Friday, August 15, 2014

Thanksgiving: Generations

I scurry about the house, jittery, focusing on the preparations. It’s always like this. In the hours before everyone arrives, the idea of the family dinner intimidates me. I try to conjure ideas for witty conversation while spreading table cloths and pulling dishes from cabinets, but when the time comes, all wit escapes me.

Seasons mark the passage of time, like generations retiring to make room for the young. Some people like spring. The new growth and cool showers rejuvenate them. Others like summer, basking in the sun and outdoor fun. Then there are those who baffle me with their affinity for the snow and teeth-chattering short days of winter. My favorite is autumn. I love the warm colors falling like rain drops from the trees. I love the metallic tang in the air when I step outside. I love Thanksgiving, and a large family dinner. Everyone leaves their far-flung corners to gather for sustenance, physical and emotional.

I set out silverware and plates, arrange napkins, and devise a centerpiece. As I move about the long, make-shift arrangement of tables lined end-to-end, I envision everyone, already in their chairs, chattering and laughing as they wait for the feast. As I notice a similarity of traits in my clan, the image focuses on three figures.

My grandfather sits at the head of the table. His balding head gleams in the soft light, his large frame cocked to the left, with his elbows planted on the table. His huge hands, seamed with wrinkles and age spots that belie my childhood memories of a man in his prime, link loosely together just below his square chin. Thin lips press together in the slightest of smiles. It’s difficult to tell if his smile is the outward expression of a sense of superiority, which lies just below the surface, or simply mild amusement. There's something fantastic in his shoulders, in the way he holds them, as if an invisible mantle hangs upon them that bestows a greater…everything. He pulls his shoulders back and holds them straight, steadfast. They embody the pride he carries with him, like a coat of armor, inspiring admiration for the soldier of years past. His shoulders have carried large burdens, too heavy for many men. They embody strength and security. But armor can shield too well, preventing true closeness and intimacy. I'm certain I'll never peel that armor back quite far enough to see what hides underneath.

Then I picture my brother. He sits much looser, without the obvious rigid control of the man beside  him; he projects less visible tension. But as he shifts in his chair, I spot the signs of restlessness. He’s never still for long. His hands, so similar to his grandfather’s, are gentler in some indefinable way. They rest upon the table, then cradle the back of his head as he leans back with a sigh. The arms are thinner, more sinuous. But his shoulders mimic his ancestor's. Not quite as broad, but they have the same lines. I see the deeper differences, though. These shoulders speak of more pain endured and truly felt; absorbed rather than deflected. They do not offer the same inviting impression of security. More vulnerable, less guarded. But I know they shelter something within. The armor isn’t as thick, but it’s made from the same resilient material and formed from the same mold.

Last, I see my son in my vision. The thought brings a tightening in my chest; an unbearable ache, a need to hold him and keep him always within my reach. He squirms in his chair, that dazzling, mischievous smile lighting upon anyone who looks his way. Overwhelmed by the larger-than-normal crowd and all of the attention, his eyes flicker to me for reassurance.

He reminds me of the leaves swirling in a blustery autumn breeze, free and loose. Yet his excitement prompts a virtual vibration of his entire body, invisible energy on the verge of explosion. He sits straight, then leans to grab the cup belonging to the person next to him, then shifts to look at the people at the far end of the table who erupted in laughter, his green eyes opening wide in surprise. Between his bursts of movement, I catch a glimpse of his hands and his smile; the hands of a small child, the smile of a cherub. But when I look closer, I notice his hands are large for a boy his size, with long, slender fingers--exactly like his grandfather’s and uncle’s hands. He reaches to rub his ear, brushing away the bronze-red hair that tickled it. He has a slim neck, with the spot under his ear that I can’t help nuzzling whenever he allows me to restrain him for the briefest moment. He has the shoulders, too. They aren't as big or as broad, of course. On a child, they look as fragile as the whisper-thin bones of a hummingbird. But potential inhabits his shoulders. I try to imagine the man he will become, but it's too soon, and the picture eludes me. I pray he won't encounter too much pain, but I know he will bear his share. I hope when he meets challenges, he learns to absorb what makes him grow and learn, and manages to deflect what can damage his soul. His shoulders will carry burdens, and his hands will bear scars. Just like his grandfather and uncle.

