Thank You And Goodbye, Gordon Nash

Mountains and Rivers

It has been raining in the Sonoran desert for the last few days. The dust is washed away and the seeds of spring flowers are receiving the good soaking that will bring them into bloom come March and April. Mt. Lemmon, seen from our windows, has a layer of snow but with the return of the sun it will sheet down the rock faces and chasms, glinting like distant waterfalls and rivers. We love to see snowpack on the mountains in the West, water stored for the water-starved here in the valleys.

In my last blog, “Swimming in Stew”, I wrote about my near drowning in a pond and being rescued by a young friend. The story is continued today in a different place, a few years later.

It is early spring, probably March, in Hamilton, Ontario. I am with a new boyfriend. His name is Gordon Nash and we are both innocents in the dating game especially since we met at an evangelical church and we are young, fifteen and sixteen years old. He is a poor, working class teenager like me, being raised by his father after his mother died a few years earlier. Gordon is not my dream boyfriend – he wears glasses, decent but utilitarian clothes and is not yet handsome in his gangly frame and boyish face. He is friendly and sociable though and he owns a little motorbike. Gordon is quite happy to take me for rides since he has a girl behind him, holding on tight. This is as close as we ever come. We never kissed although I wish we had since I at least owed him that.

Being Canadians, we were not deterred by snow or cold and had adapted so well to it that outings in winter were routine and enjoyed. On this day we are hiking part of the Hamilton escarpment which we call “the mountain”. Its equivalent would be a high, long mesa in the southwest. The escarpment is part of a huge limestone and shale formation running from New York state to Wisconsin and its most famous feature is Niagara Falls but there are many smaller falls that pour over its edge. Gordon and I are with another young couple at Websters Falls, one of the most popular in the area. I remember a fairly good snowpack as we followed a path below the falls, full of newly melted snow and cascading into the river below, moving with a fast and powerful current over the rocks.

Perhaps I wanted to distance myself from Gordon; perhaps I just wanted a closer look at the spectacular water running beside us. I started to walk to the edge of the ravine but my boots would not grip the wet snow and I started to slide down the embankment towards the river. I managed to stop a few feet away, half lying down in the snow and feeling the fear of clinging to a precipice from which I could not move unless it was over the edge. Gordon, gallant Gordon, seeing my dire circumstances, held onto a sapling and slid toward me with his hand extended and I was able to grasp it and be pulled to safety.

His was one of those purely selfless acts that people do for another in danger, in this case a teenage boy saving his girlfriend from a freezing and certain death in fast-moving water. I have searched my memory for any selfless act of bravery on my part and found none. As a former nurse I performed CPR on many a dying heart but I was never in any personal danger and it was not a choice but an expected part of my job.

I broke up with Gordon a short while later since my feelings could not melt for him. I don’t remember if I thanked him and I don’t know what happened to him but wherever you are, Gordon Nash, goodbye and thank you from the rivers of my heart.

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Return To The Turtle

I think writers and artists have a special affinity for storing imagery, sounds, smells and atmosphere for their future use. Sometimes a notebook comes in handy but you won’t see a flash mob of poets and artists around you, pulling out a notebook and pen to record impressions at every opportunity; it’s just not convenient. So we hoard in our minds those moments that have happened to us and they become a resource bank. I make it sound cold and analytical but it’s not, except to the extent that we are not always “present in the moment” when we are around people – we are thinking of them and the circumstances as a resource too.

In my last blog I mentioned snapping turtles as being one of the reasons I don’t go into ponds anymore. Since I live in the Sonoran Desert I have practically guaranteed that won’t happen. We do have horned toads here though, as well as Gila monsters, lizards and desert tortoises. Animals that still look prehistoric fascinate me. They have evolved to a certain point and then stop because there seems to be no need for further improvement. They are a connection to a history when we didn’t exist, a living relic of the age of dinosaurs.

About 25 years ago I stopped by the side of the road to watch a snapping turtle cross to the woods and pond on the other side. I got quite close, crouching down beside it to take it all in – the enormous claws, heavy, dun-colored shell, the algae on its back and its musky odor. This was not one of those polished-looking painted turtles sunning itself with a group on a log but a turtle so primitive and armored it looked like a tank. They are not to be interfered with by amateurs since their neck can stretch back to their hind feet to snap with powerful jaws. It is still a vulnerable creature because it does not have a retracting neck but if all goes well it can live for many decades, possibly for a hundred years.

At that time I always carried a camera with me since I was studying photography as part of my college art curriculum. This turtle took its place in my mental filing system with the  help of the camera but without a photograph I can still recall every sense of the moment. I later did a watercolor of the turtle and many years later – 25 years later – I took the experience to the next step by writing a poem about it which refers to the mortality of the turtle and of me.

