Canyon heron II

(For context, read the post before this one first.)

So I need to start carrying a camera. No. I don’t. If the heron story has begun to seem unreasonable, too impossible, it is so only to non-believers.

I am writing this all wrong.

What I want to do is celebrate, but I don’t know how. I don’t know who to share this with, who would appreciate it most. It is my story, and perhaps inexplicable to everyone except me and my sisters.

Yesterday morning, I wrote about Leah’s secret. It reminded me of my mother’s death, and so I wrote another entry, about my Mum dying, and my car. As I was saving it, I wondered if I would see the heron that day. I haven’t seen it in a while. I looked out my window, at the green light trapped between the trees and my slider doors, at the petunias and ivy geraniums spilling over the edges of the planters. The bronze heron that sits in my garden looked back at me unblinkingly. I wished I could see a real one fly by. The last time I felt this way, a kind of darkness pushing into me, memories fluttering in the margins of my thoughts, the heron stood by the freeway exit, not five feet away as I passed in my car.

Later, I had a typical adolescent fight with my strong-willed daughter, and I felt the usual gloom such incidents trigger in me. These are the kinds of days the heron has come in the past to comfort me, I thought. But I didn’t expect it. I couldn’t expect it. It does not come as a sign, on command. It comes only when I don’t expect it, and yet in retrospect its presence always makes absolute sense.

Later, this afternoon, I went for a walk in the canyon. It’s been a long time since I’ve spent the $4 in gas money to drive to there, but I was in the kind of mood that only the canyon seems able to soothe. I was walking along, feeling grumpy and lonely and wondering when the challenge of raising a teenager alone will finally diminish, at what point I will finally be able to breathe deep and say, “It’s over now.” And I rounded a corner, and there on the bridge was the heron, maybe 20 yards away. We stood, watching each other, for five minutes I think, and the dogs, who saw it too, never went after it. They love chasing birds. Any other large mobile creature they would have jetted after. But they stood in the shade, calm, watching the heron as I watched it.

Finally it turned and stepped down off the edge of the converted railway bridge and onto the center, and then it walked across, with long, delicate strides, and stepped up on the other side. It turned to give me one last look, and then lifted off into the dappled air and around the corner.

I have seen a heron in the canyon twice in all the days I’ve walked it. Once was the first day I took Sadie to the canyon after her illness, in fulfillment of a promise I’d made while she was in the hospital. The second time was yesterday.

The day my car died

The last entry brought me back to the time of my mother’s death, for a moment. I can be so dispassionate these days. “My old car died the same day my mother did,” I said rather flippantly the other day to someone who had asked me how I had come to buy car I now have. Because I had no car and I had to help arrange my mother’s wake, and I lived three hours from her house and Dad’s, and because all I could remember was the way her eyes wouldn’t stay closed after she died. Pennies don’t work, movies be damned. You can’t close dead eyes by a brush of your hand.

She looked at us from those milky sightless orbs, blinded even before her last breath, and SAW.

I needed a car. I wanted to resurrect my old Toyota, with its 307,000 miles, but it wouldn’t run. I couldn’t bring my mother back, either.

So I bought the first car I really looked at, although the salesman was a crook and I’d always sworn I’d never buy a brand-new car. At least it was a Toyota. It’s been good and reliable for the past five years, run its 100,000 miles without complaint. It should go half a million miles, the salesman told me. If it runs that long, and it marks the days of my dad’s life the way my old car marked my Mum’s, he’ll be almost 100 when it goes. Ha.

Clearly, I’m in a flippant mood. The gods laugh, and I laugh with them.

Retrospective revisited continued

Continued from here:


“I’m illegitimate and I’m proud of it,” said Fran in history class one day, an unimaginably brave move in Ireland in the late 70’s. I worshipped her from then on, because she took knowledge that had destroyed my sister in some way, and made it her talisman. Nobody could put her down. She simply wouldn’t accept it.

Leah, on the other hand, went crazy. It was Rachel’s and my fault. We were flush with the secrets Aunt Maureen had given us. Rachel was Dad’s unacknowledged daughter, and she, and Leah, and Ruth May, were all bastards because Mum and Dad weren’t married. If anyone found out, we’d be doomed socially. We’d be looked down upon. We’d be despaired of.

I wasn’t sure what I was. Mum had been married to J.D. when I was born, but no one knew of his existence. As far as my friends knew, I was Dad’s daughter as surely as the others were, and so if they were bastards, I was one too. He’d never adopted me, but Mum had changed all our names by court order to his last name, so I belonged to him in that sense, sharing his name if not his blood.

Maureen, gossip though she was, had the sense not to tell the two youngest ones about the mystery of Rachel’s birth and our illegitimate status. Rachel and I, though, weren’t that sensible. Maureen’s secrets were heady things to us. Rachel, who long ago had learned to hide any sensitivity, didn’t cry that Dad didn’t acknowledge her. Perhaps she was simply happy that he liked her better than he did me. Perhaps his receptivity to her was enough. Nor did she seem stricken by the news that our parents weren’t married. I think the shock of learning that there had been another man in Mum’s life before Dad came along had inured us to other shocks. Anything might happen in our family. We might peel back the facade to find murder, unannounced royalty, secret gardens, rich benefactors. The fantasies I wove were all positive ones: I was the little princess, who would be discovered to belong to another, far better family one day, and the lonely, marginalized world of my childhood would be revealed as simply a necessary step on the path to greatness.

