November 05, 2008

Why I'm A Democrat and Born-Again Hope: Thanks, Obama!

Like just about everyone else in America last night, I was glued to the TV, watching the presidential returns roll in. Just before eight p.m., Pacific Standard Time, I got up to brush my teeth. When I came back, what? Barack Obama won???? Sliding out of nowhere came this unexpected nostalgia—Bobby, you didn’t die in vain.

Bobby Kennedy is my personal hero, Martin Luther King Jr. a close second. I don’t know that I’ve ever fully recovered from their double-punch assassinations, so I suppose my nostalgia for Bobby upon announcement of America’s first black president is not so misplaced after all. Bobby would have been proud. Martin Luther King Jr., I think, would have wept—as did Jesse Jackson in stunned disbelief and wonder; as did Oprah Winfrey with unblinking eyes. I myself sat on my sofa almost paralyzed by the enormity of this unprecedented event—a paralysis I knew my children’s generation can never appreciate. Did I need to pinch myself to believe this true? The phone rang.

WARNER showed up in caller ID. “Barbara!” I screamed jubilantly into the phone. A fellow Canadian American, she is in the thick of politics back east.

“WE WON!” she screamed into my ear. “WE WON!” And it was suddenly so real tears bit my eyes. WE WON!

I remember when—and why—I became a Democrat. I was in grade eight at Slauson Junior High in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We lived thirty miles from Detroit, it was the mid-60s, and our school was ruled by the black girls, big girls who’d just as soon throw you up against the lockers as look at you. It was a culture foreign to me, for I’d always lived in white communities. The only “Negro” I knew was a man from Montreal, Quebec, a charming man who sometimes came up to our lodge in St. Agathe, seventy miles north of the city, on the weekends the winter of 1962. By day he took us for breath-taking toboggan rides down the sun-dazzled, snowy white ski hill; by night he told us breath-taking ghost stories in the quivering darkness of black shadows. I can still see the whites of his eyes reflected in the candlelight and hear his slow, storyteller voice drawing me into his spin. He was a man of high humor, incorrigible personality. I adored him. Moving to Ann Arbor, MI, a year later drop-kicked-me-Jesus into culture shock. For at Slauson Junior High the hallways trembled with every aftershock of civil rights violence, and I struggled to understand a divided world that had never been part of my life.

At Slauson I had two close friends. A white girl and someone “yellow.” Sandy’s skin was so white the blacks hated her, yet not nearly white enough to suit the white kids. Sandy Bird and I became friends and there was nothing I liked better than to have a sleepover at her house. It was a crowded house, full of happy sounds and a rhythm of music unlike anything I’d known. The lilt of her family’s voices and the song of their give and take fed me more than her mother’s good cooking; and at night—the two of us spooned together in her narrow cot, my back up against the wall and arms around her, falling asleep listening to the soft snores of her brothers and sisters in the room we shared and hearing the hearty laughter of her father seeping through the walls from the living room beyond—I experienced rare moments of serenity, a floating bliss that took me into deep and untroubled sleep.

Our days at school were not so idyllic, but in looking back they were days perfect for teaching me how to think. In this I was aided and abetted by my civics teacher. I wish I could remember his name. He gave us a book list from which we could choose to read and report on—books like Animal Farm, 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird, Black Like Me. We had to identify the authors’ theses, then provide evidence as to how he or she developed his or her ideas. He would poke holes in our lack of logic or sloppy thinking, and we had to shore ourselves up or start all over. A paper could go back and forth five or six times before he finally wrote, “Well done.”

In October, 1964, in the heat of the political battle between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon B. Johnson, he assigned us the task of choosing a candidate and writing an essay persuading others to our viewpoint. A formidable assignment for a girl from Canada, living less than two years in a divided America.

My father took me down to the Democratic and Republican headquarters in Ann Arbor where we picked up brochures and leaflets. “But they don’t tell me anything,” I complained. “Welcome to politics,” Dad said with a smile. We headed for a library at the University of Michigan where the research began. Buried in the stacks night after night and while Dad studied for his PhD, and in the closing days of the political campaign, I studied the history of the Democratic and Republican parties.

As a Canadian, my only exposure to the issue of race was pride in my country’s status as a safe haven for runaway slaves. I was just six or seven when Mark Twain introduced me to the conditions of slavery and Harriet Beecher Stowe informed me of the Underground Railroad. And so I began my research from this very Canadian corner, leaning inevitably toward the Republican Party because it was Abraham Lincoln who’d freed the slaves. To my surprise, plowing though all the texts Dad helped me find, I learned that the Republican party’s platform had evolved into the antithesis of itself; and that by 1964 it actually stood against everything Lincoln had been killed for. It was the Democratic Party that had taken up the task of declaring “all men are created equal.”

And so I became a Democrat.

Yes, the black girls at Slauson grew bolder when Johnson won and settled more firmly into the White House. Yes, I was still scared of them. But I never blamed them. I even understood why they scape-goated Sandy: They disliked themselves for being black and this, I knew, was America’s real crime—psychologically instilling in the oppressed a sense of inferiority that fed a self-hatred so potent they turned on each other and themselves. Racial prejudice wasn’t just white against black, but black against itself.

The fall of 1967 my family moved to Iowa, a small town, solid Dutch, everyone blue-eyed, blond, and so white and self-absorbed I yearned for the turmoil of Slauson Junior High where things that mattered defined my days and teachers challenged complacency. I followed the country’s politics on my own and chose any assignment that let me write about civil rights. My new heroes were Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, and books about Bobby formed my first library. January 21, 1968, the Viet Nam War became more of an issue that it already was. The fallout from the Tet Offense dominated our attention—and I became solidly entrenched in the Democratic camp. And then on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.

I’d memorized his “I Have A Dream” speech and the fact that he would never realize his dream crippled me. At school the girls went on twirling their blond, bouncy hair; the boys strutted about as usual with football jackets slung off their shoulders. The teachers, shocking me to my core, said nothing. I suffered King’s death in black silence. Three months later my family was packing the car for our summer trip to Canada’s West Coast when news of Bobby Kennedy’s murder came over the radio. My knees went out from under me. What was wrong with this country I lived in?

