ASSIGNMENT ONE: THE BODY OF MEMORY
I’d never seen my mother pack a suitcase before. It worried me, especially when I saw her folding my favorite purple sweater into a neat square, smoothing the sleeves back, turning it over, and bending it in at the waist before placing it into what looked like a blue cardboard box with a handle.
I watched from the doorway to my bedroom, my left thumb going immediately into my mouth for comfort, my right hand reaching for a strand of long hair and twirling it around and around my fingers.
She must have sensed my presence because she turned around and smiled at me. We’re going on a trip, she said. But she spit out the word “trip” as if it left a sour taste on her tongue.
I could always sense when my mother was unhappy. A worried sadness emanated off her like mist from the freezer. I could feel the mist on my face that morning as I watched her putting my purple sweater, then the matching corduroy pants, and finally, my pink flowered nightgown, into the suitcase.
“We’re going to drive to Canada,” she said then. “Your daddy wants to take us all to Niagara Falls.”
I loosened my grip on the tightly twisted section of hair. If my father was involved, it couldn’t be all that bad. He wasn’t around much, but when he was, everything was a lot more fun. Riding in his car was especially enjoyable, the big black Chrysler sedan gliding along the highway at top speed, its engine purring like a sleek panther.
I walked over to stand beside her and peer inside the suitcase. “We have to take clothes with us,” she said, “because we’ll be spending the night in a hotel.” Another spit out word.
Hotels, suitcases, and car trips – all unusual occurrences for most middle class families in the late 1950’s. If you were lucky, you might get a trip to your grandparent’s cottage Up North, or spend a weekend camping at one of the state parks along the Great Lakes. In our neighborhood, just outside the Detroit city limits, we figured only rich people stayed in hotels. At age five, I wasn’t quite sure I knew what a hotel was. But I knew it was somewhere my mother didn’t want to go, so I was immediately wary.
“Should I take Tedrick?” I asked. Tedrick was the brown stuffed bear I slept with every night.
“Yes,” she answered. “You can take Tedrick. But make sure you don’t lose him.”
I rushed to the bedside and grabbed up the toy, hugging him tightly to my chest, determined not to let him out of my grip until we were all safely home again.
My father’s cheerful whistle announced his presence in the hallway. “Let’s get a move on!” He called out, scooping me up into his arms. “The horses are rarin’ to go!”
Soon I was ensconced in the center of the Chrysler’s enormous back seat, tucked between my grandparents who, I was astounded to see, were also going on the trip. There was a Bambi coloring book, and a new package of Crayola 24’s waiting for me. I leaned against my grandmother’s ample bosom, taking in the deliciously familiar scent of her Lady Esther talcum powder, and tucked Tedrick in next to my grandfather. “Watch him,” I ordered, as I opened the box of crayons. “Don’t let him out the window.”
My grandfather nodded with great seriousness. “Don’t you worry,” he said. “I’ll keep a close eye out.”
My mother settled into the front passenger seat and sighed.
At some point I must have fallen asleep, because I can’t remember much about the rest of the drive. It takes five hours to travel from Detroit to Niagara Falls, maybe less if the traffic is light and my father could “let the horses out” as he would say, pushing the speedometer to nearly 100 miles per hour. When I awoke, it was to the sound of roaring water, and my father’s voice urging me from the car. Still groggy, I started to scamper out the back door.
“Charlie, hold her hand!” my mother cried. “Watch her, there’s traffic!”
“I’ve got her, Ruth, for crying out loud,” he said, grasping my hand and leading me across a wide boulevard toward the observation point.
I remember the sensation of my jaw dropping open in complete awe at the sight before my eyes. At age five, the biggest body of water I had seen to date was Elizabeth Lake, a small, placid lake near my Aunt Lillian’s house in Pontiac. This mountain of pouring water right in front of me, cascading relentlessly into deep, swirling pools, was a true wonder of my tiny world.
“Isn’t that something, baby?” my father asked, as proudly as if he were responsible for this force of nature. He lifted me up onto his shoulders, and a momentary shiver of fear rushed down my spine as I felt myself rising above the chain link fence surrounding the observation area.
My mother suddenly moved swiftly beside me and grasped my ankle where it dangled over my father’s shoulder and onto his chest. “My god,” she gasped, her hand forming an iron grip on my leg. “Be careful with her.”
