Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

I was three years old—it seems a world away, now—sitting in the front room, looking out the big window.

Our house on Oak Drive was a two-story affair on the uphill side of the street, and from my vantage I could look down on the massive junipers that bordered our small yard. When I played beneath them, they would tower over me, reach for me with scented claws, and dust me with clouds of pollen so that, when Mother called, I would come inside covered in red weals, begrimed with a patina of yellow, and redolent of resin. (more…)

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Ever see something and it reminds you of something, which reminds you of something else, which . . .

. . . And you look up and realize that thirty minutes have ticked by while you’ve been wandering the warrens of memory?

Yeah. That. I had one of those yesterday. But unlike most of these aimless treks through lost pathways, on this one I was able to retrace my steps and remember how I’d gotten from Point A to Point Z. (more…)

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I grew up in a black-and-white world. Not exactly like the way Calvin’s dad explained it, but pretty much.

When I was very young, television broadcast in black-and-white, and my life was filled with television. Soon, even though technology advanced and broadcasts switched to color, in our house we still only had a black-and-white television.

In fact, we didn’t have a color television until I was a teenager, when my grandfather passed away and we inherited his old massive oak-wood RCA Color TV console, with the remote control that sighed like a sulking teenager when you pressed down one of its three buttons. Thus, all my childhood TV viewing was black-and-white, never in color.

So how, then did I know that Captain Kirk’s tunic was tan, Spock’s blue, and Scotty’s red? Sure, I suppose my viewing might have been “enhanced” by color pictures in TV Guide, but if that’s so, then why do I also remember To Kill A Mockingbird in color?

When I watch the film, naturally I see it in black-and-white, but when I remember scenes, especially scenes from the book that didn’t make it into the movie, I remember them in color. I remember Scout’s red flannel shirt, her dark indigo overalls. Tom’s overalls were faded, as was the blue of his work shirt. Atticus wore suits of pale linen, grey pinstripe, and solid slate grey. Mayella had pink flowers on her dress, while the ones on Calpurnia’s chintz were blue.

Perhaps it is because so many things in that story were objects familiar to my youth. The bark of trees we climbed, the denim of our jeans, the thin cotton of our shirts, it was all as it was in the book. Or perhaps it’s because Harper Lee’s words were so simple and direct, so mesmerizing, that I couldn’t help but see the world she created in its entirety, vibrant with color.

To Kill a Mockingbird–in both book and film–was important to me when I was young, and it remains so today. Through its story, I discovered fiction that told of kids who were real, not the fantastical wunderkinder that I found in all the other books I was given. It was an adult story told simply, clearly, and with ultimate honesty. Within its pages, I learned that the world is not black and white, right and wrong, but filled with immeasurable greys  in which justice can be evil, and wrong-doing can be justice. I learned of the fallibility of mankind, and of the failures in our shared society when we forget that we are not alone in this world.

I remember Harper Lee’s classic in color, because it taught me about black and white, because it taught me about grey.


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Writing with Pen and Paper

Letters are nice things to get in the mail.

I’m not talking about bills or street-spam from your local dentist. I mean letters. Honest to God Letters, written by a person, meant for you and you alone.

Well, mostly…

There’s one kind of letter that I hate to get:

The Revision Letter.


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Yodeling is not often connected with courtship. Nor humpback whales.

The fact that I employed both in pursuit of love may, in part, explain my somewhat spotty record at wooing women.

If you grew up around San Francisco Bay and remember rotary phones, you know who Pete Seeger was. Pete, who passed away yesterday, was a fixture of the SF and Berkeley folk music scene. Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Buffy St. Marie, Peter Paul & Mary…these were the minstrels of my youth, and Pete was the revered elder, the crafter of anthems, the troubadour whose clear clarion voice would sing us out of troubled times.

His singing style–head up, chin out, a smile on his face–gave me hope, and made me happy, even when the words were sad. I sang his songs around campfires. I listened to his banjo and 12-string riffs with joy. His music was simple, uncomplicated, poetic, and was always there in the backdrop of my youth, like wind in the trees, like the gloaming song of crickets.

Still, not really the stuff of romance.

