Iridia’s Shell

Photo by David Hamilton

Photo by David Hamilton

She had come from Grenada by way of L.A., they said, and it might be tough on her, living here. Too cold, for one thing. She’d be landlocked, a concept that sounded weird when I repeated it, like the person was a prisoner of Oregon. I guessed they knew what they were talking about. Tremaine was a newer professor at the college. He liked to come by and visit with my father, the history department chair. I was listening from a crook in the maple tree and whittling a stick with my Swiss Army knife. I could smell pork chops and green beans, the scents escaping from the kitchen window. I put my work in a small pull-string leather bag and shimmied down the rope.

I figured Tremaine would be eating with us; he usually did. We had a couple of chairs open for anyone who stopped by. As I entered the dining room Mother flapped open the floral tablecloth.

“Get me the rose napkins from the buffet drawer, Roan,” she said. I’ve been meaning to use them all summer. And put the glass candlesticks on while you’re at it.”

I did as I was told but scowled. I wanted to get into the kitchen to scope out the rest of the meal, then check my email. Where was my sister again? It was her last summer home before leaving for a private arts school. Sure, she was pretty smart–she had a talent for piano, too–but Gen tended to think she was exempt from ordinary work, boring things. Plus she was busy being wild before she had to make good on her promise to make the family proud.

The table looked good when I was done. The yellow tapers cast a cheery warm light even though it wasn’t even dark yet.

I bent down and called out a screen window that opened onto the front porch.

“Dad, Tremaine! Dinner!”

“Mr. Davison to you, son,” Dad reminded me sharply. He got up and closed the atlas they had been looking at.

I knew Tremaine didn’t care. He was just ten years older than Gen. I looked at him to make sure I was right. He smiled, perfect teeth glowing in the eveing’s duskiness, and nodded at me.

“Never mind, the boy’s fine.”

I touched my braces self-consciously, worried about the corn on the cob. I supposed no one would pay much attention to me. It was always politics, historical research and biography reviews that dominated meals when Tremaine stopped by. I was fourteen and a half but I’d learned a few interesting things despite resistance. I wasn’t lazy, just a dreamer, as my father once told a teacher. It sounded lame, like an excuse.

“Where are the biscuits?” Gen asked as she swung through the kitchen and plopped onto her chair. “We need biscuits and honey, oh, sorry I’m late. I was playing badminton with Rafe.”

I snickered. She looked way overheated, cheeks cherry red, dark hair damp and coming loose from her ponytail. She usually looked messy to me but mother said she was prettier by the minute, as if her face was a work of kinetic art that changed before our eyes. Mother passed the pork chops.

“Anyway,” Tremaine said as he ladled food onto his plate, “Iridia and her mother, Clementine, came to live with Aunt Vi who lives down the street from me. Clem lost her part-time job at a health clinic in L.A., she said, but there may be a new one soon at Premiere Health. The first thing Iridia did was run off to the beach. She was gone over an hour. They were frantic until they found her sheltered behind some grass, sitting on driftwood.” He took a bite, chewed thoughtfully. “But they lived right on the beach in Grenada. A bigger city like L.A. wouldn’t do. It’ll be better here on the coast.”

“I certainly hope for the best for them.” Dad poured wine for the adults despite my asking him if I could have a little.

“Who?” Gen whispered at me.

“A girl from Grenada is all I know.”

“Don’t whisper,” Mother whispered.

“She might be in your classes this fall, Roan.” Tremaine carefully unfolded the linen napkin as if it was a thing of beauty and laid it on his lap.

I looked at him. “Okay.”

“You could meet her, help orient her to things.” Dad eyed his sweet corn with anticipation, then took big bites all in a perfect row.

I searched Tremaine’s ebony eyes and thought I saw a humorous response there. He had noticed my reticence with girls. I usually sidestepped them.

“Sure…unless Gen could do it. She knows the ropes, can show her the sights and shops. She’s a girl, anyway. I think.”

Gen kicked me under the table.”Roan, curb your lack of intelligence for once.”

I kicked back; she squashed my toe with her shoe.

“Kids.” Dad sighed.

Tremaine was busy with his corn. His pleasure was kept to a civilized level but I knew he wanted to tear into it like I did.

I finished the chop and served myself beans. The last thing I needed was to babysit some girl the last two weeks of summer. I had basketball to play and a great sci-fi book to finish. I was afraid more and more was going to be asked of me with Gen leaving soon. She should stay here. It was worrisome.


I had been running a half hour and felt good, flying along the sand, a comfortable rhythm set, my legs feeling springy and strong. I passed by the headland where the tide was receding and thought I saw something on the wet sand, a heap. It occurred to me it might be an injured seal. I made a quick turn and headed back to see.  The closer I got, the slower I ran. It was not a seal but a girl.

She unfolded and rose in one smooth motion as I slowed to a halt before her. Her striking dark eyes took in my length, then narrowed as she scanned for information. Apparently she felt I was safe or decent enough. She brushed sand off her arms, shoulders. She wore a summery dress, orange and blue, and had a tan blouse tied around her waist. A brightly beaded bracelet clung to her wrist. I gauged she might be older, maybe sixteen.

“I saw you, thought you might be hurt or something.”

She shifted, looked over the waves. “No. Resting sorta. Listening to the ocean.”

She sounded a little different. Her voice rose and fell, words rounded in a way I’d not heard before. A wind swept up and ruffled my shoulder-length hair, lifted the hem of her skirt a little. She held her arms close to her chest and walked away.

“Wait a minute. Are you maybe Iridia?”

She whirled around, startled. “Why?”

“Tremaine told my family about an Iridia and her mother. You and your mom, maybe?”

