels and store water during and after major storms.

Nature is being allowed to reclaim the edges of the lake, and new wetland and meadow areas are being nurtured. This will make the park more welcoming for fish, birds and other wildlife.”

Mississauga goes on with its falling, one molecule at a time: and you too in your ache to archive it there to read/ remember/ blame. To unhinge, and to carve with words, a reading act: this place of origins, of forbiddens and transgressions, of absence and remains.

Jeanette Winterson has a theory that “every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had.” [4]

In the explorations of memory and place lie unsolved murders.

Some ghosts return because the narrative demands it. What are your ghosts doing now? Do they keep each other company, the streetwise adolescent ghost roaming the culs-de-sac and walking through the McDonald’s Drive-thru window at 2am, and the urban undergrad ghost haunting your condemned bachelor apartment on rue St. Denis? There are ghosts in Ottawa, some begging for change at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor (you have had more successful escapations). Do they sneer at the soccer mom?  If you wonder too much about which routes brought you back here, not just to the same community but the very same street you lived on prior to your first defection … from 6154 to 6205, a difference of only fifty-one numbers in eighteen years…

You dream yourself breaking into unruly houses, coveting secret passageways, and hidden rooms, always their subterranean floors. Nights you don’t dream thoughts toss and turn. (Stories in parentheses). Sometimes you rise, grope for notebook on night table, tiptoe into the bathroom, the only place you can write without waking husband, kids, dog, cat. Writing place: hiding place.

“You don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings . . . serendipitously” writes John Barth. [4]

Perhaps you can’t reach Serendib by the 401.  How then to occupy a place? Be the crack in the plaster. Persistent mushroom exploding through dirt, soil, asphalt, concrete. You must live up to your fictions, that’s all there is to it; you must help yourself achieve geografictiones of the soul. Get off the highway then, and take the back roads. Excavate the stories from parenthetical constructions. Tear down the “No Exit” sign. See/k what has been wiped off the map. Construct an asylum for your origins, a mythology, a highway of heroes.

In good faith, you’re still losing your bearings.

–Cheryl Cowdy

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “A fiction of geography/ geography of fiction: coming together in people and landscape and the harboured designations of fickle memory.” Aritha van Herk, Places Far From Ellesmere, Red Deer, AB: Red Deer College Press, 1990: 40.
  2. Guattari, Félix. “So What?” Chaosophy. New York, NY: Semiotext(e), 1995: 8
  3. Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Ed. Katherine Barber. Don Mills, ON: Oxford UP, 1998.
  4. Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. London, UK: Vintage, 1991.
  5. Barth, John. The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. Boston:  Little, Brown, 1991.
Oct 312011
 

Eric FoleyEric Foley

Here’s a lovely, sad Childhood essay by Eric Foley. It’s a meditation on presence and absence, the presence of his sister growing up in Toronto and her sudden death, at the age of 14. It’s a meditation on photography and the strange way photographs carry the mark of absence, of love and loss, even as they record (in snapshots, sometimes double-exposed or damaged) the apparent trivia of family life. What’s the difference between life and a photograph? And what is the meaning of those ghostly images of loved ones now gone? Eric Foley has been a finalist for the Random House Creative Writing Award, the Hart House Literary Contest, and winner of Geist Magazine and the White Wall Review’s postcard story contests. Eric currently attends Guelph University’s Creative Writing MFA program (last summer, he was a student of mine in Guelph’s mentorship program), where he is at work on his first novel, and a memoir about living in Morocco. His poetry and criticism can be found online at influencysalon.ca.

dg

Foley1

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In photography, exhibition value begins to displace cult value all along the line. But cult value does not give way without resistance. It retires into an ultimate retrenchment: the human countenance. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuse for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty. But as man withdraws from the photographic image, the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value. To have pinpointed this new stage constitutes the incomparable significance of [the photographer Eugène] Atget, who, around 1900, took photographs of deserted Paris streets. It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way. At the same time picture magazines begin to put up signposts for him, right ones or wrong ones, no matter. For the first time, captions have become obligatory. —Walter Benjamin

The above quotation is from Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” By cult value, Benjamin is referring to the private, ceremonial, spiritual status of the art object, where what matters most is the object’s existence, rather than it being constantly on view. The photograph in the family album or the musty cardboard box in the attic, rather than the framed print on the (facebook) wall. Writing in the 1930’s, Benjamin saw photography and film as “the most serviceable exemplifications” of a new function of art where “absolute emphasis” was placed on the exhibition value of the work. I’m interested in the tension that exists between cult value and exhibition value in relation to photographs taken prior to the existence of the digital realm for essentially private family albums. What happens to these images when they are scanned and disseminated online, for all to see? Who today would allow a picture of themselves to be taken (or to remain undeleted on a camera), without imagining its appearance on Facebook?

As I came to try and make a narrative out of a series of the most resonant photographs from my childhood, perhaps it is no surprise that I kept returning Benjamin, who, in the end, inspired me to use this narrative not only to narrate but also to essay, to attempt to think about the nature of photographs and their use within a family. Here then are a series of the pictures that still obsess me, an album of images for which I “have not yet found the law,” with obligatory captions (right ones or wrong ones, no matter).

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November 16, 1979

An image is not a permanent referent for those complexities of life which are revealed through it; its purpose is not to make us perceive meaning, but to create a special perception of the object – it creates a vision of the object instead of serving as a means of knowing it. – Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”

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By a chance double exposure, the first picture taken of me, less than one hour old in my mother’s arms, also contains the last picture taken of her before she became a mother. In the ghosted image snapped one day earlier, she sits with her hands on her lap, hands that push through time to rest on my newborn head. Of course, I’m also in her stomach in that fainter image, more than a week overdue.

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Eleven Days Old

One of the—often unspoken—objections to photography: that it is impossible for the human countenance to be apprehended by a machine. This the sentiment of Delacroix in particular. – Benjamin, The Arcades Project

“Look at the camera!” my parents must have said, voices young, soft, and joyous. “Look at Daddy!” My mother’s robed arm propping me up. What am I looking at? It appears to be an otherworldly orb, a gaseous rupture in the surface of the image, but in fact, this rupture inserted itself along my line of vision several months after the shutter was clicked.

In the spring of 1980 my father went on a canoe trip in with his best friend Joe, bringing along his camera, which contained the undeveloped film from my first months of life. Stepping out of the canoe, my father dropped the bag with the camera into the lake. When the pictures were finally developed, they had this milky, bluish cast, as if light were peeling away the surface of the image. My mother was heartbroken.
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Fall, 1980

Over the next several years, my mother would take thousands of pictures, like this one of my father and me in France:

.Or the one that begins this piece, of my brother Andrew and me, which perfectly captures our opposing dispositions. Andrew: carefree, happy-go-lucky, singing away in his own fine world. Me: well, me.

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103 Glenrose

Hopkins describes these obsessive images of objects as things for which he has not “found the law.” They are unfulfilled in meaning, but take up a lot of room in the memory as if in compensation. They seem both gratuitous and inexplicably necessary. – Charles Baxter.

I grew up in Toronto, in a three-story brick house surrounded by oak trees and lilac bushes. A beer commercial had been shot on the property a month before my parents bought it, and for the first few years we lived there, we would gather around the TV excitedly whenever the ad came on to watch three sweaty, blue-jeaned men kick back on our porch with a couple of cold ones.

Jumping through that first-floor window and reversing the camera angle, we can travel ahead seven years in time, to where I sit poised at our newly acquired 1906 Steinway Grand, my father’s dream-come-true..
“Put your hands out like you’re about to play,” my mother instructed, “and look over at me.” So I did. To take this picture, my mother would have had to stand in the entranceway to our living room, which, if we the reverse the angle again, is approximately here:.

