memory

Close-up #2: Familiar

It is dark outside when my half-sister pulls up to the rental house, but my son Smoke runs out to greet her. “I’ll carry your bag,” he says. His offer surprises me-I’ve never known him to play the gentleman. Once she’s inside, he tells her: “I can help you unpack.” “Why thank you,” she says. She is as surprised by I am at his chivalry. Her voice is the same as it’s always been—soft and almost laughing.

Smoke waits for her as she drinks a glass of water and uses the bathroom. While he waits, he lines her three bags against the wall from small to large. When she enters he is all eagerness, unzipping zippers, lining bottles in rows, putting shirts in one drawer, skirts in another. In the eight years he’s been alive, he has met my sister five or six times, but he is utterly, immediately at ease with her.

A memory: It is a hot summer night and I am sitting in my sister’s lap. I am four; she is nineteen. My parents have taken us to see a play at a community theater in rural Maine. Outside, the air has cooled. At intermission, we watched bats catch bugs by the outdoor lamps. But now we are back inside the theater where the air is still and muggy. We are waiting for the play to start again. The heat brings out all the body smells. My sister smells like baby powder and shampoo. Her hair spills over her shoulders. I pick up a handful and put it under my nose to pretend I have a mustache. It is an excuse to be as close to her as possible.

I wonder how it is that Smoke has recognized in my sister what has always been so comforting to me. He seems to intuit that all of her belongings are carefully selected treasures. He wants to be near her, in her space, sitting next to the woman who feels in some essential way just like his mother but also—and this is important—in some essential way mysterious and different.

image from: http://www.liberty.co.uk/fcp/categorylist/dept/paisley-fabric

Advertisements

Close-up #1: Nightlight

Your childhood bedroom in your childhood home. It is a guest room now, with a different bed, but you recognize the sheets: tan and printed with zebras and gazelles. They were your sheets once you’d outgrown the Muppets and Strawberry Shortcake, and now here they are, thirty years later, unstained. You lie there now with your three-year-old. It’s eleven pm. Because it’s your second day on the east coast, and you are straddling time zones: it’s eleven but also it’s eight. You are tired, but your son is not—he napped from 5 to 7. Your son is feeding you lines of a story while you drift off to sleep. “Tell it Mommy!” he says, and then you come to for a moment, and utter aloud what you think you just heard, but it’s not making much sense. “And then the dragon peeled the orange,” you say. You’re not sure if you’re repeating what he said, or if your sleep-brain is corrupting everything, spitting back a story that has nothing to do with his original. He doesn’t seem to mind though as long as you keep talking. “Mommy, tell it!” he commands again. When you open your eyes you can see his face in the glow of the nightlight. The nightlight was your brother’s: a silver crescent moon set against a circle of frosted glass. When he was a child it sat on top of a small wooden shelf that your father had carved to look like a cloud. That shelf is gone. The nightlight sits on top of the dresser now. Its light softens everything. “I’m tired,” you tell your son. “Can I please go to sleep now?” You are surprised and relieved when he answers “yes.”

The feeling wakes you up a little. You open your eyes and he’s lying still on his back, his eyes open, looking at nothing, looking at the ceiling. You watch him for a moment. His eyelids grow heavy and close. Then they open again. Open, close, open, close. His stillness startles you. It wakes you even more. This is the boy who climbs trees and throws sticks, who fights you with all the strength in his body when you try to carry him away from the park, the boy who refuses food and then screams because he’s hungry, the boy who resists nap time until he collapses from exhaustion but who, by some strange miracle, agrees to bedtime. You wonder what goes through his mind as he lies next to you in this room that used to be yours. What is behind those eyes? You remember a time when you were about the same age, lying in this same spot, and you were supposed to be asleep but you weren’t and you found a penny in your bed and discovered that it left a black mark against the wall and so you kept making lines, over and over, your mind wonderfully blank, caught in the slow motion of leaving your mark.

Your son is asleep now. You are awake. You get out of bed and turn out the light. Outside the window you can make out the branches of the backyard tree, a tree you saw nearly every day of your childhood. Somehow, in spite of time, it looks exactly the same, no bigger or smaller.

image credit: https://www.pexels.com/photo/full-moon-during-night-time-53153/

The Horse of Change

Last week, after learning that wildfires were destroying the area near our family cabin, I went searching through old photos. I sat alone at my desk, clicking through snapshots on a thumb drive, and when I came across this one I chortled.

horse

It surprised me, this photo.

When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that the most satisfying surprise is the surprise of recognition, the surprise of I-should-have-seen-that-coming-but-I-didn’t. That’s exactly how this photo felt to me: of course there was a horse in the window. That used to happen all the time.

One summer these horses roamed the valley and we watched them from a distance. We’d see them trot towards the creek at the bottom of the hill, or we’d drive by them in the meadow on our way down the mountain.

The next summer, Kellie bought a metal trough and filled it with fresh water from our well. The horses discovered this and every morning we had company. Just as the sun rose over the hill, I’d wake to the sound of them munching and nickering. They hung around the cabin for an hour or more, sidling up to the porch or the outdoor sink, pooping in our driveway. When I watched them from inside the cabin or when I went outside and stepped cautiously between them, I felt like I was the guest and they were the residents. I felt this way because it was true.

horsesKellie claimed that it was practical to have horses eating our grass, and I know that she was right. Tall grass becomes a fire hazard once it dries. But I also know Kellie well enough to understand her motives. She bought and filled the trough because she wanted their company.

The horses visited us at the cabin for two summers and then, the following spring, their owner sold them all. The land seemed awfully quiet the first summer they were gone. I would wake to a sunny day and watch the wind move through the grass, watch a bluebird perch on a mullein stalk. No one was tromping through; no one was munching.

By the next year I had all but forgotten the horses. Instead, I watched my baby learn to scoot himself across the floor. I fed him applesauce and oatmeal. I carried him on long walks. When I remembered that there had once been horses, my mind placed them halfway down a hill, living their own horse lives far from us. I forgot about how well we’d been acquainted.

horse2After the surprise of this photo, I spent some time marveling at how I could forget something so big as a horse in my window, how something so vivid could be buried so deep.

Slowly I remembered all the other lives I’ve led—my own life in three-year increments, iterations of me that felt permanent but were not.

I remember, for instance, the years I spent trying to get pregnant and how stark my world seemed then. How the chance of a baby felt like the fur mouse on a cat toy, alternately in reach and then so far away.

Or I remember when my first child was a newborn, and everyone kept saying “It all goes by so fast,” but instead those days slogged along. I nursed my baby every two hours, and then nursed him before bed for three hours straight, and then woke up in the night to nurse him some more. The whole process was in equal measures sublime and boring, precious and frustrating, and I thought it was my new forever-life.

Nearly every reality I’ve lived has felt permanent. Every reality has been temporary.

Our cabin, as far as I know has not burned down, but the world it occupies has been forever changed. Last night I dreamed that we returned to the land with our children and discovered that the surrounding hills were still burning. This is not far from the truth.

I do not know what we will find next time we return. I don’t know what landscape we’ll see on the seven-hour drive, if it will be ash, or scorched trees. I don’t know what I’ll see from our cabin window—to what extent the view will have changed.

I will say this: I am grateful to bear witness, to still have four walls and a porch in Okanogan County, to have years ahead of me to see how green forges a path through char and ash, to observe the cycle of devastation and regeneration. I know that it is a luxury to be at once connected to and distant from disaster: my loss is peripheral—something I love has shifted, but it has not left my world forever.

In three years remind me of the time before the fire. I will have forgotten by then.