Then and Now

When I was young I wanted to write, but I thought I didn’t know anything. I realize now that I knew so little, I didn’t even recognize what I did know.

I did not see any importance in it, that my grandfather wore his old black leather shoes over the sand and into the boat when we went out fishing for perch or bass in the Bay. The same shoes he wore gardening, tending the cucumbers and green beans and tomatoes he would bring us every week in a rough garden basket with an arching handle, made of splints like a bushel.

I didn’t know it was important, that my grandmother had these objects in a tin in the linen closet: the rattles from a rattlesnake; a letter from a Union soldier (her ancestor), writing of seeing Abraham Lincoln when he came to review the troops; a huge, half-worn away shell, thick and brown and fossilized like an old bone.

I didn’t know how much it mattered, that one grandfather sang WWI songs (entrhusiastically and slightly off-key), the other wore a nightcap to bed to keep his bald head warm. He cried once, at the dinner table, when we were all gathered with him, saying grace, because he loved us, and he was ill. He had Parkinson’s. Some thirty years later, my dad would be diagnosed.

I didn’t know then to try to capture and express the beautiful coolness of my maternal grandparents’ screened porch on a hot summer day; shaded but warm, how lazy we felt there, how my sister and I would fight over space on the chaise, covered in velour printed with big, sweeping palms in the colors of a vintage Hawaiian shirt: gray-green, yellow, magenta. I didn’t think to write about my grandmother’s fingers, crooked with arthritis, clasped around the garden shears as she cut zinnias. Even now I love those riotous colors. We would wrap the stems in wet paper towels, then foil to keep them fresh on the ride back to our house. Her shoes too I failed to write about: black or navy, Grandma shoes, lace-ups with a block heel. In my mind I can hear them, gently clicking across the kitchen floor as she went to open the back door onto the porch, or in winter, to raise the shade on the window. She talked on a black wall telephone there beside the door, standing up.

I remember going on a train with my paternal grandparents, when my sister and I were very small. I don’t remember where we went, or much about it—just that it was exciting. I believe they took us because they wanted us to know what it was like, to ride a train, before such things were gone. For probably the same reason, they took us to the State Fair. And yes, now it’s gone—the life-size cow sculpted from butter, the cavernous old buildings filled with rows and rows of chickens, pheasants, rabbits. The horse barns, the big ring they called “The Coliseum,” where riding competitions went on. The pens where every year one or two (or more?) sows would have just given birth. The huge expanse of the fairgrounds, here and there shaded with big old trees.

All gone. About to become a “development.”

I didn’t know how important any of it was.

“In the grand scheme of things” we often say, dismissing the trivial. But is there really anything like a grand scheme? If there is, if our lives have such a structure, they are made of small, crystalline moments that we are rarely much aware of, at the time.

But I had one, yesterday.

My partner’s mother, Jeanette, is in Alzheimer’s care. We went to see her, and unpack some of her things, just arrived from Florida. She was sound asleep, sprawled in a big, cushy recliner near the nurse’s station. She’d been sleeping all morning, the staff told us. They weren’t sure why she was so tired. Sally and I stood by the chair, and as I watched her, she seemed so completely inert, I wasn’t sure at first if she was breathing. Then, after a moment, I saw her thin frame expand, her chest rise, and then contract, just slightly.

We went on to her room, did our work there and when we started down the hall to leave we saw Jeanette approaching, in her wheelchair, pushed by one of her caregivers. I smiled a big smile and as she saw me she smiled too and we hailed her. “Hi Jeanette!” “Hi Mom!” “You woke up!” Still smiling she said, “Yes I woke up.” And I felt such a stab of connection that I knew instantly how much it meant, how grateful I was to have that moment—just that, nothing more. As we loaded some stuff we were taking with us into Sally’s truck tears came to my eyes.

Now I know. Then I didn’t. So it is for all of us, that we have to grow and learn, and so many, many things we’ll witness before we know the value of them. We are lucky when we do.

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The Funeral

An old woman sits
Grieving, now she’s a widow
Time is a cruel thief.

She has a hanky
She puts it to her eye, dabs
Grandchild takes her hand.

The man in the box
Lived with her for sixty years
Gone five endless days.

We walk together
Only a short time, it seems
Savor it people.

Fourth of July

Something I’ve been thinking about: my friend’s mother’s baptismal certificate. She showed it to me recently, it’s a beautiful document, covered with hand-painted artwork in bright colors. It was executed in the U.P. (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and is written entirely in Finnish.