.That piñata was one tough mother. Forty minutes of heavy abuse, and it wasn’t even dented. My friends and I exhausted, their parents due to arrive any moment, my father pulled the piñata down and dumped the candy onto the hardwood floor for us to flail over.

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Cottage

In making a portrait, it is not a question only…of reproducing, with a mathematical accuracy, the forms and proportions of the individual; it is necessary also, and above all, to grasp and represent, while justifying and embellishing,…the intentions of nature towards the individual. – Gisela Freund, “La Photographie au point de vue sociologique”

I had better luck with these two:


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My mother snapped these from opposing angles in the living room of my grandparent’s cottage. The first was taken in the summer of 1987, at my sister Kristen’s third birthday party. The piñata hangs from a long wooden beam that at Christmastime held up to twenty-eight stockings at once. In the second image, you can see one of the stockings in my cousin John’s hands.

This picture was taken a few years earlier, from where the piñatas would later hang:

My parents had seen an ad in the paper for dwarf rabbits, and decided to get us one for Christmas. But by the time they went to pick one up, this monstrous creature was all that was left. It hopped around my grandmother’s carpet leaving a trail of brown pellets. Andrew crawled along behind picking up the pellets and putting them into his mouth, thinking they were chocolate-covered raisins. That spring, I forgot to close lid of the rabbit’s cage and the rabbit escaped. My Dad told us it probably got eaten by raccoons. The body was never found.

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Speaking of Cages

Consideration of the image is still a sacred cause today only because the fate of thought and liberty are at stake in it. The visible world, the one that is given to us to see: is it liberty or enslavement? – Marie-Jose Mondzian, Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary

Two photographs taken thirty years apart. The first is of my mother on vacation with her family in Florida, 1961. The second one shows my sister Kristen with our new dog Tessa.

We used to go on a canoe trip every summer to Algonquin Park, and I always wished Tessa could come, but she was too hyper, my Dad said. He worried that if she spotted a loon she would go crazy, tip the canoe. I was, however, allowed to bring Tessa along in the form of an image of the two of us together on a t-shirt:


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Rusty

Communications technology reduces the informational merits of painting. At the same time, a new reality unfolds, in the face of which no one can take responsibility for personal decisions. One appeals to the lens. – Benjamin, The Arcades Project
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My brother’s favorite pet was a hamster named Rusty. Like our rabbit, Rusty also escaped. One day after school Andrew and I were playing floor hockey in our unfinished basement, when Andrew slapped the ball past me into the furnace room. I went in behind the woodpile to retrieve the ball and there was Rusty: trembling, emaciated. He had been missing for five days. Andrew carried him upstairs and tried to feed him, but the animal was too weak to ingest anything. When my father got home he gave Rusty a series of sugar-water infusions, reviving him for three weeks, after which the hamster passed away. “The shock to Rusty’s system must have been too great,” my father explained.

The above photograph was taken for a series of watercolor portraits my mother commissioned her friend Maureen to do (mine of course featured Tessa and me). In the background of the photo below, taken during one of our theme dinners, Andrew and Rusty’s portrait hangs above the mantle between a framed photograph of Kristen and one of me as a toddler standing beside a baguette. Here is evidence that not all the pictures my mother took were intended solely for our family albums (lined up chronologically in the cupboard behind my father’s left shoulder).

If, when she clicked the shutter, my mother happened to capture an image that made her feel a particular warmth within (and she says she always knew it with that initial click, before the film was developed), something to do with natural lighting, composition, the expression on a face she loved, if all of these combined to preserve a moment she wished to keep on seeing, then the image would be enlarged and placed on more permanent display..


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No House, Hardly a Room

There used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not once died. – Benjamin, “The Storyteller”

Going over these photographs, I think of the spaces they were taken in. What, besides pets, died there? A look? An object? A gesture? An idea?

These pictures were taken to preserve moments now past, but in another way they also constitute my past. As I grew, so did the pile of images that related to me, and I regularly went to that cupboard where the albums were kept and pored over them, using them to build the narrative of who I was, where and what I had come from.

I could always count on my mother to fill the plastic pages of those gilded, leatherbound books thick with photos from each year, forming a canon of accepted family imagery, a pictorial narrative that each of us could access at will (and, for the most part, agree upon).

Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory—it will be thanked and applauded. – Baudelaire, on the proper use of photography

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Kristen

It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. – Benjamin, The Arcades Project

These pictures of my sister Kristen almost didn’t make it into the canon. They were taken after she had gone into the bathroom, aged three, and given herself a haircut. For years, Andrew and I used these images to tease her. She hated them, wanted them destroyed, at one point even stole them from the family album. I’m surprised they still exist. I’m glad they still exist, because in 1999, at the age of fourteen, Kristen died of meningitis, and our family’s narrative was irrevocably changed. After such an event, every trace of the past gains in significance.


Following Kristen’s death the old canon of images splintered apart, reforming with her at its centre, as my mother disassembled the master albums to make copies of pictures, reassembling them into more than fifty individualized mini-albums for friends and family.

For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty. – Benjamin, The Arcades Project

There are photographs from that time, still not held in any album, that are crucial to me. One shows my father kneeling in front of Kristen’s open casket, my two-and-a-half-year-old sister Kathryn in his arms in a green dress, sucking on the nub of a glass bottle filled with apple cider. Another is of the cemetery: it has started to rain, and I’ve just opened a burgundy umbrella, which I’m holding high over my mother’s head. My father and I are looking up at that umbrella as it floats above the crowd of relatives and friends. As I look at the picture now, it occurs to me that it is the only image I have of any of these people looking so sad; an uncomfortable thing to behold, but all the more valuable for that. Also: no one is looking into the camera. Their attention is elsewhere.

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Postscript: Summer, 2002

In the end, we managed to convince our father to let us take Tessa along on a camping trip. She was nearly twelve by this point, her hips going, unlikely to bolt up for a bird or anything else. For the last three days of the trip my father had to carry Tessa, the hair of her hindquarters stained with diarrhea, along the portages. She died not long afterwards, but at least she got to see the Barron Canyon from the belly of a canoe.

The work of art is valuable only in so far as it is vibrated by the reflexes of the future. – André Breton

What reflexes vibrate these photographs? Are they art, or the merely the passing memories of a single family? The above image was taken on the first day of our trip to the Barron Canyon. Andrew and I, now young men, sit behind the stump of the jack pine from Tom Thomson’s iconic painting of Round Lake. The tree has been cut down years before, but a sapling grows from its roots. This picture takes me back to the very first in this series, of my brother and me as children. Many things happened between that earlier photo and this one. Many things happened afterwards, and continue to happen to each of us, every day, and we are all filled with multiple exposures. The hands of time push through to rest upon our heads. A feeling kicks in our stomachs, waiting to be born. But “the true picture of the past flits by,” as Benjamin says, and, at least for now, the images of all those places, times, and events not shared between us will have to remain lost.

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—Eric Foley

Oct 042011
 

rickmartin-current

Curious and maze-like story behind this delightful essay about an atypical Mennonite childhood in southern Ontario: Rick Martin lives in Kitchener, Ontario (it used to be Berlin, Ontario, but was renamed after a famous English general—Lord Kitchener—during the First World War). He lives next door to dg’s old friends Dwight and Kathy Storring. Long ago in the Triassic or, maybe, the Cretaceous, Kathy was a reporter at the Peterborough Examiner while Dwight took photos and dg was the sports editor (yes, yes, we all have a secret, sordid past). Kathy showed Numéro Cinq to Rick and Rick got inspired by the NC Childhood series to write his own story. Kathy showed Rick’s essay to dg, and here we are. (Accept this is a peek into the byzantine editorial apparatus behind NC—if you want to get published here, it helps to move next door to the Storrings.)