Of the trip I remember nothing except lying in the back of the station wagon with dry tears, listening to the various radio stations my father picked up as we wound our way west. Bobby offered the only hope for racial resolution and an end to the war. His death and the loss of hope it symbolized went so deep it stayed my deepest grief. We arrived at my grandparents’ house in time to watch his funeral on TV. I sat on the floor with extended family and silently begged God to raise Bobby from the dead, to resurrect hope. “Battle Hymn of the Republic” boomed in my ears, the words to caught in my throat. As his coffin was carried in ceremonial procession I bent my forehead to the carpet and whispered, “Please, please, bring him back. Please.” But they buried Bobby Kennedy and God ceased trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

Forty years later, the night dark around me, hope for the first time stirred, catching me completely off guard, so long it had been buried. I’d become an American citizen some time ago, specifically to vote Democrat every chance I could get. Something inside of me simply cannot accept oppression of any kind: be it racial, economic, sexual, or gender. But hope has never surfaced. Not even after Barack Obama published his Audacity of Hope or mounted a campaign short of miraculous. The discrimination against gays, the disparity between rich and poor, the abysmal and unconscionable lack of a heath care system, these and other issues have existed so long I haven’t even been able to smell hope. But then last night, in the dark, words from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” began to flutter up from Bobby’s cold grave on the warm draft of Obama’s rise to the presidency. By the fourth stanza the words were clear: He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat: Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet! Our God is marching on. . .

I gave way to sleep then, thinking of that night forty years ago when we buried Bobby Kennedy and I thought God had abandoned America. Thanking him too for bringing back hope, a dream, equality, the reality of what counts. And when I finally slept I found myself in the circle of those beautiful, big, brassy black girls at Slauson Junior High and my old friend Sandy Bird. We were laughing. We were crying and shouting and punching the sky. The color of our skin no longer divided us with all its jealousy, mistrust, hate, and fear. I wept with them and together we cried, WE WON!

Barack Obama did not win because of his skin color; he won because of his calm presence, his insight into complexity, his unwavering commitment to creative change, his audacious vision of hope. And, as he pointed out in his acceptance speech last night, because of us. We have turned a corner where we care more about what binds us than divides us. His skin color was so completely immaterial this is our triumph.

No, Bobbie did not die in vain. Nor did Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, or all those who have in God’s name continued to trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

Because of them a freer world rises this morning, buoyed by the audacity of born-again hope. Thank you Barack Obama. Thank you Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, JFK, everyone. God's truth is marching on.

In 1855 William Stelle wrote the original tune to the song we know as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was called by various names and quickly became a Negro Spiritual sung around campfires. Five years later and on the eve of the Civil War, Thomas Bishop of the Massachusetts Infantry, penned new words to the tune and used “John Brown’s Body” as a marching song. There has been some contention over the years as to whether or not the song was about John Brown who led the slave rebellion at Harper’s Ferry and triggered the Civil War or John Brown, a Scotsman in the 12th Massachusetts Regiment. Whatever the case, abolitionist writer Julia Ward Howe heard the song at the outbreak of the war and took it upon herself to write yet another set of words in hopes of generating a fighting song for men giving their lives for equality. “Battle Hymn of the Republic" as we know it today was published in February 1862 in the Atlantic Monthly and became the rallying cry for an end to slavery. For those interested, I’ve provided a link to a site where you can see the lyrics and hear the music. When it plays? Know that my canary is singing its head off. He absolutely loves this song!

November 02, 2008

A Thief in the Night, Halloween 2008

Happy Halloween

Halloween. I can’t sleep. I toss and turn, the house making more than its usual noises as it settles down, night deepening. Loud creaks, a crack. I picture chunks of it breaking loose and falling clean off. Ker-chunk. The wind begins to pick up. Fans along the top of the house clank. 12:30 a.m. Now 1:00, and I drift in and out, the house still making noises. 1:45. The wind outside pushes against the walls. The bathroom fans clatter. I’m in for it now, I think, and bury my head under my pillow to stifle the racket. Two a.m. Now I’m thinking of the night’s news, a man with a rap sheet two inches thick, breaking into a Seattle home and raping a woman at knife point while her children slept just down the hall.

What’s that?

I lie stark still, breathing hard, listening. I ease the pillow off my head, ears on high alert.

A sliver of light from the hallway lamp comes slanting under my bedroom door and 2:05 glimmers green from the clock by my bed. No, I finally think, it’s just the house, and I close my eyes. Not for long. This time I bolt straight up into a sitting position, staring at the door, heart pounding my ears so hard I can’t hear a thing. And my lungs don’t know what to do. They shiver and shudder in confusion and it hurts. I have to consciously tell them to take turns with in and out. In. Out. That’s better. Another noise… Someone’s in the house!

I don’t even reach for the phone; it’s sitting by my computer in the other room. So stupid. I’m going to be stabbed to death because I forgot the phone. Another noise and I throw off the cover, feet to the floor. Next thing I know I can’t pivot the doorknob key into lock! And my hands are shaking so badly I fear I’ll rattle the door in its frame. Hey you out there! Come get me! I might as well shout. Which way does the lock turn? Right? Left? Just as it clicks into place I hear footfall on the other side.

I freeze. Just for a moment. Then I’m across the room, grappling the lazy roll-up blind. Too loud. Half-heartedly, the blind at last gives me about eighteen inches. Good enough. I reach under, flip the window lock. Too loud! Every noise I make is going full blast. The window slides open with a trombone sigh. What, what? The screen? How do I get the screen out? I claw at the corner. Too loud too loud!! A loud snap, tooooo loud. The screen falls into the night. Now I’m trying to swing my legs out and over the sill, fighting the blind with more noise than a coop of hens all aflutter. I perch, one butt cheek in, one out, bare legs dangling in the wind. I hesitate. Maybe it’s just my imagination. And if I drop, I can’t get back in. And I’ll look pretty damn silly running around the neighborhood in bare feet and wearing only a short summer nightgown.

