In the Blue Jay’s Call…

p956070856-5[1]     There is something distance in the singular cry of the blue jay that pulls me home to places along my trodden path.

Perhaps its sharpness awakens memories seemingly dormant that beg to be noticed just about the time one thinks they are forgetting. Whether in mid-conversation, quietly reading a book, or my hands plunged in hot soapy water washing the last of the dishes with my mind lost in thoughts of weekend plans or nothingness, that cry…brings me to a halt. I am transported, ever so briefly, but enough to recall steps, paths, and moments of wonderment along the way.

My youthful summers were often spent along the winding trails of the birch and pine woods around our summer cabin. A rough place, by most standards, made of log and mortar with a cinder block foundation; it was often cold with the wind whistling through the walls. My dad needed to build a fire in the wood stove on those Michigan mornings to get the summer day started, especially when we needed to be brave enough to visit the outhouse and wash up in the icy cold water pumped out of the earth from the well.  Built by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) near Gladwin, Michigan, my grandfather owned the place affectionately referred to as the Ca-Ha-Bo club, which he frequented with his buddies back in the 1930s. My dad and his brother went along as early as 1936, fished, climbed, and played along the moist treacherous ravines and sunny sand mound roads.  My father made it his own in the late 1940s when he and his high school friends all decided to get out of the city and into the woods. In his dad’s old 1931 Essex with a rumble seat, they made a book of memories just being boys. Until the boys turned to men and began bringing their young families to the shabby old cabin along the Tittabawassee River which snakes through mid-Michigan, and then it was our rustic get-away until 1975, when no one was left to visit and it was sold.

We did a lot of nothing there, and the nothingness was lovely.

We colored and played cards for hours on the screened-in porch that look out over the river, fished off the dock and occasionally rowed out to the middle of the river with my dad, our bobbers dancing on the waves in waiting like our dreams of ‘someday,’ and returned with our strings full of perch and sunfish for dinner.  In the sleepy mornings, the air rich with aromatic cedar and pines, we would take our bowls out to the sand roads and gather wild raspberries and blackberries until our bowls and bellies were full and our mother of pearl finger nails stained red. These were the sweetest of times, no rush, few demands; childhood in its simplest form.

The sisters at the cabin

The sisters at the cabin

But it was our walks in the woods, passed spindly groves of birch and aspen, and then deep into the thicket that scratched our youthful legs, that was most daring and adventurous for me. Always with other siblings, there were moments when I wished I was alone. The sun light shone bright up above the canopy of leaves against that bright blue sky, as the ‘old Indian trails’ grew narrower and more difficult to navigate. Though we hoped to see a some deer or maybe a bear, with a brood of kids, some loudly thinking there were chieftains, we didn’t see much, except chipmunks and raccoons, and the ever present birds.

These days, when I hear the aggressive blue jay cry outside my grown-up home so far from those northern woodlands, and see all the sparrows and dove scatter in its presence, it is there that I am transported….to the sun dabbled path, the sisters out ahead, and in those moments when the call of the jay would echo through the forest walls making me shiver with aliveness and possibilities. What will I be when I grow up? Where will I live? When will I fall in love and who will he be? Until someone’s voice as shill as the jay would bark at me to not fall behind, I was happily getting lost in my own world.

There in the forest, where later in my teens, older sisters off with their important lives, the younger kids napping in the cabin, I would take my flute and walk to a clearing, where I would sit on a rock and listen to the deep tones of my instrument mingling with the fluttering leaves along the edges. I would sing, without holding back, and dream of stages and audiences, of flowing dresses and gentlemen extending their hand to dance with me…and of kisses…my rosy lips perched in a bow, eyes closed feeling the hand of the wind caress my face and comb its fingers through my hair. There on that rock in the clearing, I could create my own world. The blue jay, plentiful in those mid-Michigan woods full of oak trees, would call to me when the sun was high, or when it was getting late, wake me from my dreaminess, and remind me that I wasn’t alone in my aloneness.