By this time my grandparents had joined us at the railing. “Would you look at that,” my grandfather said, taking off his grey felt hat as if in reverence at the sight. My grandmother remained silent, standing slightly behind my father as if to catch me were I to fall backwards off my perch.
My moment of fear quickly turned to delight as I watched the water continue to fall. “Does it ever stop?” I wondered, amazed at the notion of water running forever and ever without being shut off by some miraculous hand from heaven.
“Never,” my father answered. “Until the end of time it will fall just like that.”
We ate dinner in a very fancy restaurant that night, the kind with linen tablecloths, cloth napkins, and lots of silverware lined up neatly beside the plates. There were windows all around, and I was allowed to sit facing them so I could keep watching The Falls. I had spaghetti and meatballs, which were good, but not nearly as good as the ones my mother made every Wednesday night. My mother and father laughed a lot at dinner, I remember that. My grandfather was his usual quiet self; my grandmother kept cutting up my food and urging me to eat more. “This isn’t half bad,” she said once. “And I don’t mind letting somebody else clean up the mess for a change.”
When we finished our meal, we wandered outside where dusk had begun to set in. Within a few minutes of leaving the restaurant, The Falls were suddenly bathed in rosy light. A chorus of oohs and aahs rose from the onlookers who had gathered in anticipation of the night lighting, and rang out afresh each time the lights changed color – from pink, to blue, to green and gold.
I grabbed my mother’s hand in excitement. “Oh look!” I said. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
She squeezed my hand and we walked over to the railing, joining other families who had collected there to gaze at the sight. I looked at her face, which no longer seemed misty with sadness or worry, but peaceful and calm in the cool night air. A cool mist brushed lightly over our faces, but it was only the feathery spray from The Falls. My father stood beside her, his arm loosely around her waist. “This is pretty nice after all, isn’t it?” he asked.
“It’s not bad,” she replied, and smiled at him.
I visited my father about a month ago. He lives in Florida now, with his second wife, the woman who used to be his secretary and then became something so much more. Every time I see my father these days, he recalls the same stories. The trip to Niagara Falls is one of them.
“Do you remember that time we went to Niagara Falls?” he’ll ask.
“Yes, I sure do,” I reply.
“It took me weeks to convince your mother to take that one trip, he said. Weeks! She was afraid you’d get sick, or it would rain, or the hotel would be dirty.”
“Imagine that,” I say.
“Finally, I convince her to go. Of course, she couldn’t go unless Grammy and Granddad came along. What did she think, I couldn’t take care of you both?”
“I don’t know what she thought,” I answer truthfully.
“So we go, and it’s a perfect day, and everything is all hunky dory.”
“I remember,” even 50 years later able to recall the wonder of seeing those Falls and hearing the thunderous roar of that water.
“But then it was time to go to the hotel,” he continues. “And she pulls me aside and starts to cry. ‘Oh, Charlie,’ she says, ‘please let’s go home. I just want to sleep in my own bed.’”
“For crying out loud! I said to her. It’s 9:00 at night. I don’t want to drive all the way home now. ‘But Dad can help you drive,’ she says. ‘It’s only five hours. We’ll get coffee. Please, I just have to sleep in my own bed.’”
He stops talking and shakes his head. “I never could understand what she was so afraid of,” he says sadly. “But she ruined the whole trip for you, and I was just sick about it.”
Here’s the thing – I don’t remember the trip being ruined at all. I remember getting bundled into the dark back seat of the car, remember my grandmother tucking me under her arm and pulling me close to her, remember seeing my grandfather’s profile as he looked out the window into the dark night. I remember the shooshing sound of the tires gliding over the road, lulling me to sleep. I remember being tired and peaceful and quite happy. Somehow I missed the sadness and worry that must have overcome my mother at some point between the restaurant and time to go to the hotel. I was so excited with the whole adventure that I forgot to worry about her and all the things she seemed afraid of, all the fears she had about being away from home.
My mother is 85 years old now, and she still lives in her own home. The house is much too big for one frail, elderly woman. I worry about her all the time, and although I live just around the corner, sometimes even that seems too far away. When I watch her struggle to climb the stairs, or hear her moan slightly with arthritis pain, I sense that mist of worry shrouding my own face, enveloping me in a cold sweat and surely emanating off me like the mist from Niagara Falls.
And I wonder – can she feel it? and is she still afraid?