And yet… (more…)

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Gossamer Wheel(…continued from Part 3…)

At eleven o’clock, I retired for the night. At one o’clock I was tossing in frustration. By half-past two, I was in the kitchen, sitting at the little pinewood table, a large yellow-paged book before me. Tea water was heating in the kettle.

John came in, complaining that among civilized folk, “tomorrow” usually meant sometime after sunrise. He swirled some of the hot water around in the teapot, dumped it, added tea leaves, and poured more water to start the brew.

Earl Grey. I could smell the bergamot.

As he fussed with arranging teapot and cups on a tray, he asked a question.

“If she’s a lawyer,” I said, “she’ll be listed in the yellow pages. There can’t be that many lawyers in Seattle.”

He chuckled and described me as “refreshing.”

He was right. There can be that many lawyers in Seattle. And more besides.

They went on for page after yellow page. Business lawyers, family lawyers, tax attorneys, defense attorneys, sharks, slicks, high-powered and low-powered. It was a sea of counselors that stretched from the Cascades down to the Sound.

My guest sat down across from me and made an observation.

“What do you mean, not all?” I asked.

Sir John pointed out that Elin might not be in private practice. She might be working for a large firm as an associate, not yet a partner. Or she might be a legal counsel for a corporation. Or for the state.

He poured tea and let his words sink in.

I looked at the thick book before me on the table. USWest Yellow Pages; Seattle. Then I looked over at the other yellow-paged books stacked beneath the telephone. GTE Yellow Pages. Independent Yellow Pages. Banana Pages. North Seattle. East Side. King County.

I looked at Sir John.

He raised his teacup in salute and winked.

I sighed. I started with the A’s.

Somewhere in the F’s, I groaned.  Sir John looked up from his acrostic.

“No,” I answered. “I have not had enough.”

He said that he had and was heading back to bed, but before his shuffling slippers took him back toward what I imagined was a dark-paneled bedroom, he stopped beside me and gave me a pat on the shoulder. That little touch, a kindly gesture of support despite his wee-hour curmudgeonliness, bolstered my failing resolve.

Thankfully, most Seattle lawyers feel it is important to list their full first name. Only a tenth or so listed only their first initial and, by the time I hit the G’s, I’d found no “E.” first names, but neither was there an “Elin” or anyone with the last name of Abington.

I worked onward through the alphabet. The number of large firms I passed along the way began to weigh on me. I found listings for dozens of huge, faceless conglomerates in high-rise addresses undoubtedly filled with struggling associates working invisibly behind partnered names. She was there, back in the tall grass of legal incorporation. I could hear the stalks rustle as she moved, could glimpse the twisting curve of horn, but she continued to elude me.

As the sun hinted at a morning comeback, I finished the USWest book and turned to the A’s in the tome provided by GTE. In this book, the columns of neatly ordered names were replaced by large ads expressing concern over my loss, extolling virtues of their firm, and offering help and wise counsel for a reasonable fee.

Staring at the large-print and strings of comma-linked names before me, my mind went numb. I looked at the page but saw only the futility of the task I’d set for myself. I sighed, blinked my tired, red-rimmed eyes, and saw a large, red-bordered ad with a halftone photo.

The picture showed the firm’s staff standing on the steps outside their building, all smiling their smudgy grey smiles. One smile in particular…third row back, second from the left.

Boxes tumbled from the storage closet—one, two, three—the fourth one gave up the prize: a hot pink, 9×12, hardbound yearbook bulging with programs and photos and old letters, all bound up with twine. I brought it back to the kitchen, swore at the knotted string and reached for a knife. The book flopped open, and I thumbed through the thick, glossy pages until I found what I wanted.

Elin Abington smiled out from her place at the top of the alphabet. Faces of other high-school comrades grinned from behind scribbled farewells, but Elin’s smile was unmarred. By the time the yearbooks arrived, she had already flown.

Sir John came back in, complaining of the racket. I put the yearbook next to the yellow pages and pointed at the photos. He peered over my shoulder and mumbled.

“No, it’s not a very good picture,” I admitted. “But look. Same eyes. Same smile. Hair is longer, yes, but what do you think? Could it be her?”

We looked at the two faces for a long while, squinting, leaning close, pulling back, comparing them, evaluating the possibility. Finally, Sir John gave his opinion. It concurred with mine.

