Five Fingers

Unknown

I wrote this last year, September 2018. It lands with a bit more weight for me these days…

I remember falling asleep on the edge of the woods in Frederick, Maryland in a large log home my parents lived in until the woods became too much woods for my father to take care of.  My father: slowing down, breathing heavier.  A house my father built.  This house smelled like a campfire: pine logs and woodsmoke. One wall was entirely stone, a fireplace you could stand inside that would heat the house from September through March. The rain would rattle the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out to acres of tall deciduous trees, long smooth stems reaching skyward that would bend to and fro in the Autumn winds like a yoga class of lean women, reaching up, reaching over, in a slow-motion current.  Things would drop and clang on the roof: acorns, branches, squirrels. Sharp pings, loud thuds, scattering claws. This was my father’s dream home – a large log cabin, the bookend to the smaller one he had built when I was about 1 or 2. That was Timbuktu. This was Timbuktwo. Complete with a carved wooden bear on the stone front stoop holding a welcome sign (or, the flip side: “Get Out,” rarely used, but used a few times my mother doesn’t like to talk about: a joke gone bad). My parents were to grow old here, shaded by the maples and elms. We would bring our families to the large open living room to sit in front of the stone fireplace on chilly days, play Scrabble, pass the years in the same woods we had passed our childhoods.

I always had this dream that one day one of my songs might make enough money that I could pay off the house for them and buy their worry off their back with my dream that they helped pay for when I was much younger. That never happened, at least, not in time.  The economy fell, their stocks fell, their retirement shrunk, my retired mother went back to work as my father could not and they did what people do: they downsized. My mother’s colon was removed so that she carried part of her insides on the outside in a small pouch. Always bird-like, she shrunk to brittle.  In the hospital, I was the only one of us to ask to see the stoma, which surprised my mother as I’m the most squeamish, but it felt like an amends to her, to see the thing we all feared and it surprised me that it looked less like a grotesque monster of an aging organ and more like a rose colored petal. Just a small opening to my mother’s side. Her own stigmata, I told her and she laughed.  My father had been having a series of “episodes” as they called them and I wasn’t sure what they were – stroke-ish? Clogged artery heart skips? Or vertigo but not cute like the vertigo a kid feels on the edge of a cliff. A vertigo that makes reality swirl and unbalance you and you go from retired but active to just, well, retired.  My father’s blonde hair finally went grey when 80 approached, his beating heart beat more slowly and he shrugged his dream to inevitability, selling and giving away much of what they had collected in their 50 year marriage, having outlived every one of his siblings. They sold the log cabin and moved into a smaller home nearer to town with a fraction of what they had before, a few paintings, smaller furniture, a small gas fireplace you could turn on and off by a wall switch.

For years while touring, I’d detour to Frederick for an evening off to come to the cabin and have dinner with my parents, watch an old movie in front of the fire no matter the season, and listen to the falling rain on the large windows that look out to the creek and the acres and acres of trees through which, when I was much, much younger, my father might have taken me on walks in order to collect and classify the leaves to identify the trees, shadowing the forester.

***

A few weeks ago, my parents came to Nashville to visit to spend time with my family, my husband and my 6-month old son, their last grandchild, the miracle from their eldest daughter who was never meant to have a child. My father’s tired blue eyes light up in the presence of my son and years melt away in his face as Huck smiles and babbles to him from one of the various brightly colored bouncy toys full of noise.  We call one of them ‘the office’ and my father delights in the narrative I’m improvising – Huck in his regional office, impatiently waiting upon his associate, the fictional “Johnson,” who is forever late or absent, most likely a drinking problem, I say, Huck very patient as Johnson was his mentor before getting old and forgetful, he lost his wife, you know, and it’s been a hard year.  “Has Johnson called in?” my father will ask, fully playing along with our game.  “Poor Johnson,” my mother will chide. My father reaches to my son, held upright in the sling of the bouncy thing. My son reaches his small hand, stretching his fingers and my father places his palm against his grandson’s, each on the other side of an imaginary glass pane, reaching across time.

