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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Speared In The Back By An Old Friend!

Last Thursday was my birthday, and I received cards and calls from friends and family. That’s always nice. When I was a kid, birthday’s were special—not because we got lots of gifts…we didn’t. (One or two nice things under $15 total was typical.) Not because we had lots of big parties with our home full of classmates. Each of us kids had one birthday party during our elementary school years. That was plenty in Mom and Dad’s book, but we did make birthday’s special days within our family. Mom always made the cake of our choice (which was nearly always her specialty—banana cake with butter cream frosting) And for supper, Mom would fix whatever family meal the birthday person picked.

I thought of that on Thursday, when Julie and Natalie and I went out to eat for my birthday after Nat’s soccer game. (In which she scored her first goal!) I didn’t say anything at the time, but I remembered that, as a kid, we never went out to eat at restaurants. (I remember one or two times my entire life—not counting the occasional stop at an A&W while on vacation.) But I also remembered how special it was to get to set the menu for Mom’s home-cooked meal each time we turned one year older.

What was my favorite meal? The one that stands out, the one from my junior high and high school years, was Mom’s Swiss steak with sautéed mushrooms with asparagus on the side (with butter and vinegar). The three main ingredients were a bit pricy by Dad’s grocery standards so it was special to have such a meal on my birthday. There is a reason I am sharing this: I needed to trace back time to know how long I have liked and eaten asparagus, and it's pert-near 45 years.

Last night, two nights after my birthday, Julie and I were dining at our school’s Junior-Senior Banquet with lots of students and faculty. It is a nice event—coat and tie, lots of pictures, and good food.

In spite of the formal setting, the delicious meal was set out on a long buffet table, and I was happy to see long, bright green spears of freshly steamed asparagus. I put six or seven stalks on the side of my plate.

Michigan is among the top three states for asparagus production, yielding 25 million pounds annually on about 11,000 acres, most of which are a short drive from our home in Oceana County. We have ridden our bikes along those miles of wispy, fern-like plants that by mid-summer look nothing like the edible spears we eat.

About 75% of asparagus is sold frozen or canned. The delicious spears I had last night were fresh and probably California-grown , since the Michigan crop is barely poking through the ground in April. (California begins shipping its crop nationwide in March.)

I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, Tom! You really do like asparagus. I’ve never heard so many facts per minute about a vegetable in all my life.”

The truth is I never knew any of this until doing some research this morning. I HAD TO DO SOME RESEARCH THIS MORNING! You see, that asparagus on the buffet was so good, that I had a second serving—probably another six of seven tender, young spears. I wasn’t trying to be a veggie-glutton, but the truth is we almost never have it at our house because I'm the only one in my family who likes it. Likewise, very few of the students were eating it, and I hated to see all that nice asparagus go to waste.

Shortly after the meal, I began feeling flushed—much like when I have accidentally taking niacin capsules that were not “flush free.”  My head started feeling light, but I said nothing to the guests around my table. About a half hour after the banquet, Julie and I stayed with some of the faculty to box-up table decorations. My joints began to ache as if I had the flu. My head began to ache as well. I mentioned to Julie that I didn’t feel well, and went to wait in the car.

Sitting there, the symptoms increased. My skin was hot. I felt slightly short of breath and rolled down the window for cool air. What in the world was going on? How did such symptoms come on so quickly? When Julie joined me, I was able to drive home. I did not feel nauseated, but my joints and muscles ached so much I felt like Tim Conway's "old man" character as I walked from the car to our house. Within an hour, I had chills and my hands were trembling. Julie was worried, but I told her I was just going to take some "cold and flu" medicine and go to bed. When my body hit our cool, fresh sheets, the chills and tremors increased, but as the sheets warmed, my body relaxed and I slowly drifted off to sleep. In the middle of the night, I woke up expecting to feel awful, but I felt fine. Every symptom was gone. “That is weird,” I thought and went back to sleep. In the morning, I began a Google search.

Wow! There is a ton of stuff out there about asparagus and some of the common allergic reactions people have to it. Among the ones I had were “fatigue; hyperactivity; anxiety; headaches; sore muscles and joints; [and] urticaria (hives)..." which I may have had when my skin felt hot (but I did not look).

None of the articles I read mentioned my chills and tremors but I have no doubt it was all connected. Why now after 45 years did I have a reaction? The only asparagus after-effect I had ever notice before was the distinct olfactory response to methyl mercaptan, a statement that sounds sufficiently scientific to warrant no further explanation. Evidently some people, however, develop allergies to asparagus later in life.

