Friday, January 25, 2013

Across the Desert: Dreams, in Devotion to My People

At Emerald House I feed my Grandmother peaches.

“I always did love me them peaches,” she says as I cut the canned slices into bite-sized pieces with the edge of the spoon before lifting it to her lips. They are drawn tight and narrowed as though ever prepared to receive her coffee cup, probably from long years of smoking, and still very much as I have stored them in memory. Except that now, instead of lipstick, she has had them defiantly tattooed eternally pink as a girl’s to match her lively inked eyebrows that dance immortally above her glassy green eyes.

“Peaches are my favorite fruit,” she goes on. “They remind me of summer. Maybe in the summer you can bring your kids and we can go to the park, and they can swim in the river, and we can pack us some sandwiches and some peaches.”

“That would be nice,” I say. “We should do that, in the summer.”

I lift another bite to her lips and then ask if she wouldn’t mind trying some of the cornbread they are serving tonight in the kitchen. Grandmother opens both mouth and eyes wide, bird-like, and I am careful not to put the slice in too far so that she can take a bite she is capable of chewing. As she chews I gently wipe the crumbs from her lips.

She swallows the bite. “That is some good cornbread! I never did like cornbread, but that is good.”

I help her take some more.

“Do any of your boys look like your dad?” she asks after her palette is cleared.

“Yes,” I say. “My oldest son does. He has my dad’s chin and nose and cheekbones. He’s a handsome boy.”

“I would like to meet him,” she says. “Or at least see a picture of your boy, especially if he looks like Merlin.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I say and offer another spoonful of peaches.

“That is my greatest joy in this life. That people say what a kind, good person Merlin was. That they speak so highly of him. And he’s my son,” she beats the palm of her hand to her sunken breast to emphasize each word. “I’ve been an ornery old cuss. They’s been a lot of people who thinks I’ve been too mean. It’s been so’s that’s how you have to be to live through a day. They was a while there when I really had a time of living. It doesn’t matter whether they’s 20 or if they’s 50. Your dad was 49, almost fifty when I put him in the ground. It doesn’t matter how old they is, if you lose a child, if you are their mother, that loss is deep.”

Her eyes mist over a little, and I take the gnarled fingers of her right hand in mine and feel the softness of her aged skin. The portraits of her three sons, including my father, her first-born, in his handsome Green Beret uniform, and two daughters hang on the wall behind her recliner. Though it has been years since I have seen any of them, I know the faces well. I see parts of my own in each of them.

 “Did you see what I done with them? How I laid them all out together? I figured it was the most I could do to keep them all next to each other.”

I know she is speaking of the Grove City burial plot, where one after another, beginning in 1968 she began laying her family in the ground. Her youngest son, Sheldon, a Marine killed in action in Viet Nam, and who was later awarded the Silver Star. Her husband, Dale, in 1970 following a self-inflicted gunshot wound. My father, Merlin, in 1994 after a long battle with astrocytoma introduced by the cancerous agent the U.S. government called “Orange.” And her daughter, Cheryl, Sheldon’s twin sister who died of sepsis following a botched routine medical procedure just three months after my father passed.

“I’ve seen it,” I say. “I didn’t realize that they were all together, so when I found Dad’s grave it was a pleasant surprise to find them there together. You done good, Grandmother.”

She sighs as if in surrender. “I’m glad you seen it. I did what I could.”

I offer more cornbread. For a woman who has never had a taste for the stuff, Grandmother seems an easy convert. I wipe her mouth before giving her more peaches.

“They tells me I just about left this place last week. I don’t know. I was just talking to my Jesus. I love my Jesus. People think I’ve been hard and mean, but it’s just my tough skin. I’m really just a softy underneath, and I always did love my Jesus.

“I always did love my Heavenly Father, always was religious. Deep religious, even from when I was just a little thing. They’s a time when I was a little girl, oh how I wanted to go to church! ‘Cept  I had no shoes. I was out on my horse, herding my cows, just a little thing, and I was a prayin’ to my Heavenly Father, to my Jesus, “Please bring me a pair of shoes so’s I can go to church!” And sure enough that night I had me a pair of Sundy shoes.”

“Do you know where they came from?” I ask.

“Well, sure I do,” she says with a sideways glance. “I’d seen them in the store, but who bought them for me I never found out. But I prayed to my Heavenly Father and He’s always been there for me. And I prayed and I prayed, all last week. And oh, how I love my Jesus! I knows I’ve done bad things. I know people thinks I’ve been mean. And I prayed to my Jesus for forgiveness, and He carries me through. He is my friend, and He gets me through.