The rush and roar of my heart deafens me, pounding harder and faster than it ever has on a treadmill. Who needs a half hour of misery three times a week when all they need is someone to break into their house to give their heart a workout? I smell the sea. The tide’s in, the wind just right…a rare combination. Or maybe it’s just the salt in the sweat of my fear? All this darts through my head in a fraction of a second, whole thoughts, questions raised, curiosity up and sniffing like a chipmunk at its door while I remain dangling in terror half in, half out my window, straining, straining, straining to hear. Oprah of course would tell me to get the heck out of Dodge but I hang there.

I can see the slant of light under my door. If a shadow crosses, I’ll know. But then more noise and I drop, heavy as a brick, and land right on the screen, torking it out of shape. I’ve done this to a screen once before, at the old house. Dad had to fix it for me. There’s no one to fix this one, Dad’s dead, and a rush of loneliness rushes out of nowhere and takes me almost to my knees in sick fear. Dad! Dad! Tell me what to do!

I glance quickly down the narrow aisle of my side yard. I can dart in behind the rhodendrons, ease through the arbor vitae, then vault the floppy fish netting I’ve stapled behind them and land in the field behind the house. But what if I somehow get stuck in the netting, like Peter Rabbit? To say nothing of having to first tiptoe barefoot through the entire neighborhood’s unwanted cat poop! And once in the field? What then? Race over hay-stubble in my bare feet under full light of the moon? And to where? A single glance out a back window will give me away. Whoever’s in my house might--might?--have a gun and blow me to smithereens.

I glance the other direction, up to the front of the house. I dash for the gate. Shivering, trembling so badly I can hardly grasp the latch, I gratefully find it undone. The gate swings away noiselessly, but then collides with the gravel on the other side. Too loud! I give the gate a shove. The gravel grates, everything amplified. I squeeze around. Three steps. My feet find the brick I laid last summer. Just to my right is the garage. Tucked along the wall and beside the garbage can is a stump my dad made for my watering can. If I had my phone I could sit here in the shadow of garage and garbage, and call 9-1-1. But no phone. I have to get to a neighbor’s. Any instant the intruder will break into my bedroom and know I’ve flown the coop.

Do I go Lori’s? My neighbor on the other side of my house? But her porch lights will be on. One look out my kitchen window and the intruder has me in his sites. Who will get to me first? The guy with the knife, or Lori, wondering why someone’s ringing her bell in the middle of the night?

I sure as shooting ain’t going down to the mean Lori’s house. Down the street the opposite direction. Once-upon-a-time my boss, she replaced me in July with a twenty-year-old. I won’t get over the discrimination for a long time. Russell’s? I wonder. Across the cultesac? The scent of the sea is suddenly eclipsed by the garbage and I stagger forward, to the end of the garage and drive. What?

A car sits bold as you please in my driveway. I shrink back quickly and cozy up to the garbage can. Is someone at the wheel? Waiting for the guy inside to make his haul and come flying out for a quick getaway? I ease forward, thinking that the good Lori’s porch light might be bright enough for me to see. Yes, and no one’s in the car. Wait. . . Blake’s car? As in Blake, my twenty-eight-year-old son? Is that his car?

I dart quickly across the drive, past the face of my house and front porch. The accountant lamp on Grandpa’s desk, a warm glow behind the Venetian blinds, suddenly goes out. I plunge around the porch and gain the far side of the house.

The side windows are all over my head. No one inside is going to spot me while I work my way down to the back yard. But to where? Why? I’m losing all sense of rational thinking and I freeze at the back deck, mind paralyzed. Really, I can’t go up and peer through the glass doors to see if it’s Blake! How asinine is that? What if it isn’t? I have to find out if it’s Blake’s car. I have to. How?

I head back up to the front.

I’m passing the living room window when the wooden blinds above my head rattle. I jump a mile. Truly. I look up. Maybe it is Blake! A burglar, a murderer, wouldn’t be rattling the blinds. Would they? Or maybe they know by now I’m out here. My heart goes into overdrive. I cough on the pain in my chest and stumble forward, pause at the porch, car in full sight.

It looks like Blake’s car. Ah! I suddenly remember he’d been vandalized, that his radio has been stolen. I glance at my front window, where the accountant light is out. All is quiet. Very dark. No one is peering through the slats. I race to the car, peek in through the driver’s side. Oh my gosh, a gaping hole in the dashboard!

The relief is so profound and so swift my innards go warm and liquid and I nearly wet myself. True. At the same time I realize my feet are ice, and soaking wet from the grass that needs to be cut one more time before winter sets in. I stumble up the drive, knees so wobbly they’re knocking, stagger up the two cement steps and lean an index finger into the doorbell.

He doesn’t answer.

I use my thumb this time. Twice. Bing bong. Bing bong.

Get up, I say to myself, shivering and shaking and wondering how long I can stand. Then I hear him. He flips on the porch light. I hear him turn the dead bolt. The door swings open three inches. A very puzzled-looking Blake squints through the crack. Suddenly recognition lightens his eyes and, hand to his head and stepping back a bit, he says, “What the…”

“What are doing in my house?” I demand.

“What are you doing out there!”

“Someone broke in and I jumped out the window!”

“You jumped out the window?”

He let me in.

Of course I’m locked out of my bedroom. He has to go out and around and scramble up through the window. I try not to think of the damaged screen.

“How could you do this to me?” I demand when he sheepishly lets me into my own bedroom.

“I e-mailed you! I told you I might be staying over!”

“You didn’t e-mail me!”

“I did!”

I head for the computer, fire up Firefox. He’s laughing in the doorway and says: “When the doorbell rang and I’m wondering who might be calling? I never, ever, in my wildest dreams figured on finding my mother standing out there!”

And there’s his e-mail. i may sleep at your place tonight on the way back from vancouver, so if you hear a noise in the middle of the night don't be alarmed.

Who said better late than never?

I hear him wandering back to the living room and sofa. “This’ll be a funny story in the morning!” he calls over his shoulder. “We can have a lot of fun with this one!”

I kill Firefox. It blinks out. I trail Blake. “It would be a whole lot funnier if I’d had my phone and called the cops on you.”

“It would,” he agrees.

I turn back to my room. Gosh, that would have been funny!

“Someone needs to get you a tazer!” he hollers.

So guess what’s on my Christmas list. Happy Halloween, everyone!

