Blue Sky Writing

12/24/06. The ghosts of Xmases past…


I hardly know what to say anymore in today’s tetchy social climate when season’s greetings might meet with reciprocity — “Why thank you. And a cool yule to you, too!” — or militant hostility — “It’s CHRISTMAS, you godless heathen!” And so I find it comforting to recall a simpler era.

My childhood was populated by eccentric relatives who practiced bad taste as a matter of personal expression, not as a mass merchandised tribute to cheese-whiz consumerism. (A wall-mounted bass, batteries included, singing Jingle Bells, comes to mind.)

Once upon a time, I had an aunt, Aunt Nan, and a granduncle, Uncle Wacky, who believed in recycling gifts bearing the stamp of their own brand of odd, damned peculiar, or just plain tacky.

Now understand, Uncle Wacky had always given me, his favorite grandniece, terrific presents for Christmas — one year a telescope, the next, a microscope, and once, in what surely gave my parents some sleepless nights, a chemistry set… Nan, too, usually gave cool gifts, collected on her trips to Katmandu, Bangkok and other points of interest around the world. An avid mountaineer — she and my Uncle Fred had scaled everything higher than a foot hill between New Hampshire and Nepal — she had many colorful and culturally rich treasures to bestow.

The gift giving between Nan, my father’s sister, and Uncle Wacky, however, remained a mystery, a private joke from which my cousins and I were excluded, until, that is, I reached my twelfth Christmas.

I felt I had truly arrived because Nan and Wacky decided to welcome me as the third member to their conclave of taste-defying gift-giving that year — ahead of my two cousins (both older; both boys), Dandy Sandy and Peter, Peter, the Scrabble Cheater.

On Christmas morning, I untied the ribbons, folded back exquisite silver paper with breathless anticipation, and lifted the lid of the shoe box. Nestled between layers of red tissue paper was a dog turd.

The years of re-gifting and parcel post had not been kind, and it was crumbling in on itself, a fragile thing, white and powdery with age. But the following year, as a matter of honor, I wrapped that shoe box carefully in fresh Christmas paper and sent it on to the next hallowed recipient.

Aunt Nan is gone, Uncle Wacky, too. Nan succumbed to pancreatic cancer just before a planned trip to England. The last time I saw Uncle Wacky was at my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary party. He was slipping a woopie cushion into a chair soon to be occupied by the round rump of an Episcopalian bishop. A trickster to the last.

It’s the final days of 2006, and I sit here at the ‘puter, a steaming mug an elbow away, waxing nostalgic about a gay old uncle, a mountain-climbing aunt and a pile of ancient dog poop. Just a little year-end lurch down memory lane where visions of recycled gifts, eccentric relatives and other eggnog-induced visions dance in my head.

Dad passed away last New Year’s Eve, but Mom and I will celebrate his memory and that of other loved ones long gone. We’ve put up a tabletop tree and wrapped a few gifts, boxed and shipped others to faraway places. The neighbor’s house across the way is ablaze with colored lights. Animatronic elves and reindeer gambol on her front lawn. Not sure why she keeps up the tradition, as her children are all grown now.

So I guess we’re set for a quiet holiday. We look forward to eating more than we should, snuggling up by the hearth with a good book and a roaring fire, and enjoying winter’s twilight while the lights outside twinkle both above and below.

It’s a good time to think of times past, to consider those who once gathered around the ancestral fires, sharing in the struggle to survive the rigors of winter’s stark and perilous beauty, a good time to take stock and celebrate renewals. And a good time to wish all a good night.

May the magic of the season fill your heart with joy, and may the new year bring you peace, prosperity and — if your luck holds — a dog turd or two.

July 12, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

8/17/06. A farewell and a fair wind blows…


…Well, it’s done.

Tuesday evening I commended my father’s ashes to the four winds out in the bay where he used to moor his sailboats, the Samiyam and Southie. The wind picked up, as it so often does this time of day, a perfect, sailing sendoff to cap an afternoon of island hopping.

