Collecting details: In the bleak midwinter

Observing, collecting details as “glimmers of a beginning.”  A way of finding a story to tell.  That was the challenge this week.

in the bleak midwinter

Somewhere outside my window a machine hums incessantly for the second day in a row.  Its motor drones, the constant whirring sound punctuated by louder grinding noises.  Like a monster being fed, its appetite is ravenous.  It will not be sated.  My husband would be at the window checking to see where the sound is coming from, which neighbor has wood to chip this time of year.  But my husband is at work.  And I am too lazy, too disinterested to check out where Smaug is being used.  It doesn’t really matter in whose yard the machine/monster feeds.  Noise is noise.

Our yard has lots of trees and an overabundance of bittersweet.  The vine sidles up alongside the trees, curling a sinuous path out along limbs, growing thick and woody until it has strangled the life from the tree.  In the green of spring and summer it’s harder to notice the bittersweet in its sneaky trail below a layer of dirt, pushing through shrubs and other plantings.  We hack at it and pull it up, but it is incessant and wears us out.  Now, in the bleak midwinter, it is easy to see.  The vine coils around some of the trees, already thick as rope.

It’s the chill this time of year that I mistrust.  The trees stand like stark centurions behind the house, the only time I can see a sliver of the lake that lay beyond them.  The sky cracks like a sheet of glass.  Fingers feel fat and numb in no time in weather like this.  Why would anyone stand outside and feed wood to a machine?  I imagine how easily a monster like that could steal a finger or two.  There are no do-overs then.

A lawyer I know once defended a man who disposed of his wife with a wood chipper.  The lawyer is a kind man, softly rumpled, with hair just long enough to show a tendency to wave.  He wears sports coats and carries a leather brief case that looks like it was a gift when he graduated law school.  He has a fondness for Mark Twain, and reminds me of Atticus Finch.  I wonder what Atticus would make of a man who rid himself of his wife by such ugly means.  There is no nobility in defending such a person.  I expect the lawyer had his reasons.  He enjoys reading Twain, after all.

This one’s for Puck

Right up front, I will tell you that this story is true.  I should also warn you that it’s a little bitter-sweet.

When my brother Peter came into our lives my parents already had three girls. They longed for a son.

A couple of interesting points about this story:  First, like all good men living in the area of the Adirondack Mountains, my father liked to hunt.  Hunting season in those parts was a religion, sacred and holy; the woods, nature’s cathedral.  The thing about my father was that he had never bagged a deer.  He’d been hunting with plenty of other guys who had, but he’d never actually shot one on his own.

The second thing, is that shortly after the third girl was born, my father started growing a beard.  It grew fast and bushy, and with a red hue that didn’t match the hair on his head at all.  (Somewhere there’s a photograph of my dad at that time, sitting on my grandmother’s front porch, wearing an army style camouflage cap.  He looked exactly like Fidel Castro.)  My mother didn’t much like that beard.  My father said he would shave when he got a son or a buck.  Either one.  Whichever came first.

The third point is that my mother is half Mohawk.  She was born and spent the first decade or so of her life on the Akwesasne Mohawk reserve, which straddles the border of Canada and the US.  We would often make the winding drive to visit aunts and uncles and cousins there.  One day after a visit, on the return trip, the car held my parents, my sisters and myself, and a brand new brother, named Peter.  He was 18 months old at the time.

The particulars of how it came to be that we brought him home are not important.  What matters is that he was ours from that day on.  I wasn’t very old then, but I do remember the car ride home — I remember Peter’s little face peaking over my mother’s shoulder, watching us and smiling.  Oh, how I remember that smile.

Peter in an old photo taken when he was about 3. Even though the quality of the photo is poor, you can see how his face lit up with the sweet spirit of his smile.  He was some cute kid!

Peter in an old photo taken when he was about 3. Even though the quality of the photo is poor, you can see how his face lit up with the sweet spirit of his smile.

My father did not get his buck that season (nor any season, ever).  But he got his son, and true to his word, he shaved.  Peter grew and thrived, we girls grew and thrived, and my mother went on to eventually have three more babies – all of them boys.  And we were a rowdy raucous family of seven kids who were sometimes very close, and sometimes throwing things at one another.

Except for Peter.  At least, the way I remember him, and I’m telling the story so you’ll have to take my word for it.  If you happen to know or run into one of my siblings, they may tell the story differently.  That’s the way families work.

Peter was a quieter kid than the rest of us, he was by nature more even-tempered. And always, he was quick to smile.  He loved to hunt and fish, though he mostly used his hands for the latter – he was that patient and that quick.  As a teenager he took up wrestling and was pretty good and quick at that.  He was no push-over if really provoked.  Somewhere in those teen years, people started calling him Puck.

He tried his hand at many things.  He joined the Navy, hoping to travel, but that didn’t work out the way he planned.  He got married and moved back to the Adirondack town where we grew up.  He raised chickens for awhile, and for awhile he worked at the local paper mill.  Eventually he and his wife moved to Erie, Pennsylvania where her family lived.