The Turtle

On an old road roughly paved,
corridored with dark woods
hiding black pools filled with the ghosts
of all the leaves that have ever fallen,
I stopped for the great turtle
hauling his heaviness again
to those sunken sediment waters.
He would lay low until spring
unless spring did not come again
to warm his bones, his heart, his blood
enough to lift his armor out.
Slathered with algae where flies gathered
he smelled of a womb of mud.
I could not help with that inch by inch crawl –
he was a snapper with bone-crushing jaws.
That and the age of his shell
gave him the right to his own pace;
his life already longer
than the one I had yet to face.

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Swimming in Stew

This is a monoprint I created as part of my Water Series.

The pond is dark – that black-green that hides all things until they surface. The water is cool and still on a hot summer day with just a few dimples of waves lapping at the shore. Red-winged blackbirds fly in and out of the rushes. Full of life, ponds provide a home for beaver, muskrat, turtles, fish and frogs. There is a banquet of insect and crayfish groceries for them right on up the chain to the predatory birds wading in the shallows or ducks upending themselves to graze on underwater plants. And yet the water itself, with its microscopic creatures and active decay and renewal seems to be a living entity on its own. I know all this, so I don’t like to be in ponds.

You have to actually step into a pond before you get to swim above the mud and gunk and rotten spinach feeling that squeezes between your toes before you reach the depth that floats you above it all. If you stopped to think about the snapping turtle who can break a broom handle in two with its jaws or the fish with possibly sharp teeth who wants to taste-test your feet, you wouldn’t go in at all. There is the horror of feeling something brush against your legs, circling where you can’t see. It is a well-known fact that leeches live in some ponds. There is also no consideration for others by those same creatures mentioned above to not use the pond as a toilet. Let’s not even get into the slime of algae floating like green clouds or rooted to sunken things.

In the early 60’s, I gladly accepted an invitation to go camping with a Danish family who lived across the alley from us. It may have been a pity invitation because they saw my chaotic home life but I said yes because I was infatuated with their son, Eric the Handsome, although it was his older sister who invited me. I was 13 and still had not learned to swim, even after taking lessons from a Canadian Olympic swimmer.

The sister (I don’t remember her name) and I headed to the pond for a swim on a beautiful summer day in southern Ontario. She wore her athletic-looking swimsuit, I wore a heavy cotton hand-me-down from a neighbor. We were almost in the middle of the pond, my Danish friend trying to instruct me. I started paddling away from her like a loose fishing float bobbing in a current. When my toes could no longer touch that silty, soft bottom I knew I was in trouble. I was a typical drowning person – I could not speak or yell, I could not turn to her nor move in any direction or raise a hand to give her a signal that I was drowning. All my strength was being used to keep my head above the surface, gulping in what oxygen I could along with plenty of pond water. Somehow this young girl recognized my distress, swam the 20 yards or so that separated us and pulled me back to a safe place – and I can’t remember her name. She is just Eric the Handsome’s sister. I wish I could thank her after almost 50 years of remembering this and tell her that I finally learned to swim. I did suffer the consequences of swallowing the pond water however, enduring an alimentary canal upheaval from one end to the other. But now I can say I know what drowning feels like.

Ponds, especially those with white waterlilies snaking above the surface so beautiful in their purity, are primordial stews slow-cooking under the summer sun. The pads of lilies cover the decay like a green blanket and the darkness of the water is a tea of rotting leaves, rushes and dead creatures. Ponds are the petri dish and septic system of nature, recycling all that falls to their murky depths. I know all that – so I no longer swim in ponds.


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P.S. When You Come Home…. A few more thoughts on letters.

The letters between Grampa Skean and me stopped so many years ago but I am still pondering letters, looking at the language, the way they end and the emotion and meanings still evident in those marks on paper.

In the 1970’s, I had written to my grandfather who lived in a small house in Port Burwell, Ontario, the only one he ever rented with electricity and running water. By this time I was living in Massachusetts with my American husband and my new son. I had welcomed the opportunity to restart life in a new country but was conflicted about leaving the past. My Canadian roots were my identity but neither the good nor the bad connections could be forgotten. I felt I needed to know more about where everyone had come from to converge on the tip of Lake Ontario where I was born. I asked Grampa to tell me about my ancestors. He willingly obliged, in only three letters, by providing the names and dates and circumstances of the origins of his and Gramma’s families. I think it gave him a goal and purpose to recall and pass on what he knew. He was nearing the end of his life and I may have been the only one to ask him for something that only he could provide. How a frail man in his 80’s with the most rudimentary education could remember all those people and dates of birth and death is still a question not answered. I suspect there may have been a family Bible to help him but I do not know.