“I remember when I was five and I had the pneumonia something terrible, and Mama sent me to stay with Grandma Wright and Grandma Casper. I was so took with the fever, they laid me between them all night to bring off the chills. And I asked them to bring me a Bible. When they brung it I had them lay it on my chest and quick as that I knew I was gonna get better, because my Jesus. He knows me. He knows my soft inside, even though so many says I been mean.”

Before my Grandmother’s stroke I hadn’t seen her in nearly twenty years. The last time was outside the Sunlight Mission on a clear December day in Santa Monica, 1993. The final operation to remove the invading tumor from my father’s brain was complete, he was stabilizing, and Grandmother was headed back to Idaho to use her newly acquired power of attorney to reroute all of his Social Security checks and shift his life insurance policies so that she was the sole beneficiary; a fact that I hadn’t understood at the time. All I knew was that my father lay in the Veteran’s hospital in North Ridge, only a day past the scalpel, and I was not ready to leave his side. The homeless shelter was the only option for long-term housing, and Grandmother was fine with that. She prepared me as she thought best, with a fresh carton of Camel Lights and a twenty-dollar bill she pressed into my hand. She told me to be good and then drove away in her Bronco. I was just shy of my nineteenth birthday and for all my rebelliousness as an adolescent I was completely unprepared for what would be my immersion in the pool below the bottom rung of life.

I lived in that shelter for three weeks, and in that time came to understand not only desperation, but why so many turn to Jesus in all His many images and embodiments. The greatest of those lessons came on the Wednesday before Christmas when I caught the bus from Santa Monica to Northridge.

My father was asleep when I arrived at his hospital room. His head was bandaged and he was connected to tubes to remove excess fluid from his brain and urine from his penis. His gown lay open exposing his torso and genitals, and I stood paralyzed in the doorway, helpless to do anything. Here was my father—the great tyrant of my childhood, authoritarian, wielder of gospel and priesthood, and deliverer of so much evil—reduced to a mere mortal by his own brain cells gone rouge. Here he lay, weak and exposed. And I couldn’t muster the strength to move a bit of cloth to give him his dignity.

Instead, I sat in a chair and gave to watching him for a long time. Memory doesn’t serve to tell me exact length, but long enough that I felt my years of anger and dismay melt into a softness that some might call compassion, maybe even forgiveness. When the nurse came in to administer his medications, she covered him and woke him to say that I was there.

“Bonnie,” he called to me. “What day is it?”

“It’s Wednesday, Dad.” It was the same question he hadn’t been able to answer a week before when the notary public came to evaluate whether he was of sound mind to transfer power of attorney to my Grandmother. He hadn’t been able to recall the name of the president either. I pulled my chair close to his hospital bed.

“It’s Wednesday,” he repeated. “Is your Grandmother here?”

“No, she went back to Idaho.” He seemed confused by this information, so I continued.  “But I’m here. I’m going to look after you.”

“You’ve already done that,” he said.

“I mean until you’re better, Dad. You’re doing well, but there’s still a long way to go.”

“I’m alright. I’ll be fine,” he insisted. “You’ve looked after me, now I want you to go home.”

“I’m staying in Santa Monica,” I told him. “It’s not that far away. I can take the bus and come and visit you whenever you need me.”

“No, you need to go home. You took good care of me, now you need to take care of your education.”

“Dad, I want to stay here with you,” I protested.

“I want you to go home and go to school,” he said and then began to drift. “I’m tired. I want to sleep.”

I watched him slip back into sleep for another endless expanse lost in terms of length in my memory of space and time. I don’t remember leaving the hospital that night or riding the bus back to the shelter, but I would like to think that before I did I kissed his sleeping head. It was the last time I saw my father alive.

Miracles collide with every life, some unreasonably simple and barely ample, others unexplainably complex and satisfying. Somewhere in between there is my return from Santa Monica to Salt Lake City that Christmas Eve, sent home with an errand to see to my education.

By June of that following year my mother and step-father had assisted me in taking the GED, the ACT, and applying to Utah State University. On July 1, 1994 my father passed away. I am not stranger to the tension that existed between my mother and my father’s family. Though times have come and gone that I don’t want to understand why my mother didn’t permit me to go to my father’s funeral, I was there during the years of my father and mother’s marriage, and it would be wrong to pass judgment on her, especially if I was able to sit in that hospital chair in Northridge and find compassion for the man whose violence patchworked the fabric of my youth.

“I always did like me them peaches,” Grandmother says as she chews another bite. “We should pack a picnic in the summer and go down to the river so’s the kids can swim. That would be good.”