Another thing I’m thinking about: the trip Sally and I took with friends last February, to Washington D.C. Specifically I’m thinking of the Vietnam Memorial, how reading so many names on that wall affected me. I saw every kind of name, from Native American (Two Crow) to Hispanic (Lopez, Rodriguez) to a name I thought of as Southern Biblical, probably Afro-American (Ezekiel Paige). After a while, I began to notice the names shared by, if not my own relatives, people I knew growing up, kids I went to high school with: Atkinson, Cleary, Shapiro, Voorhees. Some of us may still have a lot of questions about what we were even doing, in Vietnam, but the Wall reminded me that the Americans that fought and died there came from all over.

Today, Independence Day, I am thinking this: The United States was not founded to be an exclusive place. Whatever else you can say about our country (and there is a lot, both good and bad), there is no denying that we are a diverse nation. It is our legacy, our strength, and our challenge. We stumble on, and sometimes, move forward.

Tribute

For the old people:

Men in bolo ties singing “Oh Susannah”

Women with pocketbooks hanging from their forearms

Who made pie crust, and biscuits, without recipes

People who knew mules and horses as well as they knew cars

People who brought food out of the ground

And children out of their bodies, without a doctor standing by.

They were upright, unbowed,

Sometimes stern

But gentle as rain

They’re gone now.

In imagination I try to walk their paths

What were their thoughts? What did they see?

I wish I had asked more

I wish they were here to tell me

Long gone, the old people

The ones who knew.

The Walk

One evening last week, I rushed home from work and went for a walk in the park. It was a good walk. I was about to say, it was nothing special. But then again…

There were the turtles. Five or six of them, lined up on a log, basking in a wetland pond just a hundred yards or so from traffic. I spotted the dull sheen of their shells from the path, through the scant curtain of brush, not yet leafed-out. As I stood looking a woman ran towards and then right by us, in yoga pants, earbuds in, listening to something.

I went on, crossed the bridge, entered the woods. The afternoon sunlight was spilling over the edge of the ravine, slanting down the hillside and washing ‘right round the bare trees, making the old leaves scattered on the ground gleam like treasure. As I came along the middle route, winding slowly upward, the sun shone on gnarled roots, wrapped around the path. They made me think of a grandmother’s knobby fingers, holding tight to a small child’s hand.

I saw no deer—but found their hoof prints, engraved over the track of a mountain bike tire. Squirrels chased each other up and down tree trunks, chattering fiercely. I heard birds—some I know, some I don’t. From above, high up on the hill, the serpentine coil of the river’s backwater looked dressed in green, its banks all grassy with new growth. When I got down there I found mallards, circling calmly, and a small cloud of gnats dancing right over the mud of the trail. The bugs spoke the loudest to me of spring—the gnats, the midges, the flies and yes, the mosquitoes—they’ll take hold rapidly down at the bottom of the ravine along the river but right now they’re a novelty. A gang of just-hatched midges! Spring is truly here.

Heading back, I stopped at the bridge and listened to the water, rushing over the rocks, making its tumbling, frothy sound. I studied the willowy branches reaching from the bank: tipped in buds, pale and silvery, not yet opening to green. Retracing my route, the bark of a wood frog reached me from the wetland; just two turtles remained on the log, in the setting sun.

When I first spied the turtles all lined up through the branches of the thicket I was so excited that I felt foolish, afterwards. Maybe it had to do with the jogger, running by me, on adult business—serious exercise!—I felt childish in comparison. But then I realized: if I can’t get in touch with that child-like wonder, that thrill of discovering life and beauty in the natural world around me,

How will I know to protect it?

I went for a walk and saw the miraculous, beside the trail, right at my feet, and dancing over a mud puddle. A good walk—it was something special, after all.

In Search of Frogs

Last year Sally and I happened to be at our cottage, in northwest Michigan, on a spring weekend when frogs and toads were calling. The sound coming from the swamp at night was amazing—like a tremendous frog engine. (It was quite beautiful, as well—especially the sound that I learned later was the call of the American Toad, a long, high trill, bright and ethereal.)

Trying to learn more about what we heard, I went to the internet and discovered the Michigan Frog and Toad Survey, a project of data collection that began twenty years ago in response to worldwide amphibian decline. This year I decided to participate. I set up a route and registered it with the DNR, and they sent me a packet (including recordings on a CD). We studied the calls a bit, then, outfitted with a clipboard and headlamps (and a recording app, on my phone) we headed out on the “early spring” run.