Rick Martin  is a technical documentation and training consultant. He has taught technical and business writing at the University of Waterloo and York University. He has had dozens of technical manuals published and has written numerous essays and poems for his own pleasure and the enjoyment of family and friends.

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rick_2yrs-260x300Two years old.

“What is a true story? Is there any such thing?”  Margaret Laurence, The Diviners

I was a shy child and bewildered by almost everything around me.

My mother and father were born into horse-and-buggy Mennonite families in Waterloo County, Ontario. My father’s family were regular Old Orders, who eventually moved to the more modern Conference (or “red-brick”) Mennonite church so that my grandfather could have a truck to haul his produce to the Kitchener market. My mother’s family belonged to the more extreme Dave Martin Mennonite sect (founded by her grandfather), and when my grandparents were born again and joined the small Plymouth Brethren congregation in Hawkesville, they were completely shunned by their family and friends.

My father was a long-distance truck driver, so he was often absent. My parents’ first child died in his crib when he was four months old, so there was always a ghost in our lives. When I was 18 months old, my little sister was born several months premature and lived in an incubator at the hospital in Kitchener for months. With no means of transportation to the city and no one else to look after my older brother and me, my mother was stuck at our rented farmhouse near St Clements, unable to care for her fragile new baby.

dad-1958Dad in 1958.

When I was still quite young, my mother, on the verge of mental collapse, had a spectacular conversion, in which Jesus appeared to her in a vision and assured her she was saved and going to heaven. This experience gave her strength to carry on through the adversities of near blindness from a childhood eye infection, too many kids (there were soon 5 of us), poverty, and a mostly absent husband who, she was convinced, was not saved: Dad drank and smoked and swore, had an explosive temper, and didn’t much like going to church.

When I was 5, my dad was transferred to Sault Ste Marie, 500 miles from family, friends, and any sense of security we had. We lived in a rented farmhouse about 5 miles west of the city for the first year, then bought an unfinished 3-bedroom house in a barely developed subdivision on the eastern fringes of town: gravel roads, no municipal water or sewers, roadside ditches, and no bus service for the first few years. Because my mother couldn’t see well enough to drive a car, we were stuck in the neighbourhood except on the weekends, when Dad was home.

rick-and-sibsRick and siblings.

With her fundamentalist mixture of Dave Martin Mennonite and Plymouth Brethren beliefs, fed by radio preachers like Theodore H. Epp, my mother thought that TV, movies, card-playing, and dancing were all worldly, if not sinful. We grew up believing that everyone around us was a heathen, headed for hell, intent on tempting us into lives of sin. We could play with neighbourhood kids, but we understood they were different than us, and we shouldn’t get too close to them (in the summer, my mother held Daily Vacation Bible Schools in our yard, in an effort to convert our friends).

I knew, from the time I was conscious, that I was a sinner, headed for hell unless I accepted Jesus as my saviour. And I knew—from my mother’s and grandparents’ experience—that such a conversion was dramatic, that when you were saved, you knew it. Jesus never appeared to me, despite my nightly pleading, and I was never able to find the assurance that he lived in my heart.

Dad, of course, was a worry. I was pretty sure he wasn’t saved, and I knew he was in constant danger: fellow drivers were periodically killed in spectacular crashes, skewered by steel against some rock-cut on the winding road to Toronto. We prayed on our knees for his safety and his salvation, among other things, every night before bed.

And we believed in the Rapture, that Christ could appear at any moment and sweep true believers up into heaven, leaving the unsaved to a horrible stint with the anti-Christ. This was a concept invented by the founder of the Brethren, John Darby.

rick_4yrs-206x300Four years old.

In many ways, the east end of Sault Ste Marie was a wonderful place to be a child. Just a block south of our house, on the other side of Chambers Avenue, there was bush all the way to the St Mary’s River, and on the other side of highway 17, a half mile north of us, it was bush pretty much all the way to James Bay.

The neighbourhood was all young families with lots of kids and not a lot of discipline. We ran wild, exploring and building tree-forts. We played baseball in empty lots and kick-the-can and hockey on the streets. At night, there were hide-and-seek games that ranged across the whole block of back yards.

We’d take day-long hikes back into the bush on the other side of the highway, cutting across the Indian Reserve and getting lost in the meanderings of the Root River. We built rafts in the drainage ditches and ponds down towards the river. We rode our bikes down to Belleview Park in the city and 7 miles out to Hiawatha Park to go swimming. In winter, we would hang onto the rear bumpers of cars and slide along behind them until they got going too fast and we rolled off into the snowbanks.

Mom often didn’t have a clue where we were or what we were doing; she just prayed constantly that we’d all get home safe and sound for supper.

going-to-churchGoing to church.

Every Sunday, there were three services at Bethel Bible Chapel on North Street: 9:30 Breaking of Bread, 11:00 Family Bible Hour with a sermon for the parents upstairs and Sunday School for the kids in the basement, and 7:00 Gospel Hour. We rarely went to the first service, but almost always to the other two. If Dad was too tired, Mom would arrange for someone else to take the rest of us.

It was at Sunday School, we understood, that we could make real friends: these were Christian people, unlike our neighbours in the east end. So Sundays were the high point of the week. Often I would be invited to a friend’s place for the afternoon, between services. I soon realized that not all Brethren families were like ours. Most of them had much nicer homes and furniture and toys than we did, some of them had TVs, and many of them had a happy, easy-going, fun-loving approach to life. A few of the kids, whose parents had invited me, were selfish and nasty and treated me like dogshit on their shoes.

We’d often have Sunday School friends come home with us, too. Dad was the cook on Sundays, and he usually made a big mid-day meal of roast beef or pork and mashed potatoes and gravy and tossed salad. After dinner, we’d often go for a drive and a hike at Gros Cap or somewhere along the Lake Superior shore. I was always sad when the Sunday evening service was over and we’d pile into the car for the drive home to another week of school and neighbourhood friends.

mom-readingReading as a group activity.

Mom read stories to us every night before we said our prayers, things like The Five Little Peppers. It seemed our house was full of reading material (especially compared to those of our neighbours): the Bible, of course, but also novels, magazines, and newspapers. Mom was always reading, with her book held close to her nose, and—when he was at home and awake and not fixing something—Dad was often in his easy chair reading the Family Herald or National Geographic or some trucking journal. I can remember starting to learn to read, identifying letters and words, sitting on Dad’s lap while he read the newspaper.

At first, most of our reading material other than newspapers was religious in nature. Every Sunday, we got little pamphlets from Sunday School, and every Christmas our Sunday School teachers gave us story books and, later, novels with blatantly evangelistic aims. But when we got access to school and city libraries, we read the Hardy Boys, Enid Blyton’s several series, the Swallows and Amazons books, and all sorts of stuff: pretty much anything we could get our hands on. Eventually, in high school, I graduated to Steinbeck, Hemingway, Kerouac, and Kesey.

christmasChristmas.

My older brother was always pursuing some hobby—stamp collecting, oil painting, magic, photography—with a passion that was infectious. I’d always end up doing what he did. I sent money off to some mail-order place in BC to get bags of stamps and bought an album to put them in. I got hold of an old Brownie somewhere. I helped my brother develop our film in the little dark room he carved out amongst the boxes in the tiny attic off our bedroom. But somehow, I could never generate the enthusiasm he had for these activities. It was always a borrowed interest, not strong enough to sustain me.