Today is an anniversary of sorts.  Twenty-two years ago on a day like today, full of spring and glorious sunshine, I took my then two-year old son to the park, and later for the first ice cream cone of the season.  The phone rang as I was leaving the house, but I paid it no mind.  If it was important, whoever it was would call back.  Turned out it was my sister, and call back she did.

Peter was thirty-four years old on the last night he went to sleep.  A hemorrhagic tumor was the reason he didn’t wake up.  Twenty-two years is a long time.  Also, twenty-two years is no time at all.  It’s one of life’s many conundrums.

I believe in stories with happy endings, or at least in which there is the possibility of something honest and good.  In this story I once had a brother who possessed the kindest of hearts and a sweet smile.  We called him Puck.  He is with me still.  And that is enough good for now.

Puck holding my son.  Still the same smile.

Puck holding my son. Still the same smile.

The boy who wanted to be a stunt man.

We noticed when he began throwing himself down the stairs.

“What are you doing, trying to kill yourself?”

“No,” he said.  “I’m practicing to be a stunt man.”

Sometimes he’d start at the top of the stairs.  Seized by a heart attack at the age of seven, he’d clutch his chest, crumble to his knees, and then roll – bump, bump, bump – down each step.  Other times he’d start at the bottom and dash up – chased by a knife-wielding or gun-toting villain – only to be stabbed or shot in the back half-way up, whereupon he would crumble to his knees, and then roll – bump, bump, bump – down each step.  Backwards.

When he perfected falling down stairs, he moved on to leaping over trees.  Short trees to be sure, sapling evergreens, but a fair leap for a kid.  Eventually he graduated to flinging himself sling-shot fashion out of bigger trees.

The year my parents took part in a local theater production of Dracula, he pretended to be the lunatic Renfield, and collected flies in a jar.  He went around saying heh heh heh and wringing his hands for a year.

He had a paper route and accidentally set himself on fire.  He graduated high school and started lifting weights.  He grew muscles.  He went to college and studied chemistry.  He thought about becoming a pharmacist.  He got married and had two sons, instead.  When I got married he was best man at my wedding.  He showed up shortly before zero hour in a car with a door that wouldn’t open.

For a while he chased demons.

What happens from there to here?  From boy to man?  From lost to found?  Life.  Life happens.  And we manage somehow to muddle our way through it.

For the love of a good woman (my take on it), he has now found his way to where he needs to be.  He is not a stunt man.  He’s a research scientist/engineer and he would like to go to the moon.  Or at least into outer space.  I think that he is happy now.  Which is the best stunt ever.

He wins.

Boy bundled up & reading on a cold winter afternoon.

Stunt boy bundled up & reading on a cold winter afternoon.

N.B.  I started this as last week’s DPChallenge on Character.  I like stories, and what are stories, but a study of character?

My man, Wilkie . . . .

It may be possible in novel-writing to present characters successfully without telling a story; but it is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters.

                                                                    — Wilkie Collins

This is what it says in my Booklover’s Birthday Book for today.  On this day in 1824, the British author, Wilkie Collins was born.  I think it’s still a pretty apt quote for a guy who would be 189 years old were he still around.

The first time I heard the name Wilkie Collins it made me think of Wee Willie Winkie running around in his nightgown, yelling about kids being in bed by eight o’clock.  Then I read his book, The Woman in White.  I was a teenager by that time, and I thought his story was way better and eerier than any of the Nancy Drew mysteries I’d read earlier.  It was my stepping stone to the mysteries of Agatha Christie (who, in turn, was my stepping stone to John D. MacDonald; I spent my early 20s a little in love with Travis McGee).  Eventually, my mystery-reading phase was supplanted by my great American novel-reading phase and on and on until I outgrew reading phases entirely.

His life was fascinating, as real lives often are.  He was born with a bulge on the right side of his forehead which he never tried to hide, he studied Law (because his father thought it best), was called to the bar but never actually practiced.  He was also unconventional for his time, wrote prolifically, was friends with Charles Dickens, published with him, wrote plays with him and acted in Dickens’ amateur theatrical troupe.  All while supporting two families in two separate households (one under an assumed name), and suffering from gout and a laudanum addiction.  He died of a stroke at the age of sixty-five.

I think I’m going to have to go find me some Wilkie Collins books, because I do like characters.

Happy Birthday, Wilkie.  Here’s to you.  Your books are back in print and you’re looking pretty good for your age.

Wilkie Collins photo from Wikipedia.  You barely notice his forehead protuberance in it.  Or his laudanum addiction.

Wilkie Collins photo from Wikipedia. You barely notice his forehead protuberance. Or his laudanum addiction.

End-of-year salmagundi . . . .

Bird on saucer pm 2 signed

The picture has nothing to do with the post, but I like the insouciance of the little bird eating off the plate. I’m also a painter who doesn’t paint anymore because of the chemicals, and I like that I can take a photograph and manipulate it to look ‘kinda’ like a painting.