August 15, 2008

Good-bye, Heather

She’d been born to die, my little sister, a gift wrapped in grief. Grief I first experienced through my mother, a stranger who came from the hospital without our baby. She wore my mother’s bathrobe and mindlessly she turned in her fingers the large shiny black buttons I loved. Who was this woman? Listless, she sat on the kitchen sofa, eyes puffy from crying, heedless to the growing collection of family and friends. They swarmed around her, fuss-clucking and full of God-words. She didn’t respond. Her Aunt Grace, our great-auntie, fixed supper. Joan, our boarder, set the table. Where was Heather?

My father explained. Mum had been dressing her to come home and was talking to my uncle, a resident at Vancouver General, when Heather went blue. Uncle Stan through quick thinking had saved her life. For now. But she was not expected to live.

One by one people took their leave. Aunt Grace said dinner was ready but Mum shook her head no and her plate was cleared away without comment. Dad lifted me into my high yellow chair and scooted me in. He did the same for Linda and Tresa. Seven, six, and just-about-five, me in the middle, I stared at our reflections in the large plate glass window on the other side of the table, wondering if the glass might fall in from the weight of sadness pressing against the house. Unable to eat, I pushed the food around on my plate. Dad finally cornered off some mashed potatoes, told me to eat this little bit, and I could be excused. “Leave her be,” said Mum and I burst into tears.

But it was the grief, like sunlight through stained glass, which made Heather’s fragile life so lovely. And how we loved her, my other sisters and I. The first eighteen months of her life Linda, Tresa and I only knew her only through hushed whispers and diagrams Mum drew of Heather’s heart with its all-but-missing wall between the two ventricles. The right ventricle, she explained to us is where the tired, used up blood, having run its course through our arms and legs, came in to receive more oxygen from our lungs. The left ventricle, she said, is where the refreshed blood got ready to sprint back out. But with a gaping hole between the two halves, Heather’s blood got all sloshed together. Her heart had to work twice as hard and still she’d never have enough oxygen to make her strong.

The doctors, Mum said, predicted she’d died within days. If not, then weeks. If by some miracle she defied all odds maybe, maybe, a few months. There was a good chance she'd never learn to speak, sit up. Or walk. Chances were good she’d slip into a vegetative state, her brain starving for oxygen. But when they brought her home eighteen months later, after her second open-heart surgery and not expected to survive the trip, one look at this frail little sister, so weak and so blue, and looking for all the world like me, my terrible grief eclipsed into magical wonder. God had hung a smile from the stars.

For a long time we were not allowed into our parents’ room where Dad set up Heather’s crib under an oxygen tent. Exceptions were made if we donned surgical masks and scrubbed our hands about raw with a huge yellow bar of Fels Naptha. We didn’t mind; we could kill her with germs we didn’t know we had. We could, however, peek through the door all we wanted. Sometimes I just sat on the cold tile floor and watched. Mum usually had her propped up in a corner of her crib, and Heather amused herself by watching butterflies Mum had made from candy wrappers. They hung from a coat hanger, I think. She also had Aunt Grace’s “Puppydids,” a mink shawl of heads and tails that she’d fallen in love with, and Auntie hadn’t thought twice about letting her keep them. At first, when I softly opened the door lest I startle her and inadvertently kill her, she’d stare at me without movement, but after a few days she smiled, recognizing me, a weak soft smile that came mostly from her eyes. “Hi, Heather,” I’d say. What I meant of course was “I love you.”

Even outside the room we had to be careful, and people criticized my parents for this. It wasn’t fair to burden us big girls with Heather’s uncertain existence. It wasn’t healthy, they admonished, that we had to be quiet once we reached the back corner of the house when coming home from school. It was wrong that our normal pursuits be secondary to death hovering at our door. Who were these people? They went to church. Didn’t Jesus say to think more of others than ourselves?

Heather blossomed in the warm rays of family sunlight. She learned to sit up, to talk, and, delightfully, to sing—a clear sweet voice that floated through the house like bird song at dawn. Mum began taking her outdoors on sunny days and let us push her gently in the baby swing.

When she gave Heather a bath in her bathinette out by the clothesline, sheets drying in the sunshine, we were allowed to pass the soap and help dribble water over her pale blue skin—as delicate and translucent as a poppy open to the sky. It hurt me, though, to see her scars, two zipper-like marks that ran horizontal around her rib cage, one under each arm. I’d distract myself by showing her how to wiggle her fingers in the water and make a splash; and I’d wonder at the courage she possessed.

By two-and-a-half she’d learned to pull herself up and could walk alongside the chesterfield; or, holding onto our fingers, in front of us. How she came by her black patent leather shoes I don’t recall, but the three of us didn’t begrudge her the shoes we had no dream of ever owning for ourselves. And as much as we loathed our Buster Browns—shoes so ugly and uncomfortable we had to stick our feet in an X-ray machine so the salesman could tell if a new pair was too big or too small—we took pleasure in Heather’s good luck. And I admired her for making liars of the doctors. At seven years old and seeing those shoes, I understood that prayer was not a waste of time.

When she turned three, a winter child, Mum pulled out my old blue snowsuit. And while it was Mum or Dad who dressed her, my sisters and I were allowed to mitten her hands. I treasured the sensation of tucking her little fingers into the warmth of mittens I once wore. “Three little kittens, have lost their mittens, and can’t tell where they are,” we’d sing. “Oh, Mama dear, we greatly fear, our mittens we have lost.

“What!” I’d cry, “Lost your mittens! You naughty kittens! You shall have no pie!” and Heather would smile. I lived to see her smile.

She had a bedtime routine. I might be busy doing cutouts, or playing a game with my other sisters, or coloring or reading to myself, but I found comfort in the schedule unfolding around me. Her jammies on, she first had to have her blue may-he-dun, then her pink. Never the reverse. Once Aunt Grace, when visiting, got it backwards; and she feared she might kill Heather for all the distress it caused. We of course sprang to the rescue and explained the error, and if Heather had two doses of Penicillin that night it was better than letting her heart gallop on.

After her mayhedun, she had to be carried about the house, shutting all the cupboards and drawers, everything tucked into its place and put properly to bed. Mum’s canary had to have his cage draped and the counter had to be wiped. Finally, sitting down on the yellow rocking chair before a fire, Mum had to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and two verses of “Silent Night.” Once she tried to shorten the routine but Heather cried, “No, no, shepherd’s cake!” It took awhile to figure out, but eventually Mum caught on and settled back in and sang the second verse of the Christmas carol. “…shepherds quake, at the sight.”