I remember once, over twenty years ago, walking along a path in northern Wisconsin near the border of Minnesota in the woods at Amnicon Falls, when the blue jay made itself known. It was a troubling but exciting time for me, full of complications and cold hard facts. At one point, I was walking along a wooded trail just ready to enter a deeper, darker part of the forest, and the blue jay called its singular cry….echoing, echoing, echoing through the forest as I looked up into the blinding sun for that blue-winged alarmist. I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see much at that time in my life, but could hear the rustling of the trees in the summer breeze inviting me to move along. I could feel my footing…cautious but bold …and continued to follow my hearts desire…the bird and its call weaving through the trees, flirting with my senses, daring me to listen.

Many of us are highly sensitive to sounds and smells, which is sometimes a blessing and at other times a curse, for they can easily distract us when we should remain present and focused. I see this all the time in the classroom and gently bring a child back into reality, after allowing the student to quickly jot down whatever he or she was remembering for later use in their writing, something that was lost on me in the 1960s, when I was aptly labeled “a day-dreamer.”

The tinkling of glass wind-chiming can take me back to that screened-in porch, someone snapping their chewing gum to my mom happily ironing, the chattering chickadees in spring to a morning in Wisconsin when, through a tent window, I watched a flock of those black-capped wonders of endurance wake up the day all chipper with excitement. The sound of the furnace turning on in winter, its comforting hummm, sends warm goose bumps along my skin, as it did when I was a child, and cold, and would crawl under the bed to lie up against the heating vent. The sound of clinking dishes and people talking at the same time with the lifts of laughter, a couple bars of a song sung, and the bending sighs… can take me back to the kitchens of my youth, aproned women all busy gossiping and working at the same time; people now gone.

The sound of a train whistle in the distance, like the sound of the fog horns from passing ships off the coast of the great lakes; seagulls in the morning, geese in formation honking their goodbyes as they left the brilliant colored autumn behind, and the sound of hushed stillness … the woods covered in fresh snow…can transport me without warning. New sounds like the cicadas buzzing the trees at the height of a blazing hot afternoon in south Texas and fire truck sirens make me think of my boy playing in the yard with his trucks, now off on one of those big engine racing through traffic, and the southern sweetness of the solitary song of the mockingbird in the empty street of a late night…sharing multiple melodies it has learned along the way, to no one except itself, all so clear and distractive, yet surely meant for some purpose in this maddening world. Why else would the mockingbird sing, if not for us to stop and listen?

But, the singular call of the blue jay echoes through my ears into the years, and in its hard call seems to remind me, like it did then, that I am falling behind the others, that it’s getting late, that all around me are dark forests with unknown adventures waiting for me to boldly enter. Even here in my suburban kitchen, cup of coffee, dogs at my feet, and the constant rhythmic tick of the clock, that bully blue jay makes me stop and think and remember…I’m not alone in my aloneness, and it’s time to gain my footing for the path that leads forward.

 

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Through My Father’s Tears

 “History is a guide to navigate in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
~David McCullough, American Author

dad alone by lake

Dad in his early teens by the lake

Just as ‘all who wander are not lost,’ all who ‘look back’ are not sad, depressed people living in the past. Through the popular notion that to ‘look back’ on one’s life is somehow an unhealthy indication that one is ‘living in the past,’ and that we should all just ‘let it go’ and move forward, we are being lead to believe that we gain nothing of value from the people and places we once loved or knew. As if to look back fondly, or with bittersweet regard and nostalgia, one must not be happy where they are. What does that say about our society’s interest and reverence for history, geography, and ‘home?’ Furthermore, what does that say about our respect for those that came before us, and, for that matter, how WE will be remembered, if at all?

Everywhere we are bombarded with daily reminders to ‘let go of the past,’ as if it’s a social disease to be curious, to tell stories, reflect, share pictures, delve into one’s family history, even attempt to unravel mysteries or heal old wounds that would, indeed, help people move forward. Yet, some of the healthiest people I know are well-versed in history with a calm acceptance of their personal past. In fact, they live more in the ‘present’ BECAUSE of their awareness of the past, than those who prefer to numb themselves in hopes of forgetting, or preach the ‘let it go’ theory because they don’t want to forgive or understand the motivations and circumstances of those that came before them. “It is what it is!” is the one- dimensional decree of the ‘don’t look back people .’ Maybe it’s a good intentioned defense mechanism, or fear, or ignorance, but promoting a overall attitude against ‘looking back’ is to me rather arrogant, as if all things begin and end with you or me.

