When I was in fifth grade, we moved from a small-ish West Texas town into the country surrounding it. Our physical address was a farm-to-market road, and every morning we drove down a caliche path past a windmill and across a cattle guard to turn left on that road and head towards town. The windmill was visible from the FM road when we were on our way home, and seeing it was my cue to start getting my things together after the long car ride.
The windmill creaked and complained enough that its noise eventually became something I no longer noticed. When I think of the sounds of living in the country, the windmill is one of the first to come to mind, followed closely by the sound of rain on the tin roof and wind blowing through the live oaks outside my bedroom window. The sound of the windmill combined with cats jumping off the porch railing onto the porch below (think slow but purposeful footsteps) once sent my overactive imagination spinning such that I huddled in my closet for hours with a butcher knife, counting the seconds until my mom came home. But that was early in my tenure as a country girl; I got used to the quiet and hum.
I liked the country. I liked going fishing and having to stay alert for rattlesnakes. I loved the deep dark at night and the way the scooped-out land in front of the house met the edge of the caliche path right at the windmill, with the sky full of stars hovering over it all like a mixing bowl turned upside down. A dreamy little girl like me could get lost in that, and I did. Regularly.
The house had a huge wraparound porch with a porch swing on one end, and even though my years in that house were not especially happy ones, I loved that swing. It was the perfect place to take iced tea on a hot day or a quilt and a book on a chilly day; the perfect place to sit with a boy who was nervous about holding my hand and hope he might work up the nerve to steal a kiss or two; the perfect place to have conversations, tell stories and jokes, make decisions. If you asked me to distill all of my hopes, goals, and dreams for my life into one specific thing--the milestone that tells me I've finally made it to somewhere I really want to be--it would be a porch swing where I could sit with the people I love.
Someday, maybe. Someday.
For now, though, there are so many other things that take priority. I cut the final thread in quitting my job last week when I told my students I wasn't coming back next year. And even though that frees us in many ways, I also turned in applications for middle school and kindergarten for my two younger kids that will tie us to specific places and communities for the foreseeable future. Seems like the porch swing will just have to wait.
For now, I'll try to be a windmill instead. I'll do my best to catch the energy in the air flowing around and above me and use it to propel my little family forward. Forward into what, I don't know. But forward, another step down the road to wherever it is we need to be.
As long as I don't run into Don Quixote, we should be fine.
I've been trying for the past three days to write something worth posting. I have a couple of half-finished posts in my drafts folder that I might go back and dust off at some point, but I can't push or pull them into anything satisfying. Maybe after they marinate for awhile...
(Wait, am I talking about blog posts or my life right now? Could be either, truthfully.)
The New Year rolled in with all the usual hope and promise, and I'm thrilled that it's finally here. I haven't even written the wrong year on a single thing yet, that's how psyched I am that 2015 is over. But 2016 brought with it new challenges, big questions, and a whole bunch of stuff I don't feel prepared to tackle quite yet. The sensation is not unlike how I used to feel when driving in the snow: the car would start to slide, a little light would blink on the dashboard, and I would take my foot off the gas, keep a light grip on the wheel and wait to see if the tires would catch and send me on my merry way or if I would go skidding off into the woods and a hell of a bad morning.
"Lord, please--let the tires catch," became my prayer.
Yesterday I found myself with a few unscheduled hours and a sunny day in which to enjoy them. I tried to go to an MLK, Jr. Day parade but couldn't find parking in time, so I meandered my way through downtown and in the general direction of the restaurant where I planned to have lunch. The neighborhoods in that part of town have changed so much in the ten years I've been away, but as I drove down one particular street, I started to recognize a few things and realized my angel was nearby. It felt kind of like when the Pevensie children reencounter the lamp-post at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe--the pull of the once-familiar as it beckons them away from the excitement and adventure of Narnia, back to the wardrobe in the empty room where they started.
I almost passed the Jewish cemetery where she is, but I recognized it at just the right moment. I made the block in a neighborhood of tight, one-way streets and parked in front of someone's house. Camera in hand, I walked across to the gate, only to discover it was locked. All of the gates were locked and a chain-link fence ran along the end of the property. The last time I visited her, I was able to pull my car right in between the rows of headstones. This time I would have to work around a lot more obstacles.
Cemeteries have never frightened me; in fact, I find them calming. In a terrible moment almost exactly a year ago, when the pain of loss and uncertainty threatened to pull me under completely, I drove past churches and coffee shops and other places that might have offered comfort and ended up in a tiny cemetery by the side of the road somewhere near the New York/Connecticut border. Sitting among the headstones, wrapped in one of the blankets I had in my car from a photography session, sobbing and screaming at God, I was finally able to cry it all out and start to breathe again. There's something about being in the midst of the dead that makes life--no matter how painful, tragic, boring, or dull--shine so much brighter.