The routine was soothing as oil, a serenity that became as much my goodnight schedule as Heather’s. Her stints at the hospital left the house empty and I didn’t sleep well and I rattled around with a hole in my own heart. When she returned, the house filled back up and I shut my eyes at night to a world very much at peace.

In the March after Heather turned three in December, Mum decided to give our new baby a bath in Heather’s old bathinette, brought out from the back bedroom and set up in front of the plate glass window in the kitchen. Heather was feeding herself in the baby table by the fireplace. Mum had just gotten Tim undressed, and he was lying on the bathinette hammock strung over the water, waving his little arms and legs and chewing on his fists, trying to find his thumb, when something slammed with a whack into the window. A rattle and crack and glass flew like rain. A grouse hurtled past me, bounced off the table, glass skittering, and landed, wings slapping the slate, on the raised hearth across the room next to Heather. She nearly came out of her chair, screaming in terror.

Mum darted for Heather so fast she slammed her hip against a chair and nearly tripped over the bird, as big as an owl, now flopping all over the floor and spurting blood. She whisked Heather, screaming, down to the other end of the house, calling at me to do something with the baby while I stared at wee Tim covered in glass shards. Behind me the bird was dying. Would Heather would die? Would the baby blink on glass and go blind? Would he cry and swallow some of it? Don’t let Heather die, God, don’t let the baby move!

Quickly, carefully, I picked at the glass. From around his eyes first, then his mouth, under his chin, his neck. He stared up at me, as still as stone. I worked my way down his little body no bigger than a sugar sack. Don’t let Heather die, don’t let Timmy move. I glanced up at the clock. Five minutes? So many pieces, tiny and large, and still I picked away at the spill. At last Heather’s crying ebbed and the baby I saw, checking him over, had but one wee scratch, on his ear lobe. Just a thin red line of blood. I slowly grew aware that the bird had ceased to stir and I swung around. The poor thing was dead; a heap of feathers, glazed eyes, and blood I couldn’t look at.

A few days later, the feathers and blood mopped up, Mum had Tim sleeping in Heather’s old pram in front of the hearth and warm fire, for it was raining, the drops steadily splattering the large new windowpane. Heather pulled herself up alongside the pram to take a peek inside, then reached for Tim’s hand and tucked a nickel into his palm.

“Look, Mummy. Heather just gave Timmy a nickel!”

She was sewing at the far end of the table. “Where did she get that?”

“I don’t know, but she gave it to Timmy!”

“What a little monkey,” said Mum, mumbling around the pins in her mouth.

Life was so lovely.

One night some time later I awoke from a deep sleep sensing something was wrong. I threw back the covers and crept into the hall. At the far end a sliver of light slipped through the crack at the bottom of my parents’ door. An eerie glow washed over Mum’s well-polished tile floor.

“Daddy? Daddy?”

I sprinted, bare feet cold against the tile, and inched open my parents’ door. He was sitting on the edge of the bed holding Heather, carefully keeping the oxygen mask a few inches from her mouth. She’d always been afraid of it. Put too close, she’d thrash in a panic. Years later, I understood. Rubber suffocates. No knew back then—though Dad didn’t need to. He always held the mask where she needed it, even though precious oxygen escaped. The lesser of two evils.


He looked up.

“May I come in?”

He motioned me to sit beside them. The bed sank a little under my weight. Heather startled. I reached over and took her blue fingers in my own and was happy it calmed her. At the end of the bed, Mum paced. In front of me stood the oxygen tank.

In the terrible tension and rushed tiny gasps of my sister, I became fascinated by the gauge needle slipping closer to the red empty mark. I gave Dad a running commentary. Finally, in uncharacteristic abruptness, he said, “Brenda, it would be better to pray than to chatter.”

I instantly let go of Heather’s hand, shoved both of mine down between my legs and bowed my head in agony. I’d been caught pretending she wasn’t dying. But she was. I did know this. And I knew that if she didn’t regain her breath within minutes, before the precious oxygen was gone, the sun would rise without my sister in its light.

Frantically I prayed. I begged. I watched the needle sink into the red zone, like the spinner in Shoots and Ladders settling on the line between six and one. And I reminded God of the grouse coming through the window and how he’d let her live. Do it again. Please. The hiss of the oxygen tank suddenly sputtered out. I slid my eyes sideways, afraid. But she was asleep, her lovely translucent skin the soft pink of sunlight at dawn.


He looked at me with bone-weary eyes.

“She didn’t die.”

“No, she didn’t,” and he reached with a smile to ruffle my bangs.

She died two months later while I slept.

Did it hurt to die?

“She just went to sleep, and woke up in heaven,” the preacher said that dull day mid-June, 1961, while I stared with stinging eyes at the little white box in front of the church. How did he know she just went to sleep and woke up in heaven? He wasn’t there; no one was there... Her third open-heart surgery and she’d been left alone….

In the tunnels of my mind I could see the slats of her crib slivered through with the low light of night at the hospital. Tucked in, needles sticking her, alone under the canopy of plastic and surrounded by her beads, her Ned the Lonely Donkey which was really mine, her string of red monkeys looped across the crib bars—and her Puppydids, of course, kissing her face while the oxygen pointlessly hissed. Had she cried out? Found no one there? While I slept? God’s smile hung from the stars came crashing down, and I stared at the white box in mounting panic, for I did not know where to find the scattered shards.


The story ends here. I'm 56 now. Heather died 47 years ago, and so I've spent 47 years looking for the scattered shards. A new book I'm reading, Sibling Loss, explains why. At nine years old I did not have the psychological development to create closure for death. And so the years have passed, her death never finalized in my mind. Writing about her is a way of bringing closure, of saying good-bye, of telling her I love her, miss her, and still weep for her.

And while I've spent my life searching for that lost connection I couldn't close, I am ever so grateful to my mum and dad for allowing my other sisters and I the eye-witness access to the fragility of life and it's exquisite beauty when reflected so clearly through the terrible prism of suffering. My little sister was a child of great courage, and even greater love, an offering she gave freely to all who knew her. Nearly half a century later she is an enduring blossom, and I still breathe the lingering fragrance of her life so well lived. I can catch the scent.