“Oh. Yes, Tremaine, a good man. We know him. My auntie knows him well, I should say. He comes by. And you are?”


She blinked twice, then laughed. “Like the color roan? Like a roan horse?”

I shrugged. I was used to a reaction, sometimes the questions but not so rudely at first meeting. I should have taken off but this was just getting interesting. She walked briskly now and I followed.

“My mother liked it, loved horses. What about Iridia?”

“Oh, that’s after my great-grandmother or my great-great auntie, the story changes and each time it has a different outcome or meaning, sometimes good, sometimes bad.” She picked up her pace. “You live here long?”

“All my life. You’re from Grenada, Tremaine said. The Caribbean, a long way away.” We were almost running now. “Are you in a hurry?”

“Yes. I wish I was back home now. But I have to be at my Aunt Viv’s in ten minutes or she’ll call the police.”

I ran alongside her a little more. Clouds raced and gathered; rain streaked the mountain peaks above the south end of beach.  She pulled on her blouse without breaking her stride.

“You run track?” I shouted.

“Yes, have to go now, ‘bye!”

She took off without me, zigzagging across the sand. I could’ve run after her, I’m a champion runner, but she obviously didn’t want me around. I ran the other direction toward home as a light caught me. When I arrived, I dried off and hunkered down on my bed to read. Nothing better than rain and books together. But her large searching eyes kept blotting out the page. How was it to be forced by your parent to go to the Northwest after always living in a balmy, paradise? An island life left behind? It must suck.


The next day I was on the beach with Taye and Dean. We’d been sailboarding, breaking in Taye’s new board, but the waves and wind were less than prime. Dean had brought three ham sandwiches and we were catching our breath and eating.

“Who’s that staring at us?” Taye pointed to a girl a few hundred feet away.

Iridia was standing there looking at me. When I stood she remained still. I gestured her to come over but she was like a statue.

“It’s Iridia, a new girl from Grenada.”

“Iri-what? Grenada? What’s that? A town somewhere?” Dean said.

“It’s an island, idiot,” Taye cuffed him and got up. “Wait, Roan, how do you know her?”

“No, you stay here, I’m going to talk to her a minute.”

“Got a girl, Roan?” Taye yelled after me. “Holding out on us? Traitor!”

“Shut up, fools,” I said and took off in a trot.

When I reached her I saw she had a large shell. She nodded at me with a flash of smile, then we ambled down the beach toward a small cave. She talked fast in those softened words about her mother’s new job and asked me about the town and school. Tremaine had told me she spoke in French patois at times so I listened closely.

It was easy, though. All I had to do was act like she was an old friend, which is how it oddly felt, and pay attention. Our arms swung out and back with our steps. Once they collided against each other. She moved apart from me but kept asking questions. Was the school very tough? Did they have music classes? Was the girls’ track team any good? Were my friends nice or typical jerks? I stole little glances at her face, her deep bronze-chestnut skin gleaming in the light, her lips a brownish-pink. I was very tan but she was from Grenada, after all. I was just a sun worshipper.

I heard Dean yell my name but soon it was whisked away by the salty wind. At the scooped-out cave we leaned against rocky walls.

“See? I brought this shell with me. A conch shell.”

She held it up. It was glossy and and pink inside, a sort of cave made of texturedshapes and surfaces.


I held it to my ear and the sea echoed, first just a flutey call that floated inside my head. Then it roared and whispered, so familiar it seemed odd hearing it in a smooth shell when it was everywhere around us, slamming rocks, carving sand. Where did the sounds start and end?

Holding it close I turned to her. “Is it special? I haven’t seen one like this up close.”

“Conch shells are many places but this is from the Caribbean. My very own shell, my own bit of sea. For me this sea song is captured inside. It lives there.”

She took it from me and pressed it against her own ear, then started to hum a lilting melody, then singing words I didn’t quite catch but it seemed to be the sea itself speaking and falling out of her lips, silvery green waves rolling over us, unknown creatures rising and sliding over the water, spinning toward us. Her voice was rich like honey, light-splashed and sweet, and it carried me into the wind. Her face glowed. I felt shivery and sad and warm and good. A little afraid in a good way.

Then she stopped. There was only Pacific Ocean cresting and falling onto smooth, pale sand, then doubling back onto itself. The horizon blurred, thickened with fog as the sun began to slip away.

“My father gave this shell to me. He died last year, car crash. That’s why we came here, to start over, make a new life. To help forget, my mom says, but I won’t.” She turned to me. Her eyes glistened as she bit her lip then released it. “Is it always so chilly here? Will it be terrible in the winter? Will I be laughed at? Alone?” Her voice sounded like it had squeezed through a hole in the cave, thinned by fear, slick with unshed tears.

I took her forearms into my hands before I thought about it. “Your father, he died? You sing this song… For him, Iridia?”

She nodded, tugged her arms, so I let my hands fall.

“It was beautiful. But why are you telling me this? I just met you.”

She closed her eyes and shuddered, then leaned forward, inches from my chest, close but not so close she might fall into my arms without catching herself.

“Your name. My horse on Grenada–it was a roan. Really!” Her smile was small, shy. “And you are kind. It seems the right thing to do. So someone knows the truth.” She stepped back, peered at me hard. I felt her look way deeper than I was ready to have her look.”Not everyone, only you for now, okay? Just you.”

I’d worried she’d really cry then but it seemed she was alright. It wasn’t a big deal if she did–her dad had died. What was that even like? I couldn’t imagine it. But she had a horse? I liked that idea, her riding a horse on a piece of land in a turquoise sea.