I tore the ad out of the phone book and looked at the clock. I’d have to call the firm from work.

As I rode the bus into town, the morning sun fired the mountains across the Sound with long red lances. I tried to decide what I would say when I called. The trick, I figured, was to inquire after someone whose last name I did not know without sounding like a crackpot or a stalker. Why didn’t I know her last name? What excuse could I give? High school reunion committee? We met at a social function? It would have to be clever. Even her own brother didn’t know exactly where she was. As far as I knew, she might have standing orders at reception to deflect any callers searching for an “Elin Something-or-other.”

My anxiety ratcheted up as I imagined Elin’s paranoia. She’d dropped out of sight, leaving colleagues, family, long-time friends with no word and for twenty years had been lost to us all. Did I really think I could penetrate such a wall of privacy with a single phone call?

I let my stop at Stewart Street pass by the window and continued on to the downtown core. I called in sick from a Starbucks, had an Americano (no cream), and then stepped out into the African bush.

The sidewalk was filled with herds of men and women trekking single-mindedly from gym to office. Gaggles of early-bird tourists milled along the curbside, looking for sights to see. They were all nothing to me, no more than a cloud of gnats before my hunter’s vision. I waved them away. I was after bigger game.

Across the street, rising high up into the morning sun, was a ruddy-faced building of brick-colored stone. It laughed at its neighbors and their glass and metal; its stone spoke of solidity, eternity. Its tenants were not ad agencies or dot-com whiz-kids. Its halls were home to lawyers and investors, power and money. It stood, permanent and strong amongst a forest of spun-sugar edifices, and offered no apology. It was a good building.

I crossed the busy street and walked up the brickwork steps where the ad’s photo had been taken. I passed through the revolving door and into the dark interior. The scent of leather hung in the lobby like faint cologne. My footsteps echoed across marble tiles as I walked through to an atrium that cut upward through several floors. A man on my left, wearing a blue shirt with a stitched shield on the shoulder, eyed me warily. I did not belong here. I was not part of this place, backpack instead of briefcase, dungarees instead of Brooks Brothers. To my right was a walnut-framed board with etched glass panels naming the various tenants and floors. The firm in the ad had the whole of the ninth to itself.

I took the elevator.

A discreet ding, the doors slid open, and I stepped out and into a monastery of the blond burl-wood, grey carpet, and interior walls of frosted glass. A hush wrapped itself around me, admonishing my thoughts for being too loud.

“May I help you?” The voice was soft, warm, pleasant, almost comforting. The woman behind the desk was young and pretty, with an eager-to-be-of-service smile. I realized that all my subterfuge, all my rehearsal had been for a phone call, not face-to-face contact. I had no clever story to spin here to lure my quarry—hidden for twenty years—from its book-lined lair. Stuck, panicked, I acted on the only idea my seized-up brain could muster.

“I’m looking for her.” I pointed to the face circled on the yellow-page ad, the smudged smile that I hoped was the friend I sought. I cringed at my too-loud words, knowing I sounded just like—probably looked just like—both a crackpot and a stalker.

The pleasant smile did not waver. She lifted the phone and punched four numbers.

“Someone to see you, Ms. Randolph.” Beat. Beat. The phone went down. “She’ll be right out.”

“Thank you,” I managed.

Then came the longest ninety seconds I can remember.

Several thoughts presented themselves. Foremost was the question put to me, only hours before, by my knighted guest: why was I compelled to seek her out? It was obvious she wanted no contact with old friends. Was it my ego, still bruised by her long ago rejection? Could she possibly give me an explanation that I’d find satisfactory? And why did I feel I had the right to tear aside the veil she’d fashioned so completely, separating her past from her present? Did the memory of our friendship mean so little that I would crash into her private world, uninvited?

I considered escape, but a shape appeared at one of the frosted glass doors. I considered running, but remembered the wait at the elevator just steps away, not to mention the security guard at the lobby.

And then she was there, the woman who smiled from the ad, third row back, second from the left. She looked at me, eyes sad, hair the color of wheat.

“Yes? You wanted to see me?”

A moment passed.

“My apologies,” I said. “I’ve made a mistake. I thought you were someone else.”

I turned, leaving befuddlement in my wake.