“I remember you taking me to the river when I was a kid,” I tell her. I can see her mind working for the memory, but it doesn’t come. “We went down with poles and went fishing.”

“Did I make sandwiches?” she asks. “I always likes to make sandwiches if we’re going to the river. It’s good for the kids.”

“You did. And you showed me how to carve pennywhistles from willows.”

I can see in her eyes that she still hasn’t recalled the outing. Just as well. She’d spent most of it drinking beers with her girlfriend whittling away at that stupid willow branch that never actually whistled. All the while we kids had free reign of the embankment overlooking the Snake, the same river featured in stories my father told me from his own childhood. After nights and nights of practicing paddling in bed, he had told me my Grandmother threw him into the current to teach him how to swim. In retrospect it doesn’t seem the kind of behavior too far removed from leaving a squirrely grandchild on the steps of a homeless shelter in Santa Monica. And perhaps that is how in terms of inheritance my people best learn.

Grandmother started having babies at sixteen. She’d been through two husbands, and outlived two long-term boyfriends. She worked most of her life as a hairdresser and a barkeep, drinking as much on the side as she served. Perhaps in terms of survival that’s what my people do.

“I’ve been doing research on Great Grand-dad, Grandmother,” I say, and her eyes brighten. “I’ve been looking for his biological family, the Adams. I’ve found his mother, Josie Vincent Adams, but for the life of me I can’t find his father.”

Grandmother begins shaking her head. Her face twists in displeasure.

“I’ve been through the papers from the orphanage where his mother gave him up with his brothers and sister. She listed him under three different names, all with the surname Adams, and said that he was deceased. I’ve searched and searched, but I can’t find anything more about him. Can you tell me anything?”

Grandmother hasn’t stopped shaking her head.

“No, he didn’t die. He was bad. A bad, bad man. He didn’t want to take care of them. He left. He was bad.” She will speak no more of him.

“The papers said she gave the children up because of poverty,” I say. “Four of them, and Grand-dad was only two-years-old.”

She nods. “He left. Grandmother Adams couldn’t take care of them, and she had to give her babies up. And that’s when Grandmother and Grand-dad Wright came and took Daddy and another boy home. They was only three or four by then, and Grand-dad died just a few months later. Grandmother Wright took care of them boys alone until she remarried.”

“I didn’t know she had,” I say.

“Isaac Earl, was his name. He was a no good too. Grandmother Wright was pregnant by him when the boys was just little, and Earl beat her so bad that she lost the baby.”

“Did she leave him?” I ask.

“Oh no. She stayed with him. And when we was little he tried to molest all us girls. I remember he tried to do it to me when I was just twelve, but I jabbed him so hard in the belly, just as hard as I could. And I done got away and told Daddy,” Grandmother’s eyes are foggy again and she pauses. “I never did understand why Daddy didn’t do nothin’ to him. I guess that’s how things was done back then. Daddy and Earl had a talkin’ to and that was it. They done talked it over and that was all that happened.”

I regard my frail Grandmother, wondering about the strength of a twelve-year-old girl against a grown man. The fog clears and she smiles at me.

“We sure know how to pick them, don’t we?” I say. “Why do you think that is?”

“Because womenfolk is just better than men, naturally,” she answers.

The cornbread is finished and the peaches are almost gone. I’ve begun cutting the slices into smaller and smaller bites.

“Anyway, I wanted to tell you that I’ve tracked down Josie, Grandmother Adams,” I say. “All the way to Grays Harbor, Washington where she is buried. She remarried a man by the name of Lewis shortly after giving Grand-dad to the orphanage. She wrote letters trying to find the children. I think she wanted them back, but all of the correspondence from the orphanage claims that they aren’t able to locate and of the children after they had been placed. She went on to have three or four more children after that.”

Grandmother snorts with amusement. “I’d a thunk once she’d given up them babies she’d a closed up shop.”

“You’d think,” I say. “But maybe she was trying to fill the loss for the babies she’d been forced to let go.”

There is silence between us. I offer Grandmother another small bite of peaches and she chews with an expression of deep consternation for much longer than the peach should last.

“So Grandmother Adams and Grandmother Lewis is the same person?”

“Yes, I suppose they are.”

“You know what I’d like?” she asks me. “I’d like to see me a picture of Grandmother Lewis. You know she was an Indian? She was from an Indian tribe in Wisconsin. Daddy always told me the Indian blood in her made her a big woman. I’d like to see a picture of her. I thought I seen one once, where they was all sitting out in front of this house on a big porch, her and the kids, and Daddy was in it too.”