I am not a resolution person – I am a word person.  Word.  (Used by itself, word becomes an affirmation, which means I effectively just agreed with myself.)  I don’t believe in starting a new year with self-promises of giving up chocolate or swearing, or that I will exercise more, write more, and generally be a better person than I was the previous year.  Not that there’s anything wrong with people who do want to begin anew that way.  It’s just not for me.   So I was thrilled last week to read a blog post (by the lovely Jennifer Flint) that offered something different:  instead of making resolutions, choose a word.  The idea being that you think about what you would like to change in your life and find a fitting word that will inspire.   It’s not about trying and maybe failing, it’s about having a consistent source of inspiration.  I like that idea.  A lot.  And so, after careful consideration, my word for 2013 is:  RISE.  I’ll let you know next year how it worked out for me.

I liked this year.  Sure there was a lot of no-good-horrible stuff that happened in the world, but sadly, that’s always going to be the case, and you try to keep your head above it and do what you can to make it better or more bearable.  On a personal level, though, my son graduated college, found a job he really likes; my husband is finally able to drive the 1936 Dodge he’s worked so lovingly on restoring for that last decade-and-a-half; and I learned some important things about myself.  I also got an iPhone, which brought me back to photography.  And I’ve been writing.

One of the things I like about this time of year is looking over all the best-of lists, and the year-end round-ups in various magazines.  I have a terrible memory for events in time as it happens, but I find that if I look back at it in photos and/or read about it, things stick better in my head.  Someone recently pointed me to Google’s zeitgeist site.  God, I love the internet.  My only wish is that Al Gore would have invented it sooner.  It would have made homeschooling my son a lot easier and cheaper.

And what of the salmagundi?  Like revenge, it’s a dish best served cold.  It also means mixture or miscellany, like hodgepodge, which is the word I originally intended to use as a means of corralling my thoughts for this post.  But salmagundi is cooler.  Don’t you think?

My wish for today and tomorrow, is that we go fearlessly into the new year with spectacular results. Happy 2013, y’all.

Christmas Kindness: a Story

bag of gold small

Image futzed with using a photo by JWP.

Like the best stories, this one begins, once upon a time . . . .

There was a father, a mother, and a baby boy who was born in the dead of winter on a very cold day.  (I should warn you that if you think you know where this story is going, you are wrong.  This is not THAT Christmas story.  This is a different story entirely.)

The father and mother had little money, but they had a warm home, and their boy was exceedingly healthy, so they believed they had exactly what they needed.  The father worked at building machines and the mother worked at building the boy.  The boy was full of light and laughter and curiosity.  He had a mischievous sense of humor, a powerful imagination, and above all, he was persistent.  (A quality some people call stubborn, but those people are wrong.)

Years passed as years do.  The boy grew and grew.  People began to ask – what do you want to do with your life, boy?  What would you like to be?  But the boy didn’t know, for he was still a boy (albeit taller).  His parents said, be happy.  And he was.

The boy grew a little older, a little taller still.  He went to college and his head filled up with words and ideas; his heart filled with passion.  One morning he awoke to find that it was time to graduate.  A degree was bestowed upon him and there was much rejoicing by his family and his friends.

He found a job that he liked very much, but it was temporary.  He could have worried about what he would do when the job ended, but he chose to remain positive as he had always been, and to do and learn all that he could.  Happily, this strategy paid off.  The job became permanent.  (It’s called persistence, people.)

Christmas came.  The boy got his first Christmas bonus.  But this was no ordinary bonus.  This was merry Mr. Fezziwig extending joy and Christmas kindness.  This was a bag of gold coins.  So happy was the boy at this surprising presentation, that he laughed for a full minute.  The kind of sustained laugh his mother had marveled at throughout his childhood.  A laugh that began in his heart and rippled through his body until he looked ready to burst with the energy of it.

When he stopped laughing the boy knew what he would do.  He would carry the bonus around the city and give it away, coin by coin, to people who could use a dollar or two and a happy surprise.  So that he could share with others a moment of joy like the one he had felt in receiving the coins.

And that is exactly what he did.

Not The End

P.S.  If you like this story, feel free to share a kindness or two with someone, anyone, even by way of a smile.  It will make you feel good.  I promise.

P.P.S. This story was written for The BOY by his mother who is proud beyond measure of the superlative person he has become.  And also the mother is a tiny bit smug because she knew what his true worth was all along.  (She hopes to be forgiven of this.)

A story for Sunday . . . .

A story to ponder on a Sunday afternoon busy with holiday preparations.  Take a break.  Sit down and watch; it’s short — have a cup of tea why don’t you?  Listen to the words, to the lovely melody.

This is one of my favorite videos.  I’m a sucker for puppets, and there’s the whole archeological thing going on.  I haven’t thought about it in a while, and then a search for something unrelated, reminded me.  The song is by Josh Ritter.  The video by Liam Hurley.

There are different takes on the song’s meaning.  Being an optimist on matters of the heart, I prefer to think that the story is about boundless, never-ending love.

What do you think?