The one thing I did take up more or less on my own was a fascination with bicycles. I collected old frames and wheels in the annual spring clean-up, and from them I’d assemble strange bikes: I remember one that had a 28-inch front wheel and a 20-inch back wheel. About grade 8, I put together one of the first 10-speeds in town from parts I had lying around, parts I scrounged, and parts I bought at my friend George’s father’s hardware store. I would ride all over town, exploring every neighbourhood, and out into the countryside as far as Island Lake and St Joe’s Island.

I was also infatuated with cars and knew the year, make, and model of almost everything on the road by the time I was 5 or 6. Dad subscribed to Mechanics Illustrated, and I’d avidly read Tom McCahill’s car reviews every month. We would go to the annual Auto Show at the Memorial Gardens, and I’d drool over the new models. I remember the first Mustang I ever saw and the first MGB. I thought I’d gone to heaven when my dad’s friend took me for a ride in the ’66 Dodge Charger he bought with insurance money from the truck he’d crashed on highway 69.

bikeHome built bike.

Our family was always short of money, usually running up a bill at Jean’s Handy Store for bread and milk between pay-cheques. Among other methods of getting cash, we’d pick wild blueberries in the late summer and sell them door-to-door in the neighbourhood for 10 cents a quart.

When he was still pretty young, maybe 10 or 11, my older brother got a paper route, delivering the Toronto Telegram across the whole East Side, and I was conscripted as his helper. The first night was miserably cold and snowing, and we wandered about through the snow drifts looking for addresses on Boundary Road and Trunk Road, a mile or more from home. We split up to find the last few houses, he in one direction and me in the other, and I never did find the one I was looking for. I arrived home what seemed like hours later, freezing and wet and miserable, feeling a failure.

When I was 12 or so, I landed a Sault Star route, and my dad loaned me the $50 to buy a brand new Super Cycle 3-speed, electric blue, with chrome fenders. I had about 50 customers spread along a 3- or 4- mile route that wound through the neighbourhood and ended up at the Husky Truck Stop down the highway at the very edge of town. For awhile, I had several customers across the tracks on the Rankin Reserve. I cleared about 5 dollars per week.

In the summer, I’d strap the paper bag on the back of the bike and race through the route in just over an hour, but in the winter, it was a long, slow slog in the dark, with the bag biting into my skinny shoulder and my hands freezing. When I got home, everyone else would have already finished supper, and I’d eat alone while Mom washed the dishes and my younger sibs dried them and put them away.

One year—1966, I think—as a bonus for signing up new customers, I won a trip to Toronto with a bunch of other carriers and some crusty old newspaper types as chaperons: it was the first time I’d been away from home with strangers. We stayed at the King Edward Hotel. We saw the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Detroit Red Wings, the first time I’d seen a professional hockey game (no TV, remember). And we went to see the movie Fantastic Voyage. It was the first time I’d ever been in a movie theatre, and my lack of familiarity with the conventions of either film or science fiction rendered the narrative completely unintelligible. The whole weekend was equally surreal and disturbing.

siblings-1963Sunday Afternoon at Grandma’s in Waterloo, 1963.

Mom always put a very high value on education (she and Dad had only gone as far as grade 8), and I did well in school, usually at the top of my class. But there was really little competition, given the sub-working-class character of our neighbourhood, and there was only one other boy, Roger, who did anywhere near as well as I. The other boys were all rough and rowdy, bigger than me and barely literate.

I was lousy at sports and a wimp on the playground. I was always in the Crows in singing class. I had to stand out in the corridor with the Jehovah’s Witnesses when the class sang God Save the Queen and recited The Lord’s Prayer. I had to sit out while they learned to dance in Phys. Ed. and learned about sex in Health. I was entranced by the girls, but afraid to speak to—let alone play with—them. I hung around the edges of things, much like my ghostly eldest brother.

family-reunion-1966Family reunion, 1966.

We often went to my grandparents’ place in Waterloo for our vacations—Christmas, sometimes Easter, and usually a couple weeks in the summer. If my dad couldn’t get off work, Mom would somehow find a ride with somebody who was heading down that way: she and her 5 kids crammed into the back seat for the 10- or 12-hour journey “home.” Our times in Waterloo County were usually a whirlwind of visits with all the relatives. Unlike my siblings, I had no cousins my age, and I wasn’t really close to any of them, but I’d often end up spending a few days in the home of some aunt and uncle I barely knew, homesick and struggling to decipher the strange habits and rhythms of my cousins’ lives.

with-fishDad’s latest catch.

Every summer, Dad would take some time off to go camping. He loved the outdoors, and he loved fishing. We had a big orange canvas tent that we’d pitch at Echo Lake or Twin Lakes on St Joe’s Island. Dad would rent a boat, put his old 5-horse Johnson outboard on it, and go out fishing, taking any of us who were willing to go. My mom and the others would hang around the campsite, reading, paddling in the water, or playing on the beach.

ice-fishingIce fishing.

Dad was not a patient man, and I could never get the hang of casting. I never caught a fish and couldn’t see the point of just sitting in a small boat in the sun all day, bothered by mosquitoes, worried about storm clouds. But it was better than the ice fishing, when we’d be huddled out on Lake Superior in our thin ski jackets and rubber boots and home-knit mittens, freezing as the sun set in the late afternoon behind the rim of ice. In both cases, I endured the misery only for the opportunity to be doing something with Dad.

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Perhaps it is because they are relatively rare that I remember my times with Dad so vividly. He gave me access to a different world than my mother’s. It was Dad who helped me realize I could fix things. I remember one evening helping him disassemble and repair the coaster brake from one of my bicycles on the back porch. He showed me how the parts went together and where to put the grease (probably Vaseline) and explained how the brake worked. Later, he showed me how to change spark plugs and set the points on his car.

I would sometimes hang around the garages where he worked on the trucks he drove: changing the oil, fixing the brakes, or overhauling an engine. Because he worked for fly-by-night operators during the 60s, most of the garages were awful places, old warehouses with dark puddles in the corners and rats scurrying around in the trash piles. He and the other drivers worked on the trucks under feeble lights, getting me to fetch tools or rags, swearing and laughing, and drinking beer when they took breaks. They were always friendly with me, giving me bottles of Coke and teasing me.

Once in awhile, I was allowed to go on a trip with Dad in his truck. It was wonderful, heading out into the night way up in the cab of that roaring machine, stopping in truck stops for hot hamburger sandwiches, going to places I’d never been before: Hamilton, Windsor, Muskegon, Grand Rapids. But it was also terrifying, being away from the familiar rituals of Mom and home, conscious of the 50 tons of steel or lumber on the trailer behind, worried that Dad would fall asleep or enter a curve too fast. And I always had to pee, but was afraid to tell Dad, to force him to pull over on the soft shoulder of the highway.

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As it turned out, we got home safely every time. Both Dad and I survived my childhood, perhaps thanks to Mom’s prayerful intervention.

I somehow managed, out of all of this, to cobble together a persona: about grade 6, I adopted the role of class clown, with little respect for rules or authority and with what I thought was a clever and cynical wit. That carried me, not especially happily, through high school.

—Rick Martin

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Sep 142011
 

Read this as a lament, a keen. It was written, to start with, for Numéro Cinq‘s series of “Childhood” essays. But this is no island idyll. It’s not even poignant; that’s too mild a word.  It is sad beyond sad. It is a trip to the heart of darkness. It is also beautiful and rich and generous to that which deserves generosity. In places it makes for nearly unbearable reading. And yet it demands to be read. Years ago, I took a chance on an unknown writer and included one of Kim’s stories in the annual anthology Best Canadian Stories which I edited at the time. In the intervening years she has proved out my intuition, growing deeper, more complex, more heartbreakingly open.

