Last year about this time, a time of birthdays, I wrote this for Emily, our eldest grandchild.
Dear first born
of my firstborn daughter,
we whirl in gentle
of love and understanding
imagine lives without each other
remember how it was
knowing how it will be after
but all the while holding
that which will never be lost
never be forgotten.
Images of you in my father’s arms,
of you first walking
in grass with flowers
even as he was going out,
swirl now with your babies
all in each other’s arms
June 5, 2016
For Emily, on the first birthday after she bore her first daughter.
Now, I put it together with a painting we bought yesterday, “Music in the Night,” a small landscape by Barbara Stafford-Wilson, from her current show at PDX gallery. She did it from memory, of a night they heard a fisherman singing in Cadgwith Cove on the South coast of Cornwall.
Apple blossoms are in bloom now. I add them and the smell of apple blossoms opens another layer, a sheen of light, shade, timeless.
The realities blend no less because they blend only in my mind.
I wrote this on hearing a work by Philip Glass, or certainly one of his students, followed by Olivier in William Walton’s “Henry V.” That was what Tom was listening to in Far and Martitia Tuttle’s apartment at Williston in the spring of 1952, when I was brought to be introduced to the Tuttles by my friend Ted Sizer. Ted was driving me back to Smith after we had both sung in a joint glee club concert at Yale.
We’ve recently seen Matthew Ross’s Theater Thesis performance at Lewis & Clark. I’m sure this writing was prompted partly by that, by his understanding that “memory decays, people embellish.” Tom and I share a very exact memory of how that first meeting felt. That memory is now embedded in two lifetimes.
1941: In memory
That would be the only way to portray my memory of hearing about Pearl Harbor, each phrase repeated over and over, sung, each time slightly different.
Sunny, after lunch. Maybe Sunday. I was nine. Grandpa and Grandma Smith with us. Never usually were.
Maybe we had been to The Russian Bear for lunch. We almost never went out to a restaurant. The Russian Bear was over toward Putnam. Run by the parents of my friend Carl von Conta. Russian refugees perhaps.
My Mother’s parents visiting in Pomfret from Concord. Walking from the street. Pomfret Street was Rte 44. through the town. Walking toward our house which was a “dorm apartment.” My father a “dorm master.” “Hey sir!” From an upper dorm window. Why had we parked on the street? Grandpa and Grandma Smith never walked any distance. The expanse of lawn. The white Congregational church across the street. The minister there always mispronounced my name. Jo-an, accent on the first of two syllables, when my name was just plain Joan. I played with his grandsons, one of whom was named Ronnie…
“Sir, did you hear about Pearl Harbor!?” Or did that boy shout something else? “The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.” Perhaps.
Our move to the Headmaster’s house must have been right soon after: Uncle Hal went to be a major in England. Auntie Ba went to live in Boston. They had been head and living in that house since I was born. Daddy who was only thirty-five was made head.
I worried for the next five years he would be drafted. In the end, he never went… a person needed to educate young men. To his death, he missed what he viewed as a bond men formed only in having survived battle together. Many of those young men died. I knew them, see their names now on the chapel wall. George Purvis, Bill Townsend, others. Tarawa, the Battle of the Bulge, Eniwetok.
Recently we have figured out a way to get emails and pictures to Liz, my wonderful 81-year-old handicapped sister in Port Townsend. The supervisor at her sheltered housing has wireless at home and can take what we send to Liz and show her how to look at it. The following was part of the first bulletin.
“Tom and I were over in Eastern Oregon last week and I had a long ride on this nice horse whose name was Scout. That person getting on her horse is the wrangler whose name is Sierra.
“And this a picture of Tom with the blanket I just finished knitting.”
Liz is devoted to Tom, and when we talk on the phone, she barely lets me start with the first few words before she interrupts with, “Where’s Tom? Can I talk to him?”
She remembers every dog our family ever had, and I’ll try to send her a few pictures of them as we go along.
The ride in question was through juniper and scrub, with regular glimpses of snowy mountains from the Three Sisters to Jefferson, Black Butte and north. My legs were less wobbly than I’d thought they’d be at the end.
To get there we went up the gorge, turned south at Hood River, and climbed up through Odell, Parkdale, the mountain gleaming from a different direction at every turn. Upon arrival, we placed daffodils from home, Tom having his pipe after supper, the sound of the river from below. We were in the tree-tops. The junipers are a good 100 years old.