“Yes, okay. I get it. There are things that need to stay secret. I won’t say anything. The winter isn’t bad here, just wet and cold but green. We have a fireplace if you don’t–you can come over. My family is nice enough. I’ll introduce you to my sister, Gen. She’s going to private school–she’s a musician–but she has pretty cool friends, you could meet them, too. And there’s Tremaine and –“

Iridia put her fingertips on my lips. I wished my braces were long gone and I looked really good. But she only touched me to stop me from talking. Still, my skin tingled when she lifted them away.

She leaned her shoulder against mine awhile and brought the conch shell to her ear as the sun shrank and vanished behind the grey swath of clouds. She was listening more. For her home, I guessed. For her father’s voice. It was a sacred shell, I thought; it would watch over her in her new life. It made sense to me. I felt this strongly enough so that she turned back, gave me a quick Iridia smile and linked her arm in mine as we walked on.


Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Moon’s a Silver Balloon: More Musings from a Somewhat Reluctant Adventurer


After arriving at the airport at four-thirty in the morning, checking my over-packed bag, saying farewell to my spouse and settling on the plane, I waited for nervousness to expand and conquer. The plane ascended and my eyes soon found the rim of the world in its dawn beauty. I had barely enjoyed two hours’ rest the previous night. I fell asleep. Five hours later a flight attendant’s clarion voice announced an imminent landing at Washington Dulles. The sudden report snatched me from slumber. This was the trip I wrote about in “Becoming Bolder: Disclosures of a Somewhat Reluctant Adventurer” that would later become Freshly Pressed. I was thankful I had been deposited on the other side of our land without incident.

I did wonder how I’d locate my daughter within moving clots of people crowding baggage claim. Via her well-timed text, of course. There Naomi stood waving at her blinking, unseasoned traveller- mom. Her wave and smile were enough to encourage easy forward movement. So far, everything bode well for the coming days and nights. Until we stepped outside and August humidity pressed down on me like a heavy dampened wrap. Reality check: not in the Northwest anymore.

After a good, quick visit with my older brother and sister-in-law in near Washington, D.C. we proceeded to the town where Naomi had lived and taught for five years: Williamsburg, VA. Historical, stately, dominated by the College of William and Mary (second oldest public college in the U. S.) and the grand tourist attraction, Colonial Williamsburg. We arrived at the Alice Person House, bed and breakfast accomodations. We had reserved an attractive suite for three nights since Naomi’s old apartment had been packed up weeks earlier, after which she’d attended two artists’ residencies. Now there was the business of moving to complete. And warm farewells to friends and colleagues. I knew she had a running list of “to-dos”. I would not be an impediment but a cheerful support. I had come without expectations, on a whim because she had asked me to come.


The next days are a kaleidoscopic memory. We completed tasks or, rather, I accompanied her on errands. But we had relaxing hours as well. A favorite time was walking at dusk in Colonial Williamsburg, the authentic old shops closed and streets nearly emptied of others. The evening was a symphonic presentation of cicadas rasping, tree frogs chirping and crickets fiddling. Bats swooped like dancers in the twilight. Plainly designed, wooden and brick seventeenth century buildings were imbued with remnants of people and events. It was easy to imagine life there so long ago. We talked quietly, mostly observed the surroundings. Fireflies cavorted, a sight that made me giddy. The sky showed off clusters of stars. Horses nibbled at grass. We felt peace. I loved walking with my daughter. We both walk rapidly, with an appreciation of how all the parts move in concert, minds emptying and absorbing at once, a meditation.



I was inserted into her world in ways that had not occurred before due to the distance between us. I met many of her friends, big-spirited artists. We shared meals, enjoyed easy, thoughtful conversations. Although welcomed, at times I felt at a remove, as if watching film gaining definition as it develops. There was a gradual, startling awareness of a whole life utterly separate from my own, a history that did not include me. Naomi’s friends and experiences enriched a world that had been beyond my realm for years until these moments. I heard her congenial but rapid discourse, her quicksilver laughter, her humorous sound effects. I observed her lovely, strong hands create eloquent gesticulations. Her vigor and warmth flew outward and it landed, then boomeranged. Her friends gave her love. This grown up person was something, I had to agree.

Born a two and a half pound infant, far too early for this earthly atmosphere, she preservered from the start and surprised us. I felt charged with caring for an almost otherworldly being, she was so new. A naturally shy person, it was years before she ventured from the profound introversion that governed her thinking and doing. One of the memorable events of her early life occurred when she was just two. Naomi began to sit for hours and build with blocks, silent, absorbed, happy. Carefully she placed each geometric form, then scrutinized and changed configurations. She wasn’t speaking more than a few words–her favorite was “moon” which I, a young poet, suggested was a “silver balloon”. She always sought it in evening skies, blue eyes riveted. But words weren’t needed to create things that foreshadowed a future as a sculptor.


Another daughter, Cait, joined us for most of a day and we explored the Jamestown Settlement, caught up on news, shared meals together. Watching them I couldn’t help but recall their early years together. Though unlike each other in nature and work, Cait a dedicated chaplain and Naomi an artist and professor, and despite not being blood-related, they remain sisters at heart. It filled me with peace and pleasure to see it but I so regretted Cait couldn’t stay for the duration. What late night gabs we could have had, popcorn and tea and chocolate times!



The last morning in Williamsburg we shared a hot breakfast with a chic couple from New York and the garrulous proprietress. Then we packed up and left with the moving van. The drive through Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York was punctuated by anecdotes, long stretches of comfortable and tired silence, music on the radio. She softly sang along as I smiled at her melodious soprano, sometimes singing a little with her. We talked about her flute playing days, the music that’s carried in our blood. We talked about her father’s family. Her missed grandparents. Memories unfurled like magic flags. But, too, stillness comforted me.