His ancestry was mainly Dutch and Irish but the speech patterns of rural Appalachia can be detected in some of his writing and certainly in my memory of his speech. Even though he lived all his life in Ontario there was an antiquity in his expressions that comes from earlier generations of German, Irish and Dutch ancestors. For example, in writing of his Irish grandfather he states “he took up land from the Crown” and “he sent for his girlfriend down in Pensavaney to come to Canada to be his bride.” If someone came to visit, they were “down from” somewhere, as in “down from the West”. He states “there was nine children in my mother and father’s union”, conveying the idea that “union” was not just a marriage of love but a binding agreement, a contract between them.

His own union with Gramma Ethel would have been this type of binding that endured in a time when divorce was shameful, if not impractical. With so many children, he needed a wife and she needed a husband. I often wonder what caused their rift – they never talked to each other, not a word in all the years I knew them. Was it the sweet and gentle giant of a son who may not have been Skean’s, who looked to be a member of the Six Nations? Their relationship was never spoken of and his letters are scant in their mention of Ethel. He also did not list his own children – ten of them – names, birth dates or date of death. Only the ancestors seemed relevant to him.

By the time of his third and last letter, Grampa Skean had returned to the church, most likely for some contact with his rural community. Some of his sons had died, others were dying, his daughters were sporadic in their contact and Ethel was long dead. His writing hand became more rigid and hatch-like, sentences were shorter and self-pity finally made its appearance. He writes “but old Indian Chief don’t cry over it, your old Grampa got lots of friends” and he speaks of the Christmas and birthday cards he received from the church people. “Indian Chief” was the name he made up to entertain me when I was very little. He had many arrowheads from hoeing tobacco fields and I had no reason to doubt him.

He lists all the people who promised him letters but did not write, and recounted the month and year he last heard from those who did write. He is lonely and nearly alone. Being far away and a self-involved twenty-something, I did not write again before his death a few years later and I regret this very much.

In re-reading his letters, one sentence stands out, repeated in some form at the end of each letter, a trail of words into a loss of hope on his part: “When you come up again I will show you where they are all sleeping.”

Letters are one of the most personal ways of telling our stories. Somewhere there is someone who may have a letter from you. It may be all that is left of your story when you are sleeping.

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In Tucson, Arizona, a thirsty javelina, in its blundering way, knocks a heavy birdbath off its pedestal as the group makes its way across the wildlife corridor which happens to be our porch. Once the bath is righted and filled again, birds sip the warm water. The side yard has a fountain where birds drink and splash; the low-to-the-ground birdbath is the right height for rabbits and ground squirrels to reach the rim for a drink. In a good rain year the prickly pear pads are swollen and round with water. In extreme dry conditions they are shriveled and droopy, looking as if they are succumbing. This is the Sonoran Desert and although there is water it is mostly hidden. To encounter water in its natural state you have to be very good at finding it or wait for the monsoons to make their appearance.

In Pagosa Springs, Colorado, the last rain we see for two months is the rain on the day we arrive, May 11. We are surrounded by mountains and pine forests but by early July the grass crackles underfoot. The Little Sand fire billows smoke day and night for two months. We awaken to smoke haze every morning and watch the fire from a distance, thankful that the flames are not headed our way. We water the flowers in pots but never the grass. The birdbath is the local watering hole for bluebirds, magpies, ravens, finches, doves and sparrows where we can watch them drink and then flounce their feathers in water. We notice the bath is empty some mornings and then catch the culprit – a deer comes in the evening, drinking it almost dry. The San Juan River which runs through our town shows the receding water level by the emergence of stones and boulders deep into the channel. Trout can almost be caught with bare hands in the shrinking pools. We hope the monsoon rains that scour the Sonoran Desert will make it this far too. There is water here but sometimes you have to look for it.

We do look for it, driving up back roads to the slopes and canyons of mountains and hiking through the golden green light of forest until we come to Piedra Falls. The falls drop from a height of 65 feet through a narrow chasm of rock. The water is still forceful and generous in August, falling into sandy-bottomed, bouldered pools then moving onward as the East Fork of the Piedra River.

When you are from the East, as we are, you remember the moisture there. The high humidity of summer can be suffocating. On a hot, humid day the sweat on your skin never dries and surfaces are sticky with water. Mold and mildew take hold and blossom on drywall, books and bathtubs. That jungle humidity is not a feeling I miss but to stand here at Piedra Falls and feel the cool droplets of water on hair and skin and to breathe moist, fresh air in your lungs is a relief for those of us who have been living in parched conditions of drought. Standing within feet of a pounding waterfall which has taken thousands of years to carve its passage through granite is to see it the way the ancients once did and on this same spot. It is also to be grateful that there is water to be found. The drainages in these mountains are giving even if the skies are not.

I will write more about water as I see it and have experienced it, as either a welcome blessing or a terrifying force. Some of my strongest memories are of water, both in the East and the Southwest.  In addition, I will be creating a body of artwork that symbolizes its mystery and importance for me. I am also aware that the paper I work with, the inks, glues, colored pigments, sealers and the cleaning of tools are all dependent, like me, on the availability and properties of water.