One comment on a site said, “I too have eaten asparagus for years, ate some for lunch today and ended up in the emergency room a severe allergic reaction to it. My throat was closing, and one eye was swollen shut. No more asparagus for me.” Another person at the same site wrote: “This absolutely is a real allergy. I ate asparagus for years with no problem, but within the last 2 years, I've developed the same problem. I can eat 1 or 2 stalks of the thick, older stalks, but even a bite or two of the thinner stalks makes me break out in hives for hours. My doc told me to just stay away from asparagus forever.”

It's possible that I'm like those people who developed the allergy after mid-life, but there was something even more likely at play: I was eating young, fresh, asparagus. Many of the sites I read warned that asparagus from the early part of the growing season is much more potent when it comes to allergies. “The allergen, however, appears to be 1,2,3-Trithiane-5-carboxylic acid, a sulfur-containing growth inhibitor which appears to be present mainly in the early phase of the growth season.”

Aha! So that's what happened. I was speared in the back by my old friend. I had two servings of young, early-season asparagus with more 1,2,3-Trithiane-5-carboxylic acid than I had ever ingested in my life. It’s a very good thing I didn’t allow myself to have a third serving of the spears. Who knows what would have happened. At any rate, I’m happy to be here, and I think none of this would have happened had I had Mom’s Swiss steak, mushrooms, and canned asparagus like I used to have as a kid.
Have a wonderful week. Bon appétit!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Here's to the Sportscaster!

Over the past two days the following clip has been seen by millions of viewers on nearly every TV network. But as the clip was played and replayed for the amazing visual image of a pinch-hitter diving over the catcher in (a play evidently never filmed in over a hundred years of baseball history), another amazing accomplishment was not included. The two times I saw this clip on TV, the network hosts chatted and laughed and gasped (as we all did) at the acrobatic leap, but they did not let their viewers hear the audio of the original sportscaster's description as the split-second event happened in real time. The pertinent part of his description is below the video clip.

",,,Rounding third , coming to the plate…and …diving over home [i.e.Beck]…and safe! Unbelievable! Brian Kownacki…a circus slide over home plate…a clean leap over the catcher, James Beck, a tilt-a-whirl…he touched-down home with his right hand…and Pat Kerry in disbelief… he argues that James Beck tagged him…and Brian Kownacki—with one of the most amazing innings of play you’ll ever see at any level of baseball—as a pinch hitter he bats around…was hit by a pitch twice…the second time for the tying run…and then Nick Rustano waiving him around third…a low throw from the short stop Kopowski picked out of the dirt by Beck…and Brian Kownacki showing some ups…hopping over Beck and touching home with his right hand…a truly remarkable play…and what a turn of events here in the Bronx as the Rams now have eight runs across in the eighth to take an 11-9 lead."

I do not know the announcer's name, but typically such assignments are given to young guys hoping someday to rise in the elite world of sportscasting. I think Brian Kownacki's name has gotten its 15 minutes of fame this week, and he may very well have a bright baseball career in the future (though he is a business major)... but I think there is another man who launched his career in that moment, and that is the young announcer whose vivid,imaginative,spontaneous descriptions summarized the inning in one sentence and then captured the excitement for radio listeners who could not see the spectacular athleticism with their own eyes. So here's to the unknown sports announcer whose grasp of the game and gift with words helped listeners see with their ears.

[Update three hours after posting: After some internet digging and Google-time, I learned that the announcer is indeed young. His ame is Gregg Caserta of WFUV public radio, who "has honed his talents as part of WFUV’s training program for student broadcasters."]

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Unsettled: Closing Thoughts

It was in June of 2008 that I began writing this Unsettled storyline about the property we’d purchased forty years before. I was prompted by the thought that we needed to settle the estate, as they say, and it struck me as strange that after “settling” this land for all these years there were still unsettled tasks to be done. Days of sitting in the house, still furnished and left exactly as we knew it through the years, reminded me that the settling of this land had shaped my family’s life, and therefore, whatever remained unsettled should be done in the same spirit we enjoyed throughout those years.

What better way to do that than to tell the story as my personal time allowed. What better place to do that than here at Patterns of Ink where others may learn of the unique setting, characters, actions, and conflicts that fueled the plotline of my life during those formative years.

The setting? Mostly the property with occasional glimpses of life in Roseville. The characters? Mostly two parents and five kids (to the neglect of a huge network of friends and relatives who lived through these years with us, but I tried to stay focused on the original cast). The Action? If this were a film it would certainly not be an action movie, but I tried to highlight those "acts" that were most unique to this setting: building the barn from logs; spanning the creek first with logs and again with slabs from I-94; digging a cistern well one crock at a time; salvaging a two-room schoolhouse for the lumber for the house; and then the long process of finishing the house itself. The conflict? Man vs. nature on occasion, and  conflicts I understandably chose not to include, but really… the theme itself is the recurring conflict of change. For mother it was the change from suburban to woodland life. For Dad the change of a family grown and gone just before his dream house could be lived in. For the four oldest kids, the change from the security of the home we knew to the homes we started. And for Jim, the youngest, the change of all the above as seen through the eyes of a young boy.