The oppressive heat of the Virginias dissiapated as we entered Pennsylvania. The summer countryside was verdant, a horizon rimmed with mountain foothills. I had explored the nearby Adirondacks as a child, leaning out my parents’ sedan’s back window, my head inclined toward trees. But this landscape was languid and sensuous. The blue sky beamed. Hours slid by. Although we were pulling a large trailer stacked with her art work, making the truck sluggish on hills and slow to pass others, I took the wheel. It wasn’t very hard to maneuver. I loved the sound of her SUV as we chugged up and over country roads. We took a break for a otur of caverns that was cheesey but educational. We stopped to visit a New York friend of Naomi’s where I enjoyed Ithaca’s own root beer, a fat deli sandwich, chances for more photographs. This world is full of odd stuff and fascinating people.











We arrived two days later at a crossroads. Here her new home awaited. Evening fell about us like a cool tent of fragrant air. Farm animal-fragrant, tinged with wild grasses and scents of water, mineral-rich. We unpiled things, lugged them inside until it was late. From the back yard we could see a moon throbbing in the luminous blackness. The new landlord ambled over to ask if the moon there was different than in Oregon and I laughed and nodded, maybe, yes. It beamed a fine beauty at that moment, a country sort of welcome. A rendering of mystery. Promise of more curious things. Naomi made a camper’s bed on the wooden floor and gave me the luxury of an air mattress in another room. We slept well enough the first night. Frankly, I slept better every night on the trip.

What can I tell you about helping to make a new nest with my daughter? We worked first and last. Scrubbed, unpacked, swept, ordered, tossed, shopped, rearranged. But we also walked old streets and nodded at strangers on enviable porches who would pass the news of our arrival soon. We visited waterfalls and enjoyed a hike, strolled along sinuous rivers. We danced–I more than she–to sometimes edgy, sometimes elegiac music. Hummed and whistled as we organized. I was inspired to sketch a half-empty hotel on the main street; it was fun and looked okay. We admired all art unwrapped, fingered a collection of objects with names she’d given them–a Marlene cup, Todd mug. A pen and ink drawing that recalled her four siblings swimming. Her making of art, her love of it–is sacred to her, I saw more completely. It is full of Spirit and longing and hope, of compassion, boldness and risk. I took a cup she had made and made it safe for its ride home.


When she took me to her big new office, showed me the new campus where she will teach, I felt satisfied: this would be her landing spot. She will give and grow much. I mused on the coming winter of this territory, something she hasn’t known for some years, how it may blind her with pristine fields, its bitter and sweet starkness, perhaps change her fair cheeks to a rouge-pink. She will trek her way across the landscape. Seek the heart of warmth. Throw snowballs that transform into water again, cook up food and ideas. She is a builder, a person whose vision requires daring as well as a sound center of gravity.

We smiled for our cameras but I don’t really need a picture of us. It’s all vivid in my mind’s eye. I have both of them, Cait and Naomi, right here, hold them close inside my motherness, deeply, deeper than ever. Even as I say farewell quickly at a Canadian airport so I do not cry, pass through customs with a backward glance, I carry them within like secret, priceless cargo.

As I packed up my bags I realized all the things I’d worried about–chancy food, unfamiliar sleeping arrangements, time changes–had had little impact on the big picture. The trip had ended well; it had offered more of many good things. Maybe next time it would be less so, but so it goes.

On the way back to Oregon I gazed out a plane window. I always take a window seat; I want to see where I am going. Storm clouds towered as we skirted them. We floated between two seemingly separate layers of clouds and a bright line of light parted the striations. I loved those clouds, that breathtaking light, even though the ride was bumpy awhile. I will be flying again, somewhere or other. Thanks for the invite, Naomi!



Posted in Creative non-fiction, memoir, non-fiction, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

She Finds Her Homing Instinct/It Finds Her


In the middle of the night there is a pingpoingscritchscritch that gathers velocity in her sleep, rearranging her legs and arms, soon despositing feet off the soft edge of the bed. It’s not as if she sleeps restfully, anyway, yet she has a habit of diving back into the blackness and willing herself to re-enter slumber’s sweet exile. But this noise is foreign. She soon is fully and consciously sentient and stands up on the dusty wooden floor. The very act of becoming vertical seems enough of a feat that she hopes the racket turns out to be worth the effort. On the other hand, she wants it to be nothing much. Either way, she will likely muse over it’s power to interrupt rest.

This is not, she realizes again, home. That is, it is not the home she knows well, familiar nooks and crevasses, creaks and whistles the other place offered like a nightly serenade in a cozy cave. The old spot was tiny, four hundred square feet. Enough room to live but not to entertain others for more than a short visit–not without some regret, at least. Yet she thrived within it, or perhaps it was the context, that job, those friends, the sculptures she created. Creativity ruled that space. It was required in order to live efficaciously, happily. Spareness and a need for objects skirmished, then made, broke and remade truces. But she is slight of stature and weight so such areas accommodate her with little complaint from either. However, her mind is expansive, a virtual accordion of energy and thought patterns. Space has little to do with her survival, much less thriving. It is all in how you view it, she thinks.

So here she landed, smack into a new  job and this large, newish place. It is at least twice as big as the other, perhaps two and a half times. The house it is a part of is enormous but reverberates emptiness until renovation will be complete. The idea captured her attention even more when the lower rent was quoted, that of inhabiting part of a building in the process of transformation. But it is a little odd now, in a night beset by pings and scrtiches.

She finds her way through her room and enters the kitchen, bumps into boxes and a chair, pots and skillets. How is she filling it so easily already? Where did all this come from and how did everything fit before? Will things snug together like a smart puzzle again? The thought paralyzes her for a moment, an equation she can’t figure out and must. And will. Her apartment feels so full yet empty. She shrugs and leans toward the mess and the sound as she does any task, with resolution.