ASSIGNMENT TWO: A Contemplative Essay
My two little dogs like to sleep side by side under my desk when I’m writing. It’s a tiny spot, but they accommodate each other by curling themselves into a “c” shape, and one will often use the other’s flank as a pillow. They can lie sleeping like this for several hours, acting as my sentinels while I’m working. Sometimes Magic will hear a noise he considers suspicious – perhaps the sound of teenagers walking down the street, their language peppered with profanity, or the teeth-grating buzz of a motorbike – and I can feel his head and hackles rise as he prepares to bolt out of his small cavern of safety and run barking to the front window. Molly will quickly follow suit, for she is always perfectly attuned to his emotions and determined to mimic his every action.
Most of the time they are the picture of domestic bliss, these two little animals that share my home and own my heart. But occasionally, Magic, who is the more aggressive of the two, will rise up against Molly. For no apparent reason, he runs at her, blows a loud, harsh bark right in her face, and even grabs her by the scruff of the neck. He throws himself against her, tackling her like a quarterback at the end of the 10-yard zone. Her big black eyes widen for a second with primal fear, her tiny face registers first surprise, and then resignation. She literally rolls over and takes it, the egregious growling and snarling, the violent grab at the neck. It’s over in a matter of seconds and she lies on her side, panting. He stops, clearly startled at his own behavior, and then usually sniffs her crotch momentarily before turning his back and walking away. She gets up, shakes herself off, makes the little snorting sound so common to Shih Tzu’s (we call it “snorfing”) and ambles back to whichever piece of furniture she had been lying on prior to being attacked so viciously.
My little dog’s aggressive behavior seems designed purely to put his sister in her place.
It occurs to me that this behavior is not unlike what goes on the real world these days. In a recent Huffington Post article, author Kathleen Reardon wrote, “How mean-spirited so many of us have become — how quickly and how frequently we demean others. Critical argument in the U.S. media is no longer about seeking truth to correct or sustain our formative values but rather it is about winning so that others might lose.” Having read this article in the aftermath of another public figure being crucified by the media, I can only concur that Ms. Reardon has a point.
As a society we are quick to pounce when given the opportunity, quick to point the finger at wrongdoers, quick to grab them by the neck and shake them until we’ve completely wrung them (and their families) dry. And while I do not condone the actions of the John Edwards’, or the Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, the Lindsay Lohan’s or the Charlie Sheen’s, or whoever tomorrow’s next hapless victim will be, is it really all that productive to prolong the disparagement and promulgate it throughout all manner of media? Doesn’t it teach our children that it’s acceptable to torment people when they are already at the lowest point in their lives? And mightn’t this attitude be a steppingstone to the kind of bullying behaviors that are becoming so problematic in schools nationwide?
My husband has recently returned to full time employment after working at home as a contract employee for two years. He came in yesterday after a particularly long day and said, “I’d forgotten what a dog eat dog world it is out there.”
“How so?” I asked, the image of Magic attempting to devour Molly coming unbidden into my head.
“It feels like somebody or other is always out to get you,” he replied. “You have to constantly be on guard or someone, out of spite or stupidity or both, will do you in.”
That’s a hard way to feel about the world, and I’m saddened that he has this perception. He thinks that I’m naïve, because I still believe the world would be a much better place if we all only respected each other and learned to get along. You’re dreaming, he sneers at me. That’s not human nature.
Obviously, if I were to compare myself to one of my two dogs, I would be Molly, who tends to roll over and take whatever life dishes out, although not, I admit, without occasionally uttering my version of a “snorf” in complaint, even though no one but the dogs are around to hear it. But there is a tender spot in my heart that’s a mile wide – perhaps too wide for my own good. Because I also have to admit that people sometimes take advantage of my good heartedness, and therefore abuse me to some degree as well.
But I continue to believe in the power of virtue and human decency, and if being a “nice” person rather than a “mean” one causes me the occasional headache or inconvenience, I’m willing to sacrifice that to the greater good of civility, tolerance and forgiveness.