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Love and the Smell of Rain

Old age is nipping at my heels, keeping pace with me on the biking route and looking at me from the mirror. I am on the gentle, downward slope towards being old which is a reality almost impossible to grasp as I do not feel old nor identify with any of the behaviors associated with being old, such as forgetfulness. Yet I observe with some clinical objectivity that my mental computer is a little slower. Words and names can be elusive until they show up an hour later, having missed the conversation. My brain seems to have misfiled a word that can mean “transient” or “ephemeral” and I have been searching for it for two days now. Until it shows up I am still thankful to have these two words in reserve. I have already used “elusive”.

I live on a small hill above one of the most active retirement communities outside of Tucson. I drive and bike through here several times a week. The place is constantly moving with runners, walkers, swimmers, tennis and pickle ball players, golfers and other cyclists. The average age is probably late 60’s or early 70’s and it is quite obvious that age is a process to be resisted and stalled with activity as well as nips and tucks, good clothes and the latest model of Porsche, Corvette or Harley. Yet daily I see the very, very old, toddling down a driveway to poke at a plant or pick up the newspaper. Some use walkers, many require outside help. I have watched a 95 year old woman total her car and an old man in sweats warn the young Walgreens clerk he is “going to be upset” because his prescription isn’t ready. Every year several of the old residents die. Their homes are cleared out by relatives and put on the market.

I began to think about the very old, spurred on by the ones I see here as well as a photograph in a newspaper of a man most likely well past the century mark. I think about the things I enjoy every day and the outside world that I am still very much interested in. I think about the feelings associated with the loss of love and that desire and passion most likely are gone forever for the very old even if they still have their partner. I wonder what memories they retain and what are most significant for them. And I wonder what is lost to them in the physical world that they miss the most.

These questions led to my poem “One Hundred Years and Counting”. I kept the image of the centenarian in front of me as I wrote it, imagining what his life might have been like and what his thoughts are now. This is the third stanza:

If asked what life has taught you

you might say no one is really prepared

for that first love that bites you and holds on

or the late and unexpected infant

who became the one you loved most.

That you found you are capable of betrayal

and your wife turned away from forgiveness.

Friends were friends until their time came.

Your children, whom you can’t name, are gone.

These people in your room are like family –

and yet you miss love and the smell of rain.

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Yours Truly

I have good friends who don’t call me on the phone. They don’t text, email, Twitter, blog or Facebook. One of them does not own a computer nor does she know how to use one. We exchange letters on either good stationery or paper that needs to be used up, crammed into unmatched envelopes along with photos, articles, art invitations and birthday cards. The letters and envelopes are often adorned with stickers, drawings, fancy tape and the most colorful stamps the post office sells. My grandfather’s envelopes were adorned with tobacco stains from the constant chaw he kept in his mouth.

Writing letters is my habit from the time when I first wrote to my grandparents, then to boyfriends, to my son away at summer camp and even to my parents when long distance calls were expensive and when I needed to stay on neutral ground with them. In fact, one advantage of letters is that you can end the “conversation” on your own terms when you know the recipient tends to extend phone calls beyond your ability to tolerate them.

Letters are writing. My friends and I use paragraphs and spell check own work. We start and end them gracefully and try to make them interesting, as if we were the reader. We mentally edit them before committing ink to paper – what needs to be said? what can be left out? (I have to admit that when pressed for time I use Open Office which is easy to edit.)  It has been said that letter-writing is a lost art. The business letters we learned to write in high school were ever so artful about asking for a job without seeming desperate and which forced us to enumerate our accomplishments when in reality we had none.

Since letters are not a face-to-face exchange, you can’t express emotion except through words so the emotions of sadness, happiness, frustration, uncertainty and tentative feelings of new love are conveyed through what you write. Sometimes we have to read between the lines, like looking through opaque glass to see the color and movement of the person behind it. Would-be writers who have never written letters have missed the opportunity to learn some pretty necessary writing skills.

My oldest friend, in terms of years, would wither away if she did not receive regular letters. She is into her eighties now and sometimes repeats her stories and news. Like me, she is an artist, a lover of books and words, ideas and history. We share the trials of our migrations from summer home to winter home and back again and the ordeal of packing up studios. Our letters get lost in the migratory pattern sometimes and may not show up for months. One of my letters to her crossed several state lines and two countries at least twice, marked and labeled almost beyond recognition. I just included it with my next letter to her -old news is still news..

Someday in the near future I will return to her the hundreds of letters she has written to me. She loves to re-read letters, especially her own I think. I will return my dead brother’s letters to his children as well so that they can know another side of their father, the one who was a writer. I wouldn’t mind having some of my love letters back if anyone knows where they are.

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