But Leah was different. Leah liked her life. Leah was happy. She was the beloved one, adored by Dad. Every morning Mum wove her thick dark hair into two long plaits. She was clever and sweet, beloved of teachers and parents, surrounded by friends, strikingly beautiful. Until Rachel and I destroyed her.

“Guess what?” we said one day, gathered in Rachel’s room, all three on her bed.


“Maureen said Mum and Dad aren’t married. We’re bastards. Can you believe it?”

There was a moment where everything was fine, that moment when the words we’d spoken were just words, like “Have a nice day,” or “Isn’t it remarkably sunny outside?” And then Leah realized what we’d said.

Why did it hurt her so much? Why did it change her so much? It had meant so little to Rachel and me, just another secret. But Leah told me recently she’d always known Dad wasn’t my father, or Rachel’s. She wasn’t aware of any secrets at the time we told her Mum and Dad weren’t married. Life was simple, for her, until that moment.

Her face changed. She cried out. She struck Rachel, and bit her, and screamed. We hurried to fix the damage.

“We was slagging. Only slagging, Leah. It’s not true. Really it’s not.”

It was too late. Something was lost in her. She doesn’t remember it, though. When we asked her about it years later, she swore we never told her anything — that she’d always known they weren’t married. “What are you talking about?” she said. “I never got upset. I always knew.”

Still, only days later, after a school skiing trip to Bulgaria, she returned and went into the local town, and came home after two hours with blue, spiked hair. Her long braids were forever gone. She shed her conservative clothes for dog collars and chains, for fishneck stockings and black lipstick and nails. She shed her kindness to old women for nights on the town, punk concerts, drunken binges.

What had we done? I suppose it haunts Rachel still, as it does me. It was the beginning of Leah’s uniquivocal condemnation of our mother, a condemnation that lasted till the days leading up to Mum’s death years later.

Maybe something else would have triggered her transformation. Maybe.

In the end, we are all OK, so what need is there to worry?

Still. I wish I could take it back.

Retrospective revisited — B*stard children

I’ve reached 1982, and that’s the year I graduated from high school, and so, I suppose, that will have to be my focus. But it leaves out some things that I fear need to be spoken. If I leave them out, I have left out half of what I am, what I remember. I have left out, too, those things that shaped Leah and Rachel, Ruth May, my mother too.

My cousin has been in touch with me through Facebook, another strange synchronicity, because it is his mother who triggered a dark time in our lives. Not her fault, certainly. She was only speaking what she saw, what was suspected.

“You’re really Nathan’s daughter,” she told Rachel. “It’s pretty obvious. He just won’t admit it.”

She had been married to and was now divorced from Dad’s brother. She and her two children had made a life for themselves in a country house owned by a retired doctor who was quite a bit older than she was. She started off as his housekeeper, and later married him. I remember spending summers there, in the oversized house, in the scattered outbuildings, in the sloping fields where it never rained. (This is Ireland. It always rains. Not there. Not in Shillelagh in the summer that Elvis Presley died.) My cousin saw a ghost on the lane when we were fetching in the post. He was a farmer. He was there and he was gone. “I saw him,” she said. Where was her brother, who today sends me Facebook messages from Taiwan?

In my memory, everything is sun and dappled shadow and puffs of dust and the smell of hay. Maureen was my fun aunt, younger than the others. She liked us, and came outside to sit on the river wall with us. It must have been Sunday, one of those Sunday visits that punctuated those years. Maybe we were playing hide-and-seek, and had taken a break. “Anyway,” she said, “I’m sure you figured it out. Sure, you’re the spitting image of each other.”

What is is like to be 12 or 13 and to be told as Rachel was that the man you have thought is your stepfather is actually your father, but won’t acknowledge it? She had no reason, as I did, to be grateful that Dad wasn’t her father. He liked underdogs, and as a small child she had been somewhat of an underdog. Anyway, Maureen’s secret-spilling explained why he was more tolerant of her than of me. She was his blood, after all, as I was not.

Shortly afterwards, we found the letters. They were hidden in the guest room, in a closet with a secret compartment. They documented Mum’s relationship with Dad. They were love letters that smelled of dust and chagrin. How fanciful of me to say so; after all, they were just dry, fading pages in a manila envelope, artifacts that map a time that is swathed in mystery. I was already born then, a babe in arms, but there was no mention of Mum being pregnant with Rachel. That strange lacuna lent Maureen’s terrible confession a truth that we could not deny. And if that confession was true, then surely her contention that Mum and Dad were not married, that they had never been married, must also be true. We were bastards.