Oh, there were other conflicts along the way: we boys grew to resent the weeks of digging the well; Mom worried that the well would be salt water and then her putting the car in reverse at 50 MPH. Our dog Duke having to be put down the night we packed for Georgian Bay. Mom's private struggle. Dave and I walking home after wrestling practice in that blizzard. Mom blowing up her kitchen table. Me telling Dad, “Why don’t you come over here and show me how to tie a half-hitch!” The time I hit Dad’s thumbnail with a hammer. There were lots of snags along the way, the kind that bring excitement to a day, but at the heart of it all was the conflict of change that affects all things human. Change is the bridge from what was to what is. We can sit on that bridge and watch things slowy pass, but in time change itself sweeps everything away like the bridge my father built across Fish Creek. It washed away in the flood in 2004 (as the first bridge had done years before). Somewhere deep in the banks of the creek are the some of the slabs of I-94 he used in the foundation. Those are the only remaining parts of the interstate on the property. What about the driveway? Well, in the fall of 2009, we paved the driveway to the house and pulled up the old cement two-track we'd used for over twenty years. Change...and the tug to hold things as they are is one of the silent rhythms of life.

These chapters are not memoirs—not in the truest sense. I’m not sure what genre they fall into. Is there one called “Reconstructed Non-Fiction”? Maybe that’s what it is. The non-fiction applies because, to the best of my ability everything I’ve shared is true. I’ve been careful with dates and all chronologies (often with the help of my siblings). The “reconstructed” term applies because, obviously, the events were not filmed and recorded in real time. They are skewed by my perspective, temperment, and personality. They have also been flavored by the months that elapsed as I wrote the chapters in the context of long periods of real life and the recurring duties related to preparing the homestead for an estate sale. Quite often the seasons during which I was writing also came into play. The final chapters, for instance, were written in the Christmas season of 2009. It was a joy to be reliving those memories while a current Christmas season was happening around me.

The dialogue throughout these chapters is true to the events and personalities and outcomes of the storyline, but they were not transcribed from a Dictaphone. I’ve been told by readers who know my family that they can hear the voices behind the words; they can remember the actual conversations or imagine them while the words on the page play out in their minds. That is high praise in my book, for it is those same voices I hear as I write. Not some strange psychopathic muses, but the actual voices of the characters of my family at whatever age and time the dialogue was included. To be honest, dialogue is the most cathartic aspect of “reconstruction,” because I love those voices, and especially miss the ones no longer here to hear. At times I don’t know whether it’s a blessing or curse to have these vivid details and voices found so undisturbed in my mind, like the letters we found in Mom’s cedar chest in the attic.

For many years after my father’s death, I could only write of mourning and grief when it came to family things, and to be honest, I wrote very little. Mostly I wrote on scraps of paper kept in my Bible or nightstand and filed away for future use. It was these “endless patterns of ink” that prompted a short poem and eventually the title of my blog in 2004. Only then, did I gradually begin to feel comfortable writing about my father. Only then could I do it with the full range of healthy feelings beyond grief.

I treated Patterns of Ink (POI) as a private journal for a few years, sharing only with friends and family. For the first four years, my mother printed off each post and began gathering them in manila envelopes beside her dresser. We found these after her death. That is a manuscript copy of Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe which she helped me write that last year before she died. That was my first experiment in “reconstructive non-fiction,” and in that case, Mom and I talked on the phone Sunday nights and then I’d write a week or two until I needed more details. It was a delightful process, and I was grateful to give it to her for Christmas a few months before she passed away (though she had read each unfolding chapter in real time at POI for over a year). This Unsettled story would have been equally rewarding to write with her on the phone, but instead my siblings helped me here and there.

I remember the strange feeling I had the first time a reader left a comment. But as any blogger will confess, the fear of comments soon becomes an unexpressed desire for feedback and motivation to continue writing. I thank those of you who take the time to do that, and I apologize for not leaving comments in the blogosphere as often as I did a few years ago. This year I have failed at the "social networking" aspect of blogging. But with the help of a “counter” at the bottom of POI, I find some motivation in knowing that sometimes hundreds of people visit here in any given week. Since the beginning of this Unsettled series, the counter has been tripped over 15,000 times. I know many blogs have that kind of traffic in a week or month, but I find it amazing, and I’m honored. Without that sense of anticipation, that vague sense of “deadline,” I’m not sure I would have been as motivated to return to writing  these chapters whenever I got bogged down in real life or in the storyline itself. If you are reading this, you are one of the people who helped prod me along simply by stopping by to read. Thank you.