I finish the settings, making small adjustments, fidgeting until it's just right. The aroma of rich food--turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie--fills the air. I admonish my son to stop playing with the napkins I just folded and scoop him up as he giggles. I bury my face in that precious spot on his neck, inhale his little boy scent, and endure the painful swell of love he brings to my heart.

The others arrive, and I hug my grandfather and brother. As each embrace me, my cheek nestles against their shoulders. They comfort me and calm my nerves.

Image courtesy of Apolonia at

Sunday, August 10, 2014

No Hands

In a battered Volkswagen Bug, we would begin the trip -- any trip. If I were lucky, I'd sit in the passenger seat, with my brother sulking in the back, and watch my dad carefully. He always seemed amiable and easy-going in the early stages, before the inevitable boredom and bickering that came with the miles. I saw in him the tall, dreamy hero in a princess story.  He'd flick his long, white-blonde hair from his face and tap a cigarette out of a crumpled pack, then light it on the warm glow from the little knob in the dusty dashboard. He'd turn the key; the engine would sputter and catch.  The car would vibrate as he settled his long, lanky frame into the sagging seat, his knees poking up along the sides of the steering wheel.

Before slipping the Bug into gear, Dad would reach over and look in the tattered box under the dash. He’d search through the 8-track tapes, looking for whatever fit his mood. For the start of the drive, he’d pick something my brother and I liked. Our favorite was "Puff the Magic Dragon," though we knew nothing of the hidden symbolism of the song. Dad would push the cassette in, and I'd hear it click into place. A low burst of static snapped from the speakers, followed by the sound of the tape sliding through its reels. He would turn the sound up until we could barely hear the rumbling of the engine, then he'd pull out.
Image courtesy of  Stuart Miles at

The routine captivated me. But mostly what I remember is that as soon as we hit a stretch of straight road, however brief, Dad would let go and start tapping his fingers to the beat -- on anything but the wheel. His knees would cradle the shifting circle and make small adjustments. His demonstration of "skill" left me both terrified and awestruck.  I couldn’t wait until I grew up, old enough to hit the road and try out my own abilities.

I wish, sometimes, I had better, more inspiring memories of him. I wish I remembered something more substantial. I wish the image of the princess’ hero hadn’t faded. Perhaps it is better this way. Memories are unreliable, tainted by time. They offer something better than the truth.


Friday, August 8, 2014

Lonely Sea

Wind buffets my face and steals my breath. I hear only a distant, quiet susurration as the ship slices through the water with rhythmic waves of spray. Flags ripple overhead but I can’t hear them—the wind whips that away too. Salt in the air, and all around. It coats every surface like slippery, crazed icing.

I stand at the bulwark, preparing for my watch. I slip the strap of the binoculars over my head and let the heavy weight dangle from my neck. After a while, that weight will burrow into my skin and my shoulders will ache. For now, the familiar tug goes unnoticed, a necessary part of the routine.

I hate midwatch. It’s so boring. At least it’s not freezing tonight.

The top of the ship sways and I steady myself. I lower the large, padded earpieces of the sound-powered phone onto my head and adjust them over my ears. Suddenly all sound evaporates, but I still hear the ocean waves crashing in my ears, as if from a seashell. I press the button on the receiver to speak.
“Bridge—Starboard Lookout, back online.”
Propping my elbows on the bulwark, I pick up the binoculars and scan the ocean. The water reflects the moonlight in soft glimmers between peaked white caps of small waves. I can see for miles and miles, to the edge of the earth.
Nothing to report. I lower the binoculars and my eyes squint against the breeze.
“Bridge—Starboard Lookout, no contacts.”
I shift my gaze to the endless expanse of milky river flowing across the sky. The stars look different at sea, with no light pollution. I can identify a few bright, burning individuals, but the rest of the sky billows with the wispy, cottony glow of millions of other worlds. I grow dizzy trying to contemplate their multitude. It’s wondrous, yet intimidating, and arouses a feeling of intense loneliness.