Kim lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (she chronicled her move there from Toronto for NC with two lovely “What it’s like living here” pieces).  She is a writer and artist who grew up in Bermuda and earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her watercolours have been exhibited in galleries, and her writing has appeared in Best Canadian Stories, The New Quarterly, RoomEvent, upstreet and other journals. She recently completed a memoir, The Girl in the Blue Leotard. She is a Founding Member and Editor of Red Claw Press and leads an annual retreat to Bermuda for writers and artists. The next Writers’ Workshop in Bermuda  retreat will be held March 26 – April 2, 2012.

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We Flew Kites

 by Kim Aubrey

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I was born and grew up in Bermuda where my father was born and grew up, and a few generations of Aubreys before him. Photos show me as a baby, sitting in a laundry basket full of oranges, fruit as bright, round and juicy as the world must have seemed back then.

Next to the plump oranges, I looked pale and thin. My parents worried I wasn’t gaining enough weight. My father bought me goat’s milk and fussed over me, helping me to sleep by bouncing me in his arms every evening when he returned home from selling jewellery in his shop on Queen Street.

Kim in the orange grove

As a toddler, I was so slight that my mother had to cross the straps of my overalls twice—first on my back, then across my chest. When a big wind rushed in from the Atlantic, she held onto me so I wouldn’t blow away. I loved how the wind pushed against my face, pressing my mouth open, promising to take me someplace new. But I loved the island too—the oranges dangling from their leafy ceiling, the crabgrass tickling my feet, the warm Bermuda earth, red-orange with iron.

When I was six or seven, my parents rented “Rocky Ridge,” a blue bungalow on a cliff overlooking Harrington Sound, where my mother taught me and my brothers, E.R. and Mark, how to swim. We’d run across our backyard to the grey limestone steps, which led down to the sea through a hollowed-out cave, its sandy walls the colour of cream. We’d rub our fingers against the crumbling limestone, stare at the small holes that seemed drilled into it, looking for the creatures that had burrowed there. Sunlight filtered through the cave, cast arcing shadows over its bright surface, enticing us to follow it out into a world of light and water.

Continue reading »

May 132011
 


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Because he had a difficult time pronouncing “Keith” when he was a child, Keith Maillard called himself “Keats.” Because he was sick a lot, he made up stories; he drew stories on the bathroom tiles and his grandmother cleaned them off every day so he could do more the next. Because he was a kid during the Second World War, he thought Kilroy was a magical, ubiquitous person. Herewith is a second excerpt from Keith Maillard’s memoir Fatherless (NC published “Richland” in March). It goes straight to the heart of childhood, that gorgeous, magical moment in time when adults are mythic creatures, the night holds unspeakable terrors, words are mysterious and difficult to control, illness visits and strange medicines applied, and the self applies itself fiercely and joyously to the task of understanding. Keith Maillard was born and raised in West Virginia. Currently the Chair of the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia, he is the author of thirteen extraordinary novels and one poetry collection.

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KILROY:

A WRITER’S CHILDHOOD

 By Keith Maillard

from Fatherless

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I’ve always had the impulse to tell stories. It must have started with wanting to hear stories. When I was little, my mother put me to bed by telling me the adventures of Bucky the Bug, a tale that she made up on the spot, that evolved day to day. I was so little that I had to go to bed before it was dark. “You never minded,” my mother told me. “You always wanted to hear the next part of the story.” Those summer nights, as they settled down on me, felt as huge as continents. The light would be fading out at the windows; I’d be tucked into bed but not sleepy yet, and my mother would be telling me what was happening to Bucky the Bug right now. I don’t remember the stories, but I do remember the sense of living inside them. When my mother stopped telling me stories, I begin to tell them to myself. As soon as I could, I notated them—first with stick figures, then, much later, with words.

The lower half of our bathroom walls was tiled. Each tile—cream-colored and blank—looked to me like the panel of a comic strip. I’d sit on the bathroom floor and draw on the tiles with a soft lead pencil, filling in each one with the drawing that went with the story I was telling myself, working my way around the bathroom walls until I had filled all of the tiles as high as I could reach. Every evening my grandmother would scrub them clean with Ajax Cleanser so I could start over the next day and do it again. I felt no sense of loss when my comic strips were wiped away. I loved waking up in the morning knowing that I had all those shining blank tiles to fill—more than I could count—unending rows of cartoon squares where I could tell myself stories.

When I got older, I moved from bathroom tiles to paper. I was sick so much as a child that they bought me a bed table and a special wedge-shaped pillow so I could sit up and draw. Whenever I got sick, I had to take unbelievably nasty blue pills called “pyrobenzamine.” My grandmother would smear my chest with Vicks Vaporub, cover it with a layer of cotton, then a layer of cloth—thin t-shirt material. She’d set the vaporizer going in the corner of my bedroom; it hissed quietly, making everything steamy and scented of camphor. She turned on the radio for me—a box made of Bakelite with a green dial. Voices from the radio told me stories as I drew my own stories. The first two fingers of my right hand became callused from holding pencils and crayons. Sometimes I had fever dreams as thick with images as wallpaper. In my earliest years I had visitations that were worse than nightmares.

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May 122011
 

Here’s a lovely addition to the growing list of Numéro Cinq “Childhood” essays from Court Merrigan who grew up in Nebraska and lives just across the state line in Wyoming. Court was raised on a farm. He has that authentic Western voice, a voice bred in the  dirt and heat and the smell of oil from the farm machines and the chink of irrigation pipes and sound of distant thunder (farmers watch the sky far more than city folk). I have a fondness for the piece based on personal history—the first story I published was about a hail storm on the farm where I grew up. Court’s father towers over this story, his laugh, his exhortations and his reading. What’s really particular and authentic here is that father, Catholic, Jesuit-trained, literate, and wise. He’s appeared before on NC, just in passing,  in Court’s “What it’s like living here.”

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Childhood

By Court Merrigan

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The Nebraska Panhandle, 1988

First water, we called it—the first water of the summer irrigation season—first water was coming. On the Fourth of July, 1988, the summer before I entered seventh grade, my father had my whole family at the end of a field of Great Northerns laying ten-inch irrigation pipe over new corrugations.  It was 111 degrees in the shade and all I wanted was to be at the lake with the guys, riding in a motorboat, waterskiing, maybe sneaking a can of beer from a cooler to pass around.  But beans don’t irrigate themselves.

My father was talking about Cincinnatus, the hero that saved Rome and then refused to be dictator, returning instead to his fields.

“This country could use a Cincinnatus or two,” he said.

My grandparents, resolute Catholics, had deemed it their duty to apportion a son to the Church.  My father had been shipped off to seminary at age thirteen, joining the last wave of men to receive a pre-Vatican II education.  Just shy of ordination, he decided celibacy was too heavy a cross to bear.  He bolted for co-ed college and Vietnam and this farm, toting along his classical education like sharp jeweled shards.  It has always seemed to me that these shards jab his brain even when he is about the grittiest of farm labor.  Perhaps more so then.

Cincinnatus was a favorite theme.  We heard the story many times.  I think about him still in moments of reverie, dreaming of accomplishing heroic deeds myself in the camera’s unblinking eye, refusing all offers of position and prestige, returning to my farm with a final wave to the hushed TV masses.

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Apr 062011
 

It’s a pleasure to introduce Cynthia Newberry Martin’s lovely contribution to the Numéro Cinq “Childhood” essay series. Cynthia is an author, a current Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA student and publisher of the terrific writing blog Catching Days, one of Powell’s Books “Lit Blogs We Love,” where among other delightful things she has a terrific series of posts called “How We Spend Our Days” in which well known writers give readers the lowdown on a typical working day. Her fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in Contrary Magazine, Storyglossia and Six Sentences, among other places. She has been an NC supporter from the very beginning and has contributed also to our “What it’s like living here” series.