I had changed a lot, physically, in twenty years. Adjectives like rail-thin, fresh-faced, and bespectacled no longer described me. I was chubby, bearded, and wore contacts.

It could be that Elin didn’t recognize me or, if you prefer, it could be that it wasn’t her at all. Choose the latter, and mark me down as chagrined but wiser for my journey. Choose the former, and call my exit the last gift from an old friend.

Either way, the woman with the sad eyes and wheat-colored hair went on with her life, undisturbed by my overzealous curiosity. Likewise, I, too, went on my way. With a nod to Sir John, I hold the friends I do have a bit more dear.

There is nothing so remarkable as friendship. For friends, we often do things with no expectation of return.

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Gossamer Wheel(…continued from Part 2…)

Elin disappeared through the portal known as “early graduation.” That she had the credits was no surprise; it was a given, really. But her sudden departure struck hard and deep. There had been no hints, no warning signs. We said no good-byes and threw no farewell soirée. She was just there on Monday. On Tuesday, gone.

It broke us. The remaining trio played on for the next four months, out of tune and all syncopation unintended, limping through to the end of term. Finally, a week after graduation, walking down the main street of our dusty hometown, the remnants flew apart.

It was a hot, dry day. Bright light fell from the sun with a weight, reflected from storefronts, and bounced up from the pavement, pressing in on my flesh from all sides. The air smelled of hot cement and unleaded exhaust. I squinted as I walked with Simon and Zander—to where, I cannot remember, only that we crossing “D” Street when Zander struck his blow.

“I’m going to New Orleans. To join a ballet company. I’m leaving next week.”

Zander was five-nine and stocky. His thighs, like Simon’s and my own, were well-muscled from our bicycle tours. He was about as far from the lithe, supple, corded men I had seen bounding across the ballet stage as a man could be. Simon and I exchanged looks of befuddlement; in a decade of friendship, Zander had never expressed the slightest interest in dance. We stood, the sun hammering down upon us as we stared at the man we thought we knew.

There may have been a discussion—I may even have participated—but all I remember is the harsh light and the silence that rang in my head.

A few days later, again without warning, Simon told me he was leaving to study at Ann Arbor. By month’s end I was alone, suddenly small and rudderless in a great, empty sea. The breakup of my heart was complete.

Ten years later, Zander resurfaced and we tried to renew our friendship.

“It was something that was mine.” He fidgeted as he sat in my tawdry, one-bedroom flat down along the canal. “It was completely mine, you know? I didn’t want to share it with anyone.” It was his father, all over again, I realized.

Poor Zander. Poor brilliant Zander. He did dance in New Orleans, and in San Francisco, too. He also built houses to fund his education when he finally returned to it, and at Berkeley he became Doctor Zander, going on to build machines no wider than a human hair and experiments that flew on the Mir space station. Yet, for all his amazing intellect, he could never see how much that one act of selfishness had hurt me. He never saw it and thus never changed his behavior. Perhaps it was incumbent on me to explain it to him, and perhaps in that way I failed him as well.

Simon’s path was more predictable. As the son of two psychologists, he had been guaranteed two things: a lifetime of therapy and a full college education at the university of his choice. Our last year, he and I spent mild winter afternoons sitting in the wan daylight, leafing through brochures from prospective schools. Simon viewed each one with a critical, objective eye, while I merely looked through them, dreaming. In the coming years, his achievements would outstrip both our dreams. Ann Arbor would be merely a stopping point on a journey that would lead him to the Sorbonne, back to Ann Arbor, and thence to New York and many exotic places in between.

But never would his path lead him back home.

The quartet, my family of trusted intimates, the people I trusted to always be there, had fallen apart like a wild rose in late summer: one moment whole, cogent, filled with fragrant beauty, then gone at a touch, broken away, scattered.

Understanding came with time. Zander and Simon, the longtime friends of my youth, eventually became comprehensible strangers. But Elin…did I ever know her?

Elin had disappeared so quickly, so thoroughly, it was staggering. Her mother, a gentle, soft-spoken woman, did not know where her daughter was. She promised to pass along my messages but I could hear the pain in her voice, the quiet futility, and I expected no response.