I am such a small, insignificant being.

Those worlds out there care nothing for me. They revolve and change and will never even know of me. My presence, or absence, is meaningless to them. My family cares, of course. But in this moment, thousands of miles away, they seem a hazy memory. Beyond those few people, does my existence matter? I remind myself of the hundreds of people sleeping and working underneath me. They know me—at least some of them—and would miss me if I were gone. Wouldn’t they? But they don’t really know me, nor I them. I spend all twenty-four hours of every day with them. We crack jokes, complain about the Chief, and hit the bars together on liberty, but I’ve never confided my deepest hopes and fears to any of them. Would they care if the wind carried me away and let me disappear beneath the rolling swells? I have no answer.

During the day, I wish I could be alone. I want to silence the endless clamor of voices, boots, music, and equipment. I crave an escape from the constant suffocating presence of people. I ache for a quiet moment of privacy and peace.

I am alone. It’s quiet now. I have escaped.

To what? A lonely pinnacle atop the deserted ocean. The sea mocks me with singular solitude and I curse the hollow granting of my wish.

A flash of iridescent turquoise shimmers in the water. The glowing bioluminescence of a million companions reveals their presence. I could whisper all my secrets to them, and they’d never tell a soul.

There! Off the starboard side, just behind the bow. Silvery silhouettes emerge from the water and time stops as they float over the passing waves. No flapping of wings, just a smooth glide brings them into my airy world. I smile at the flying fish. They too would harbor my most private musings, if I chose to speak them. The fish plunge under the shroud of their world, the only trace of their flight a brief wrinkle in the waves.

Perhaps I’m not so alone in this bounding main. Creatures big and small permeate the ocean surrounding me, swimming and floating in a silent ballet. Knowing they are there soothes my sense of desolation.

My melancholy mood fades and I scan the surface again. My eyes track the movement of the swells, looking for any objects.
Nothing to report.
My eyes droop and I look at my watch. Zero-three-thirty. Almost done.

The wind dies down, but the night is cooler now. Puffs of air still flow over me as the ship steams to its destination. I shiver and pull my collar up.

The infinite liquid plain stretches before me. The calm before dawn settles the white-caps. Suddenly, the sea clears and turns glassy. No ripples mar its perfect stillness. Tranquility descends upon me, too. The darkness no longer seems overwhelming; rather, it feels open and liberating, full of possibility.

Movement at the edge of my vision catches my attention. I turn my head and focus my gaze a hundred yards away, beyond the ship’s wake.

The water rises up. No, not the water. Something under the water pushes up from below. A large, rounded shadow breaks the surface and silky, black fluid cascades from its sides.

My lips part in a gasp of ecstasy. My heart renders galloping thumps in my chest and I start to breathe in great, heaving gulps. Tingles rush over my skin and I shiver again, overcome with joy and awe.

The behemoth expels a blast of air and rides the wake for a glorious moment, before it sinks back into the depths.

I smile so wide my cheeks hurt. I search intently, hoping to see the beast surface again. Stillness returns.

My throat tightens and I try to swallow. Salty droplets spring to my eyes and spill onto my cheeks as if the sea has filled me to overflowing. I perceive a connection to the leviathan that transcends the barriers of our worlds. He knows me, and I know him.

My breathing slows but the thrill of wonder remains. My spirits buoyed, I see the depths with a new sense of intimacy. I know its secrets now, and I can share mine.