Good-bye, Heather.

August 04, 2008

A Date With David Denny

As some of you know, I often joke that I left my husband twenty-five years or more ago because I'd fallen in love with David Denny, founder of Seattle. Actually, I don't think it's all that funny. My love affair with the most profound man I've ever had the pleasure of getting to know has never wavered, and so you can imagine my delight when I learned a friend at my former job is one of David's great grandsons. And he has an old trunk full of manuscripts, photographs, letters, artifacts! Oh, my lucky day!

David's Trunk
And so I spent Saturday immersed in history, happy as a clam.

Very quickly, 19-year-old David and a pal he met on the road west landed at what is now Freeport Point, West Seattle, on September 24, 1851. The next day they explored up the Duwamish River, came back down, and around the West Seattle peninsula. Here they met Chief Seattle and a hundred braves along a stretch of sand that is now called Alki Point. David decided to build a city here. He dashed off a note to his sick brother in Portland, "Come at once, there's room for 1,000 settlers," and sent Charley Terry back down to Portland with it. He, with the help of Seattle's men, built the first cabin in what is now Seattle. The rest, as they say, is history.

You can of course read the whole story in my six books on David and Loui(z)a. Here I'm just going to introduce you to some of the material my friend graciously allowed me to see--much of which he allowed me to take home--including one of David's Bibles, some newspapers 120 years old, envelopes and letters, old diaries, handwritten manuscripts...

Here are some of my favorite things:

David's Bible.
What tops the list is of course David's Bible. He is one of the few men I know who lived his life as the Christian he professed to be--to the point of losing more than $3,000,000 during the recession of 1893. His brother Arthur begged that David shut down his many ventures, but David refused, saying that he could not put 100 men out of work. He could not let 100 families starve. And so he mortgaged everything, trying to stay afloat long enough to ride out the recession. He lost. By the time his brother's bank, no longer owned, however, by Arthur, was through with him, David was left with less than 25 cents to his name. He never recovered financially. He died poorer than when he arrived at nineteen years old. But he died with a reputation more valuable than gold.

The front flyleaf has his signature, dated Jan 18 - 1900. On the opposite flyleaf, Laurie has written: "Grandpa died at 3.36 Wed morning of Nov 25, 1903. Those present were Grandma Denny and Mother, Jon, Zeo, Inez, and Winnie. William & myself. [Added in ink is Zick Use, Indian.] Grandma held his hand as he passed away. The battle is over and Grandpa has the victory."

Letter from A.A. Denny to Rev. Bagley
This letter was actually written to a cousin of some kind of mine--Reverend Daniel Bagley, father of Clarence Bagely, a Seattle historian.

The letter is penned by Arthur from Washington D.C. where, as one of Washington's first Representatives, he was trying to secure the appropriation for Washington's university. The appropriation was important because having the university would put Seattle on the map and secure her position as the leading city in the Northwest. Arthur is, however, discouraged. He doubts he can secure the appropriation and allotted $40,000 "this time around."

But Arthur did pull it off, despite his discouragement. We owe the reality of the University of Washington to him.

David's Matches:
These are some of David's matches. I was amazed to see how they were made and packaged, almost the size of toothpicks, stuck together. And I thought today's matches were a bit dicey--always breaking!

David and Louisa's Glue Pot
This is David and Loui[z]a's glue pot. It looks like a double boiler, where water was boiled to soften the glue in the interior "pot." A pot similar to this, only larger, is what burned Seattle to the ground in 1889. The glue bubbled over and burst into flame. I think 66 blocks of downtown Seattle were reduced to rubble. Arthur actually got richer with this disaster. He and a buddy owned a brick company and a law was passed that downtown buildings and roads had to be built of bricks. If you go to a reading in the basement of Elliott Bay Books, you'll see the bricks.

Frying Pan w/Painting of a Cabin
The handle is broken off this frying pan. Still, you wouldn't want fry an egg in it. Someone's painted a log cabin on the bottom. It looks suspiciously like the first cabin built in what is now downtown Seattle, the foundation of which was laid by Loui[z]a and her sister-in-law.

It could well be the "honeymoon" cabin, or the cabin built up in the Swale where the Seattle Center is.

The artist is not identified but David and Loui[z]a's eldest daughter was a prolific painter.

Anna's Letters
The letters found in an envelope bearing the image of David Denny's Electric Railway Company and bound with a ribbon, contained letters to his daughter Anna from a lover I did not know she had. She and her Dad had gone back east, to New York, in 1888. Here she died of a sudden illness and David had the sad task of bringing her back in a coffin on the transcontinental railroad. In all of my research I never came across the fact that she was deeply in love, and to read these letters can bring tears to your eye, knowing that this young man would never see her again.

Louisa's Sweetbriar
David's step-sister and sweetheart, Loui[z]a Boren, brought sweetbriar seeds from Cherry Grove, Illinois, in 1851 as a tryst between herself and her best friend, Pamelia. Every July, when the flowers blossomed and grew, these clustered wild roses would remind Loui[z]a and Pamelia that they were never really apart.

The sweetbriar grew and spread and the early Seattle pioneers called Loui[z]a the Sweetbriar Bride. I conclude with a picture of her sweetbriar growing up and around my front porch. I am fortunate. The women in Cherry Grove, Illinois, pulled it up by the roots from her farm and gave it to me when I went back to speak to their historical society a few years ago. After three years of coaxing, it finally bloomed!

The inset is a picture of David, Loui[z]a, and their eldest two children--Inez and Madge. In all they had four girls and four boys. Madge died as a young girl in a flu epidemic, as did Anna while back east. Jon's twin died a few hours after birth. The family history is the story of Seattle, and I am grateful to know some of their descendants.

So many things in David Denny's trunk. . .

Merci beaucoup, Theron!

July 28, 2008

Blake Snyder and Screenwriters

I just spent a weekend with a handful of screenwriters and Blake Snynder, one of Hollywood's most successful spec screenwriters. Not that I want to write a screen play. I needed help structuring Temper the Wind, a story that's been in my head for more than ten years and which won first place in this year's PNWA's literary contest. But which is, did I say? stuck in my head? Stuck like Pooh in Rabbit's Hole?

