Cucumbers

I remember my grandparents’ garden from my childhood. I remember following along behind my grandfather, sent out for tomatoes, while I “helped” by pulling fresh cucumbers off the prickly, hairy vines. Wiping the vegetable off on my tee shirt, I chomped into it right there where I stood.

My grandfather was a staid mountain of a man. He didn’t talk much to his family; he frequently responded to my grandmother in grunts or one-syllable sounds. When he sat down to eat, he really tucked into it:  seconds were certain, thirds were not out of the question. I never knew him not to eat what my grandmother set on the table, but he drew the line at cucumbers.

When my brother, my cousins and I discovered this, we were giddy with unexpected knowledge. We were between six and seven years old and our shrill little giggles must have sounded like the munchkins in Oz. Our secret-telling was, no doubt, conducted in theatrical stage whispers. We couldn’t believe it. Grampie didn’t eat cucumbers! We had to clean our plates, but now here was this revelation.

And so at every meal shortly thereafter, we took turns offering our grandfather helpings of the cool disks marinating lightly in vinegar with a hint of sugar and generous salt and pepper.

“Would you like some cucumbers, Grampie,” we asked choking on our hysteria. In the spirit of humor moderated by solidarity, Grammie hid her smile until it wore off and even she spoke sharply, telling us to leave our grandfather alone. But it was irresistible to tease the unteaseable, to ruffle the unruffleable.

“How about a cuke, Grampie,” we asked, until finally he pounded the table with one open hand.

“I don’t want any goddamn cukes,” he thundered before slamming downstairs to his woodworking shop where a half-gallon of vodka was kept cool under the stairs.

What he didn’t know, sadly I think now, is how nicely good vodka goes down with a bit of gently muddled cucumber, fresh from the garden.

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The road not taken

Had Macy gone east on Willow Road, her whole life may have been different. The fact is she went west and fate unfolded.

Traveling west, she drove into the afternoon sun. Had she gone east, the world would have been lit with warm golden tones and she would have marveled at the pain of intense beauty, at the sanctity of everything, at all she saw stretching out ahead of her like the finest tapestry.

She went west and her face soon ached from squinting. Rather than seeing what was there, she saw only that which blocked the setting sun. Shapes appeared as moving shadows that insinuated themselves rather than expressing themselves directly.

It was in this way that she hit the moose square on. The lumbering beast was taller than the height of her car by more than 18”, a fact she could not have known, nor would it have made a difference.

It was the time of day when the moose emerged from the wood and grazed along the sides of the road, where the grass grew salty from the winter snowplow’s runoff, and where the occasional apple core tossed out a passing window was a tasty surprise. This moose was crossing to the unforaged side of the road. It did not occur to him that he might be in danger, strong and virile bull that he was, and the air was absent any scent of predators or danger.

At the impossible distance of 25 feet, the moose loomed before her and stopped, startled by the screaming desperation of brakes, tires, and hot stinking blacktop. At impact his legs were knocked out from under him and his torso rolled over the hood. His rack of antlers bashed into the metal and bounced into the windshield where they found purchase, shattering what had previously been unbreakable. Rolling the moose again and sending 2 hooves into the windshield in front of Macy’s face, where they stayed.

Despite all the mourning that was to come, the sun continued to set and the earth continued on its journey toward darkness.

Photo #1

sunken boat Michael Leland maine*

It was a perfect spring day to fly fish on the river, Shannon thought, shifting her truck into third gear. The ice had broken a couple weeks earlier and the water had warmed enough to wake the bellies of this slumbering fish, sleeping beauties in the muck and rocks on the riverbed.

She headed north on Route 116 reflexively, not realizing she had decided where to go until she was well on her way to her father’s favorite fishing hole. It was the place where he’d taught her to cast and reel, select flies from those she’d brought, to stand still against the river’s urgency, and to be silent in a thoughtful, even reverent way, inside the rhythm of it.

Shannon rounded the familiar corner and drove another quarter of a mile. Pulling over onto the wide sandy shoulder of the road, she got out and with an economy of movement gathered her fishing pack, pole, and waders. She headed through the underbrush, ducking under the bright green tender ends of young branches, listening for the animal chatter and birdsong to get a sense if all was well in the wood.

At the edge of the river where she turned left to follow it upstream to the hole, she found a completely submerged dinghy. The sun shone through the leaves like a spotlight onto it. So unexpected, she stopped to consider it more closely. The frogs had laid their eggs in a dense gel that covered the grassy end closest to shore where the sides of the boat provided shelter and a little universe inside the boat swayed gently with the river’s flow.

She leaned over the water with her hands on her knees and felt a deep growl building in her chest. In the deepest version of her voice she sang out over the water:
“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord,
But you don’t really care for music, do you…”**

*Photo by Michael Leland

**Lyrics by Leonard Cohen

Describe the Mess

I remember a day when my parents were still married—I was small, maybe in the first grade. There was a fight between them, but was it explosive, or a calm-voiced disagreement, or a slow simmering cauldron with acidic bubbles bursting into the room? The fight, one among countless battles, is lost to me.

Mom was curled up like a cat on the couch, slapping pages of a Cosmopolitan magazine against each other. Dad was in the kitchen, sitting at the counter with his back to her, looking out the window to the pine-dotted meadow, inhaling deeply on a Winston cigarette.

I don’t know how my brother and I became involved, but I remember going into the closet and picking up two of my father’s shoes. My hands were small and his feet were impossibly large and the shoes were heavy. I instructed my brother to get a shoe. He could only carry one at a time.

My father’s feet were riddled with corns and callouses that made him hobble and limp. Working at Dexter Shoes, he bought many pairs in his search to find one magical pair that would mitigate his pain. The back of the closet was lined with boxes full of them.