Stop 1: We visited this new-ish park last winter, and discovered there are ponds here. But a walk down the paved path soon after sunset, then off to the right onto gravel reveals no frog sound—just loud, incessant highway noise. Is it I-75, or M-59? Probably both, we think. We hike back up the hill and encounter someone strolling with two dogs, off-leash (one runs up and licks Sally’s hand), and as we get back in the car we hear a rowdy series of whoops from somewhere down below. Quite the party scene, I comment to Sally as we pull out of the parking lot.

Stop 2: It’s almost full dark as we turn in the driveway for the conservation land next door to City Hall. There’s a short flight of stairs down from the lot, and we can see just enough to manage them without switching on our headlamps. A small footbridge crosses a stream and leads to a clear, dry spot surrounded by vegetation. We stand quietly in the dark, hearing nothing. Coming up empty again! Then Sally says, “look” and points, and I see a low, dark shape with a white blaze on its head, coming towards us. A skunk–not hurrying, but purposeful, going about its business. It’s headed right for us, completely unaware of our presence until our voices (“is that a skumk?” “wow”) startle it and we see its tail go up. “Back away slowly” Sally advises, and we do, retreating to the bridge. The skunk disappears into the night. I’m reminded that all kinds of creatures are up and about, in the dark.

Stop 3: Frogs! I was pretty sure they would be here, alongside the Clinton River Trail. We can hear them from the parking lot, and they get louder as we leave the sidewalk for the trail: the steady cheep, cheep of spring peepers. I get out my phone to make a recording, and we try to judge the quantity of the overlapping calls: is this a level 2, or 3? We can replay it later.

Farther along the trail, the bank on one side falls away to darkness and the sound is clearer here. I make another recording, and jot some notes about where we are standing, beside a brand-new trail sign, bathed in light from the skating rink atop the hill behind us. I feel the presence of people in that light, leaking out the windows and strewn across the path—but it seems distant, removed; and the life of the river—which we’ve walked along many, many times now—feels stronger, more connected to me as the frogs go on singing. I stand in the dark just beyond the squares of electric light, and listen.

Stop 4: Holland Ponds: we’ve got the windows down as we drive up and we can hear frogs singing even before we pull into the parking area. Traffic’s not so loud here even though we’re right on the road, and the front ponds just beyond the parking spaces sound like they’re full of frogs. We walk just a few yards down the trail and I get my phone out again to record, but we know this is level 3: a full chorus of spring peepers, a constant wash of sound.

We stand for a few minutes, taking it in. Even in the dark we can see that a lot of brush and small trees have been cut and cleared away since the last time we visited, a year or two ago. Then I remember that while I was on the web creating my survey route I saw some long posts from someone upset about habitat destruction here. Why do people have to mess with things, we ask each other as we get back in the car. There is a great blue heron rookery here; we’ve come in the past to watch the birds sitting on the nests and feeding their young. I hope their nursery survives.

Stop 5: We come in through the “back door” of this park, an unlighted entrance with a parking area just outside the gate. We’ve been here many times too, and we know there are vernal pools below us, at the foot of the hill. We walk along the grass beside the parking lot inside the gate; the dark outline of the picnic shelter looms up ahead. It’s quieter here, away from traffic, and this time we hear several different calls: the clucking of wood frogs—I read in The Sixth Extinction that they are the only frog that lives above the Arctic Circle; they survive the winter by literally freezing (except for their cells, which contain a kind of antifreeze), then thawing out again in the spring.

We can hear chorus frogs, too—a call we’ve just learned to identify from the CD, where the pleasant-voiced announcer describes it as resembling “the sound produced by running a fingernail across the teeth of a high-quality, fine-toothed comb.” The call does sound just like a comb (of what quality, I can’t say I can distinguish) being scraped, so we recognize it easily.

And there are spring peepers going in the background. I record our data and we head back to the car, still not using our headlamps. We can see pretty well, and Sally wonders if there is a full moon tonight, somewhere behind the clouds. Scanning the sky I can’t see any bright spot, and we decide that all of this ambient light is city incandescence—streetlights, houses, shopping centers. Skating rinks.

Stop 6: At this park, we get busted. We’re standing just beyond the parking lot, by the bathrooms, listening to the same trio of species: peepers, wood frogs and chorus frogs, calling from the vernal pools alongside the playing fields when we see a car pull in and circle around. A moment later we see a police car come in behind it.