Blake started out burying the title--not "killer" enough.

Then he and the others pushed and pulled and tossed out the trans-fat of all my old ideas and dieted me instead on new ideas. Weird ideas.

We ended up with a completely different story. But, hey, I'm no longer stuck.

This is Blake Snyder.

BTW: If you're a story teller? Get the book. And his blog is to your right, should you want to learn more about his 15 beats.

May 11, 2008

This year we celebrate 100 years of Mother's Day--started by Anna Jarvis. Following her mother's death in 1905, Anna bombarded politicians, business men, and religious leaders, urging them to create a special day to honor mothers for their devotion, sacrifice, and skills. She had some pretty strict ideas of how this was to be done.

1. It was to be a holy day, not a holiday;
2. it was to be a singular possessive because we have just one mother;
3. it's to be celebrated with a single white carnation and a love letter, telling our moms why we love and appreciate them;
4. and it's be held the second Sunday of every May because it's the anniversary of her own mother's death.
5. It was not to be commercialized.

Three years after Mrs. Javis's death, in 1908, the very first celebration was held at her old church in Grafton, PA. In memory of her mother, Anna distributed 500 white carnations. In 1913 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother's Day a national holiday and the rest, as they say, is history.

Actually, Anna Jarvis spent the rest of her life fighting the commercialization of Mother's Day. She deplored the profiteering and elaborate gifts--so far removed from the single carnation and personal letter she envisioned. When I read of her distress? And when I thought about how best to celebrate Mother's Day this year? One plus one equals two, even I know that. So this, my friends, is my love letter to Mum--Shirley Elizabeth Goodfellow Wilbee.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mum!

One of my earliest memories of you takes us back to Wheaton, a thunderstorm, the three of us girls no more than 1, 2, and 3 years old in a long, thin bedroom on a second story, with a window, maybe two, looking down to the backyard. We’d been put to bed, I think, before the storm blew in. My memory opens to the darkness, the terrible Midwest heat, the mugginess, the sound of heavy rain, ozone in the air, flashes of lightning. All three of us were crying.

I have an image of Tresa standing in her crib, but this may be borrowed from one of Dad’s home movies. What I remember for sure is the three of us crying, sticky hot, and scared by the charged atmosphere. You came up with some candles and set them around the room. You also brought up a cool face cloth and wiped our faces and hands and put clean sheets on our cribs and laid us back down with our blankies. Then you pulled up a chair and started to sing.

You sang several songs, a welcomed oasis from the howling storm outside and beastly heat inside. The song I remember is “A Wise Man Builds His House Upon The Rocks.” You taught us the hand motions, and this probably got our minds off our fear and discomfort. I remember laying on my fresh new sheet, enchanted by the play of the candle-lit shadows on the walls and the lightning flashes that momentarily overpowered them. And your voice lifting over the sound of the thunder outdoors and the rain bouncing off the window frames and glass.

Miss Peacock in Port Coquitlam used to have us sing “A Wise Man Builds His House Upon the Rocks” at Southside Baptist. We’d do the hand motions and I always thought of that night in Wheaton. Perhaps it was Miss Peacock that kept the memory alive. If so, I’m grateful. It’s a wonderful memory, and still comes to mind when the air is electrically charged and the smell of ozone is thick.

Thanks for this and other memories, and for always doing everything in your power to make us physically comfortable amidst trying circumstances. You had, and have, a gift for that.

Love, Brenda

May 01, 2008

May Day!


Have you ever wondered about the origins of May Day?

In Port Coquitlam where I grew up, grade two youngsters put on the annual "May Pole" dance for our community. Every day for two weeks in 1960, at James Park Elementary, my classmates and I practiced dancing around our May Pole, boys and girls arbitrarily paired off and put through the confusion of complicated and intricate steps around our pole, all the while holding one end of twenty-four ribbons attached to its crown. What I remember most is having to hold hands with Barry Litzenburger--and hating it to the point of nausea--and Mrs. Dandrea's unrelenting patience as she untangled us over and over again from our ribbons.

She had a little record player set up on the girls' lawn and it seemed she was always lifting and resetting the needle so she could physically move into our web and extricate us from ourselves. Once we got it, though? Euphoria. I didn't even mind Barry anymore--I was so happy skipping and high-stepping my way around and around and in and out and sometimes swirling around the other way altogether--opposite the boys.

On May Day itself school was let out and everyone gathered at the civic field where numerous beribboned poles had been strategically scattered. I was taken by surprise by the sheer festivity of the transformed green. The energy was high. Music skirled over the PA system. I suspect my grandparents came out from Delta. I was all dolled up in my hand-me-down dress from Jean Dickson--a lovely dress with lace on the Peter Pan collar and black velvet ribbons; and I thought myself quite a doll (if you didn't count the boys' haircut!), about as close to a princess as I knew I would ever get.

If you look at the picture? You can see by Barry's body language that he was about as enamored with me as I with him.

But never once, at least so far as I can recall, do I ever remember being taught what the holiday meant.

Have you ever wondered?

Mayday and May Day are two different terms. One originates in France from the idiom venez m'aide--come to help me. The other is a holiday.

Mayday we all know. May Day is less familiar. Nonetheless, May Day on May 1st is a well-known holiday throughout the world--celebrated for a variety of, but related, reasons. it began as a pagan festivity throughout Europe, is a celebration of spring's arrival, and marks international victory for organized labor. In many countries, May Day is a national holiday.

May Day is rooted in prehistory and appears to have flourished with startling similarities everywhere. Written records show that in India and Egypt the first of May was always a festival celebrating spring. In Italy, the Romans celebrated Flora, goddess of spring flowers and fertility. One of our earliest origins was the Celtic and Saxon holiday celebrating spring's first planting. This spring festivity was dedicated to the blazing fire god Bel, whose nurturing heat and light brings into fruition the planted seed.

Beltane festivities began the eve before with games and feasting to officially mark the end of winter, the return of the sun, and fertility of the soil; and it culminated with torch-bearing peasants winding their way up the hills. Sun going down, they ignited huge wooden wheels, turned them loose and sent them rolling--ablaze--down into the fields below.