ASSIGNMENT THREE: NATURE WRITING
The River Rouge
For more than 30 years I’ve come walking here in Lola Valley Park, where the Rouge River travels south from Rochester Hills before it spills into the Detroit River and the two finally merge into Lake Erie. I’ve walked here with dogs – my Cocker Spaniel, who plunged headfirst into every thicket, dreaming of glory and hoping against hope to flush a pheasant, a duck, or at the very least, a rabbit; and my two Shih Tzu’s who aren’t hunters, but work their noses mighty hard on the many tree trunks and tufts of high grass. I’ve walked with my son when he was an infant in a stroller, and accompanied him when he was a youngster on a bike. For a number of years I was barren of either animal or child, and I walked the park alone leaving lonely shadows of footprints on the dew-soaked morning grass.
Today, I’m alone because I want to observe this place more closely, pay attention to the sights and sounds I’ve mostly taken for granted. There are major demographic and socio-economic changes afoot in this community, and I’m wondering whether they are adversely affecting the park and the river. I skivvy down the steep embankment, mindful of tree roots that have erupted above ground level, and make my way across the wide valley floor toward the edge of the river. It feels as if the riverbanks have encroached more deeply on the river itself, narrowing an already slender passageway and forcing the water level even higher. Opposite me, along the hill leading up the south side of the river, a tree has fallen and died, it’s skeletal branches outstretched in surrender. Grass and weeds run riot along the hilly banks, like a child’s long hair that’s been left untended, filled with knots and tangles. It’s a shoreline that’s unkempt and uncared for, left to the cope with the natural effects of time and age in whatever way it can.
The water is higher than I’ve ever seen it. We’ve had so much rain this spring and summer that the river has risen almost even with its bank, tickling the edge of wild grass growing nearly waist high along the rim and seeping in between the roots of wild daisies and Queen Anne’s Lace that have sprung up bravely amongst the weeds. The river is so high right now, you might almost say it’s rolling, swirling and burbling busily along instead of the familiar lazy meander I’m accustomed to. It no longer feels peaceful, but agitated and unsettled.
There’s nothing beautiful about the Rouge River. I’ve walked beside beautiful water – the sultry, placid foam in the Gulf of Mexico in Southwest Florida, the sparkling fervor of the Pacific Ocean in Northern California, even the rugged, regal beauty of the Great Lakes here in my home state. But the Rouge is a working waterway, a different animal entirely than the lakes and oceans that invite pleasure seekers to their shores. Once a main thoroughfare for Canadian fur traders working their way north in longboats and canoes, the spot where I’m standing was the “fording place” in the Rouge, a function that eventually gave my township it’s name – Redford. In the early part of the 20th century, the river was channelized to allow freighters access where it passed the Ford Rouge Plant, freighters that could haul steel and auto parts between the many production plants in the “downriver” area.
When I tramp through the overgrown thickets, I can picture those traders pulling their canoes up the bank, making camp in the shelter of this deep valley, hear the belch of those freighters as maneuver in and out of the channels with their heavy loads.
But the water today looks brown and surly, as if roomfuls of muddy children have used it for a bathtub. Keeping this waterway clean is an ongoing community effort, and days are set-aside for volunteers to come and haul debris out of the water. I’ve never been one of them though, a fact which now shames me more than a little. I’ve called this place home for most of my life, and was taught that a responsible person cares for their home, keeps it well ordered and maintained. Standing on the muddy banks of the Rouge, knowing there were times I could have worked with others to make a difference, I feel as if I’ve been a poor steward to this small section of planet earth.
I stop walking and perch for a while on a convenient tree stump, one I often used in the winter when my son would be sledding on the hills. I could sit here and drink the hot chocolate I’d brought in a thermos while my son went flying down the hill on a red plastic saucer (which replaced the wooden Flexible Flyer sled my husband probably used when he came sledding on these same hills as a child.) I picture my husband as a boy, walking to school through the park and crossing the river on a cement bridge that once spanned the water. All that remains of the bridge is a broken slab that’s been propped there at the edge of the bank for as long as I can remember.
Today, I notice that graffiti has been scrawled on it.
For a moment, I feel frightened being here alone. The neighborhood is not the small, safe community it started out to be when those fur traders brought their families and decided to build a settlement here. In fact, this township is succumbing to the same process of neglect and decay that threatens the Rouge River. A few months ago, our home was burglarized in the middle of a sunny afternoon. Our televisions, our computers, our cameras, were all whisked away in just a few minutes, never to be seen again. So we’ve begun talking about moving farther west, into “better” areas with lower crime rates.