I lean over the bulwark and speak to my companions under the waves.
“I’m not alone!” Passion adds power to my voice.
“What?...Lynn, go to bed.”
I slowly pull myself back and turn around. My relief stands before me, eyeing me with unease.
I give him a sheepish grin and hand him the binoculars.
“Who were you talking to?” he asks with a dubious glance over the side.
“Nobody you know.”

Not Sad

The chirping ring broke through the haze of half-sleep. Faded denim light seeped around the curtains. Another chirp. Pushing myself out of the bed in a flash, I stumbled from the bedroom. My shoulder hit the doorframe with a staggering crunch. “Ouch! Dammit!” Feet not awake yet. Who the fuck would be calling so early? Mom? Better not be a wrong number. Down the hallway and into the dining room—don’t step on the exposed tackstrip. Christ, I have to finish that floor. My bleary eyes scanned the desk, glossing over the piles of books, stacks of papers. Did the kid leave the damned phone somewhere else again? One more chirp let me zero in. I snatched the phone from the crack in the couch.

“Ms. McDonald?”
“Yessss?” I said. Not Mom. Not a wrong number. Maybe a bill collector? No, too early. My heart skipped a beat. Something worse.
“Sorry to disturb you so early. I’m Officer Jackson with the Kansas Highway Patrol. I have some bad news.”
Kansas? I only knew one person in Kansas.
Brandon has died in an auto accident. His wife asked that I call you—I understand you have a son with him?”
I mumbled some kind of reply.
“My condolences to you and your son. He was on his way to work and collided with an 18-wheeler. The scene wasn’t discovered for several hours, the other driver was unconscious. Brandon was transported to the hospital with severe injuries, but he died a short time later.”
“I see.”
“I expect they’ll notify you of the funeral arrangements. If you need anything, please feel free to call me at 316-555-8691. Again, my condolences.”
“Thank you.”

I pushed the “off” button and set the phone on the desk. My heart thumped as if filled with molasses. I pulled the desk chair over and sank into it. Rapid, shallow breaths flowed from my lips, making them dry. I licked the parched skin and allowed the grin to stretch across my face.

Finally. I’d waited years for that call. The scenario changed each time I imagined it; a prison escapee had burst into his house and murdered him; a heart attack, or better yet, a long torturous cancer; a tornado flung him through the air and impaled him on a jagged spike of twisted metal. A million versions, all ending the same way.

I tried to feel bad, now that it had happened. I tried to conjure some sense of sadness or grief. It wouldn’t come. I only felt relief. Well, not only that. A rush of grim satisfaction pulsed through me at the thought that he suffered for a little while.
I knew it would be difficult for Connor, our son. He would grieve, and I would comfort him. I would hold him close and wipe away the tears. But I wouldn’t voice the brutal reality.

‘It’s better this way, honey. I know it hurts now, but this is only for a little while and the pain will fade. You’ll have the chance to live only with the memories you choose. If he’d lived, your pain would continue. He cared nothing for you. He never called, let alone bothered to come see you. He spent money on his own toys, but none for you. You cried so many times, wishing he would give you just a few moments of his time; just show he cared a little. Now you don’t have to question why he didn’t care. Those nagging doubts about yourself can die with him. It’s better this way, I promise.”

A strange emptiness settled in my chest. The anger and hatred I carried for so long left me. I would no longer have to lay in the dark, seething with fury after soothing Connor’s anguish and hearing him lament, “I wish I could see my dad.” I wouldn’t have to lie in response, “Honey, he’s just busy working; he works a lot. Soon, maybe.”

I sat by the desk as the sun’s rays topped the trees. I thought of the pointless, banal words I would give him instead. The birds awakened on their boughs, singing their cheer. I listened to their distant, muted calls and planned fun excursions to distract him: the zoo, camping, maybe the museum. I pulled in a deep breath, closed my eyes, and peace settled over me.

My eyes opened, a flash of confusion in the darkness. Not at the desk. In bed.

“Fuck.” A heavy sigh as I rolled over. Disappointed, again. “Soon, maybe.”