Climbers

This magnificent tree towered above me, and I could not figure out how to capture its power. I slipped close to the trunk and looked up. Seeing those branches made me smile. This must have been the beanstalk view for Jack. Then, out of nowhere came another thought. What if Jacob’s “ladder” was really a tree? It is fun to think of the two story characters—one originating in 18thcentury England and the other having roots in Genesis. The two are heroes in their stories—flawed, ingenious, and strangely similar.

Jack and Jacob are much alike. Both possess a hovering mother and questionable deal-making. Jack hands over a cow for beans, Jacob trades his identity for a blessing. Jack needs to escape his ne’er-do-well status. Jacob, having betrayed both his brother and his father, needs to get away from home. To watch them at work is to watch the trickster and con-artist.

Both enter upon a quest that takes them up toward the sky. Jack’s beans sprout into a pathway climb toward a castle. Jacob’s dream is a stairway leading him high to a temple. Jack’s quest involves a giant, a harp, and the undying gratitude of a golden-egg-laying hen. Jacob’s journey will bring him land, descendants, and a contract with a faithful, powerful God.

I look again at the photos from Los Gatos–one a fruit tree and the other an evergreen. Where has my own climbing taken me in this drama called life? Certainly I have played both heroine and adventurer, but I also have portrayed thief and manipulator. There remain trees and stairways to climb and the question: What will I find at that point where branches intersect the clouds and an apricot tree meets the light shaft?

A Toast

Father’s Day is like Christmas–a celebration that is often far sweeter in anticipation than it can ever be in reality. Once in a while we need festivals free of our preoccupation with the imperfect or with what might have been. Certainly we need a time not to say, “He did the best he could, given what he knew.”

What would my life have been like with a different father? Less melancholic, less chaotic, but think of all I would have missed. I lift my coffee mug—caffeine, chocolate, hot milk foam—in a toast to my father. Because of him I know for certain that:

  • Tennyson, Shakespeare, and Longfellow wrote words worth memorizing.
  • Even when snow covers the ground, you can still go out and play nine holes–just as long as you use red golf balls.
  • The best friend you’ll ever have is a dog–preferably a spaniel.
  • No one sings “Ol’ Man River” like Paul Robson.
  • Anyone can be a magnanimous winner. It takes maturity to be a gracious loser.
  • Measuring IQ is like measuring beauty with a yardstick.
  • A joke exists for every occasion, like the epitaph that read “I expected this, but not so soon.”
  • In death, say the honest thing: “I’ve suffered enough. I’m getting out of here.”

Happy Father’s Day, Charles Kennedy. See you, “by Jove,” before you know it.

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Blind Spots

I loved Quebec, but wanted to cut loose the harness and blinders on this beautiful horse. But then what? Would he rear at the car to the left, go wild at the laughing kids to his right? Refuse to follow the lead of the reins? Blinders, they say, keep situations free of upheaval. The horse remains calm, focused, and loyal to the driver. 

Loyalty. That’s what connects my Quebec horse to David Copperfield, a novel I read fifty plus years ago (though I may have cheated then by reading the Classics Illustrated Comics version). Months ago, my friend and author Shirley Abbott loaned me the volumes, part of her entire set of Dickens. What a treasure: the 1911 Anniversary Edition with red hardback and embossed gold lettering and flowers on the spine. I could hardly wait to re-read David, image of the loyal friend, the “hero of his own life.”

By the end of the classic, I did not like the character Copperfield all that much. In fact, I found myself thoroughly irritated with his loyalty. Not the fealty he owed to his cowed mother, nor to the inestimable Betsy Trotwood and Mr. Dick, nor even the child-like Dora and angelic Agnes. Where David lost me was in his awestruck loyalty to the manipulative, pampered James Steerforth. Poor David, plowing along Dickens’ streets, loyal, blinders on, oblivious to the destructive fellow holding the reins. How could Copperfield shun the despicable Uriah Heep, whom he hated and refuse to challenge the shallow Steerforth, whom he loved? Through nearly 600 pages I groused, is speaking the truth only for the enemy?

Novels, for the sake of conflict, often let loyalty and honesty clop along on separate rutted roads. But in real life? My better self wants to sever the harness and remove the blinders. What is the harm of a little upheaval among friends?

Before

Genealogy gives us a way to celebrate “Before They Were Mothers” Day. My sister Mary Boucher’s delightful and precise genealogical history brings a young Marjorie Warnick into focus.

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During her high school years in La Grande, Oregon, she was a marvel: Secretary-Treasurer of Associated Girls Students, President of the Spanish Club, and editor-in-chief of the yearbook.

After graduating in 1926, she followed what she loved best-art. She studied at Portland Art Museum’s School of Art and with Sydney Bell, the English portrait painter. These early experiences had to give her a greater thrill than setting up booths for St. Mary’s church bazaars.

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Marjorie Warnick worked for the interior decorating firm of House of Franks-Child Inc. and then became the fashion artist for Olds, Wortman & Kings. No wonder that later she collected Vogue patterns and House Beautiful magazines. No wonder she had an affinity for dotted Swiss and silk fabric. One of my favorite photos is a Christmas card sent out by Olds & King with Marjorie among her colleagues. Just looking at her makes me smile. Oh, how my imagination soars: my mother, at the easel, my mother, Portland’s Coco Chanel.

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As much as I treasure my mother as nurturer and caregiver, I love the adventure, mystery and youth that slips through our family history. I want to claim her, not only as mother, but as the young girl in the pink hair bow and the swim-suited woman at the Neskowin coast. To Marjorie Warnick Kennedy and to those who have tended to us, and who remain with us whether in body or in spirit, Happy “Before You Were a Mother” Day.

Mind Games

When media words—fake or otherwise—blare from angry people, I find myself reciting poetry. Four years ago, long before the swampy political landscape, I decided to fill my mind with loveliness. Even my carved cat looks like a poetry lover, mulling over my collection. My initial motive for memorizing poems was not all that pristine. I had a vision of myself in a few years, dressed in housecoat and pink slippers, wandering hallways, yelling at aides, spewing vitriol. Maybe, while my mind is still clear, I could memorize a few poems.

Where to start? The answer for me was not a favorite title, but speaking the words, hearing the cadence, rhythm, and at times, that old-fashioned technique called rhyme. I read aloud poem after poem. The first one in my book is Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet,” where she tells of her need of music, a song to soothe her anger,

A song to fall like water on my head. . .

Now my notebook contains 30 poems I know by heart. Each allows a scene to rise from the page and fill my mind’s space with beauty. And oh, those words. So, hopefully when I’m trundling along in my pink slippers and housecoat, I’ll have something nice to say.

Next on my list?

Natasha Tretheway’s “Rotation” and that luminous first line:

Like the moon that night, my father. . .