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Childhood

by Cynthia Newberry Martin

“She sees that she has before her an important task: to understand that all the things that happened in her life happened to her…That there is some line running through her body like a wick.”

–Mary Gordon, The Rest of Life



It’s 1962

You’re four. You’re living in Atlanta, Georgia. On February 20th, you stand by your parent’s bed, just taller than the mattress. You stare at your mother. She turns you toward the TV. Look, she says. You’ll want to remember this. That’s John Glenn in a space ship, going around the earth.

You’re five. It’s your first day of kindergarten at Spring Street Elementary School. You wait with the other kids under the awning. The principal rings the bell. You line up. At recess, you ask a girl her name. Dee, she says. You will be best friends until seventh grade when you switch to a private school because your parents say desegregation and busing are going to change things. You play troll dolls at Dee’s house after school. Her grandparents are there, but not her mother who is divorced and works. Henry’s mother comes to the classroom to give puppet shows in French. You love the sound and the magic of the words. Sixteen years later you will major in French and Linguistics. It’s Sunday, June 3rd, and everyone is quiet. Even outside you have to be quiet. Across the street are cars. Miss May’s sister died in the plane crash. In Paris.  Hundreds of people from Atlanta are dead. Your parents will never let you fly on a chartered flight. You will see the cross when you fly into Orly Airport five years later and again ten years after that.

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Mar 292011
 

Keith Maillard

Here’s a gorgeous yet chilling excerpt from Keith Maillard’s creative nonfiction book, Fatherless. Keith was five when his father went to work at the Hanford nuclear plant in Richland, Washington, on the Columbia River. Originally part of the Manhattan Project (nuclear material for the bombs Fat Man and Little Boy dropped on Japan came from its reactors), Hanford grew rapidly during the Cold War. Now it is mostly “decommissioned” although vast environmental damage remains. Keith’s memoir is chilling in part because of the very ordinariness of domestic life within the immense and hugely dangerous nuclear manufacturing community but also because, to a large extent, not much has changed—the illustration of the fast breeder reactor bearing Keith’s father’s signature below is eerily like the many plant drawings the press has been using to explain the current nuclear plant disaster in Japan. All of this is aside from the poignant recreation herein of Keith’s search, as a grown man many years later, for the estranged father he never knew. Keith Maillard was born and raised in West Virginia. Currently the Chair of the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia, he is the author of thirteen extraordinary novels and one poetry collection. Many thanks to our mutual  friend, Lynne Quarmby, for bringing Keith to the NC fold.

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Richland

My father began working at the Hanford nuclear plant in 1947, the year I turned five. He pasted into his scrapbook only one reference to his official work—a pen and ink drawing so anomalous that it jumped right off the page. He’d made a clear, simple, easy-to-understand drawing of a “LIQUID METAL FAST BREEDER REACTOR (LMFBR),” labeled all of its parts, and signed it “E. C. Maillard.”

breeder-reactor

Within his first year in Richland, Gene Maillard had clearly established himself as the number one song-and-dance man in town. In 1948, while living in a dormitory room and composing on a “collapsible” organ, he wrote “Our Richland,” a song that told the story of the building of the “atomic city,” a song approved by the General Electric Company suggestion department.

The Richland Junior Chamber of Commerce produced a brochure to accompany the “Atomic Frontier Days” that were held during the first week in September of 1948. Celebrity guests Roddy MacDowell, the Cisco Kid, and John Wayne entertained, with Rudy Vallee as the Master of Ceremonies. The cover of the brochure is illustrated with a crude silhouette-style drawing in red and black—the skyline of a booming town with smoke rising from smokestacks, a great flair of white-out at the center, the whole works crowned with an atom, its neutrons zipping in orbit around the dot of the nucleus. The white nothingness that represented nuclear power is firing straight lines of white in all directions and hangs over rolling hills where a chuck wagon and three men on horseback are making their way across an empty desert spotted with sagebrush.

Under the heading of “Let’s Look Back,” the Junior Chamber of Commerce presents its version of Richland’s history.

In the year 1943 a group of men sitting around a table in Washington, D. C. seriously watched as one of their number pointed to a tiny spot on a large-scale map of the Pacific Northwest. Richland! Here, they decided, was the place! Thus was sown the seed from which sprouted a great plant and a thriving community.

Within a few months the pastoral quiet of this agricultural region was no more. Giant bulldozers leveled great tracts of ground, massive trucks roared day and night along erstwhile country lanes, new roads appeared and factories exploded into being from the desert sands. The fantastic barracks town of Hanford materialized to house thousands of construction workers. The nucleus of a vast, secret plant, born of wartime necessity, had been created.

The old farming center of Richland was evacuated and transformed into a modern community designed to eventually house thousands of production workers and their families.

Erection of plant and village ended; production of plutonium began. Only a handful knew “What”, and they were not talking. The village kept its secret well, so well that the nation and the world first learned of its existence only after the announcement of the A-bomb.

The Second Annual Atomic Frontier Days was held in August of 1949. The accompanying brochure was no longer free but now cost twenty-five cents; the cover had changed from red to blue, from hand-drawn illustration to photography, and featured “hard hats and assault masks in the northwestern desert.” Gene has pasted a clipping to the front of the brochure—a picture of close harmony being sung by the “Atom City Four” and a shot of himself with the caption: “A soft shoe tap in black face was an Atomic Frontier Days variety show headliner as done by Jean Millard.”

The Richland Chamber of Commerce expressed its gratitude to the people who made the 1949 Frontier Days a success, and one of them was my father. Once again, we are given Richland’s proud account of itself.

Scattered deep within this natural isolation are this nation’s most modern industrial plants. The vaunted American mass production, the assembly line method by which we lead the world in motor cars, in refrigerators, in turbines and egg beaters and pots and pans, is merely a fumbling dress rehearsal compared to the engineering know-how, the construction skill, the unusual operational methods required in this plutonium manufacturing plant.

The product itself, plutonium, is a man-made element which will be usable a thousand years from now for either war or peace. It is a packed power which will not deteriorate with time, which is a million times more powerful than any known fuel. Its manufacturing raises problems of production, storage, worker protection, national security, and world-power-plays, as no other American made package has ever done. It is owned by a free people; it bears a union label.

At the August, 1950, Atomic Frontier Days, thirty-five booths were set up in Riverside Park, offering “fun and refreshment.” Professional wrestlers went at each other in two exciting matches, and there was a fireworks display with “more than a dozen set ground pieces and bursts of two and three aerial displays at the same time.” The Queen of Atomic Frontier Days was crowned, along with her four princesses. And, of course, there was a free variety show—with twenty-three acts that included a comedy routine starring “Tony the Atomic Clown, Little Atom, and Koko, Hydrogen (H20) Bomb.” The night ended with the entire cast doing “Baked a Cake.”

Gene is listed as one of the directors and appears a number of times in the program, dancing twice with his fifteen-year-old student, Gail Muller. He’s a year away from turning fifty but in the pictures looks younger than that—a lean, fit, grinning showman in two-tone oxfords and a theatrical suit. Two shots catch each of them at the height of a “wing”—balanced in the air with arms flung outward, one foot kicking and the other striking the floor with a toe tap. We can almost hear the laughter and shouting voices egging them on, feel the electrifying exuberance of their performance.