Like a fireman’s brigade, we gathered his shoes, ran to the kitchen and threw them on the floor in front of him. Back and back we ran until we were out of ammunition, wondering all the while when we would be made to stop. Finally when we came to throw the empty shoeboxes, he rose to yell at us and sent us to our rooms with warm bottoms.

Mom remained on the couch, the corners of her mouth curled into an I-was-right smile.

My brother and I still feel bad.

Comforting Sounds

The sound of the fans whirring from May through September, cooling white noise soundtrack in library, bedroom, bathroom and living room, each with its own hum. Tonight in my empty bed where there will be no snoring to prevent me from drifting off, the fan will spin in front of a window closed against a string of burglaries and an assault. My husband is tucked away in the hills, retreating from the usual grind to discuss it from afar. The dog who’s afraid of her shadow will stay by my side, ever alert to odd noises, poor thing, poor dear, my early fear indicator.

Comforting sounds of childhood: my father stirring and stirring his pre-dawn coffee, thinking and thinking while the spoon tinged on the sides of his mug, the refrigerator clicking on and off, peepers, crickets and distant yapping foxes, an invisible pack raising the hair on my arms.

The time I visited Gram in her new apartment. She kissed me goodnight, took out her hearing aids and lay down to say her prayers, so much louder than she knew, and I heard her praying for me. Lying there in conversation with her Lord, I heard how she loved me, simply and true. Embarrassed to hear her private words, I turned on the television to watch David Letterman and his stupid pet tricks.

Now when I think of my Gram, I zoom in close, so close I can hear her breath. In my mind, I stroke the hair off her warm, damp forehead and whisper all of my love into her deaf, sleeping ears. It is my prayer, my only prayer for her. Hear this. Hear this.

The Boneyard

I park in the shade of the magnolia tree fifty yards past the mausoleum door, leaving the closest spots for the bereaved who creep and creak in to remember. I don’t know anyone stored in the body-sized drawers, but I go inside to use the restroom before my walk through the boneyard. The first few times, I felt like an intruder echoing down the corridors of the clammy cool granite and brass-filled building, with its faint odor of decay, but now I’m a regular.

My father-in-law was buried in a mausoleum. Before his internment, I’d presumed only the wealthy could afford the accommodations, but my in-laws weren’t particularly wealthy. In Illinois where Bob is entombed, a mausoleum makes sense for the visiting bereaved. At Christmas-time the year after he died, we drove through drifts of blowing, blinding snow to sit inside with him and the summers are no less rigorous on the other end of the spectrum.

I’m at a loss to explain the mausoleum in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. Why deny the worms their due, as if embalming hasn’t hindered their work enough? Perhaps the mausoleum makes decomposition seem more tidy, where the inhabitants are safe from tree roots that stretch in search of nutrients and, finding them, grow large, pushing boxes open, tilting carefully-carved stones to dangerous angles.

Outside I wend my way around and up through the hundreds, no thousands, of graves covering the hillsides. I go around the pyramid-shaped mausoleum, which is behind the one with the bathroom, and climb up to the modestly wealthy families’ tombs, which  are finer than any cottage with this view that my little paycheck could afford. Here, as elsewhere, squirrels frantically gather and bury nuts from the picture perfect live oaks, planted at careful intervals. Hawks circle, noting the large bellied squirrels distracted by their work.

I hike past the University of California founder, past the stones of Julia Morgan, the ambassador of Micronesia, past Ina Donna Coobrith, California’s first poet laureate, past the locals and transplants who’ve left their marks on the world and lie here in the shadows of the captains of industry with their monuments up the hill.

There are hills covered with small stone rectangles that lie flat against the ground. I’d thought they epitomized modest means, but apparently they are also evidence of the evolution of graveyard philosophy and Mountain View’s partial transition to lawn cemetery design. Perhaps these hills of small stones are also monuments to post-mortem practicality and leaving what resources there are with the living. There is an Oakland-style Chinatown here, with Asian names and pictures of the departed on their stones. Here more than anywhere, I find evidence of the living. They leave flowers, moon cakes, jack-o-lantern, pinwheels spinning in the breeze, and generations of families gathered for a photo near the stone of their loved ones, long buried, but remembered.

My lifelong search for a grave with my family name outside of Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, has come to fruition only here. I’ve found a reasonable sized, brown-colored stone marking the burial of two married couples. Their names are united by the symbol for a fraternal order. This Raymond Farrar is unknown to my family, with its own Raymond Farrar. He lies with his friends on a sunny hillside. I leave a rock on his stone each time I pass by. I pull the weeds from the flower vase built onto the stone’s base. Someone who knows those buried here removes my stones and leaves none, but I persist. One day I found a single daisy, freshly picked on top of the stone with no one in sight.

The School Bus

We bumped along the dirt road and lurched into spring potholes so big we called them swamps. Our driver’s name was Buzzy and thinking back, his bloodhot eyes may have given us clues about the meaning of his nickname.

One day, after picking up Danny Burrill and all of his older brothers and sisters, we got stuck in the turnout at the end of their road. The bus sank in the mud and tilted over to one side, making Buzzy swear, which made us giggle. Cursing again, he yelled at us to get the hell over to the other side of the bus so it didn’t tip over.

He radioed for help and Bunny Hall came with his tow truck. The Hall Boys were on the bus with the rest of us. Although they were only in junior high, they were as big a grown men. The Hall Boys, who always had motor oil blackening their fingernails, hopped out to help push and shove the bus back onto the road. They smiled to hear us clapping for them and were happier still to be too dirty to go to school.

They climbed into the tow truck and pointed at us, still on the bus, like we were monkeys in a cage.