Even as an elementary school teacher, I can see the sad decline of the social studies curriculum, limited acknowledgment of notable people, moments, and movements in our country’s history; limited space in the timeline.  And what of the poets and lyricists? Awwww….they make us think about the past, don’t they? There is no time for THAT! It’s all about the application of math and science to the detriment of a well-rounded education. In our need for the illusion of perfection, to rise above other countries, are we not losing vital learning experiences  that would only serve to make us a better country…better people? You know the old adage, “Learn from your mistakes?” Well, if we are not willing to talk about the past, how can we learn from any mistakes? What a terrible disservice to the present and future generations, who may not be that interested in hearing about old Uncle Bill and his dancing tattoos, or how their great-great grandfather was a ship captain on the Great Lakes, but at some point they may be. What will they have to draw on later in life when they have questions and we know nothing?

“An old friend, the late Daniel Boorstin, who was a very good historian and Librarian of Congress, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. We’re raising a lot of cut flowers and trying to plant them.” ~David McCullough, American author, from “Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are,” April 18, 2005

Dad with his brothers

Dad with his brothers

Dad and Archie

Dad with his brother Archie

My father was a humble man, as many from the ‘greatest generation’ were. Born in 1929 on the onset of the Great Depression, he saw his share of sadness, poverty, and hard knocks in life. His sixteen year old brother, Archie, was shot dead accidently by a stray bullet in a ‘cops and robbers’ incident on the streets of Detroit in 1943. Daddy was fourteen and lost his best friend; his closest companion. Dad’s mother had a brain tumor in her late 40s and after her brain surgery, he wrote, “We had our mother with us for many more years but she was never more than 75% of who she was before. My wife and I were deprived of a beautiful friend. My children were deprived of a youthful, fun-loving, talented grandmother. The only thing not affected by her operation, was her sense of humor which was as sharp as ever.” And THAT is what I remember about my grandmother, her sense of humor. But, I also learned so much more about her through my father’s recollection of her earlier days when she was healthy and there for him. He painted a different picture than the limited one I saw myself.

Dad with his mother swapping hats

Dad with his mother swapping hats

At family parties or after dinner with all of us sitting around the table like a classroom of students drinking coffee, he would share bits and pieces of his life, and for someone like me, who truly was fascinated with social history, even the sad and unpleasant parts, I was the perfect student.

Several years before he was diagnosed with Lou Gering’s Disease (ALS), he was sharing a story with me about his father. It was more of an intimate look into his life than my father had ever shared before. Dad and I were not ‘buddies.’ He was always revered as ‘someone above me’ as many children, even in old age, perceive their parents. So I respectfully asked him if he would consider writing down some of his memories. He hee-hawed a bit, as older folks do, but I persisted. As a news writer in rural Minnesota, I saw this all the time. Older people just didn’t want to talk about their lives. Usually ‘other’ people would say it’s because it was too painful, but I always managed to get them to open up. Their resistance had more to do with humility than pain. I had a ‘girl-next-door’ quality in interviewing; they felt I could be trusted and was as interested as a daughter. I always was, but in my dad’s case, I was the real thing, and very interested. So, he told me he’d write things down as he remembered them, which, for you aspiring memoirist, is the best way to do it.

In my father’s case, time wasn’t on his side. Once we all knew he wouldn’t be with us much longer, he decided to follow through with our ‘memoir plan’ the best that he could. In my mother’s view, it was painful, not only physically (at first he lost control of the muscles in his fingers, and then later in his tongue so he could not speak clearly), but also emotionally. But, my father was a wise man. He had a choice. He could have sat there watching one TV show after another until he passed away, or he could ‘recall’ his life, walk through it again, and relive both the sad and joyous moments of it in order to pass those memories along to us, namely to me, because he was a man of his word.