The five rooms take on their shapes as her eyes peer into the width and depth of each space. It is as if they come alive as she studies them. As if they are quiet, vacant expanses that have been waiting to relinquish their bland, amorphous state under her deft direction. She thinks of performance art, of the theatre of the absurd.

Pingpingpoingpingscritch. Breeziness wraps around the leftover space as wind swirls through raised windows. She pads over to the sun room, drops to her knees and sniffs the air. Damp. Earthen-sweet. It is raining. The drops are striking the multi-leveled metal roof and bouncing onto the porch and back hoe in the back yard. A few blow onto her arm. There is a green plastic chair in the sun room or breakfast room, she isn’t sure what it is, and she sits in it. There was a moon in the deep earlier, making its way to fullness, so the rain is a surprise. It seems more reasonable as she sits with it, closes her eyes, presses against the wall. The outdoors trying to come in feels like a mother murmuring or a mythic god beginning a long story. It is strange to hear life here; there are real acoustics. When speaking or singing along with the radio her own clear voice cascades through each room as if seeking a destination not yet found.

She sleeps. The rain and her breathing lift and take her elsewhere. Soon there are tree frogs and cicadas and crickets chirping and rasping with a monotony only found in hot, humid country. She walks down the road in the dark, into woods, and pauses at a clearing. The frogs jump across the path–she recognizes them even though she is night blind, sleep blind–and she greets them. They look like friends. They are on their way to studios where things will be created–etheral paintings, kinetic sculptures, crazy pottery and moving or satirical drawings and photographs. All of which you have to peer at as though into a very deep wishing well. So she feels like taking a frog home whre she gives it a place on her pillow, then guards its primitive beauty. It rests between comments, sees and is transformed by her kindness. The frog, it turns out, is humanoid and a friend. She feels a swell of happiness inside the dream. They share mugs of tea that fit well in their froggy and people hands as they talk creativity and cost of living and tenured teaching jobs and what it means to become art. For art to be more and less than what they even imagined.

The light awakens her. She comes to once more with reluctance. Feels a cloak of sadness slip and slide about her. A bright eastern sky blinks, blue-eyed and finely spread like chiffon above the river and grass. Her neck aches. Feet and arms are chilly. Stomach grumbling. Homesickness will grow like a pernicious weed if she isn’t careful. She gets up and carries out her morning toilette. There is so much more work to be done, aching neck or not. Tree frogs speaking in dreams or not. Here there are mosquito eaters, moths and tiny spiders that cling to the walls like ninjas. She leaves them alone, glad of company.

She picks up the tape measure and measures. Questions the boxes. What to do with you? Where to place your contents, well-loved items that carry stories of people who made them or gave them to me, every piece well-travelled now? This is home, she repeats without speaking. Here. Now. Or, if not yet, will be. It will accept her things, the comings and goings because that is what happens to places: they are somehow made to fit those who live there. But other times she is made to fit the place, the work, the passage of time. It can’t be helped and it sometimes is just what she needs. It is a mutual design encounter. She likes to accept challenges, even looks for them. You trade some things for others, life is constant bargaining, she thinks. She traces contours and textures of each handmade ceramic mug, cup, plate.

Across the road is a busy diner, a white church, a stolid hotel that seems empty, and people who do not know her yet but know she is here. Down the street is a market, a laundromat, a bank, a disheveled house. Turn a corner and there is a library that once had hundreds upon hundreds of villagers reading books, rubber stamps marking dates due. She will visit there. In this new place there are people whose names will become as familiar as the shopkeepers she has just left behind. There are faces that will stay with her and others that will fade the moment she sees them. But it will all imprint upon her, odd and lovely tattoos of life, residual nicks and bruises and invisible healing, colors and constructs, wonderments and passions that carve and illuminate her way. This is how it goes for an artist roaming the world. First, the nest is made, an honorable task. Then, the deepening work, the striving and living that begets the art that begets the woman. Or the wiser woman who begets the braver art. It all counts.

Her soft hair flutters as the front door is opened. August’s light divides the living room floor into two spaces, each shadowy side soon to become more useful. She steps outside. Her luminous eyes send greetings into the north country atmosphere as a passerby nods. The rain lingers as a taste of summer in her mouth. She finds her sketchbook, pencil hovering. Soon autumn’s radiance will arrive, then the shocking dreamscape of winter. In the passage of time another mystery or a few will be revealed. Possibilities. Home will again be a place to welcome her, keep her close to what matters. There is room enough for more than one good potluck, much more art.




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Becoming Bolder: Disclosures of a Somewhat Reluctant Adventurer

Misc. photos 029

Though I have days to prepare, I’m already madly packing in my mind, selecting clothes I want, making a mental list of toiletries, determining the comparative value of protein bars (added protein) versus chocolate-covered pretzels (dopamine upsurge =crunchy happiness), and considering what books and magazines I want to lug around. The last seems like a critical decision, but that may change tomorrow. Tomorrow it might be how to find a corner for the white loafers I love but rarely wear. Or the hoodie, just in case. And I can’t forget my omega-3 fish oil pills! And mints for my purse.

I feel like I am about to embark on a journey into another world. In point of fact, I am. Not the Amazon basin (I dream of this) or County Clare in Ireland (I wish). A five hour plane trip back East for nine days. That’s it. But it’s not a very familiar world. Though I have lived in other states, my home has been in Oregon for over two decades.

My oldest daughter, Naomi, has invited me join her exodus from her old place and job at a college to a new place for another college job. Virginia to upstate New York. When she first mentioned it I counted off reasons why it was impractical–costly, lengthy, inconvenient due to family needs as well as writing projects and other weekly commitments. I couldn’t comfortably lift and carry heavy stuff in order to help her so I’d only be moral support. Oh, and her youngest sister has a wedding coming up in the fall–there is much to save for, think about and assist regarding all. And I’m not so good, anymore, at handling three different time zones, questionable food sources, not to mention foreign beds.