What now? Well, I have transferred  the 60+ posts into one long manuscript. I will now begin re-proofing it, streamlining it, trying to eliminate about fifty of the current 250 pages. That will take a while, but I am sure there is a lot of repetitive deadwood that needs to go. You also know I am prone to typos and spelling errors. I tweak those even after posts are up for weeks. Reading from a printed hard copy is still the best way for me to find my own mistakes. At any rate, once the manuscript is pared down to a presentable size. I’ll make a few copies for friends and family, saving one copy to leave in the house as was my original intent. Depending on how it “reads” on paper, I may also consider printing more copies for interested parties. We’ll see.

I'm going to close with a poem I wrote for my dad for Fathers Day 1994. It is probably the most structured piece I've ever written (8 syllable lines followed by 4 syllable lines), but it reads comfortably. The presiding pastor read it at Dad's funeral about a year after I wrote it.

Before the poem, however, allow me to share one last snapshot I've been saving for the end.  I took it in December 1979, on day before I left home to fly to Kansas with a diamond ring in my suitcase and plans to propose to Julie on New Year’s Eve. I was eager to leave and carry out my mission, but I was also aware that life as I knew it was about to change. I happened to have the ol’ Kodak instamatic camera in the car as I turned into the driveway. This was way before digital imagery; I had no idea whether or not this picture turned out until I developed the film months later. The house is in the background and I am in the rear-view mirror of my 1965 Oldsmobile Delta 88. (My first car which I later sold because it had the biggest gas-guzzling engine GM had ever made, and I heard a rumor that gasoline prices might go above $1.00 a gallon by the end of 1980.) I like this picture because it foreshadows the feelings that prompted me to write Unsettled thirty years later.

My Father's Hands

I see my father’s hands in mine—
not in my clasp
but in the flesh and form and line
of span and grasp.
It’s not the look that came with age.
I see that when
my lamp-lit fingers press a page
or hold a pen.
But when my grip takes on a task
or holds a tool,
my palms and fingers seem to ask
if as a rule,
hard work alone gives hands their worth—
not just their pain.
If so, then sweat must mix with earth
as well as rain
to dampen new-sown dreams and seep
...into the soil
where hope takes root in things that keep
and call for toil.

But who am I to talk of such…
hard work I mean…
I’ve not attempted half as much
as what I’ve seen,
and what I’ve done is only more
or less child’s play
(like completing a morning’s chore
that takes all day).
Occasionally, however,
I’ve had to rise
to the call of some endeavor
that otherwise
I’d never do…or even try.
And when It’s done,
I stretch my arms toward the sky
and setting sun,
and in the glow I almost see
my father’s strength—
his hands are there (or seem to be)
from an arm’s length.
 © Copyright 1994, Patterns of Ink
Next weekend, I will resume blogging, but I think I am done with Unsettled for now.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Unsettled: Epilogue F-2: "When It Was Finished"

[The tree in the center of this picture (taken in 2009) is a  fast-growing softwood that Dad transplanted there about sixteen years ago. It stands about ten feet north (left) of where the ash tree described in this post stood. The breezeway, white trim, and circle drive were not present in 1994 when this part of the epilogue takes place.]

The old ash tree stood about ten steps from the front porch. It was one of the many large hardwoods Dad did not remove when he cleared the site for the house. Two men reaching around the trunk could barely touch fingertips. The first branches were nearly twenty feet above the ground, and they were as big as trees themselves. It was not the biggest tree Dad had ever felled; that may have been the rope-swing oak he'd taken down ten years before. After standing where its acorn took root for well over a hundred years, the oak had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and got struck by lightning; this ash had stood nearly as long but was also in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mom wanted a circle driveway to come up to the front porch, and the ash was right in the way.

It had been nineteen years since we moved from Roseville to the unfinished house, and after all those years, the back door of the walk-out basement was still the way we entered and left home. When company came, they parked out back or along the trail to the barn, and entered at the basement. When company left, Mom would gently remind Dad of her wish for a circle driveway to the front porch: "Don, it would be nice if people didn't have to walk through the laundry room, past the fruit cellar, and up the stairs to my kitchen just to sit and visit in the living room."

(The truth is, I've talked to friends and family about this, and in all those years of coming home for visits through the back door, it never struck us as odd. It was a habit, and even years after the circle drive was done, we often came in through the basement door.)

It was a hot day in late June without the slightest breeze. Too hot for this kind of work, but the lack of wind made it a good day for taking down a tree so near the house. Dad pulled the start-rope of his biggest chainsaw and notched the ash in the direction he wanted it to fall (in this case, toward the north across the driveway and away from the house).

The notch was cut well past the half-way point of the trunk (as seen in this picture of a different tree). With the butt of an ax, he knocked out the heavy wedge of damp wood and marveled, as he always did at this point in the process, that a hundred feet of tree-weight could still balance on what little was left to hold it until his coup de grâce, the final gnawing back-cut that loosened the hinge of wood.