I sought any information I could find on my missing friend. Rumors said she was growing pot in the woods of Humboldt County, riding with bikers through the L.A. Basin, and deep in the Haight-Ashbury district amid counterculture activists. All true? All false? I never knew. After two years, without word or sighting, finding the thick, cloistered air of my hometown ever more stifling, I gave up and began to concentrate on my future instead of my past. I went forward and tried not to look back.

One grey morning, I took the M-car down toward the Avenues and SFSU where I was studying. I stepped off the mist-windowed car, but instead of crossing the street, I turned and looked up toward the end of the platform. I can’t tell you why—a chance gesture, the whiff of patchouli—but I looked up and saw Elin, turning from the platform and heading up the hill. It was just a glimpse, but it was her. Then, like an antelope into the tall grass, she disappeared in the throng of commuters.

I ran. I called her name.

She turned. We met.

We spoke.

When overwhelmed by events, I forget details and remember only sensations: the sound of blood in my ears, the flush of my cheeks against the cold morning air. I do not recall what we said to one another—the words are gone—but I remember the pale blue of her sweater, the iron lid of the sky, the summer wheat of her hair, and the crisp scent of dark green pines that held their boughs over our heads. I remember, too, the sadness in her eyes and the question that pounded in my head: why why why?

It was not a reunion. It was the chance meeting of strangers who shared a bit of history.

That she did not enjoy the encounter was plain from her frown and furrowed brow. That she wanted to be on her way was obvious from the way she slowly stepped toward the stairs. I soon felt like some sort of stalker or worse, like a cat toying with a captured bird. I had no idea why she might have felt that way, had no idea what I did to deserve such treatment, but to prolong it was agony for us both, so I raised my hand, wished her well, and watched her melt away into the crowd.

Fifteen years later, when I told Alice I hadn’t spoken to Elin since she walked out of our lives, it wasn’t the whole truth, but that memory was still so bitter, still so incomprehensible, that I couldn’t bear to mention it.

Learning that Elin was now living in Seattle brought some comfort. That we had both gravitated to the same town, so unlikely a place considering our separate paths, seemed to prove that we had, indeed, been kindred spirits and that perhaps some vestige of that connection remained.

Sir John pointed at me as I stood there dumbly holding the phone. He mimed speaking into the mouthpiece.

“Um, where?” My voice was gruff and I apologized. “Where does she practice? What’s the name of her firm?”

“I don’t know. I called the local bar association but they don’t have her listed. No one by Abington, at least.” She hesitated. “I heard she got married.”

“And took her husband’s name?” For some reason, that seemed the least likely thing of all.

“I guess she finally settled down.”

I looked at Sir John and mouthed Should I?

He shrugged unhelpfully. It was up to me.

“Do you know why? I mean, why she…why she fell out of sight like that?”

Alice sighed. “No.”

“Nils didn’t say anything about it?”

“No.” Her voice was stern, unemotional. The Alice I knew was a strong soul who didn’t like to show her feelings. She was a big heart with a tough skin, but I could tell there was something she wasn’t saying.

“You’ve been looking for her.”

“Yeah. On and off. Whenever I had the time.”


She paused. “I don’t really know.”

We left the topic, chatted for a few minutes more, and then Alice rang off with a parcel-load of good wishes from me to all those she knew back home. But the damage had been done. The hounds of my youth had scented their quarry and gave voice.

The hunt was joined once more.

Sir John grumbled when I asked for his help

“It’s all your doing,” I told him. “I wouldn’t have even picked it up but for you and your…glare.”

He folded the international news section with deliberate precision, put it down on the table, and stared at me. Then he picked up the arts section, sat back, and opened it up. Tonight he would be sitting by the fire. Tomorrow would be soon enough.

He was right. I went back to my chair and picked up my book.

Then my houseguest posed a question, echoing my question to Alice: What compelled me to seek this woman?

It was something I’d never asked myself, but it deserved an answer. “I knew that woman for years. I loved her. I thought the best of her. You say that there is nothing so remarkable as friendship. I think that it’s a wonder it exists at all.”

He challenged me, pointing out that my response was not an answer.

I considered my words. “I suppose I want to know why my friendship was so cheaply laid aside. I want to know if I was naïve, or just blind.”

That seemed to satisfy him, as he asked for another brandy and went back to his paper to read reviews of the latest West End shows.

(…concluded in Part 4…)

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