My dad had a romantic soul. Even in that terrible year of a slow, unforgiving death, I knew he wanted to be remembered for more than what appeared on the surface; “father, teacher and coach.” There was more to him, as there is to all of us. In that way, we were cut from the same cloth. He was passionate and emotional, and at times sobbed uncontrollably. Tears make other people nervous because they assign their own beliefs to them. They believe tears must be bad, uncontrolled emotions, a sign of weakness, heaven forbid! Have a drink! Crack a joke! Numb that shit up! Yes, my dad cried a lot through the process. But in my mind, he needed to after a long life of being ‘the strong son and brother’ in the family, standing tall and taking care of everyone, as he himself faced one challenge after another, and then got hit with this final blow. Crying is a release. ‘Letting go,’ if you must, and sobbing is as natural as laughing, indeed it’s healthy to let the tears flow to help wash away the grief of lost time and people.

After his funeral, I took home a briefcase full of chicken-scratched notes, badly-typed stories, some on torn pieces of paper, smeared ink passages as if someone carelessly scribbled them out on a wet napkin. The text was full of big Polish names I wasn’t sure about, and places along the avenues and streets of the old Detroit where my dad grew up…places now closed up and gone. It was a mess of a project and took me too many years to compile, but what a gift! In his wake, he left a wide path of understanding, a portal into what makes us who we are, and a colorful slice of life that will never be seen again. He created room for forgiveness, a sense of history and belonging, and a place for others to stroll back easily into the past and find a piece of themselves.

What I admired most about my dad’s memoirs was how they were written straight up. No frills, no analyzing, no blaming or interpretations of why people were the way they were, other than the obvious socio-economic scene; they were easy to read. He seemed to share everything he could remember, from the everyday life of city boys playing in the park, to his first sexual experience in the woods, to his endearing friendships with the men who were still his best friends to the end, to the sweet simple romance between him and my mother.

“Our courtship was a series of parties punctuated by quiet walks and talks. Our favorite date was going to the Rialto on Gratiot and Mt. Elliot, then interrupting the workers at a local bakery and taking home a loaf of fresh bread and sharing it at her house on Kirby Avenue. I walked the mile from Canton to Kirby at least a hundred times. I knew she was the girl for me.”

The courtship of mom and dad

Mom and Dad courting

As I wrote and re-wrote his words, crying and stuffing bread in my mouth, I found myself falling in love with the boy who would become my father. I could see my young parents stopping at the 1940s bakery, them walking hand-in-hand down the darken streets past the once manicured lawns of a different Detroit. It was easy to imagine them sitting in my grandma’s kitchen by low light, sharing the loaf of bread and maybe a cup of coffee…the difficult goodbyes…and daddy walking that city mile home in the dark alone with my mother’s perfume on his collar. My only regret was that he was no longer with us, for I knew there must have been more that he just didn’t have time to write.

Sad? Yes, on some levels, but sweet as well. But, in the telling and sharing, the listening and receiving, there is a kind of awakening and freedom that comes from the voices of the people before us, and an awareness of why we are on the paths that we walk, why we love or distain the things we do, and why we can hear our parent’s voices in our own words. The perception that it’s an avoidable dark journey to look back, is that of people who don’t want to ‘feel’ anything, people not able to face the fact that maybe other people had rougher lives than theirs, or better. People who want to glorify or dramatize than own existence, rather than learn that we are all more alike than different. In fact, I think that knowledge of one’s family history and dynamics, and the acceptance of it, is necessary to be ‘truly present’ now.