When a tree that big is cut this way, it's as if the outstretched limbs above resent the cruel betrayal, and for a split second the branches somehow cling to the air in vain resistance until the wedge cut, like a gaping mouth, begins to groan, and the trunk's defiance gives way to the sounds of rending wood. The limbs reach out to break the fall, but the ground shakes when the tons of trunk hit flush against the earth, and the tree lies waiting facedown in the dirt like Goliath. And just as David's swordwork followed the sling, the idling saw revs up again to clear the limbs and branches from the thing now lying where its shadow was.

Mom, Kathy and Jack were with Dad, and they urged him to take a break. Kathy later told me his face was ashen. She’d seen him work hard in sweat-soaked shirts many times before, but never had he looked like this in the face. He’d stop to gulp down a glass of water from Mom, but it seemed not to quench his thirst. He was edgy and irritable and did not seem to appreciate the spectators kibitzing him as he did a job he was perfectly capable of doing alone. After he bucked the limbs, he stood drenched atop the main log. Mom handed him another glass of water which he gulped down never lowering the glass.

"Don, you need to take a break."

"I'm fine," he said without smiling, "but I could use another glass of water."

Mom stepped up the porch and into the house to refill the glass once more.

“You look awful, Daddy,” Kathy said.
“Well, thanks a lot.” Dad sighed.

“I don’t mean it in a bad way,” she added.
"She means 'awful' in the good way," Jack joked.

“I mean your face looks gray," Kathy clarified. "Are you alright?"

Dad stepped away without speaking. He took the measuring tape from his belt and gauged the gap between the house and the garage. He knew this measurement by heart, but measured it again to be sure, walked back to the log, hooked the tape on the end, stretched it one foot longer than the gap, and marked the log with an ax.

“This is the log I’m going to make into beams for the breezeway,” he said with satisfaction. Mom stepped behind him with his third glass of water, and Dad sat down on the conquered trunk of the tree. "Thank you, Mother."  (He often called his wife "Mother" if we kids were present.)

"Don, can't we just build the breezeway like most people do? Do we have to use logs?"

"We're not using logs. I'm going to make two beams out of this one big log. They won't even show."

"Like you did the beams for the front porch?" Mom asked.

"No those were made of telephone poles. I just had to square them with an ax and draw-knife. I should be able to rip this log with a chain saw."

"How long will that take?" she sighed

"Bev, how am I supposed to know how long it will take?"

"I just worry that's all, Don. You're retired. You're sixty-five. Let's just buy two beams like anybody else would and then you won't be worn out before you even start."

"Sure, we could do that. If that's what I wanted to do. But I don't. I want to make the beams."

“I think what she means, Daddy, is that we feel bad seeing you working so hard like this," Kathy said with concern, "If they aren't going to show. Is there an easier way?"

"There's an easier way to do almost everything, Kathy. Show me one thing around here we did the easy way. Why buy beams when we've got the wood right here?" He patted the log. "Believe it or not, I still enjoy doing this stuff."

"It just sounds like a lot of hard work, Dad," Jack said.

"And in this heat, Daddy, it isn't good to be working so hard. You really do look pale."

"I told you to take a break, Don,” Mom said, taking back the empty glass.

“What do you call what I'm doing?” he said, mopping his brow with the front of his shirt. Typically, a smile or tired laugh would have followed such a remark, but when the shirt showed his face, it was preoccupied with thoughts that had little time for this conversation. He slapped his hands to his knees, stood up, started the chain saw, and began slicing through the girth of the log.

I was not there when the ash tree came down, but I heard about it and the conversation many times in the days to follow.

While all the above took place, my family and I were driving home to Michigan from Iowa where Julie and I had been teaching for over ten years. We would eventually live in Iowa for eighteen years; it's where our three daughters were born, but in all those years, we still caught ourselves saying we were "going home" whenever we headed back to Michigan. (We also said we were "going home" when we went to Kansas to stay with Julie's folks.) For decades, this was our idea of "vacation," beaching and boating with the family and all the cousins as had become our summer custom. Days spent there at the house or up in Port Huron swimming at the end of Holland Avenue or in the river under the bridge were a glorious change from the miles of endless cornfields in the Hawkeye State.

The end of our ten-hour trip was always the same: Our girls would see the world's largest tire (80 feet high) on I-94 and know we were less than an hour away. A while later, our little dog would begin getting antsy as we slowed to take the 23 Mile Road exit. He somehow sensed the long road trip was almost over. We drove the three miles east past all the many businesses and developments that had sprung up since we bought the property. We turned right onto Sass Road, passed Kathy's house, turned left at Mom and Dad's mailbox, and idled down the winding cement-slap driveway. 