When my oldest daughter was an infant sixteen years ago, I bought a Canon Rebel 35mm film camera at Target with some of the gift cards we got as baby gifts. My reasoning was that all the long-distance grandparents would appreciate good pictures as she grew. (They did.) But as I took more and more photos of my baby, my photography skills improved and my curiosity grew, and before long, I was branching out and trying new things.
I don't remember the first time I drove past the cemetery angel. I do remember thinking she looked lonely in her vigil, beautiful in a way that kept her in my mind and made me seek her out sometimes when I needed to feel like someone saw me, took in both the good and bad parts of my life, and wanted to hand me a rose to make it better. One foggy day I loaded up the camera with B&W film, drove to the cemetery, and, with my heart beating a mile a minute, I left the baby asleep in her car seat and used up an entire roll of film on my angel. I didn't have anything other than a kit lens, and the film I used came from a big box store--nothing special. But I tried to capture whatever quality she had that made such an impression on me.
With a little help from a printing business in town, I had a couple of the images cropped and printed, and then I put them in frames that probably came from Walmart. Two of them still hang on the wall in my dining room. They've moved with me from city to suburb and state to state, and I always hang them in high-traffic areas of my home. Not because they are great images--they are not--but because of what they represent: the choice to accept the inconvenience of loading up the baby and driving across town, the choice to set aside any nerves about bothering someone by being in the cemetery, and later the choice to invest in the cost of having the images printed and putting them up on the wall (which wasn't inconsiderable when taken as a percentage of the monthly budget at that point). I chose to try to create something beautiful, to attempt to translate what resonated with me into something that might resonate with someone else, and in reaching for my camera that day, I made a choice about who I wanted to be.
It was my first step toward becoming someone who can accept the risk of trying to take a story or image from my interior life and bring it out into the world, where others are free to praise or tear it apart. Someone who knows there might be gates and fences to work around and drafts that won't come together easily, but who chooses to start a new post while the others marinate. Someone who is never satisfied to simply consume the beauty of the world but feels compelled to try to show it to someone else. Someone who will let her heart break in a cemetery among the dead, accept the solace and taunt of the headstones reminding her that none of this lasts forever, and then go back out into the world to love people in the best ways she knows how.
Here's hoping 2016 is the year the tires finally catch and things stop sliding off the road in the direction of the woods. Being reunited with my angel feels like a good sign.
I remember a conversation with my father that must have happened when I was about three or four years old. The memory has the hazy-around-the-edges quality of a dream, and if challenged, it's possible that what my mind has so carefully constructed and returned to again and again over the years could collapse in a moment. But since my memory is generally reliable, I'm giving myself the benefit of the doubt on this one.
I must have been praying the typical "God bless Mommy, and God bless Daddy, and God bless . . ." of most childhood prayers. Or I could have been chattering away about people who loved me. Either way, I know I had made my way through a list of the people who came most easily to mind when my dad interjected.
"You know who really loves you?"
I must have blinked. I think I might have said, "He does?" even as I was thinking to myself, "Of course he does!" Didn't he romp through the house on all fours giving me pony rides on his back (complete with whinnying, I might add)? Didn't he let me curl up next to him in his recliner while he read me story after story after story? He even did voices when he read, making Lambert the Sheepish Lion come to life there in a small living room in West Texas. As I ran through these things in my head, I realized my dad was right--Dad Loy REALLY loved me. I started walking taller whenever he was around.
My grandfather was the youngest in a big Texas farming family that somehow kept their land through the Great Depression. He once broke his arm falling off a horse while working cattle and had to sit out a football season to let the injury heal. He walked country roads to a one-room schoolhouse before attending the high school where he met my grandmother. It made him cringe for her to tell it, but the story goes that she once went to a basketball game with another boy, and my grandfather had someone call the boy outside over the loudspeaker and then punched him to let him know that Patsy would not be going out with him again. That story captures more passion and violence than I would have guessed him capable of; by the time I knew him, he was a balding accountant who wore tan coveralls around the house and ate mustard on his biscuits every Saturday morning.
Dad Loy served me Coke with breakfast in the morning, and if he paced while I drank it because he thought we would be late to school, I forgave him his anxiety (we were usually a half hour early; I can't think of a single time we were late). He regularly drove more than 20 miles one way in the early morning and again in the afternoon to take me to and from the rural school where I attended sixth through eighth grade. I loved when he picked me up because he would stop at the convenience store around the corner and give me a dollar to spend: 50 cents for Chili-Cheese Fritos and 50 cents for a can of Coke. He never commented on my selections, and he never asked for a sip.
On the second and fourth Friday of every month, he would pick me up while my grandmother picked up my youngest brother from his school on the other side of the district, and we would converge at their house and have dinner before loading into the van modified with a lift for our middle brother's wheelchair. Then we would drive to a meeting spot halfway between my grandparents' house in Abilene and my dad's in Fort Worth, switch drivers to complete the journey, and do the same process in reverse on Sundays. I spent many, many hours of my life riding shotgun next to my grandfather. Most of the time I read a book or looked out the window, lost in my imagination. Sometimes we talked. I tried, in the way of a soft-hearted girl who had read Charlotte's Web at an early age, to convince him to stop hunting; he patiently explained how the deer population would overrun the farmers if hunters didn't do their part to keep things in balance. I didn't realize until later how hunting trips gave him time together with his friends in the mysterious world of men and all things masculine, nor did I register the importance of the skill and daring of the hunt and the stories around the campfire afterwards. I still hate seeing the pictures of the deer they killed, but I understand the ritual a bit better now.
Dad Loy gave up smoking because I was allergic (I'm sure there were other reasons, but I that's how I remember it). One day the Marlboro Reds were just gone, and that was that. I remember a time when a six-pack of Budweiser would dwindle one at a time until it was replaced the following week, but that stopped one day, too. I never saw another beer in his refrigerator or in his hand. He liked his burgers well done plus about ten minutes on the Old Smokey. He lit sparklers for me and sat on his porch and churned peach ice cream on the Fourth of July, and he and I ate Soft Batch Chocolate Chip Cookies every night I ever spent at his house.
My grandfather did the dishes every night; I can't think of a single time my grandmother took that chore. For years before he let her talk him into buying a washer and dryer, he would take their clothes to the laundromat around the corner and wash, dry, and fold them himself. I loved when he would take me along because he would let me play in the rolling basket between loads.
I went to see my grandparents a lot when I was in college, and Dad Loy was usually the one who noticed my car inspection needed to be updated or my tires were low and made sure I was in good shape before I left again. Every time I visited, he called me into a separate room and slipped a $20 bill or two into my hand and said, "I'm sure you can think of a way to use this." He continued that routine long after I passed into adulthood, and I always hugged him and told him I appreciated it.
Dad Loy didn't come to my wedding because he was recovering from heart bypass surgery. He was close enough to the end of the recovery period and doing well enough that he probably could have managed it, but if the doctor said "six weeks of rest" and the wedding was during week five, well, there was no discussion: it hadn't been six weeks since the surgery. After my grandmother had a stroke, he took care of her in their home for more than a decade. He kept track of appointments and managed complicated medication regimens and dealt with bodily functions that must have embarrassed both of them at first, and he did it all with a quiet tenderness that made me rethink my understanding of love.
Dad Loy is the antithesis of anything showy or flashy. He is a worker, a saver, and the embodiment of three important P's: practical, prepared, and prompt. The motto he proclaimed with almost religious fervor for years has been, "If it is to be, it is up to me," and he is a true believer. I tend more towards the "It takes a village" approach, but I respect the way his life shows the wisdom of self-reliance, initiative, and hard work.
When he gets frustrated in a conversation, he simply says, "Well . . ." and holds up a hand like a cyclist signaling a stop, and all discussion is over. I've only seen him angry once: my cousin and I put some powder with laxative properties we bought at a joke shop into my youngest brother's cherry limeade (I still contend he should have known better than to drink anything after we volunteered to make a special trip to get him something from Sonic). When Dad Loy found out, he raised his voice to me for the one and only time I can remember; his disappointment that I would do something so deceptive and foolish still makes me shudder with guilt.
My grandmother died this past March, and he took it in his usual stoic way. His mind is slipping now, gradually picking up speed, but he knows exactly how many days have gone by since her passing. We have the same conversation over and over again--the younger cousins counted eight rotations of one particular dialogue with me at Christmas--and he sometimes confuses me with my sisters or cousin or even my oldest daughter.
When I talked to him this morning on his 90th birthday, I thought we were in one of those moments when he said, "Remember when Emily was just a kid and went to New England and grew up? Can you remember that?" I thought at first he was talking about my oldest daughter, who was five when we moved to Connecticut and 14 when we moved back. Then I realized he WAS talking about me, and more than that, he nailed it. I did grow up during my time away. I hope he is proud of who I have become, in spite of the Yankee tendencies I've picked up that surely must make him cringe.
My father was right all those years ago. My grandfather--the man who watched the weather for Connecticut so that we would have something to talk about when I called; who is one of the least demonstrative people I've ever met but whose face (or his voice when on the phone) never fails to light up with a smile when he sees me; who never once let me ring the doorbell at his house because he was always watching through the dining room window for me to arrive; who in the midst of dementia and all that goes along with reaching such an advanced age can still pull me up short with how well he knows me--that man REALLY loves me. Thank God for him and for his 90 years on this earth. I hope he's around to watch me grow up some more.
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.