The last photograph in the sequence shows Gene and Gail acting out the story of “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy.” The image is so crisp that we can see every detail of Gene’s hairline moustache. Gail has one foot resting on the top of a folding chair. Gene is polishing her classic black patent tap shoe with a rectangle of cloth. On the bottom of this photo, Gail has written in a schoolgirl’s careful hand—“To the nicest and best dancing teacher anyone ever had.”

When my father was working there, Hanford’s only business was the manufacturing of plutonium for nuclear weapons. Not until 1963—when the N-Reactor added its bit to the Washington Public Power Supply System—would Hanford’s nuclear energy ever be used for any peaceful purpose whatsoever. Hanford officials constantly reassured those employed at the plant, or living near it, that they were perfectly safe, that “not an atom” escaped, but Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in North America. It had always discharged radioactive material into the Columbia River and continued to do so until its reactors were decommissioned. It fouled not only the river but the groundwater beneath it and left behind fifty-three-million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks that are leaking. Radioactivity from Hanford has been detected as far away as Oregon, northern California, and southern British Columbia. By 1951, the plant had sent more than 700,000 curies up its smokestacks, most of it in the form of iodine-131. For the sake of comparison, the 1979 Three Mile Island accident released less than 25 curies.

On December 2, 1949—in an exercise called “the Green Run”—the Hanford Works intentionally released radiation into the atmosphere so that scientists could monitor the resulting radioactive plume and apply that knowledge to the monitoring of Soviet nuclear production. My father—and anyone else living near the Hanford site—was exposed to twenty times more radiation than the limit allowed by the lax standards of the day. Readings on vegetation afterward were nearly a thousand times over that limit. The Green Run was conducted in absolute secrecy. No one was warned. The public would not know a thing about it for years.  By the time that Gene could have first read a newspaper account of the incident, he would have been eighty-five years old.

On July 31, 1997, I interviewed my father’s old friend, “Brink,” and a younger man, Carl, in the Travel Lodge in Delta, British Columbia. The notes I took are sketchy, cursive. Most of what I heard about my father, I wrote down, but large chunks of the interview didn’t make it onto the page.

We sat in the room as the daylight faded away and no one bothered to light a light. The TV was on, a bunch of pros playing a game of something, somewhere—baseball? The volume was low. Carl—along with a possible shadowy fourth presence—was watching the game, but Brink wasn’t. He was talking to me. In the distorting glass of my memory, the scene is set in twilight, lit with the flickering pixels of the TV screen. Brink was friendly enough, helpful enough, but as blunt and straight as a hammer handle. Initially, I read him as a man who had reached an age from which he figured that there was no reason to speak anything other than the plain truth, and I liked him for that.

I see from my notes that Brink had been an engineer. He and his family moved to Richland in February, 1948. Brink originally worked for DuPont, but his employer kept changing names. DuPont morphed into General Electric, and there were several others—United Nuclear, Martin Marietta, Isocan Rockwell. The word “Hanford” must never have been spoken because it doesn’t appear in my notes at all.

When Brink first arrived in Richland, Gene was already there working as a draftsman. He lived alone and avoided crowds because he didn’t want to “get a bug.” Later he bought a little two-story apartment building in Kennewick, lived upstairs, called it “the Maillard building.” Brink laughed at that—at Gene’s seemingly boundless ego—and so did I.

Gene “performed tap dancing”—yes, that’s exactly what I wrote down, so that’s how Brink must have put it. He’d told Brink a story from his early days on stage. Gene was in a comic role, so he used pecan shells to make himself look cross-eyed, but the effect was too realistic. Instead of finding him funny, the audience felt sorry for him. There was nothing worse, he said, than trying to be funny and not getting any laughs, so he worked out another gag. When he made his exit, he was supposed to tip his derby. He lifted it up, and there was another derby under it. He lifted that derby, and there was another one yet—and then another one. He got a big laugh for that one.

Brink told me that he’d built a little studio in his basement for his daughter, Kippy. He had to dig out the basement first because it was only half dug when they’d moved in. He finished it and tiled it, and that’s where Gene gave Kippy her tap lessons. Gene came every Tuesday night. He charged $2.50 for an hour. Then he’d stay and eat supper with them. As Kippy got older, she gave lessons to other kids in that basement studio.

Carl joined the conversation, and for awhile the two men reminisced about Kippy. Carl was a talkative guy. He’d known my father too, had seen him dance lots of times. Richland had been packed with remarkable people like my father—interesting, talented people. It was a nice little town, a great place to grow up. I’d read a lot about Richland by then, and I agreed with him—it must have been a nice little town. Carl said that he couldn’t imagine any other high school anywhere in America that would have had as many PhDs teaching in it. Yeah, he said, it was a nice little conservative town—making sure I got the point. He didn’t need to do that; I’d got the point awhile back.

“When I was growing up,” I told him, “I imagined my father dancing like Fred Astaire.”

Carl laughed at that. “Oh, no. He wasn’t like Fred Astaire at all. He did fast tap dancing, really athletic stuff… definitely athletic. If you had to compare him to somebody, he was more the Gene Kelly type.”
I wanted to bring Brink back in. “Did Gene talk about his wives?” I asked him.

“Well, he had three wives. He didn’t talk about them too much. One couldn’t be without her mother. She wrote to her mother every day. If she didn’t get a letter from her mother every day, she’d get upset. She’d say, ‘I didn’t get a letter. I have to call her.’ Gene asked her, ‘Do you want to live with me, or do you want to live with your mother?’ She said, ‘I want to live with my mother.’ ”

That was my mother—I’d recognized her instantly. I waited to hear the rest of the story, but there was no rest of the story. Could my mother have actually said something like that—made that admission? If she did say it, maybe it had been on the day she’d left him.

“Gene knew you were a writer,” Brink said.

“Oh?… Did he ever talk about reading anything I’d written?”

“No, he didn’t.”

Before I could find another question, Brink said, “Gene had the impression you didn’t want to see him.”

“That’s not true. I did want to see him.”

“Well, that’s not the impression he had.”

I’d known right from the beginning that there was something going on below the surface, and I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I kept coming up against a hard edge in this man. Gene and Brink had worked together, had known each other for years. They’d been friends. I now read Brink as very much on Gene’s team, so what did that make me? Some unknown guy who’d arrived too late, appearing out of nowhere to ask a lot of dumb questions? It was as though Brink felt it was his duty to present Gene’s point of view as clearly and firmly as possible. “He thought your mother had poisoned you against him,” Brink said.

“Maybe she did,” I said. “I know she tried to do that, but…” I made an expansive gesture. “Here I am.”

“He had cancer, you know… testicular cancer. He had a testicle removed. The day he got out of the hospital, he got into his car and drove into the desert. His car broke down. He got stuck in the desert. He had to walk back. It was right after the operation.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“We could never figure out why he’d done it,” Brink said. “It seems like an odd thing to do… to drive off into the desert the day you get out of the hospital.”

We must have talked about other things after that, but I can’t remember them. The last entry in my notebook might have been the last thing Brink said—“Gene always talked low. I never heard him raise his voice.”

Talking to Brink was as close I was going to get to talking to Gene, and it badly shook me. For days afterward, I woke up feeling not right—a particularly nasty variety of not-right that was like waking up sickened by the stench of bad breath and realizing that it’s your own. I felt as though I had received a message directly from my father—one that predated the “fuck you” he’d sent me in his will when he’d disinherited me. If I was going to continue the conversation, what was I going to say back to him? I’m sorry about the surly letter I wrote to you when I was twenty?  Gene would have been sixty-one when he got it—if he got it. He was still working at Hanford then. He might have talked to Brink about it. I hated the thought, but maybe that had been my only chance to connect with my father.