It was that way every time, but this time I noticed the sunshine where the ash tree used to stand; I noticed the huge log Dad had drug with the tractor to the trail that lead to the sledding hill. [A log, I might add, that is still in that very spot nearly sixteen years later. It has lost its bark and is soft and damp with time, but it still rests where it was dragged that day the ash came down.]
I have wrestled with this part of the epilogue for many weeks. There are two longer drafts of it in which I detail the actual chain of events between the felling of the ash tree in late June and the first day of April, nine months later. The task of writing about those events, however, seems beyond my skills at this time.  Besides, I have explained that the purpose of this epilogue is merely to explain how the house was finally finished. So here I'll simply say that two days after the ash came down, Dad was taking down some smaller trees and got that ashen look again. He was sure it was just a bug. It was, in fact, his heart.

On the evening of June 28, Kathy, Jack, Julie, and I went out to eat for our anniversary (which we share). Shortly after finishing our meal, we received a message that Dad had been taken to the ER. We joined him and Mom at St. Joseph's in Mt. Clemens within thirty minutes.

The attending physician told us in private that he wished Dad had come in the first time he had the symptoms. True, they caught this before it took him; true, they were hopeful about his recovery; but irreparable damage to the heart was done. He was transferred to St. John's in Detroit for angioplasty and he returned home the next afternoon. Things seemed fine. Dad's biggest complaint was a strange tightening of his chest whenever he tried to swim in the cold waters of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River. Those waters in Port Huron never really warm up much, and he had always enjoyed the refreshing jolt they brought on a hot day, but the jolt was now more painful than refreshing. He still came with us to the beach, but he merely stood in the damp, stony sand where the waves break. As he watched us swimming without going in himself, his eyes and smile seemed as if he were looking at a picture of a long-lost childhood friend.

Then in December, while shoveling snow, he had another mild attack, followed by another angioplasty. It was a week before Christmas Break, but  I was allowed to come home early. We stayed for nearly three weeks. Jim and his wife were living in Arizona at the time, but everyone made it home that year. 

A few days after Christmas, we all went to see Gillian Armstrong's "Little Women," the beautiful  1994 remake of the classic. I did not know it at the time, but it would become a film my own daughters would fulfill in many ways in the decades to follow (right down to the playful hours in the attic). In the theater that day, Mom and Dad and their kids and grandkids took up two long rows. There was a bright, snowy scene that reminded me of us skating on the creek. The reflection of the front wall lit the room, and I studied the faces of loved ones around me, eyes fixed on a flickering screen of family joys from 130 years before. I remember looking at my mother when Jo, the writer, was sad to see her older sister fall in love. Jo says to Marmee: "Why must we marry at all? Why can’t things just stay as they are.” It sounded like something I would have said to Mom in those years when our own dominoes began to fall. That particular film, in those particular circumstances, triggered something just behind my eyes. Perhaps I sensed it, though it would have been unbearable to know, but that was the last time we would be together like that as an extended family.
The next morning, Dave left for Pennsylvania, and the day after, we left for Iowa. Mom always made a big todo of our good-byes in the driveway. We'd  hug every few steps it seemed, but Dad was a one-hug kind of guy. I remember standing in the opening of the driver's side door, when he said good-bye. I remember him adding an extra squeeze...I remember thinking that I could not say the thought that occurred to me at the time...I could only squeeze back a little harder, a little longer...and then let go.
On Saturday, April 1, 1995, I received the call at about 11:00 PM. Mom and Dad had gone to a dinner and dance put on by the local VFW. They had just finished their last dance when it happened.
I remember the details of the funeral days. I've hinted at them elsewhere. I've mentioned in a poem to Jim a pair of black shoelaces that he bought me that day when he noticed mine had broken. There are hints of these days throughout my writing, but here I'll only mention something I've never shared before. The evening of the viewing, I met a bunch of the young men who worked with Dad at EDS. I bumped into one of them at the sink in the men's room.

"You're Don's son, aren't you?" the suited man said.

"Yes, I'm Tom."

"I met you  a few years back when you visited the site."

"I thought you looked familiar, but couldn't place you. I met a lot of people that day, and there was a lot to take in. I'd never been in such a secure setting."

"You get used to it. You kind of stood out that day because you were with Don. We hadn't seen that happen before. Are you the one from Iowa."

"I'm from here, but yes, we've been in Iowa for a long time. In fact, I think the reason Dad had me shadow him that day was he wanted me to quit teaching and move back here. He didn't come out and say that, but like you said, you'd never seen a father bring his son to EDS before, so..."
The man's face dropped in disbelief. "No. That can't be right. He loved that you were a teacher. He talked about you all the time. Your brother is a teacher and your sister is a teacher. The other one works at Ford and the youngest works at GD. Right?"