We take an afternoon to go visit Andrew Jackson’s home. A plantation, a history lesson.  We walk the estate, my mother and I ahead of my father, who ambles at his own pace. “Is he all right?” I ask. She smiles her patient nurse-like smile. “Your father is slowing down” she says gently, matter-of-fact. We in my family deal with aging in a plain-spoken, no frills manner. There is no romanticism about it. We slow down. We accept the dying of the light.  My father, who just a few years ago could whip my ass at tennis, who ran circles around men 10 years younger, who would forever be the architect of fun and games for our extended family – my father is now…old. I hesitated there, can you tell? I wrote that word and a lump surprised me and caught my breath and I am refusing to let tears fall down my face as I let this sentence spill slowly in order to relax into this feeling that makes me uncomfortable. We are born. We age. We die. This is fact. We watch those we love and count on become those who weaken and we hope for more time, knowing whatever time we are granted is only gift. That I am here walking this path with my father who is in his 80’s, having outlived his entire family, with my own son who is 6 months old who was miraculously born to me at age 50…this is more gift than I deserve.

But still: I would give the world for more time. I would give everything for my father to watch my son grow into a man, or even for him to be there for Huck’s 5thbirthday. I would love for my father, a forester once, to teach my son about leaves and trees and to tell him about the time Aunt Betty’s boyfriend who drove a convertible took Dad and his identical twin Will and their mother Charlotte on a fast drive through the Elkton farmlands with the radio turned up loud, my grandmother’s Baptist stoicism breaking into unexpected laughter. Or to tell him about the time his own father lay dying, his last wish that his youngest sons take care of their mother and that after the funeral, these tow-headed 7 year olds burned their teddy bears in a backyard ceremonial pyre as a promise to their father.  Or about the time ten years ago he held his twin brother’s failing heart with his own hands as Will lay unconscious and dying on a surgical table, his chest cavity held open by metal tongs.

I would give the world for more time.

I slow down to wait for my father. He is standing in front of a tree, looking up. I stand next to him. “Red Maple,” he says. “You can tell by the leaves. Five fingers,” and he spreads his own five fingers out, laying the leaf flat on his palm.  Three large fingers with two smaller ones at the bottom of the leaf.  We walk a bit. Next tree. “Black Gum,” he says. I look closer at the mottled bark, in small square patterns. If I were a child, I’d put my fingers in the cracks, or nudge a stick in between. I put my flat palm on the side to feel the bark. Rough – circles and squares. Black – tall and straight. We walk. He stops in front of one that’s on its own, taking up space.  He smiles. It is a wide tree, smooth papery bark, branches like a wing span, arms held out in embrace. The lobed fat leaves a canopy that seems perfect for picnicking or leaning your back up against the trunk with a book. It is the kind of tree you can imagine in stories where the boy falls asleep against the side, hat over eyes. A lone tree in a yellow grain field.

“Sycamore,” he says and looks at me. His grey-blue eyes seem greyer and I think there’s a mist clouding the color. “We had this tree on our farm. This is my favorite tree of all,” and he clears his throat of emotion, looks once more, shakes something off, and continues on the path. I don’t ask any questions, just let that statement sit in the air like a prayer.

What lingers in the air today, on this path, is my history. A small farm in Eastern Maryland, a few cows, a vegetable garden, five children and a widow in plain dress.  A black leather bible with my father’s initials embossed in gold on the front. A dapple mare in the fields. Faded scalloped-edge photos of two blonde boy scouts in the 1940s. 1970 Ocean City July’s with our cousins and that uncle who was the gentle version of my father, softer-spoken. My aunt who looks remarkably like my own mother so that my cousins look like siblings. Today, my mother ahead of us on the path, a leaf twirling between her thumb and forefinger, pushing the stroller with my sleeping baby, her own mother having giving birth in her 40’s, who lived to 103, who loved me more than anyone has loved me and spoke poetry and stories to me as I slept in her Baltimore row house. My mother’s mother, also a widow, her husband a sailor on the Atlantic, sea salt and cinnamon at the Baltimore harbor, the smoke from a pipe, a red leather chair, and a grief that hung like a loose garment on rose-scented skin.

These are things that I am made of: talcum powder and Jean Nate, the afterburn musk of a campfire, a bushel of hard shell crabs slathered in Old Bay on a Bethany deck, the hum of my now 18 year old niece when she was the size of my forearm cradled in warm bath water while I sang to her thinking I’d never have my own child to bathe, the Boston accent that slipped and slid from my grandmother’s words, oyster stew and lemon meringue pie, a hound leaning on my knee and letting go, an oversized Red Jesus Bible, a Maryland rain lullabye and a five finger spread against a red gold leaf flat against the mottled palm of my father.

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