I knew why Gene had driven into the desert the day he’d got out of the hospital. I couldn’t have explained it to anyone, but I understood it because I could have done the same thing. Walking in the desert with one ball, Gene had been thinking about me, I was certain of that. How the hell do you get testicular cancer? I didn’t have a clue, but I suspected that being dosed with several hundred thousand curies of radioactive iodine probably didn’t help.

—Keith Maillard

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Feb 192011
 

Michelle & her brother in the Badlands

Here is Michelle Berry’s “Childhood,” the third in Numéro Cinq‘s new essay series (click on the “NC Childhood Series” tag to see the others), a gorgeous, lively, poignant tale of  a nomadic youth and the bond between a writer and her brother growing up. Very human, achingly real. For the truth is these essays are also about what they do not tell—growing older, looking back through the haze of memory and the struggles of adulthood. Most of you are already familiar with Michelle through her “What it’s like living here” essay earlier published here. I put an hilarious Michelle Berry story in Best Canadian Stories in the days when I still edited that annual anthology. She’s energetic, comic and prolific. A new novel This Book Will Not Save Your Life and a new story collection I Still Don’t Even Know You were both just published last year.

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Childhood

By Michelle Berry

 

Robin Hood

A Robin Hood record with a book attached to the sleeve. My brother remembers I coloured all over the record book, red and blue crayon. He still doesn’t believe me when I tell him I have no recollection of it.

“Why,” I ask him, “would I have done that?”

“You were always doing things like that,” he replies.

Like the time he got a Swiss Army knife for a present and, sneaking into a barn in Virginia, climbing the huge bales of hay and jumping down to the floor, my brother tossed me his Swiss Army knife for safe-keeping. I can still see the glint of the metal as it twisted through the air – slow motion – and disappeared in huge mounds of hay.

“I was six years old,” I say. “You should have known better than to throw it to me.”

“Still,” he says. “It was a great knife. We never found it.”

I thought my father rented a metal detector but he has no memory of this. I think we did apologize to the farmer for sneaking into his barn.

I worried for a while that a cow might have eaten the knife in a mouthful of hay, and then I would imagine someone cutting into a steak one day and finding it.

In England

Road Trips

The long road trip of my childhood.

Moving, traveling. There was a lot of both.

I was born in San Francisco, spent my first year in Claygate, England – first word: “hoss,” because they clip-clopped down the street carrying young girls going for a ride – lived in Virgina until I was seven, then Victoria, B.C.. We traveled across the country in a huge moving van, my mother driving the car behind us with our cat, Sassafras. I sang, “Leaving on a jet plane,” with my hand surfing wind out the van because my teenage cousin from New Jersey had taught it to me while she played the guitar. Every day in the van or car we had a new gift to keep us busy – colouring books, puzzles, snacks, mazes. We saw Prairie Dogs in the Badlands standing on their little back feet watching us watching them. Every motel we stayed in had a roadside pool. Once the gas in our U-Haul moving van was siphoned out of the van somewhere in Pennsylvania. Super Bowl this year my husband and father made silly jokes about the Steelers misspelling their name.

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Feb 112011
 




























Here’s a splendid, gritty Texas “Childhood” essay from Brad Green in Denton. You all know what Denton, TX, is like because Brad also contributed a gorgeous “What it’s like living here” essay in December. Brad Green is a prolific author and editor, a uniquely rich, harsh, dry and despairing voice on NC, and he’s about to be a father again as dg types these words.

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Childhood

By Brad Green

 

Sloth and Envy

When I was twelve, I had the world’s meanest boil on my ass. Picture the swollen eye of a pissed-off bull, Aztec red and glaring. I’d run my palm with wonder over the furuncle’s tender heat and trace the rising, tight flesh to a pale tip that when brushed made my arms stiffen and toes clench. The day that boil popped was one of the worst of my life.

Hours were spent face down on my bed while the attic fan in our small elbow of a house droned, culling the scent of honeysuckle through my bedroom window. Those bushes were my favorite place in the world at that time. They’d inched up through the clay-cobbled dirt around our trailer in Argyle, Texas, and as they unfurled in the sun, I retreated to their shadow. That crosswork thatch of limbs laid sun-dappled shade under my window and I’d sit on the cool, damp earth, full of breath and light.

Butterflies flooded the air around the vines. The honeysuckle attracted clouds of them, each a fluttering thumbsmear of color. Flying in and around the bushes, the butterflies landed on my arms, tickled paths across my scalp. There was an immediacy to that experience that lifted one beyond the gravity of the skin.

But of course, my hidebound father tolerated none of that woolgathering. One day he thumped his Bible down on my bedside table, opened to Job, his mophandle finger stabbing at the verse. “Unlike him, I believe you done something wrong,” he said. Then he flicked his finger against the back of my thigh near the boil and I bucked on the bed. “You think about what sins brought this upon you.”

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Jan 202011
 

Here is the first in a new series of Numéro Cinq essays called “Childhood.” The idea is for writers to evoke the place, time and ethos of their childhood in words and pictures, not childhood in general but a particular childhood, not their children’s childhood but their own. Steven Axelrod has been writing on and for NC almost from the beginning. He’s a very witty and loquacious participant in NC contests and a fine observer of the world in his own Open Salon.com column. He wrote a lovely “What it’s like living here” piece about Nantucket. I had often heard him talking about his father, and so it seemed appropriate to ask someone like Steve, for whom childhood was so important, to write about his childhood. As a point of entry, it’s helpful to know that Steve’s father was George Axelrod who wrote the play The Seven Year Itch and the screenplays for such movies as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Manchurian Candidate, and How to Murder your Wife.

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Childhood

By Steven Axelrod


 

 

 

Dog Days

For years I wanted a dog desperately. Wandering the stacks of the New York Society Library on 79th street, I discovered the works of Albert Payson Terhune, and with a boyish, single- minded passion, shared his love for a succession of collies and hunting dogs in books like Lad: a Dog, Buff: a Collie and Lochinvar Luck. Terhune is largely forgotten now, possibly because he really didn’t seem to like people very much. His works introduced me to a number of racial epithets which my Mom used as teaching tools, to explore the fascinating world of human bigotry. “’Chink’ is what people call the Chinese, so they can feel superior to them,” she informed me. “It’s fun to feel superior to other people, especially when you’re not.”

She was stubborn on the subject of dogs, though, knowing full well that the bulk of the care and feeding of any pet would fall on her. And of course we lived in an apartment, not the ideal environment for a herding animal; but Central Park was just three blocks away.

 

I actually found my dog in the park during a dreary Sunday softball game with a bunch of kids I didn’t like, a group I didn’t want to be part of, the uncool group at school. But during a long, dreamy session in the outfield (even in this crowd, I played deep left), I struck up a conversation with a lady walking a collie. Someone scored a homerun during our conversation, but the dog was due to have pups in a few months, and the lady took my number. She called me when the litter arrived. Even at age nine, I was much better at chatting up interesting strangers than I was at baseball, where I achieved a rare incompetence trifecta: I couldn’t hit, throw or catch. I could run all right, but I preferred not to.

The images release themselves, out of order, seemingly at random: my collie darting back and forth ecstatic in his first Central Park snowfall, taking a bite from a drift and leaping away, barking loud enough to wake up all of Fifth Avenue; and his snout, pressed to the rear window of the car that took him away two years later, when my allergies made keeping him impossible. And the counselor at camp that summer, who built a splendid impossible tower of tooth-picks and threw it into the final bonfire, the flames torching it all at once, the sudden light blinding, the heat intense, the crackle deafening and the column of smoke rising like a cobra from a basket, its hood dispersing against the high clear stars.

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