"I'm impressed."

"Your dad talked about you guys all the time. He goes out to visit you in Iowa every spring, right. You teach English and direct the school plays, right? Believe me, he didn't want you to stop being a teacher."

"I never thought that, but that day at lunch, he told me he could get me in."

"Oh, he could have spoken the word, and you would have been hired. But believe me, he loved that you were a teacher. Makes sense to me because he was a teacher, too."

I looked puzzled at him in the mirror. "Dad a teacher?"

"Sure that's what he did with us every day. We'd all earned degrees, but to be honest, we needed a teacher when we were doing those installations. That's where your dad came in. He was a great teacher. That's why I say there's no way he wanted you to change jobs. He probably just missed you since you were out in Iowa and wanted to make sure you were happy doing what you do."

The young man smiled and stepped out the door as if he had not just told me something I would never forget. That day of all days, I needed to hear from a stranger something about my dad and my life that I had not doubted but had also never quite heard aloud. I stayed there at the sink and threw some water on my face. It was an old trick I saw my mother do whenever she'd been crying and had to put on a happy face before re-entering a room.

The day after the funeral, we had a family meeting. We all learned for the first time that Dad had left Mom well-situated. Not rich by any means but comfortable. It was those last five years at EDS that made it possible. He had given her his blessing to proceed with the house-projects left undone that he had hoped to do himself: to have the breezeway built by a contractor; to have the trim of the house changed from black to white with all the "ginger bread" as Mom called the fancy trim she added; to have the hewn telephone-pole porch columns replaced with nice white ones; to have the circle drive put in. She also replaced the Ben Franklin stove in the living room with a fireplace with a huge oak mantle. They had had differing opinions on these details for many years, and he wanted her to know she was free to change things as she wished, and to Mom’s credit, she did. (Many years later came the new kitchen and bay window.) All these changes were now very possible without affecting her budget; and with Kathy's help, they were accomplished in the months to follow.

As you can imagine, it was a bitter-sweet thing through the years to park at the front porch and step into the front door; or sit on the front porch swing; or spend evenings in the breezeway, which had a fireplace, TV, carpet, sofa, and plenty of room for the grandkids to sit and watch a movie with Grandma. It was the perfect transition room from the garage to the kitchen. But more than that, it was a gathering place. It's where Mom put up her Christmas tree for a decade or so. The living room remained a quiet place to sit and reminisce , but the breezeway became the "lived in" room and Mom's favorite place in the house for many years.
Some closing thoughts about this "Unsettled" writing project will be posted next weekend.

Friday, April 02, 2010

"The First Green Thing"
Good Friday / Easter Poem 2010

The first green thing
I saw that spring
was not a hyssop sprig,
not a trillium leaf along the trail,
nor the bourgeoning twig
of ivy on a crossed split rail.
No, before I’d seen a
sign of things to come along the path,
I saw the green patina
of an artisan’s birdbath
wrought in copper and bronze,
beautifully cast and crafted together
and left to age as such responds
to air and time and weather.

It was meant for a garden, no doubt,
but was now cast off and left out
where wooded rains o'erflowed beneath
to its streaked and verdant stand.
The basin was a laurel wreath
held high in a triumphant hand;
the base a sinnewed arm trapped
in the earth and further bound by a briar
that rose from the soil, wrapped
around the outstretched limb and higher
as if to draw the eye
to things above and intertwine
the bowl's reflection of the sky
and laurel wreath in its thorny vine.

This overgrown and tarnished glory
seemed the preface to a story
told without a word...
and forever fixed in time.
For when my curious fingers stirred
the water, I felt the stagnant slime
hid just below the rippling blue.
And wafting from a putrid maché
of blackened leaves and acorns split in two
came the septic stench of sewage and decay,
this the incense offered by the brazen hand
that could not feel the thorns at all
or see that they were rooted near the stand
in the cold and rotting remnants of the fall.
© Copyright 2010, TK, Patterns of Ink

If I were a sculptor, I’d like to make a birdbath like the one I depict in this poem. It would begin with a strong arm cast in bronze that rises from the ground holding a laurel wreath as if it were being placed on the head of the person looking in the water’s reflection the basin of the birdbath.

Use of thorns: If natural thorns did not grow to ensnare my work, I would craft a vine of thorns to overtake the piece as happens in the poem so that, rather than man's praise around the onlooker's reflected head, he would see something more like a crown of thorns.

Since ancient times, long before the time of Christ, the laurel wreath was the traditional prize for athletic victors. It was also worn by people in power like Caesar and members of the Roman Senate. Using a natural plant (laurel) to make a crown was a well-known practice in the time of Christ.