“I think I may have a copy of that,” I say. “The last time I was here I was looking through your albums and I remember that one. I took a picture of it. I could find it for you.”

“I wasn’t awake when you came before. They told me you was here, but I don’t remember it.”

I pat Grandmother’s hand sadly. My last visit had been our reunion; the first time I had seen her since that December day in Santa Monica, the first reconnection with my father’s people in nineteen years. I want to remind her how hard I had worked to find her; searching records, calling people who might know her, and how finally, just a week following her stroke I had found her in the Bingham Memorial Hospital. I want to tell her that during that visit we were together for three hours that we had hugged and cried, how she had told me story after story about my father as a child, and that she had insisted that I was the one lost, not her. Instead, I nod. These memories are for my benefit alone, so that I will treasure the reclamation of my origins for what they are: my own.

“It’s alright, Grandmother.”

“So I must have it here?” she asks me, confused again.

“That was before you were moved to Emerald House. I’m not sure where the original is now, but I’ll look for my copy and bring it to you next time. So you can see Grandmother Lewis.”

“Did you know that Daddy used to ride his horse across the desert to court Mama?”

“By the desert, you mean from west of Blackfoot into town?”

Grandmother shoots me a look like I must be daft not to know which desert she means. “Oh no, the desert from Blackfoot to Idaho Falls.”

“All that way? On horse?”

“All that way,” she says. My great-grandparents married when Grand-dad was sixteen and Granny was seventeen. I deduce my great-grandfather began his thirty mile treks at no older than fifteen, probably navigating by the Snake River as it cuts through the lava and sagebrush of the East Idaho desert, all to win the hand of my great-grandmother. Seventy two years later they had brought ten children into the world, worked and played side-by- side before passing away within a year of one another. In a great genealogical web of abusive, broken homes, multiple remarriages, and long-standing instability, Grand-dad and Granny trail blazed the road to devotion. My people know devotion.

“You should ask him to tell you the story the next time you see him. Daddy is so much better at telling it than I am. Be sure to ask him to tell you before he goes.”

I’ve been told that in the final weeks prior to birth, a developing fetus spends much of its time asleep, including periods of rapid eye movement we known as REM sleep. It is during REM state that the brain dreams. I have wondered about this transition from one concrete paradigm to another. Somewhere deep within the cortex of our awareness is there a deeper understanding, a preparatory mechanism that stimulates the brain for what is to come, like some deep repository of universal understanding that quickens and blooms just before we press through the end of one cycle into whatever is next? Do those dreams shimmer with memories and faces of what has preceded, like an hour glass shaken so that beginning and end become confused and all that is left are the grains of some from a great desert and the slithering rivers of time that devour head and tail in the endless flow of the eternal? Is that how it is now for this woman before me?

I want to reach through her gaze and touch them. I want to feel the hands of my great-grandparents, my adoptive great-great-grandmother Wright, my biological great-great-grandmother Josie. I want to take the hands of my father in my own. But rather, I take my Grandmother’s face in my hands before I leave. I hold it as I hold the faces of my children, and I look into her eyes so that she knows I have nothing to hide from her.

“I will come back. Before it is summer or warm enough to take the kids to the river for sandwiches and swimming. I will come back and I will bring peaches,” I tell her. I kiss her cheeks, her forehead, her tattooed lips and tell her that I love her, though the words do not match the power of the waves crashing on the sand of my soul.

Sometimes I imagine myself as the first brave creature to try out its fins as legs and to give up the sea in its lungs to experience the air.  What am I then? To whom did I belong? The tug-of-war between land and sea has long raged in my blood. While I have no data to support the claim I would surmise that many children raised in abusive homes struggle with this same quest for reconciliation with their identity. Some come away whole. Others live their lives as wreckage, at odds with both the shore and the waves. I think my father understood, and in his final words to me he set me on the path to reclamation.

To know ourselves we must learn all we can, about ourselves and the world around us. We must lay bare every detail, even the most painful parts of ourselves, and lay naked for the next generation to look at all of our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Then we must send our children in search of themselves, for we are not complete until all our generations have finished themselves, been reconciled, and come away whole.

And when those who have come before us never find that peace of naked self-awareness, we must let them look into our eyes and plead with us, saying, “My Jesus knows me and has never left me. My Jesus understands the softness beneath my mean.” Then we must travel the desert, on horseback if necessary, thirty miles by way of the winding river, to learn the devotion of healing. We must meet our people when they can come no farther.

Go home and see to your education, my father told me. And then he rested.

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