I know there are people who had very difficult, unthinkable childhoods. I also know that many therapies designed to help those bearing the scars of childhood, are based on recalling and moving through those heartbreaks to heal. I did this, in a way, with my mother. Our weekly phone calls included many laughs and ‘how are the kids’ chats, but often we circled round to the ‘what happened when and why’ of our lifetime together, and respectfully we opened up those old wounds, explained, shared, cried, and healed our relationship. But, we had to open the door to the past to move forward. We had to become vulnerable, let our armor down, and be willing to feel something! The emotional gift of delving into the past together, my listening and appreciating all her stories of her life growing up, her feelings about my father and the years when we were babies, brought clarity and life-confirming affirmations and gave us both a kind of peaceful satisfaction that, regardless, all was forgiven through understanding and knowledge. We had no loose ends, and we both knew that when my mother left this world I would remember her for only the love and goodness she brought to my life. In return, I received wisdom.

There are a lot of broken people out there. Some drink or eat or drug themselves to forget. Some just hide their memories away, proudly carrying the banner of ‘be present’ when, in fact, ‘they’ are still stuck somewhere else. I think it’s time we stopped this overly romantic view of the ‘here and now’ and the warnings, especially to our young people, that looking back is dangerous and unhealthy. It’s time we try again to remember, to show respect, and honor those paths we and the people before us have walked, with a story. There are other banners like, “Everyone has a story to tell,” that can be plastered all over Facebook walls and encouraged in classrooms. How about we give a listen, read their writing, and learn from the past, if not for pure enjoyment, then maybe for a lesson or two. One look at a day on a social network or in a ‘test focused’ classroom or at the crap they call TV these day, begs us to reassess what is really important. Certainly history has to rise from the dead and enlighten us again, especially if it’s our own.

My father at college

My father at college

My father was the first person in his family line to finish high school. He was referred to as ‘the professor,’ as was common of college-bond kids back then. He earned a Bachelors of Philosophy (Ph.B) at a tough Jesuit university and later, after bringing eight children into the world with my mother on his teacher’s salary, he earned a Masters of English. He understood history, the human condition, and the need to teach children how to think and make connections. He had every right to be arrogant, but he wasn’t. He often worked two or three jobs, made a big pot of oatmeal on weekend mornings and coffee cake and donuts, like his parents before him, and let us shake on the sugary toppings in brown paper bags like easily amused kids with new toys. He sang old vaudeville songs in the station wagon with us, and enjoyed a smoke and cup of coffee with my mother who…well, had her own story, was a fireball of emotions, got in trouble with the nuns, was socially gifted and a sexy little thing to my dad right to the end. And in the end, he was recalling the simple things of a lifetime that stayed in his memory, worthy memories that he was, gratefully, able to share. In the process, I think we all learn a whole lot about ourselves.

“My brother Archie and I were constant companions. We shared the same bed, shared the same food and treats, played together, built model airplanes together, and went to the movies together. We did everything together. …My parents often were called upon to sing duets at house parties or whenever there were gatherings. My mother had an uncanny ear for harmony and my dad had a pleasant lead voice. Archie and I picked up on all their songs and managed to add a few of our own. When we went for long walks, we sang. When we had to wait in the car for a period of time, we sang. Even when we went to the outhouse together in the summer, we sang. That first walk to school alone without my brother after his death was the longest walk of my life.”
~ “Miles, the Memoirs of Walter Miles Currie

Dad with us kids in Lake Michigan

Dad with us kids in Lake Michigan

Through my father’s tears and words I grew to understand the boy who lived inside my big, brave daddy. He grappled with fear, like we all do, yet seemed to be the strongest person in our whole extended family, and that just makes me what to be braver and maybe take another big step just for him.

If you want to embrace the ‘here and now,’ then you have to look back first, even if it hurts. It’s good to learn about the people who ‘shaped us,’ for better or worse. It provides us with roots to grow, so we (and our children) aren’t just a bunch of “fresh cut flowers trying to grow themselves.” When we grow, we experience emotions, and to ‘feel something’ is a healthy human response, at any age. It provides a connection, insight and understanding into the reasons why we do what we do. It awakens potential and sleeping dreams. It waters us, gives us courage, passion, or even a fire to change our situations, and it’s the very thing that will enable us to truly ‘be present’ and blossom into the whole human beings that the people before us had hope for when we came into the world. Look back, heal, write your own story. Believe me, someone down the line will want to know who you were…