Other day sails had hurled blunter weather but hurt less. During the annual Friendship Sloop Races one summer, Dad and I were returning from the lobster wharf with a crate of crawlies. We heaved too much to the starboard bow and took in a boatload of water. Steering became problematic, and we lost the sheet on the jib sail next. Then I, barefoot, knee-deep in water covering the bottom of the boat, heard the words, “Oh, shit. Now what do I do? Uh, Daughter, where are the lobsters?”

Dad rarely used the “S” word or any profanity other than his preferred hell’s, damn’s and gol’dammit’s, so I knew we were knee deep in more than lobsters. I bailed with a will.

Friends camped out on Sand Island to watch the returning sloop racers through their binoculars spied us instead and motored out to tow us back to anchor.

— And all the time, Dad muttering, “The ignominious defeat of it all. The ignominious defeat.” —

A true wind chaser, he hated motors and any means of forward motion that didn’t involve either air flow or oars. Knowing that all the residents on Martin’s Point were probably watching our deflated return, Toby Bill laughed throughout the rescue. A fellow sailor, he knew how Dad felt and savored his moment of superiority. Dad, meanwhile, hunched in the stern like a wet bird and glowered over his unfiltered Camel. He always had one hanging from his lower lip.

We climbed the path to the cottage, oars and life preserves tucked under each arm, the grass cool between our bare toes. A screen door closed with a snap, and we knew we were in for the gale force of Mom’s indignation. She stood stiffly at the edge of the lawn, waiting with arms crossed. She’d been inside, of course. A blessing. Had in fact missed the whole misadventure until some prescient sense clued her to our return. But she was indignant that we were late for dinner. Typical of us both! And she whomped back inside, only later realizing how silent we’d been, how meek and mute as we took our dressing down, the typical brag and bluster about our day of wind blown out.

Only later, and in fragments, like bits of beach glass and broken shell one finds as the tide retreats, did the story come out. Not all at once, and not at all from us. Somewhere between the tide line and the wild rose hedge we’d reached a silent agreement to speak no evil. No, Mom learned the sad saga entire in the flotsam and jetsam of idle gossip from those nosey Martin’s Point summer folk, emboldened by our silent humiliation to embellish the tale. The scalawags!

This has been a difficult journey, one that has left me feeling raw and exposed. Images of Dad come in waves of such tidal force they quite take my breath away. They are a gift, I know, and I’ve been taking notes, but the pain is mostly too exquisite to translate to prose just yet.

So, mostly, I just loiter about the places he loved. In a way, I feel I have become the uninvited ghost, haunting his favorite haunts. The year-round residents and the longtime summer vacationers look at me askance and see a stranger they don’t quite know where to put. It has been 22 years since I paid a visit to these waters.

The owner of Lash’s Grocery bags my deli sandwich and gives me a puzzled smile. I can tell he has a vague sense that he has seen me before but can’t place the face. I am unwilling to explain it to him. So I pocket my change, bid him good day, and wait for his reply in that delightful, mangled Cockney spoken by the natives in this remote lobster fishing village. “Ayah, yoo ‘ave a good wun, tooah.”

*****

Charles came and stood under my bedroom window last night and sang until I was forced to go down to shut him up before his persistence roused my hosts. We walked along the starlit beach in front of the cottage. The moon was newly risen, so we were able to see the articulated Milky Way, spattering the cobalt night and providing a filmy backdrop for the Perseids meteor shower. I finally convinced him we were not going to pick up where we left off. I can’t figure him out. How can he not see I’ve grown fat and old? It must have been drink or desperation. I’m not that girl. I left her on a beach somewhere.

This morning, I got up earlier than I had planned, showered, packed and loaded the car. I recognized the feeling. Once again, I was tacking, beating downwind with sails unfurled. No resistance. Just the sou’easter at my back and a port ahead. By leaving early, I could avoid saying goodbye. I’m sick of goodbye. The long goodbye is done.

July 12, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment