Two at the West Seattle Farmers’ Market, one on guitar…
And one on some kind of mouth-blown mini-keyboard thing…
The white-haired couple walks across the grass slowly, carefully, hand in hand. They smile at each other as they go. A church bell tolls, 1, 2, 3… for no reason I can see except that it shows 5:29 PM on my phone. The dark grey clouds scud across the blue, covering the bright with darkness.
I mapped a new route home from work here in Seattle, but instead of following the plan, I went straight instead of turning left and found a poetry garden, rocks holding quotations of love and loss, as if it was waiting for me today, five years on from the day my mother died.
I can hear people all around me at this park, and the occasional dog and owner pass through this little rock garden but they don’t stay any longer than it takes the dog’s nose to determine there is nothing of interest to canines.
Me, on the other hand, I can’t leave yet. I pull out my notebook and start writing. Amidst all the new beginnings here for me, there is one constant unfinished thing that has followed me here. Will I never get over my mother’s passing? I thought I had, but knowing I am now in Seattle, in the first place I’ve lived that she never knew about, has been hard. I can feel the tears gathering, then sliding down and dropping onto my shirt. Some of them I wipe away hastily as if any of the strangers here would even notice, let alone bother to ask why.
So despite my best intentions to honor this day on the calendar as Emma’s birthday (she turns 6 today, meaning her dad, my mother’s oldest grandson, spent her entire first birthday at the hospital waiting for his grandmother to pass away), all I have thought of today is my mother. The immediacy of that day five years ago, the pain of driving eight hours down to LA knowing she would never leave that hospital, then looking into her vacant eyes, not feeling her hand squeeze mine as I talked to her, all that has faded. The sorrow is now a different kind, the deeper ache of being left slightly adrift, a motherless child despite my age.
I think of all my mother has missed in these five years. Besides me moving to Seattle, there have been two new great-granddaughters in Wisconsin: Eden, who she knew was coming and Eliza, her younger sister and the third in the trio of Wisconsin girls.
There’s another great-granddaughter, Elliot, the wide-eyed blue-eyed first child of her grandson Dave. Another grandson, Kevin, one she spent so much time and energy raising from age 7 onward, got married last year. And I’m not the only one who’s moved: her oldest child, her only son, moved this summer to be closer to those Wisconsin girls.
But for the two who’ve moved away, one moved back, the youngest child, a daughter whose difficult years caused her much heartache. That daughter is now the one who drives Dad to the almost endless round of doctors’ appointments, to the grocery store, and, on a good day, out to lunch.
And Dad himself has moved too, from the top-floor east-facing apartment that was the wrong temperature no matter what the season, to a second-floor west-facing window that lets him sleep in easier. And despite her worries that he wouldn’t be able to get along without her, he’s done pretty well so far. He’s got friends, family, his movie and sport TV channels, and Google Maps on the big iMac screen (another new thing). He still misses her, as do we all, but we’ve all gone five years without her and we’ve learned to get by. It doesn’t mean we love her any less or that we’ve forgotten all that she was. It just means that some goodbyes never end.
I’ve traveled to a lot of places in my life, from the back roads of the southwest to Japanese gardens and the Great Barrier Reef. And only twice in all that time have I stood in a place for the first time and felt absolutely in-my-bones certain that someone I knew, at some other point in time, had inhabited that place.
The first time I had that feeling was standing on the western shore of Loch Lomond in Scotland many years ago. I still haven’t figured out who in my genetic timeline it was, but I knew one of my ancestors had been there, had lived there. The view of a specific mountain across the lake was so familiar that it was like coming home and yet I had never seen it before.
The second time I had that feeling was today, looking for where my mother lived when she was a little girl. I had heard stories, but not many, about living down in the canyon and that there were rattlesnakes and her father worked at the pumping station. Given that lack of information, I wasn’t expecting much as I started the drive up San Francisquito Canyon from I-5.
Almost too soon, I found Power Plant #2, off to the right and tucked into the side of the canyon. The gate was open so I walked around a bit. The building was destroyed in the breakage of the St. Francis Dam in 1928; this is the plant built to replace it in the early 1930s.
I liked the details of the building, but I didn’t feel any connection to it. I tried to imagine my grandfather (who died two months before I was born, so I never met the man) walking into this building but I couldn’t get a mental picture of it. I shrugged it off and got back in the car, still heading north.
I almost missed the faded sign for Power Plant #1, off on the right side of the main road and at the head of of a one-lane paved road that lead downward. I followed it around a few twists and turns till I was at the bottom of the canyon to a tiny settlement, 5 houses in all. It was literally a wide spot in the road. I stopped the car and got out. The place was deserted, although a few houses looked like someone still lived there, the others were lifeless and empty. I stood in the middle of the street and looked further down the road and that’s when it happened. I was absolutely sure this was the place my mother lived. I could feel it.
There was another small group of houses a quarter-mile away, right next to the power plant itself, but that didn’t give me the same feeling. And the third small collection of houses, halfway up the hill didn’t match my mom’s phrase “down in the canyon” that I remember. That first little set of houses is the one place I felt matched whatever my brain consciously and unconsciously remembers of my mother’s stories about her time there. She never talked about it much, and we never visited it, although it was probably less than 50-60 miles from where I grew up.
The journey up the canyon and down to the pumping station (what she called the power plant) has got me thinking about my mother, the life she had, and the secrets she took with her to her grave. I have a few old slides from her, but no albums, no concrete proof of anything about that little 8 year old girl who I know lived in that canyon in 1940, thanks to the recently released US census of 1940.
I took one last shot at the top of the grade, looking back down at the canyon and said my goodbyes one more time to the mother I knew and the little girl I never did.
My granddad left me a lot of memories, including my last one of him: the two of us sitting at the little table in my grandparents’ mobile home in Prescott, as he went through a pile of tattered and faded photographs from his time in the Navy. At one point, he said to me so that my dad and my grandmother couldn’t hear, “We’re the sailors in the family” as if it was a point of pride that he finally had someone else in his bloodline that understood the love of the water.
I listened to his stories about each picture, amazed later that after 60 years, he still remembered names and dates like it was yesterday. That time in his life must have been one of his biggest adventures, sailing around the Pacific and the South China Sea, seeing places a farmboy could only dream of: Philippines, China, Hong Kong, Japan. 80 years later, I’ve been to those places, but they look nothing like they did in those photos from the 1920s.
At one point in the afternoon, my grandmother, ever practical, said “Walter, I don’t think she wants to sit there all afternoon and listen to your old stories” but I did. My granddad just shrugged her off, and we kept going till she made us clear off the table for dinner. He gave me the photos, along with his “coming home” flag, a panoramic photo of his shipwreck, and a few other things. I got the feeling that he thought I’d appreciate them, one sailor to another.
I think he also knew something I didn’t. That trip was the last time I ever saw my granddad. He died the next spring, wracked by lung cancer. I’m still glad that I stayed indoors on that nice Arizona afternoon and listened to an old man’s stories. I wouldn’t have had another chance at it.
To survive life in the Navy takes work and luck, and it’s the latter that got my granddad through in the end. On a dark September night in 1923, a destroyer squadron headed down the California coast on a simulated wartime run. Using dead reckoning and not the too-new-to-trust radio signal, they turned too soon, running up on the rocks of Honda Point, completely missing the Santa Barbara Channel further south. My granddad spent the night cold and wet on what is now Destroyer Rock, along with his shipmates and another destroyer’s crew. 23 sailers died that night; my granddad survived, and I’m here as one result of that luck.
Maybe I’m old enough now to appreciate his legacy–the love of sailing and the wanderlust to travel to faraway places–and his luck. I’ve gotten the water-stained, torn panorama print restored and am having it framed up with some smaller photos of the disaster. It feels like the right way to pay tribute to that young man who went to sea and came back to start a family that two generations later included me.
(To read more about the Honda Point disaster, you can google it.)
On the ride to work this morning, I ended up behind this Camaro Z28 and it made me think of my Mom. I smiled, remembering how much she loved her Z28.
Then I rolled down my window, despite the cold, just so I could hear the engine roar to life as the driver stuck his foot in it. Which, of course, he did because that’s what you do when you drive a Z28.
Then I followed him for miles, changing lanes when he did, all the way from Los Gatos to Cupertino, sticking to him like glue, listening to every sound that engine made, every start, every stop, every slowdown that made the engine whine.
Why? Because that engine sounded like Mom to me.
I never thought a car engine could make me cry, but it did today. That car, that sound, made me miss my mom more than anything today.
I never looked at the driver because I wanted to imagine my Mom driving that car, sliding past me, pulling ahead of me. I know it wasn’t her. But for just a few minutes, it felt like she was there, enjoying the ride.