Wegman’s was Armageddon. I went in with one woefully inadequate reusable shopping bag and met a wall of people at the check out. Fueled by news of Boston’s blizzards and YouTube views of Yeti helping dig them out, everyone in Fredericksburg had been called to the barricades. I pushed through denuded aisles, thankful we didn’t need toilet paper, getting necessities like People magazine and Pepperidge Farm Golden Layer Cake.
Driving home, I fretted over my book project, which wasn’t going at all well. The weather report had everyone in a tear and everything in the chilly air seemed out of whack. We were all focused on ourselves, on surviving this storm which by no means would be epic even by Virginia standards.
As I unloaded groceries, I heard crows making a terrible racket down the street near the wooded area. Their harsh cawing had a tribunal quality. (Poet Louis Jenkins said crows “have a limited vocabulary, like someone who swears constantly”).
The piercing kee-kee of a red-tailed hawk punctuated the crows’ shouts. A blue jay added his two cents’ worth to the melee. I had to see what was going on. If a hawk had been injured, the crows could mob him. Instead I stumbled on an amazing scene.
On the ground two red-tailed hawks squared off in the “mantling” posture, wings fanned open. It took me a few seconds to realize they were fighting, most likely over territory. Another hawk fluttered nearby and a fourth flew in. The crows carried on higher in the trees. The fighters gripped each others’ legs with their talons, as two wrestlers might clutch arms above the wrists, panting and terrible-eyed.
The crow crowd seemed to be taking sides and laying bets. The other two hawks could have been seconds in an old-fashioned duel. And the blue jay reported the proceedings in the excitable tone of an announcer at a boxing match.
I approached as close as allowed. At last the hawks flew off, the crows scattered, and the blue jay shut up. I walked over to the fight ring. The only sign of a scuffle were two breast feathers netted in the underbrush. I hurried home, by then truly freezing, but also feeling somehow privileged and cleansed.
A few hours later, a chickenfeed snow began to fall. Small dry flakes quickly drifted over the ground where so much had been at stake a short while ago. Through the window, I watched from the warm safety of my home as the snow disguised the familiar world. I wished I could bury my faltering book project under the whiteness.
In his book Secrets of the Universe: Essays on Family, Community, Spirit, and Place, Scott Russell Sanders advises writers “…to free themselves from human enclosures, and go outside to study the green world . . . if we are meant to survive, we must look outward from the charmed circle of our own works, to the stupendous theater where our tiny, brief play goes on.”
Later still, when it was dark and bitter cold and snow was still coming down, I looked out on the porch and saw tracks. Cat pawprints. I knew with certainty that this was no neighbor cat making casual rounds. Not in this weather.
My husband filled a plate with cat food and put it on the porch. Then we waited until a shadow separated itself from the swirling night and hunkered over the plate. My worries over a book project seemed as petty as people squabbling over a case of bottled water.
Hawks will fight for the right to hunt and stray cats will search for food and shelter in the wider story of real survival. I remind myself to step off my insignificant stage and gaze out into the stupendous theater. I might learn something from players different from me, no less important.
Some 480 million years ago continental plates shifted, rifting apart the mountains of ancient super-continent Pangea. The western foothills became the Appalachian Mountains of North America. The eastern foothills created the Atlas Mountains of northeast Africa.
After the seas retreated, the American alligator crawled out of the muck, a living fossil dating back maybe 230 million years. Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp, a peaty bog treed with cypress and sweet gum and Atlantic white pine, is much younger, likely less than 9,000 years old, a remnant of the last Ice Age.
In 1763 George Washington formed a land speculation company to drain and settle the swamp where alligators sometimes sunned on logs around Lake Drummond.
Slaves were brought in to timber splintery white pine and cut cypress shingles. The venture staggered on for a decade until investors lost interest and Washington got busy with the War for Independence.
Later, in the mid-nineteenth century, runaway slaves hounded by tracking dogs slogged through tannic water to safety. Called maroons, these fugitives found high ground and stayed in the swamp for generations, silent, ghostlike, so the stories go.
In 1953, 190 miles northwest of Dismal Swamp, I sat in a wooden playpen, carefully turning the pages of a cloth book. A is for Alligator.
Back then I lived in a dark place where I learned to keep quiet and not make ripples. Whatever happened to me between ages two and five remains submerged, murky. If I look sideways, I might catch the whip of a reptilian tail.
Recent evidence shows alligators may still lurk among Great Dismal’s knobby cypress knees. Or so the stories go.
Some stories are too scary to tell. And not all monsters are made up.
This is an assignment from an online class I’m taking: Writing the Essence: Memoir in Poetry and Flash Nonfiction. I began writing a montage of facts without any idea where I’d wind up. I’m in love with a new form of writing.
To give my writing a kick in the pants, I signed up for two online classes through Story Circle Network, concentrating on writing nonfiction for adults. My first class, “Animals Make Us Human,” taught by Elizabeth Brennan, was a wonderful experience.
Elizabeth encouraged us students to take nature walks. Sad fact, in the winter I don’t walk. I can’t tolerate the cold, no matter how many layers I put on. But I miss it.
In his essay, “Walking,” Thoreau wrote, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
Much as I’d like to spend the day outside sauntering over hills and fields, I’m reminded that Thoreau took his laundry to Mrs. Emerson. Some of us are bound by worldly engagements, such as laundry, and are big fat weenies when it comes to the weather.
Still, I managed to saunter around my yard, expecting one thing, finding another. Here is my nature diary essay.
February 4, 2015:
Gumballs hold down the ground. As far back as August, I raked the hateful spiny seeds, all through the fall as they dropped by the carload, these last thrown from trees harboring a bitter grudge. Hickory shell fragments, cast away by thoughtless squirrels, mosaic the rest of the backyard and crunch underfoot like chicken bones.
The bird feeder is empty, though still frequented by hopeful juncos. One ladders down the gum tree trunk with nuthatch aspirations. It is twenty-nine degrees with aspirations to hit fifty today. I hear a white-crowned sparrow, a shy deep-woods bird passing through long enough to promise spring will arrive in slow increments and only those paying close attention will notice.
I check our two-year-old cherry blossom trees, planted with prayers after our beloved Bradford pears were pushed over by a wing of wind-shear. Every spring, the pear trees threw a wedding. Once, I hung a vintage child’s Easter dress on a swaying spangled branch. That day in August, they gave up not with a crash but a sigh, like old ladies reclining on daybeds.
The cherry blossoms seem dead as a roadside cross, not a hint of the spun-sugar pink that will pop out in late April. Yet if I scraped the gray-brown bark, I’d find secret green underneath. I continue my lap around our property, a scant quarter acre allotment that gives the illusion of ownership, a patch of red clay held down by our house.
We planted azaleas that bloom coral instead of the salmon I wanted. The rest of the year we glare at dull gray-green leaves. I long to yank them out but who gets rid of azaleas? Our landscape decisions backfired. We’ll have Japanese maples here and English boxwoods there, we said, picturing red umbrella-shaped bushes and a primly squared hedge. The Japanese maples withered in searing summer heat and the boxwoods grew so tall and thick, we need a machete to thrash them back every time we walk out the door.
But all is dormant now. The sky is that hard-edged blue that might taste like nickels. There is something about this day that catches in the back of my throat. I stare at the daylily bed around the light pole. I’d pulled the dead stalks last fall, a bundle of pick-up-sticks, but it’s still a mess. And then I remember it’s my father’s birthday.
My mother made me send him a card when I was living at home. And that’s what I got in return on my birthday, with a check for ten dollars inside, signed by his second wife. My whole life I’ve never seen my father’s handwriting. I did not go see Daddy when he was on his deathbed even after he asked for me. I told my sister to tell him that my father was already dead. He understood, since my stepfather had raised me, done for me what Daddy never wanted to do.
Everyone’s been gone a long time—my stepfather, my mother, Daddy. I wonder if they think of me. They must know I don’t forget them, not even Daddy. I long to have my questions answered, but know I have to figure things out myself.
In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote:
. . . have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps someday far into the future you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
I turn my back on our winter-imprisoned yard and go inside. Beneath the hard dirt, daylily bulbs murmur in their sleep, dreaming of the morning they’ll push bright green shoots skyward.
This weekend I went to Richmond to visit my sister, get my hair done (“Lord, I can read in the dark by your roots,” she said), and, not the least, to remember something.
All the way down I-95 I reminded myself, “Ask about the Mouse House.” While my sister was putting my color on, I did. “We all had them,” my sister said. “Mama, me, and you.” Our stepfather had made them for us in 1980.
Back then my sister, Mama, and I were on a rampage, buying tiny little dressers and rugs and lamps that actually lit up. (I’ve always been fascinated by miniatures—probably harks back to reading The Borrowers.) I also collected dressed mice, much cuter than stiff dollhouse figures. Dressed mice occupied Mama’s and my sister’s houses, too. Hence the name Mouse Houses.
In working out an obscure detail for a new book, I thought of my old Mouse House. I’d sold it at a yard sale years ago and couldn’t remember what it looked like. My sister not only remembered our Mouse Houses, she still has hers packed away. She described the structure: peaked roof with an attic space below, the various rooms.
As she talked, my memory came back, but only partially. I couldn’t see my entire Mouse House, only the attic that I had fixed up like a playroom with a tiny red wagon and tiny teddy bear and tiny rocking horse.
For me, recovering a lost memory is like a leaf submerged in ice. I can only retrieve a bit of it. Despite hard thinking, I can’t recall any more of my Mouse House.
What does it mean for a writer—or anyone—to lose memory? I used to have almost total recall, which was often embarrassing. I’d see somebody I hadn’t seen in years and would recall our last meeting down to the weather, what we were wearing, what we talked about, and who else was there. People probably thought my own life was so boring that every minor event was branded in my brain.
Not any more. I can’t remember the names of the characters in the books I’m working on. Short-term memory loss is annoying, but long-term memory loss, those huge blank spaces in my life, is frightening.
A few weeks ago I found a 1997 journal where I’d recounted an incident from the 80s. It had to do with a shortcut and something funny my stepfather had said. I asked my husband if he remembered the shortcut. He described the paved part, the graveled part, the dirt part. I could not picture that shortcut, much less what my stepfather had said. In fact, I didn’t even remember keeping that journal. I went into my office and cried.
In The Memoir Book, author Patti Miller describes two ways of experiencing memory: “original” memory and “remembered” memory. “Remembered” memory is the most common: “Your daily recall of events of the immediate or faraway past which you either entertain in your mind or retell to others.” This type of memory has a “movie” feel.
“Original” memory comes more rarely and is triggered by sensory stimulus. Think Proust’s madeleines. “A smell or taste or other sensory experience suddenly and powerfully brings the experience to mind . . . so strong and vivid that, for an instant, you relive the experience.” “Original” memory can’t be sustained, whereas “remembered” memory can be played back. I replay the same old memories over and over, like a stack of 45s.
Memory is notoriously imperfect. In each retelling or playback the story is changed a bit. In her book Thinking About Memoir, Abigail Thomas says: “Memory seems to be an independent creature inspired by event, not faithful to it. Maybe memory is what the mind does with its free time, decorating itself.”
Thomas advocates writing even when you can’t remember. And so I continue to write—journals, blog posts, essays, novels, anything to help defrost memories.
As I drove back up I-95 yesterday afternoon, my partially-thawed mind redecorated my long-gone Mouse House. I remembered keeping two of the dressed mice. This morning I dug their box out of the trunk. Inside were all of my dressed mice.
My hand went immediately to my favorite, the one in a turquoise-checked dress holding a teeny-tiny toy mouse, the one that played in the attic nursery.