When the Romans conquered Great Britain during the first century they brought their six-day Floralia Festival--celebrated from April 28 to May 3. Their rituals were added to the old, and in time revelers across Europe began donning animal masks and costumes similar to our modern-day Halloween. By the Middle Ages, English couples decorated their bodies and braided their hair with flowers and went out to the countryside on the eve of May Day to go "a-maying"--a night of unbridled love making. Older married couples were even allowed to remove their wedding rings (and the restrictions they imply) for this one night. In the morning all returned home, gathering greenery and flowers and stopping off along the way to leave bouquets at neighbors' homes. Remnants of this tradition can be seen in the dwindling few who still collect flowers and leave anonymous may baskets on neighbors' doorsteps.

Every English village also had its Maypole, a phallic symbol of fertility decorated with greenery and flowers--fertility in fruition. Bringing in the May Pole was a collective, happy venture. On April 30th the young men chopped down the tree, lopped off its branches, leaving a few at the top. Neighboring villages vied for the stoutest, the tallest, and these were carried into towns amidst blowing horns and flutes and then "planted." Villagers wrapped their trees in violets, very much like the figure of Rome's ancient god Attis who, during Floralia Festivities, was carried in procession to Cybele's temple on Rome's Palatine Hill. In England, after the night of "merrymaking" in the greenwood, villagers kicked up their heels around their poles. Ribbons were added. Single men and women took up the loose ends to weave in and out in complicated steps, around and around the pole, sometimes in opposite direction, until the couples became short-leashed and entwined with (hoped for) new love. The May Pole? Encased in an elaborated braided sheath.

The goddess Flora, however, eventually became passe, and it was Diana, goddess of the hunt and Herne, horned god of the hunt, who sent the revelers shouting and singing up into the hills. The traditional wheels, set ablaze and rolled afire downhill, eventually developed into central village bonfires. Related rituals included driving cattle between the fires in order to purify them; sweethearts dancing through the smoke in order to see good luck; and burning witches in effigy. In Germany, at least, witches were believed to meet with the devil on the eve of May 1st--on the Brocken peak. The night became known as Night of the Witches and was dramatized by Goethe in Faust.

A tradition that emerged from this dark side of the holiday was the Beltane cake, cooked on the hot stones surrounding the bonfires. Whoever drew a sooty piece3e became the "carline" and was subject to a mock execution. When ovens came along, the unlucky person to drawn a blackened piece had only to jump over a fire three times.

But just as Flora was supplanted by Herne and Diana, Herne and Diana were in time overshadowed by England's Robin Goodfellow, predecessor of Robin Hood/the Green Man. The morphing of this tradition pops up in DC Comics and TV's Smallville. The goddess was eclipsed when villagers and guildsmen started electing eligible maidens from their communities to take over the guardianship of the crops until harvest--and it's not difficult to draw the correlation between "Queen of the may" and our beauty pageants.

The popularity and pagan pull of the holiday everywhere prompted the Medieval Catholic Church to outlaw Beltane--to no avail. The pope resorted to turning this pagan holiday into one that instead commemorated St. Walpurgis--a female saint who helped St. Boniface Christianize 8th-century Germany. Alas. Europe's Night of the Witches simply became known as "Walpurgisnacht."

The church's influence was not completely cast aside, however. Various trade guilds in Medieval England and across Europe began incorporating the patron saints of their craft into their pagan celebrations. Cobblers honored St. Crispin; tailors, Adam and Eve. Well into the late 18th century these trade societies and early craft unions were still entering floats in local parades--St. Crispin blessing the shoemakers, tailors fitting fig-clad Adam and Eve stand-ins. In 1644, the Puritan Parliament out-and-out outlawed May Day, but the May Pole simply became the Liberty Tree. In France, it actually became a symbol for the French Revolution.

Medieval trade societies evolved into guilds, guilds into unions. And on May 1st, 1866, the US Labor Movement began. From the Atlantic to Pacific, unions went on solidarity strikes, demanding that the standard twelve-hour-plus workday be shortened to eight.

The fight was long and violent, but eventually--at terrible cost--the eight-hour day was won. Labor leaders all over the world took this as a rallying point, and in 1889, in Paris, the International Working Men's Association declared May 1st an international working class holiday in commemoration of the martyrs to the cause, and as a solidarity date for demonstrations, parades, and speeches. It is now a major state holiday in several counties, with its own red flag to symbolize the blood of the working class in their historical and worldwide battle for rights.

Numerous attempts by the church and state have been made to uproot all aspects of May Day--redefining it as a religious holiday to executing political martyrs. During the cold war, Russia took a dim view of labor rights but made a big to-doo over the working class "happily" striving for the better good of all. Pope Pius XII in 1955 redefined the day as St. Joseph the Worker. Eisenhower, in 1958, designated May Day as Law and Loyalty Day. Such on-going attempts to recreate the old pagan holidays as a religious and patriotic one has, it seems, finally succeeded in undermining the old glory of May Day. Most of us have never really fully understood it raucous roots or historic value--or its symbol of hope.

Perhaps May Day, 2008, is as good a day as any to return to our collective roots and celebrate Spring's arrival. Why not? It's been a long winter--at least in the Pacific Northwest. And perhaps it's as good a day as any to be thankful for our eight-hour workday--and to think of those who do not yet experience human rights in the workplace. From the sex trade to free trade--universal battle is not yet won. In American and around the world many still (or once again) futilely whisper "mayday"--venez m'aide, come to my aid. Truly May Day is a holiday to reclaim, to celebrate...and to use as common ground for the common good of all.

As for me, right now, I have to put the finishing touches on my youngest son's birthday cake. He was born on May Day twenty-eight years ago and I made him a Beltane cake this afternoon. Oatmeal, ginger, cloves, cinnamon. How many great grandfathers ago did his ancestors celebrate this day with Beltane cakes around a roaring fire in the villages of Scotland?

Happy Birthday, Blake. And for everyone else, Happy May Day!

PS. If you want the recipe for this delicious May Day/Beltane cake, let me know. It's easy to make and deeeelicious. And don't forget to tell your May Day heritage stories. I'd love to hear from you. bw