To be continued

Four crows

I saw them this morning as I looked out past the deck of my father’s house to the water beyond, as I admired the filtered light of early morning, the faint mist obscuring the far shore. I was washing dishes, and the crows landed on Dad’s boat, which was on the deck right outside the wall of windows fronting the main room. There they stood, quarreling, on the boat cover, and then they flew about, two up to the trellis on the side of the deck to stand side-by-side and squawk at one which finally flew down to the deck. The fourth, with blowsy, ragged feathers, stood droop-headed on the boat, looking back and forth between the two scolding birds and the one on the deck, and then flew to the deck railing. The two on the trellis flew after it, dancing and jigging, ruffling feathers as though to make themselves look bigger. There was a scuffle. The bird on the deck joined in. They scolded and leapt back and forth, and whatever they were saying to each other was hardly affectionate. I wish I understood Crow.

After a while the three sleek crows came together, rounding on the ragged one, and the ragged one hopped back and forth from foot to foot, cawing rapidly, before launching itself up into the air and flying off. The three sleek crows talked amongst themselves for a moment, and then flew up, one by one, in the opposite direction from the ragged crow, until the deck was deserted once more.

How did they know, these four crows, to act out their little drama on my father’s deck, in front of me, who would see, of course, the four girls in the family and their eternal family roles?

Morning Ritual

Up, take shower, dress, come downstairs for breakfast. Often the dogs linger, sleeping in while I eat. Later they wander downstairs, go outside with me as I water the plants. After I come inside, I wait till they’re curled up on the couch before I creep upstairs to make the bed, which is still warm from their fuzzy little bodies. Carefully and slowly I pull the covers up. I’m never quiet enough. Sadie always hears the sound of sheets sliding over each other, and I hear the jingle of her tags as she bounds up the stairs and leaps onto the bed, ready for DOG WRESTLING. And then it’s a wild five minutes of her growling and snarling at me, baring her substantial Jack Russell fangs, as I try to wrap her in the bedclothes. She sounds fierce, but with an undertone of laughter. Yes, dogs laugh. It’s buried in the tone of their play growling. You just have to listen for the nuances. When her teeth connect with my hands, they do so with a gentleness that wouldn’t bruise a flower. She lunges for me with her mouth wide open and her lips drawn back, and right before the fatal, piercing bite, pulls back just enough that she doesn’t hurt me, her bite as gentle as if she were play biting a tiny puppy. No. Gentler. I’ve seen her play with tiny puppies.

Finally I get her wrapped up, and she fights with all her muscular terrier self to escape, and I pretend I just can’t hold her, and she gets a paw free, a muzzle, her head, her fierce biting bangs,and then all of her, and I roll her around on the bed till she grows floppy and lets me rub her belly, her eyes all crinkled with happiness.

Can you imagine she almost died 10 months ago?

Finally we’re both ready to start our morning.

Courage and love

For B —

I’ve been thinking about family. I’ve been thinking about what happens when family members turn on you in unforgivable ways. I’ve been thinking about the worlds I see through my students’ eyes, through the papers they write.

I learn from my students. I learn how to appreciate what I have now, and the privilege that was my childhood. When I’m tempted to whine about whatever indignity I might have suffered once or might be suffering now, I remember the paper written by a student a couple of quarters ago. He was a gang member, and his family’s house was burned down by a rival gang. He left the gang then, thankful that nobody in his family had died in the fire.

I remember the student who wrote about the scar in his leg, a gunshot memento from running drugs and a gang skirmish. I remember the woman with the three little dots on her cheek, a tattoo that centered her in the sub-culture that was her world. There are men and women here who are recovering from addictions: alcohol, crack, meth. So many meth addicts, trying day-by-day to turn their lives around.

There are stories from girls who cut themselves because that’s the only power they know. There was the student who was molested by his babysitter for years as a prepubescent boy. And every quarter, somehow, someway, there are the stories of girls who have been raped, or sexually abused, or beaten by controlling boyfriends. There are those who were molested once, and who told parents who believed them, and who saw justice done. And there are those whose parents either were the molesters, or who allowed the molestation to happen.

I can’t imagine it. Can’t imagine standing by and letting anyone hurt Zeke. I can’t imagine not believing her, or seeing abuse and turning away. I can’t imagine how a mother could do that to a kid, what kind of dark and twisted world that mother grew up in to think it’s OK to turn her back on abuse to a child.

I think of the extraordinary courage of students who stand up in the face of family hostility and say, “This isn’t right” about the years they withstood abuse that went unchallenged. We’re not “supposed” to be molested by close relatives, but if we are, we’re not “supposed” to send those relatives to jail. Charging a father or a brother or a mother or a sister goes against some terrible instinct that says family cohesion is more important than individual rights. And yet some people have the courage to walk away from family, to recognize that family cycles can’t continue. They break away, at terrible cost to themselves, for something that is ultimately for the greater good.

A few of those brave women (and sometimes men), are able to do so and yet somehow maintain their ability to love, to hold compassion in mind with every action. They love those who have hurt them, and while they take the brave and isolated stance that destroys the family cycle of hate and destruction, they never lose sight of love.

For those rare and precious people, for those few I know personally and others all around the world who also walk such lonely paths, I pray.