(After Sharon Olds I Go Back to May 1937)
See the young soldier with pant creases so sharp they could,
would cut the thigh of the dark haired waitress that pushes
a cup of coffee toward him sloshing
a few drops in a chipped saucer.
“You on toast” I imagine
he says when she asks him what he would like
My family never ate together
Mama ate scraps we’d left on our plates and
there was never much left.
See the two of them soon to be three.
I’m there hiding in her belly
She burrows into his side
beside the creek next to the cemetery where old
bones make dust under stones no one can read
In 1976 daddy stretched out on the grass that covered Mama’s grave and said
“bury me now”.
Dream through the cold winter of ripening fruit.
When boats are shrouded in snow,
when branches snap themselves into kindling
sit before a fire and remember the taste, the texture
When winter curtsies to spring and leaves by the back door
pull on a sweater and stand near her greening branches
and offer blessings for her fecundity
Bless earth, bless rain, bless sunshine
It is hot now. Summer is full upon us.
walk to her side and feel the power of a July sun
see her strain under the weight of unripe fruit
Explore her high branches – the ones closest to the sun
It is there waiting for you.
Memories cling like resin to my tidy life:
The mole on mama’s chin;
Bangs that landed two inches above her brow
A temper that flashed when I rubbed her the wrong way
She is attached to me by an umbilical of wounds.
The white dress she stitched for my Phi Mu Pledge Dance
The goodbye she waved to the back of a Greyhound bus
“I wrote you everyday in my mind, she scrawled on that last birthday card.
A single ovary produced a daughter who never bore fruit.
Who left her never to return.
More than a container of seeds.
I trace the lines on my palm and the furrow between my brow.
I revisit scars that map a lifetime.
I touch the mole on my chin.
Once removed only to return.
Only shifting body side to side.
Trusting the outgoing tide will bring me home.
The tide moves slowly.
My journey is long.
I arrive home under a dark sky
illuminated by early stars and a fast rising moon
and the watchful eye of a single osprey waiting
for me to drift safely home.
I have plants in my garden that I don’t have names for. I saw a stalk that might be a Yucca this morning. It was leaning in the direction of the wild roses, almost hidden by the brambles next to the butterfly bush. Eden was wild. My dogs are wild. If I’d had children, they would have been wild – like I was. Wild and free, but also frightened and ashamed. I was all those things, but I never realized I was good. I tried to tame my wild hair. Tame my dreams. Tame my desires. When I couldn’t do that, I just ran. I let my hair grown long and curly. I stopped looking into mirrors. I stopped looking back. Home disappeared. I disappeared. I was only a memory and my friends and family remembered a very different person than the one I became when I let myself be wild. Fear was replaced by resignation and shame by autonomy that times became apathy. I became as invisible to the people around me as the wind. I became as transparent as water. One day flowed into the next. I drifted further and further away from what was safe and sane. I was truly wild and I could lie spread eagle in the rocks next to the Rio Grande and disappear.
The Mighty Arlo
I put on two pair of socks and three pair of sweat pants and took Arlo for his pre-dawn walk. It was 3 degrees. Arlo is built for that kind of weather. My lips froze. When we got back I filled my backpack with the things I thought I would need at the dog show and dressed like the handlers I had seen on TV – dark colors to show off the white dog, sensible shoes, hair tied back so it didn’t fly around and distract the judges or the dog. I loaded the jeep with dog, crate and backpack and headed to Point of Rocks.
When I arrived there were dogs everywhere. All of the handlers looked the same. They had big hair – like my Aunt Gladys – they wore spandex pants and pullovers with pictures of Samoyeds embroidered on them. They were all named Carol or Judy. With the help of two volunteers I managed to get Arlo registered for the show. They gave me an armband with a number 12 on it.
“Put this around your left arm. You can take your dog into the judging area so he can get used to it. Have fun!”
For the next two hours Arlo and I walked, trotted, and stacked our little hearts out. Once I tried to leave the ring and Marge (Arlo’s breeder) screamed at me “Get back in there. You can’t leave until you are dismissed.” I obeyed. Marge is quite a commanding presence. That day she was wearing white, fluffy earmuffs that looked like they had been made from a badly behaved Samoyed.
Marge had thirty minutes to puff and fluff Arlo before the judging began – combing and brushing – talking a mile a minute. Arlo took it all much better than I did.
“Number 12 to the ring. Number 12 to the ring.”
“Oh my God. We’re number 12, Arlo.”
Marge lifted Arlo from the table and I made my way awkwardly to the ring, fumbling to secure my armband with a rubber band while guiding Arlo through an obstacle course of dogs and bitches.
“Here we go, Arlo. Just do whatever that dog in front of you does.”
We lived at 425 Sharp Street in a development called Eastern Park. My life was within “walking distance”. That meant the Laundromat and Food Town on Virginia Beach Boulevard. That meant Princess Ann Plaza, Plaza Lanes Bowling Alley and Kings Department Store about a mile east – also on Virginia Beach Boulevard.
Everything with a mile
Placed within walking distance
Close to home
Calling me with bargains and fast food
Braving the traffic on the feeder road
Walking where there were no sidewalks
Buying things I could not afford
To adorn a life that was too poor too young
No churches on the highway
Just the fast moving traffic
Whizzing past the walking girls
It was on one of those many angry long walks around Washngton DC that he first talked about The Iracibles. According to him, the eighteen abstract artists hatched their plan to reject the Museum of Modern Art exhibition American Painting Today-1950 while walking together around Manhattan. I’ve no doubt he believed he was following in their footsteps as he led me on those forced marches from DuPont Circle to Tenleytown and from the Mall to the Palisades. He walked fast. His motorcycle books made clicking sounds on the sidewalks.
He was the embodiment of the word irascible. He wore one expression – a scowl.
In the decades since those aimless walks I’ve wondered many times why I followed. I suppose it was a loneliness that made even an angry companion better than no companion at all.
I’m grateful he eventually walked out of my life leaving me to find my own path.
I have been lost many times but the most memorable and humbling was the time I led my husband John and two good friends on a forced march in the wrong direction across an island in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia.
The day had begun splendidly. We departed downtown Vancouver on our private charter looking forward to a full day of salmon fishing followed by a peaceful night in our private seaside cabin on Gabriola Island. Sadly the day went down hill from there. The fishing was poor, the boat was cramped and the lunch was unappetizing. By the time we docked at Gabriola we were all in foul moods.
The captain pointed out our accommodations and gave us directions to a spot on the other side of the island where we could get supper. I listened carefully – or I thought I did. I started off on an unmarked trail across the rocky terrain. An hour later it was obvious to everyone but me I’d gotten the directions wrong but I insisted I was right and kept walking. The others followed. We walked for another hour and finally – by luck not by my navigational skills – happened upon our destination.
It was a sullen dinner followed by a silent walk back to our cabin with me bringing up the rear.
I awoke on this first day of the New Year thinking of all the places I’ve walked. I’ve left my footprints on islands and mountains and beaches and back roads. I’ve taken some walks alone, some with loved ones and others with strangers who became friends. I’ve been lost many times but seldom admitted it.
Today I’ll walk on the National Mall with my three Samoyeds (two freshly bathed and one woefully in need of grooming) my husband who is slowly recovering from a ruptured disk (though he’s too superstitious to admit it) and dozens of friends with their four legged friends. It’s a tradition and traditions keep us moving forward.
It’s a day for resolutions – another tradition – and I resolve to return to the blank page and fill it with stories about the walks I’ve taken. I invite you to come along with me as I retrace the steps and memories of a lifetime.