Naomi ignored these. “I have a mover coming, mom. You don’t have to lift anything, just be around. It’s not a whole month away. And you’ve not yet been out here for a good visit with me. Plus, this can be a little vacation. You’ll be fine. And maybe Cait can take a day and drive over.”

She was probably right on all counts. And when I mulled it over I realized I haven’t even been alone with her for more than a short day since…well, perhaps the first year and a half of her life. Her brother was born, and then a sister and then two non-biological sisters joined our blended family (one of whom is Cait). Except for the beginning of Naomi’s life, there has forever been a group involved in all activities, overflowing the rooms and filling up time. She went to college at eighteen and a couple years later I divorced and moved with two children to Oregon. She visited us on holidays, for a week or so in summer. Some of the family attended her Masters’ art exhibition at Carnegie Mellon University and visited her a couple of times in Virginia and Michigan. But she has travelled to see the family here or elsewhere once or twice a year.

Since she began college, twenty-three years have somehow passed. I was aghast that I’ve not spent an entire week alone with her since her toddlerhood. It seemed too long overdue. I talked to my spouse, who travels a great deal. He said, “Sure, I have enough mileage to send you. Done. Go and enjoy!”

The last time I visited Naomi in VA. was with my husband two and a half years ago.

The last time I visited Naomi in VA. was with my husband two and a half years ago.

In the span of twenty-four hours I had a flight booked. Then I wondered what on earth I had done. I am still wondering, though committed and engaged in preparations. My full disclosure is that I am not an experienced traveller and, thus, a bit anxious. It isn’t that I haven’t desired to visit more places, but matters of money, time and convenience can alter one’s plans.

When I was growing up, I would have said I was and would forever remain a traveller. My parents took us on trips each summer, often by car. We visited nearly every state to sightsee–for our education, my father would remind us, as well as to visit family and friends. Since we had a decent-sized family, that meant five kids (the same number I raised but with the aid of a minivan) were squashed into our sedan’s back seat, or I would sit between my parents until they couldn’t bear my wriggling or bouncing. I don’t recall feeling claustrophobic–we were crowded at home, too, and we managed. But we took turns hanging out windows until the parents scolded us. There were plenty of stops so we could run off energy or soothe tempers. And we viewed countless historical markers and places, breathtaking scenery, stopped at museums for seafaring or military events or arts and crafts. Later on, we camped in a pop-up camper.

It was the ordinary sights and sounds, the colors and textures of countryside flashing by, impromptu stops at the odd drugstore or cafe for lime Cokes and grilled cheese, the exploration of forested state parks or walks along rocky coastal beaches that I recall. I learned things, yes–everything from impressive geological formations to what farmers planted in different parts of the country to tidbits about Mark Twain or Leonard Bernstein. But it was observing people live their lives that fascinated me. I wondered over all of them, even the ones we passed in cars. Who were these unique beings? What were their hopes? Did that fussy red-headed boy like learning new things, too? Did that round-eyed, elegant young woman want to be a doctor, flight attendant or a famous singer? How was life lived behind closed doors in a neat, quiet place with the pretty town square–or in the maze-like, beautiful metropolis of Boston or San Francisco? Sharing events with others was a bonus but the images and questions were my treasures to hoard for future analysis.

I certainly dreamed of travel. I devoured every issue of National Geographic and Life with hunger. I was possessed of a spirit that craved to roam, perhaps to collect anthropological data, certainly to absorb sights and smells and feelings, meet such people whose very gaze might shake my world up. Fall in love in Italy. Write moody poems in Argentina. Create elaborate stories from the seeds of real-life stuff. Meantime, I took buses halfway across the country as a teen, hitch-hiked when it was still fairly safe, travelled by train a few places and flew enough, my only thought being how excited I was to be on the move. And I planned on exploring countries beside Canada (whose wiles I am fond of and still return to enjoy).

But now I inadequately meet my definition of a real traveller. I am often hesitant to embrace the how and where of leaving home for a far destination. Off to the Pacific Ocean is a breezy couple of hours drive. To the Atlantic way over there is a challenge.

Maybe it started way back, right before 9/11. That spring my mother–my second parent to pass–died. After attending the funeral in Michigan with family, then addressing estate business, I returned home alone. On the plane I was so weary and bereft I could not create a way to relax, be calm. Just be still and carry on. My heart raced uncontrollably. I was abandoned, lost, floating in an emotional netherworld without beginning or end. Looking out the window did nothing to improve my state. I wanted off that plane but had to endure a lengthy flight. I felt so ill that by the time I arrived home I was barely able to walk unassisted. It was grief that rendered me powerless and fearful. My heart was breaking–and that was before I had a heart attack that summer. But the flight was endured. I put the anxiety behind me, I thought.

I still visited places, saw noteworthy things and met intriguing people but I don’t kid myself about being any seasoned traveller. I have several family members (my parents were two of them once) who have been all over the world more than a few times, including Naomi. My idea of happiness is staying in a cottage at the Pacific Ocean or hiking in the mountains, driving to Seattle or ferrying to Victoria, BC. Even an impromptu day trip brings me pleasure. I am hinting to my spouse about a train trip to Vancouver, B.C. next year.