Down in this deep valley, with its thick vegetation and gigantic trees, there are plenty of places where bad things could happen. And yet, the sun still sparkles among the green leaves as they flutter in the cool summer breeze. A flash of white catches my eye, just in time for me to spy a pair of chipmunks showing their white bellies as they scamper among the lacy network of tree limbs above me. A symphony of birdsong echoes everywhere – a soprano sounding yew-hoo, a triple-tongued tweedle-uh-tweet, sixteen straight beats of a staccato sounding tenor, all punctuated by the occasional tat-tat-tat-tat of woodpecker hard at work. Listening to their melody, carried across the valley by the wind’s soft susurration, I wish I had spent as much time learning to recognize bird calls as I did learning the instruments of the orchestra.
The natural world that coexists with the industrial world is not the pretty picture-postcard view of nature we conjure in our minds. Here the water might be brown and turgid, rather than a clear, sparkling blue. The trees and plants are wild and jagged, not pristinely manicured or precisely arrayed. Yet there is a rugged beauty to this landscape and the people that live in it which makes me proud. Like the lines deeply etched into the faces of the elderly, the scars on this landscape can be worn with pride in a job well done, the job of supporting people like fur traders and assembly line workers, and the families that they love.
I clamber back up the hill, out of the bowl-shaped valley and onto the road leading home, thinking about what it takes to survive here in the Midwest, in this gritty automotive town where work has always involved making the things people use everyday, the machines and products that are functional and necessary for real life in the real world- from fur coats and blankets for warmth and protection, to steel for planes and cars and trains to move the world along. You have to be hardy, no matter what happens, even when things get dirty and rough. You have to persevere and keep growing, even if you’re neglected and uncared for.
You have to be a lot like the River Rouge, and stay the course, no matter what.
ASSIGNMENT FOUR: LYRIC ESSAY
First Box: Emily Christine (1920-2008)
Who would want those old things? My mother in law asked when I arrived to help her pack. Just throw them away.
This quilt – my mother made me this for my wedding. It’s all yellow and faded! Why would anyone want that?
Look at my grandfather’s Bible. The cover’s been torn somehow. That’s his name, there on the inside, Thomas Watson Allen, Vicar, 1879.
There’s that Pyrex dish, I haven’t used that in so long. It was always just the right size for those scalloped potatoes we liked for Christmas dinner.
Such an old picture of Jim – wasn’t he just the cutest little boy? Look how he’s sitting there so perfect, and his little bow tie so straight.
She tossed them all into the garbage can. Later that day after the moving was done, I retrieved them and tucked them safely away into a box.
Second Box: Alfonso Bruner, “Tex” (1924-2009)
What will he need where he’s going? my aunt asked. What should we pack for him to wear?
He loves those pajamas you got him, the soft flannel ones, but he’s worn them so thin I’m ashamed for anyone to see them.
He’ll need lots of socks, let me see, the best ones are here, these thick white ones will keep his feet warm, his feet are always so cold.
These Dockers pants are his best, even though he’s gotten so skinny they barely stay up. If only he’d eat, but he won’t anymore.
And his shaving brush, the boar’s head bristle brush, the only kind he’ll use, it’s downstairs in the bathroom. Someone will have to shave him I guess.
And his Bible – don’t forget his Bible. He can’t read it anymore but he likes to hold onto it.
We put it all into a box and placed it in the trunk of my car. But when I got where he was going, he was already gone.
Third Box: Lissa Marie (1924-2009)
Can you come home? My mother asked. It’s your aunt, she’s awfully sick and in the hospital.
Oh honey, you didn’t need to come, my aunt tells me. I’m ready to be with Jesus, I want to be with Jesus.
Don’t forget now, I put my diamond ring in the toe of an old brown boot there in the front bedroom closet. You must go home and get that right now. Uncle Tex would want you to have it.
And my purse – where did they put my purse when they brought me in here? Better look for that, honey, and take it home with you. There’s some money in the billfold, you go get yourself a nice dinner.
I think they put all my clothes in a bag and stuck them in that closet. You might as well take them home too.
When you come back would you bring my Bible, you know the one, on the table by the couch where I always sit?
Three days later I gently lay the Bible in a box, on top of her dark green slacks and the matching Alfred Dunner plaid blouse, the black leather purse with her billfold (and the money) still inside it. The diamond ring is on my finger.
Three boxes, sitting side by side, like monuments at the bottom of my basement stairs.