Since ancient times, long before the time of Christ, the laurel wreath was the traditional prize for athletic victors. It was also worn by people in power like Caesar and members of the Roman Senate. Using a natural plant to make a crown was a well-known practice in the time of Christ, which is why I think planting the crown of thorns on our Savior’s head was much more than a brutal act; it was meant to be a mockery. (As depicted in the 14th Century woodcarving below.) Little did the brutes know that the thorns, being a result and symbol of Eden's curse, only added to the full meaning of the cross. Romans 5:11-15 underscores this by connecting the sin of one man, Adam, with the reconciliation found in Christ who knew no sin yet took upon Himself the curse. "Cursed is He who hangs upon a tree." 

Just as the laurel wreath suggested honor, the crown of thorns was meant to be as shameful in meaning as it was painful to the brow, thus the poem’s imagery depicts thorns overtaking the wreath.

Man’s image of himself is one of strength deserving the world’s praise and applause like the poem’s sinewy arm raised high in victory though bound to this earth. In truth, however, fallen man is worthy—not of praise—but of the thorns Christ wore on his behalf.

All around we see both beauty and brokenness. We are blessed to see God's creation but cursed to know it is not as it once was. In the still water of this imaginary birdbath, for instance, we briefly see the sky, but just an inch below its reflection is the stench of rotting leaves and seeds left over from the fall. This image is very real to me.

In our backyard, we have a birdbath and other small fountains, and often in the spring when I go to clean out all the junk that fell in them before winter, there is a smell much like the smell of sewage that comes from the decay in the shallow water. By then, whatever leaves gathered there are not colorful like the ones in the picture below but blackened and matted together. Those are maple leaves, but we also have huge oaks in our yard, and the squirrels break the acorns and drop them below to mix in with all the other rotting things.

This stench as a contrast to the Old Testament practice of the incense offering. Isaiah 64:6 reminds us that whatever we "offer" to God is akin to filthy rags and fallen leaves: We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind.”

“The cold and rotting remnants of the fall,” however, is not referring to the season of autumn but rather the fall of man. As beautiful as the reflection of the sky is, as wondrous as the hope of things to come may be, there is that decay of death just below the surface; there are those thorns strangling out the glory that was meant to be.

There lies the beauty of spring that comes with Easter. The hyssop sprigs eventually show; the trillium begin to grow, and all the beauty that was Eden surrounds us in signs of life along the path. The first green things appeared in a perfect place, Eden, and likewise the green thing I saw in the poem, though of man’s making, "was meant for a garden, no doubt, but now cast off and left out." True, it was green, but the patina that comes from the oxidation of copper and bronze is a muted hue compared to the first green things of creation. And what were some of those green things mentioned?

The hyssop is native to eastern Mediterranean lands but was purposely brought to the western continents where it now flourishes. Along with the laurel, its meaning and many uses have been known since ancient times. Psalm 51:7 says, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”

Hyssop is known for its cleansing power and ritual use. It is also aromatic—in the mint family. The Gospel of John says that it was on a long woody stem of hyssop that the soldier offered wine vinegar to Christ at his crucifixion when he said “I thirst.” I do not now why that detail is mentioned. It may have been additional mockery by those who had just pronounced him "King of the Jews," but regardless of the motive, the use of hyssop made a vivid link between the first Passover and the ultimate sacrificial moment in history.
The trillium grows across North America, it was popularly voted the state wild flower of Michigan (but Lansing overruled). It is known for its mathematical design of displaying three leaves, three sepals, and three petals, all of which have been used in Christian circles as a picture of the mystery of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—united in  purpose though distinct in personality. It is in the lily family (tri=three lily), a perennial that bursts from the ground and shows leaf each year around Easter (but typically blooms in late April and May). Sometimes called a "wake-robin," the trillium flower was used by Native Americans as an antiseptic.

Ivy is a non-deciduous evergreen plant. We typically think of Christmas trees and conifers as evergreens, but holly and ivy and many other plants remain green year-round; they do not lose their leaves in the fall and thereby show the continuity of life in spite of all that changes around them. Ivy survives the harsh winter and resumes its spreading, clinging coverage on stationary things in the spring and summer. We have some split rail fence covered in ivy in our yard, but I included it to evoke the image of hewn wood as is also true of the cross.

Thus in the opening stanza, the brief mention of these green things—the hyssop, trillium, and ivy—(yet unseen along the path) foreshadow the significance of "the first green thing" I did see: the patina of the copper birdbath with its stench of the rotting leaves. The story may be "forever fixed in time," but it is corrected when time as we know it is no more. Ending as it does, the poem gives hope that, for those who believe, the green things foreshadowed in the beginning—cleansing hyssop, the covering ivy, and the symbolic trillium—will triumph over the remnants of the fall.

May the meaning of Good Friday and Easter Sunday be vivid in your mind this weekend.
Past Easter Poems: "April Snow," and "All Else" 

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