So about this trip to see Naomi. I am brimming with anticipation of all the new things I will see and do. And I am nervous, as I usually fly with others. It is the unfamiliarity of things that both thrills and somewhat intimidates me. If I step back and assess, it is much like other trips–a different way of experiencing time and place, opportunities to learn. To enjoy being renewed in spirit and mind. Riding on a plane is a means to an end. Even better this time I will share each day with my oldest daughter, finally. Revel in her creative intelligence, wry wit, industriousness and boundless good heart. We may learn more about each other and our lives than we reckoned. But this is what I know: we have little enough time to share love. I want to see her eyes shine up close. I want to hear her stories first hand. I need to laugh over stupid stuff, share spontaneity with her. Drink iced tea in the sun as we catch up on crazy and heartening family stories. So I am jumping at this chance even though I’m telling you, it is not easy for me to step onto that plane alone.

Back to packing then. I’ll take my good camera, a pen, pencil and notebook. Laptop, yes? Two novels. That new lipstick? White cropped jeans or grey crops, green or purple top? I am pretty good at organizing so it’ll all get done. I’m giving myself over to this. Going with the wind; may it whip up more adventuring. Welcoming each day with Naomi (and Cait if she can join us) as our mother-daughter journeying continues to unfold.

Get ready, Na--I'm coming!

Get ready, Na–I’m coming!


(NOTE: Due to being busy with travelling, no posts will likely appear next week. But one never knows.)

Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, non-fiction, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 37 Comments

Laundromat Encounters


I staggered to the swinging glass door with my mountain of laundry baskets. Only two, but it felt like more with the teetering contents. A bespeckled woman on the way out raised a cup of coffee in greeting. My protruding elbow grazed the door edge as it began to close. I’d have sworn except I was already halfway in and considered this a triumph. One less hassle in an already complicated day.

It was barely seven-thirty in the morning. Except for one old whiskery gentleman who sat with his chin propped on top of hands that folded around his cane, it looked empty. He was watching the dryer. That seemed to agree with him if his small smile was any indicator. I surveyed the washing machines, coral chairs and canary folding tables. There were hanging plants and other decorative touches, all to encourage relaxation and good will while cleaning dirty laundry. I had it on good authority–Dawn, our Resource Diva at my company–that this place had very few flies bombing customers, and it included a coffee bar with scones and donuts in a case. Mentioned as an afterthought was that it seemed a good place to meet men. The sly look on my co-worker’s usually composed face told me she thought I might need to know.

It had been years since I had done laundry at a laundromat, way back in college. People could get combative over available machines, the timing of wash and dry cycles. Lugging laundry down the block on Saturday mornings when hangovers disabled all speech and reason had constituted a rite of passage. It had its own culture at school. But after that, I didn’t expect to forego the luxury of home laundering.

Four days ago my machine threw a fit of shivering and clanking. The repairman was coming next Monday but an emergency was declared when I could only find a pair of faded red undies with shredded elastic. I yawned. Three tubs filled with water as I added detergent. They were big enough to hold heavy sweatshirts and tall man pants, a passel of smeary rubber duckies and a few pair of tennis shoes. None of which I had loaded. The men’s clothing had left with the man some weeks ago. I had my pair of blue sneakers on my feet. The duckies were lined up in the garage waiting for my dog, Spark, to play. He would be banned from free runs until we apologized to the neighbor for his dawn tear through her garden. He’d been pursuing birds.

The old man shifted, then stood up a quarter-inch at a time. I watched, shirts in hand, waiting for his painstaking ascent to be completed. When he made it, he turned to me and blinked–at least, I don’t think it was a wink, though you never know–then shuffled down the aisle to the coffee bar. I wondered if he was alone, and how he’d get his laundry carried out. My eyes prickled with a tear or two at the thought. Poor old, broken down guy. I envisioned him at home, alone with a tiny television and a frozen dinner, his living room wall taken up by an ancient aquarium filled with exotic fish that swam around and around in a dim haze.

Life seemed murky in general to me lately, and it was a momentary comfort to think I had some company. Self-serving sadness, I admitted, since empathy was something I had lost track of during the fiasco of my rotten, overdue break up with my ex. I got  busy. Separating and dumping in three week’s worth of crumpled items, they began to sink and drown in bubbling cold water.

It wasn’t just my machine that broke down, I guess. Oh, I go to work as biography section manager in one of the country’s largest independent bookstores. Tutor kids in language skills once a week at a summer program. I pay my bills on time and make sure Spark has enough food plus a good run every night. For all outward appearances I look like a well-groomed, good-intentioned, industrious thirty-eight year old woman who is on the road to better things. But I’ve been feeling like I’m on permanent detour.

The fact is, I should never have agreed he was a great painter when very shortly I began to loathe his oil portraits of fussy pets and occasional, vain people. His renderings of hothouse flowers were irksome; he took such liberties that they seemed less floral, more half-impressionistic clumps of colors. Orchids and lilies melting into a rhapsodic twilight background. And they sold at least half the time. I couldn’t bear it yet smiled and kissed him when he showed me his work, waved another check. I felt he was wasting time and space in my house, the small studio that should have been my study. Now even with the windows open the walls released waves of turpentine and linseed oil. I shook my head and took a long, uneasy breath.

Three little boys pranced ahead of their mother as, back to the door, she dragged in a garbage bag of laundry. They ran around the laundromat as if it was a playground, leaping like springs were on their feet, shooting imaginary guns at the dryers’ glass doors. One boy of perhaps five, brown hair sticking up in tufts, browner eyes glistening, stopped to aim his cocked index finger at my basket. A stray duckie had come along, likely when Spark was done mauling and squeaking it so dropped it in.

“Okay, shoot,” I said. “See if it keels over. But Spark, my dog, will be sad and mad.” I smiled to show I was kidding, sort of.

He backed away, then lowered his hand.