I’d bought this beautiful Tarte aux Fruits at La Provence in Orenco Station Friday and served it to a group of Smith graduates meeting at our house Monday evening. Now, I wake before dawn on Thursday to find a ready-made slide show of that evening on Facebook, and perhaps, by some powerful chance, a possible answer to a question that kept me awake part of the night.
First, I can explain. During the meeting of this diverse group of women, I had a chance as the eldest to describe briefly how similar what is happening in this country now feels to what was happening in Austria in the late thirties. And I could urge these women to resist, to speak out against white supremacy, against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in all their forms. Unjustified police use of force is just part of this. We are all threatened.
Next, yesterday noon, in another setting, a friend described to a group the experience her elementary school grand-daughter was having in the classroom: classmates were shouting “Heil Hitler,” and making anti-Jewish slurs, in the presence of teachers, who were condoning the behavior, doing nothing about it. A parent so far had had no response from the principal to whose attention she had brought the problem.
It may be that other children will be the most effective teachers of kindness and tolerance. Lower graders would respond best to a diverse group of upper graders who came into their classroom and sat down for a serious talk, with this message: the United States is a country where Christians and Jews and Muslims have a right to be free and not bullied, where we will protect everyone who is not trying to hurt someone else. If your parents are teaching you otherwise, it is up to us to help them understand a different way.
I acknowledge how difficult this seems and how possible it is that there are many who don’t want it to happen. But I will hold onto the image.
Around the graves of five generations in our Strong family plot at Riverview Cemetery are these tiny Yellow Aconites. Their Latin name says that they come “right after the snow,” and sure enough they do. I love the way the Aconites bloom this early, and then disappear completely, their leaves melting away into nothing, so by late spring you wouldn’t know they’d been there.
One old tree fell in the windstorm last fall, and the other, grown to great age between the graves of Judge William and his wife Lucretia, is marked to keep an eye on. We hope they won’t have to take it down.
One of the sons of William and Lucretia wrote a book, Cathlamet on the Columbia, about growing up in the 1850’s. He was born after they arrived. They’d come around the Horn, losing one little boy to Yellow Fever on the way, the other one, Curtis, my great-grandfather who bought the land we live on now, surviving.
I came back from exploring the possibilities of classes at Oregon College of Art and Craft today, and realized that’s not what I need to do now. I have room here at home in my little studio up on the bank above the house. Hester and Tom, last time we were away for a good stretch of time, even cleaned it out and made it usable again. They removed squirrel nests, hauled out all those boxes of old camping equipment. We can heat it sufficiently. We can put in a vise I’ll need to finish the wood carving I started eight years ago, at a class at OCAC, in fact.
There are things I’ve made and finished, being used by my family and friends. This is a start. Photos, meals, table, dinner table, soap, garden veg, garden house, … to come ….knitted pieces, sewn pieces, cape, tie skirt, etc.
This serves as our Christmas and New Year, Martin Luther King and Valentine’s Day card, all celebrations of renewal and hope. We thank you who sent cards by mail.
There was snow on the ground. The light coming in the windows was brilliant as Hester, Dexter and Tom sang “The Parting Glass” at the end of our New Year’s Day lunch, and the sun came out. The Clancy Brothers have been part of our singing life since we can remember. It’s not often we’re all in one place.
I’m sure part of the intensity of these weeks has been due to the imminence of Barack Obama’s departure from the Presidency. We are isolated by the snow and ice. We feel ourselves and the American community in some danger from the incoming president and his way of doing things.
But we go on cooking meals, watching football games on TV, often watching Westerns in the evening. Identifying actors has become a game. We exercise at LA Fitness four or five times a week, and we go to bed early!
I find myself wanting to strengthen the ties between old friends, family members, hold onto each other “for dear life,” and vow not to allow ourselves, as Meryl Streep said so beautifully the other night, to be bullied. That means at the same time we revel in relationships close at hand, we somehow encompass those driven out of their homes, robbed of their safety, and left without hope.
Short of giving up, we can only keep speaking up. I wonder if the Women’s Marches all over the country this month will be listened to. I hope so. We plan to be part of the one in Portland, four generations of us.