We’re already back in our car and heading out when the police car pulls up fast, facing us and shining a spotlight straight in. I lower my window and explain we’re doing the Michigan Frog Survey; I hand the policeman our windshield decal as evidence. He is not impressed. You can’t be in the park after hours, he shouts at us, then (still at the top of his lungs) have a nice night. We follow him out, frog-stalking miscreants properly chastened. Next time wear dark pants, Sally suggests, referring to my tan-colored jeans. Rules are funny things, I reflect later. The cop was right, we’re not supposed to be in the park so late–unless of course there is a baseball game being played, then the curfew goes to 11:30. Seems to me frogs are at least as fundamentally American (and worthy of respect) as baseball. They’ve definitely been around longer—like, before there were dinosaurs. Some 250 million years.

Stop 7: This is a spot I drive by on my way to work, closer in to the city. We pull into the driveway of a big, new church, our windows down, and right there where I saw standing water around the trees we hear a chorus frog.

I park the car at the perimeter of the lot and we walk back over to the edge of the trees; stand for a bit, walk up and down, stand some more. Even after listening for a while we think all we hear is that one voice: one lonely little chorus frog, singing away. We turn back towards the car, and for a moment look out over what has to be three or four acres of fresh-looking blacktop, awash in fluorescent light. “All of this must have been wetland,” Sally muses. We get back in the car.

Stops 8, 9, and 10—a couple of retaining ponds, and the gated entrance to another park—are washouts. A fine drizzle is starting as I record conditions and we wrap up: 10:30, we’ve been at it for well over two hours. Back home I’m tired, but satisfied. We found some frogs—I knew we would. I hope that as the woman on the CD says, we’re “contributing to knowledge of the frogs of the world.”

Frogs of the world. I really, really like that phrase.

For more information:

The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert. If you don’t have time for the (Pulitzer-winning) book, try this article:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/05/25/the-sixth-extinction

The DNR webpage for the Michigan Frog and Toad Survey:

http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10370_12143_12194—,00.html

Amphibiaweb (info on worldwide decline of amphibians):

http://amphibiaweb.org/declines/declines.html

 

 

 

Solitude

On my walk the other day, suddenly I felt sad. I think it was the wind, blowing strong and warm so that all the trees were swaying. There were willow branches strewn across the path, and dry leaves scuttling along the ground. Holdouts—still attached to nearly bare branches when autumn ended, they’ve been stuck up there all winter and were just now blown loose.

Something in me shook loose, too. Coming along the side of the golf course approaching the woods I started to cry. I was thinking about Dad and missing him. I was feeling how alone we are, each and every one of us. I remembered his dying—how Linda and I cried, sobbed, when he breathed his last. I felt so bereft in that moment, when he’d left us for good. Besides losing him, did I feel that the last bit of my childhood was ended? That I now had to cross over, too?

I tried to hold this thought: people we love are always with us, in a way. I dried my tears with the back of my hand and turned onto the little footpath behind the woods; walked towards the setting sun. A few strides in and I felt compelled to step off the trail and into the trees. It’s hard for me to feel sad, in the woods. So much is going on, so much growing there even if asleep. Some big trees lay horizontal, crumbling but still massive, beautiful; their twisting roots and weathered trunks like sculpture rising from the forest floor. Even decomposition can be beautiful, in the woods.

After a bit I turned back onto the path. Up ahead, I saw a figure: a man, in an orange sweatshirt, the hood pulled up and hiding his face like a cowl. He walked slowly, as if he were lame, almost limping. As I approached we were hidden from view, with the trees surrounding us, and I was cautious. I’ve been told many times in many locales not to walk alone, and though I still do it, there are often these moments: friend or foe? One can never be sure.

We passed each other and waved a quick wave, and I saw that he turned where the paved path ended, circled around and fell in behind me. I was walking much faster than he and stayed out in front as we came into the open, alongside the pond. In the trees on my right something caught my eye, a tuft of fuzz caught in the brush. I waded in and pulled it free—a downy feather, tipped with brown. Probably from the under-layer of a goose.

As I held it in my hand, studying it, he caught up to me.

“Whatcha got?”

I saw his face for the first time. He looked not much older than me. It struck me that his eyes were blue, like my dad’s. He smiled.

“A feather.” I stood like a child, cradling my prize.

“Lots of birds flying around.”

“Yeah. It’s very soft… Probably from underneath.”

“We do have geese around here.”

We started walking again and even as we began I outpaced him.

“Amazing how the snow has melted,” I called out, gesturing with my arm. “Just like that,” I snapped my fingers.

“Well this is Michigan. Don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.”

I’ve heard that saying a million times. But still I smiled.

“That’s for sure,” I said. I continued around the pond, his figure getting smaller behind me as I headed for home.

Alone. Yes, I suppose each of us is, in undeniable ways. But maybe not as much as I think, sometimes. Not so much, after all.