“Come over here, boys,” the mother gestured at them. She reached back to her ponytail and pulled its ends, making it neater. “Leave the lady alone. Or else no snacks!” She gave me a sideways once-over, then pulled her sweater tight against the air-conditioned chill.

I sat closer to the coffee bar and eyed the berry scones. Soon more people arrived. This was what I’d hoped to avoid, all these people with their private lives on display, mismatched socks and faded rock ‘n roll t-shirts, lacy purple bras and gym wear reeking of work outs. It should all be done at home. Did the stubborn 70% dark chocolate stain on my favorite white shirt need to be shared? What about the Prussian blue and cadmium yellow that refused to let go of my favorite pink hoodie? I suspected he had done that on purpose after I burned his birthday dinner. Halibut and asparagus extremely well cooked, partly out of spite, the other part because we’d been arguing about whether we even loved each other and I forgot I was cooking. He then packed a few things and moved in with his colleague and associate. That’s what he called her. I offered another viewpoint.

“Why don’t you ask that nice lady to move over a couple?”

A perky young woman whispered loudly to her compainion, an older lady with a shawl around her shoulders. Her body shape was reminsicent of a giant top. Her skin radiated ill health but her shawl was made of gorgeous colors and designs straight out of Mexico. I wondered if it was her favorite, like my hoodie. But she didn’t budge or look my way. The speaker studied the empty chairs between us, then the windows, then me. Apparently I was soaking up too much of the sunlight. I got up and wandered over to the coffee and treats area. The women moved over without a word, the shawl marking their territory.

The old man had found a spot at a table. His face was close to a magazine, one hand pressed on the page, the other gripping a mug.

“A sixteen ounce mocha on the rocks,” I said, then blushed when the barista giggled. “I mean, an iced mocha, hold the whip.”

I lingered over a bueberry scone.

“Granddad, there you are!”

Sans scone–it looked like yesterday’s–I leaned against a wall. A trim man loped across the floor, palm in the air, sunglasses riding the brim of his baseball cap. A few curls escaped from the sides.

Granddad glanced up and grinned, pushed out the chair beside him. “Tony,” he said, gesturing to the seat.

“Got your package mailed. Thought I’d lost you, couldn’t see back here. Pretty different, huh, from when we lived down the block. Cleaners are gone, too. So it goes, Granddad.”

They examined an open page, heads together.

“I like the other clock more, but I can see why you’d spend more on that.” Tony pointed at the page. “When is that garage sale you wanted to go to?”

“Estate sale,” the old man grumbled. He blew across the coffee surface.

“Iced mocha for, umm…one iced mocha!”

I came forward and grabbed my plastic glass and straw, then sat at a table near the two men. Tony looked up and smiled, a bright incisor flashing. He pushed the cap back from his forehead, looked at the magazine, then back at me. His eyes flickered. I thought he and Granddad shared the blinky habit.

I moved off a bit, thinking of the hours ahead. Saturdays felt wasted on Spark and me. After laundry today, the park, errands and back home. I usually watched old movies in between a few chores, and Spark rested his head on my thigh while I rubbed his ears. Not the same as playing catch or taking country rides in the back his ex-master’s truck. But Spark was mine, first, so we’d made do just fine.

“I love those old Grandfather clocks the best, son.” Granddad’s voice was loud and raspy. “You can spend twenty thousand on a Howard Miller chiming grandfather clock. But I’d take that Miller mantel chimer for five hundred.”

“That’s a ton of cash, too rich for me.”

“I can do ‘er, Tony, just need you to haul me around.”

“Well, my day is yours, Granddad.”

I stepped closer. “Excuse me? Tony?”

He jerked his head up, surprised I knew his name.

“Your grandfather said your name…Anyway, I have a Miller at home. It sits above my fireplace, gathering dust. Came from my great-great aunt.”

Tony repeated what I said a little louder to Granddad. He perked up, and his white eyebrows raised an apparently obligatory quarter-inch. “That so?”

“Yes. Key wound. Still chimes clearly.”

Tony tapped his keys on the table. “Are you selling?”

“I hadn’t thought of it. Maybe not. I just overheard you talking. Sorry for intruding. I do like my clock a lot, as it happens.”

“I’d like to see that,” Granddad said.

“I’m going to check my washers.” I was getting cold feet.

“Me, too–for my grandfather.”

We stood and walked toward the rows of machines, fast but not as if we wanted to get away from each other. I liked how he smelled. No paint, just the outdoors, peppermint gum.

“Tony Langley,” he said, offering his hand.

I extended mine and he gave it a let’s-be-friends shake. “Marissa Bly.”

“Man, clocks are his obsession! He was a watchmaker once. Now he loves to troll estate sales, antique shops and flea markets or pour over catalogs. I don’t mind. Gives him happiness, focus, you know?”

I nodded. I did know. I was missing some of that, myself. We arrived at my washers. On closer look, Tony was shorter than I thought. We saw nearly eye-to-eye. Blue, like mine.

“Seems like an interesting thing to collect. You into that, too?”

“Not really, but for him I’ll go along, check out other stuff. Old records, some glass. Hey, if you ever want to sell your mantel clock, I can give you our number.” He inclined his head toward his relative. “Yeah, he lives with me in my downtown apartment.”

“Nice, that’s different. I’ll meet you back at your table when I’ve put my stuff in the dryers.”

Were those my words? I felt like they must be in a bubble over my head, put there by someone else. But no, it felt pleasant talking to people I’d never met before. Laundromats and clocks, I mused as I dumped in a wet load and fed the machine change. Suds and coffee, a little good, harmless chat to pass the time. Maybe I’d even call Tony. That Dawn was an excellent know-it-all.

Walking back to Granddad and Tony, I considered how excited Spark would be if we took to the woods for a hike instead of watching Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.












Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments