FATALITY

Margret also sent me, carefully packed in styrofoam peanuts and sealed in plastic bags, the christening gown my grandmother Marie made my father before his birth and the Bible my grandfather Frank gave her when she converted to Catholicism.

Frank was a chemical engineer who designed city water systems and was already in his mid-thirties when he married Marie, one of his technicians. Not long ago, my mother told me that it was my grandfather who insisted she have their baby in the hospital—at a time when most women, with the help of midwives, were still delivering at home. Apparently he believed she’d get better care there. But twelve days after giving birth to a healthy red-haired baby boy, my grandmother died in the hospital of “childbirth fever,” caused by unsterile conditions. Family lore has it that if the baby had been delivered at home by a midwife, Marie probably would have survived. This conjecture was buttressed in my own mind by a TV documentary I saw about Martha Ballard, a midwife who delivered a thousand mothers a hundred years earlier—and never lost a one. My grandmother Marie was only twenty-one.

Like Scrooge’s father in “A Christmas Carole,” my grandfather blamed his infant son for his young wife’s death—and treated him forever after that with resentful hostility. It’s even likely that he hit my father as an infant in the cradle, because that’s what he did years later to Margret. After Marie’s death, my grandfather’s sister, Julia, came to live with them and take care of my father, so for years he thought she was his mother. But when my dad was seven, Frank remarried—Estelle, a sadistic, perhaps even psychotic woman, by all accounts. Julia was sent away, and Estelle gave birth to a son. My father described to me once how Estelle used to strip his half-brother Ray when he was a boy, put him in the bathtub, and beat him mercilessly with an iron cord. And though my father insists Estelle never beat him, Ray told me she deliberately put rotten meat in my father’s sandwiches. In the Catholic school they attended, the nuns were physically abusive, as well. My father said one nun smacked a classmate of his on the side of the head and permanently deafened him in one ear. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that my father eventually repudiated the religion of his tormentors. While still a teenager, he decided there was no God. The only thing that was painful about reaching this conclusion, he told me, was the thought that he would never meet his mother in heaven.

What struck me after reading “ The Black Lyre” was how like Ariphanes my father was—an unwanted child, an orphan in a sense, whose extraordinary gifts were scorned by the “pious” adults around him—an embittered father who couldn’t love him, a brutal stepmother who seemed intent on poisoning him, tyrannical nuns who ruled their classrooms by intimidation and physical abuse…. When he grew up, the revenge he took was Ariphanes’. He spent his entire professional life proselytizing against religion; in philosophical papers and university classes, he tried with his instrument—not a lyre but his exceptional powers of logic—to create doubt and undermine faith wherever he found it.

 

JOLTED

From A Patchwork Memoir:

I have eight photos of my beautiful Swedish grandmother Marie, my father’s mother. In my favorite, she’s sitting cross-legged in a field, bundled in a light jacket, her long skirt wrapped around her feet. Her hands are resting in her lap, a jaunty straw hat with a large bowl shading her eyes. Her head is cocked charmingly, the slanting sun lighting up the hat, casting the shadow of her nose across her cheek and catching the full breadth of her engaging smile.

My half-aunt Margret, who’s my age and like a cousin to me, recently sent me a ninth—a photograph of my grandparents she’d found in a chest in her attic. They’re sitting in the grass in a park. Without her hat, you can see my grandmother’s hair is fair, and I’ve always wondered if she was a strawberry blond like me. Her collar has a tassel, her dress a cummerbund, and her shoulders look thin and angular, like mine. The brown oval mat that frames the two of them is crumbling with age. I’m torn: out of reverence, I want to keep the photo just as it is; out of aesthetic compunction, I want to strip away the moldering mat. With a razor I slit open the paper backing, only to find the photo fixed in place with a battery of tiny rusted nails. Using pliers and a screwdriver, I carefully bend and jiggle them free.

When I finally pry the oval mat from the photo, I see, in a corner that was hidden, three women in broad-brimmed hats strolling on a path beyond the shrubbery—in another second they would have passed beyond view. And suddenly, I’m jolted—shocked—into an apprehension of the moment: that one instant of that one day, when my grandparents were in love and thought they had all the time in the world.

MYTH

 

Ella and I were disgruntled when Bob, our new landlord, told us we had to move our belongings in the basement to a storage room in a building he owns on the other side of the block. There wasn’t enough room for all our stuff at the new location, so a tower of boxes now stands at the foot of my bed. Take this opportunity, I told myself sternly, to start winnowing their contents. And I’ve been making some startling discoveries. One was this forgotten logo I designed years ago for a friend, an Episcopal priest, who formed a group called Open Heart. Another is “The Black Lyre,” below. I’ve always thought I never did any creative writing before college. Then, among my high school papers, I found this story. Apparently, our assignment was to make up a myth. Actually, I was so stunned by the ending, I couldn’t believe the work was mine—until I realized that, unknowingly, I was writing about my father.

The Black Lyre

There was a feeling of disquiet among the gods on Mount Olympus that day. None had gone about their usual business. Zeus paced restlessly before his throne, while others lingered in the main hall, some conversing quietly, all sensing vaguely that something unusual was about to happen. Hebe had just been sent out to fetch some nectar, when suddenly, a shrill cry was heard from the front hall. The startled gods rushed out after her. There in the large entrance to the palace, near the astonished Hebe, stood an old man, a gnarled gnome, not half her height. Under his arm he carried two lyres—one was white, the other black. The gods were amused as well as intrigued by this strange, disheveled visitor, and they invited him to dine with them. When all were settled comfortably after the supper, he told his story.

His name was Ariphanes. He had been raised by peasants and had loved them greatly, although he knew they were not his true parents. When he was a child they often used to tell him how they had found him, a little baby, on a hillside with the two lyres beside him. He first discovered that he differed from most men in his extraordinary strength, yet he never considered it seriously. As he grew old in appearance, he didn’t lose his youthful agility and vigor. He waited for death for years and years, and finally acknowledged that no mortal man could live as long as he had. Therefore, he must be a god.

Why his divine mother and father had abandoned him, he could only guess. Probably they were ashamed of an ugly, deformed child such as he had been. Even then, they had left a sign of their love by giving him two magical instruments. He said it would be dangerous to reveal any more about his unusual power and hoped that his secrecy about this matter would not offend anyone.

The narrative completed, Zeus asked Ariphanes to demonstrate his musical ability. He submitted readily, using the white lyre, and soon the hall was filled with the sweetest, clearest tones imaginable. The enchanting melody melted away any doubts that might have existed as to the truth of his story and claim to divinity.

The homely but merry old god, with the light-heartedness of a child, soon became the favorite on Mount Olympus. What charmed them into trusting him the gods never knew. Apollo, too, could not help but like him, but, as the former champion of the lyre, he was also terribly envious of the old god’s superior talent.

Several months after his arrival, Ariphanes announced that he was leaving the palace for a week and asked that during his absence no one should touch his instruments. Apollo had been anxious to try to play the lyres of Ariphanes. Now that he had his chance, his desire overcame any guilt he might have had about ignoring the god’s request. He stole the black lyre from its peg and that evening performed for the other gods. The haunting notes soon quelled their disapproval of his actions, and gradually a certain doubt took hold in the minds of many. At first only a few whispered words were interchanged. “Ariphanes’ tale certainly was an odd one. You don’t suppose…” The suspicion grew rapidly. “He’s probably not a god at all.” Finally, all were convinced. “Surely it was all a lie!” “And we were completely taken in.” “We offered him our hospitality, confided in him…” The furious gods held a council and decided what was to be done.

On his return, Ariphanes was greeted by a host of hostile faces. Guessing the cause immediately, he hurried on to his room. The situation could be remedied only by the song of his white lyre.“We have your instruments!” Zeus thundered after him. “And now we want the truth! Admit that you have lied!”

“There is nothing to admit!” cried the old god, turning. “All I’ve told you is true! I am a god! Why, I have power greater even than yours, Zeus, and now I see that I must prove it.”

But the king of the gods seized Ariphanes and hurled him from the palace, sending the lyres flying after him.

Then the old god picked himself up and took his precious lyres. The angry jeering voices faded gradually as he made his way down the mountain.

Greatly embittered, Ariphanes descended among the mortals and wandered the earth for many years, the music of his black lyre working his revenge, for the black lyre spread doubt; the white, long unused, inspired belief. He did, indeed, prove himself a greater divinity than Zeus, for he destroyed the Greeks’ belief in their own gods.

SHELTERS

Another major player in my life—my painter friend Earl Pierce. In A Patchwork Memoir, I wrote about several of our outings together:

Earl and I are tootling south along the coast highway in his truck; he’s telling me jokes about flying. Advice to a pilot (he was one in WWII): “Try to make the number of landings equal the number of takeoffs.” And “Helicopters can’t really fly—they’re just so ugly the earth repels them.” He’s wearing a new black shirt, instead of his usual red one with red suspenders. With his white beard shaved off, kids no longer mistake him for Santa Claus. His jaw and neck are still taut, I notice, and clean-shaven he looks years younger.

When his truck and the car on the cross street both start into the intersection at the same time, he sighs, “I don’t care which of us goes first; just so we don’t tie.” Behind an old lady who’s crawling along at fifteen miles an hour, he prods, “OK, now. You can pedal faster.”

We haven’t gone far before I spot strange constructions along the beaches below. They appear to be made of driftwood—too small for teepees, too big for bonfires. “Pull over!” I cry when I see a perfect little cove, trammeled only by plovers. He does, but looks at me sorrowfully. That’s when I remember his leg is bothering him. So we drive on, out of the hills, to where the road is level with the sea, and pull in at Pescadero Beach.

Here the structures have more fanciful shapes. They’re shelters, I realize. An elderly man lies sleeping in one, while a couple picnics in another. They’re constructed all cockamamie with any kind of driftwood at hand—logs, tree roots, branches, planks—all worn smooth and gray, and cunningly leaned, stacked, and interlocked. Some are long and low tunnels; others have windows facing the water.   Still others are too small for anyone but kids. “Welcome” is written on one, “Keep Out” scrawled on its child-sized annex. Charmed—they remind me of the forts I built in my childhood—I plop down in one, and Earl joins me, the two of us shielded from the wind.

Earl reminisces about his army days, saying that he may have been the youngest pilot in the Army Air Corps; he enlisted at eighteen, then was rushed through training, since the war was winding down. He flew C-37s—cargo planes—full of Jerry cans of fuel for the tankers that Patton abandoned when they ran out of gas.

The Americans flew in tight formation, he says, and joked about the British RAF’s lack of same, saying, “Same day, same direction.”

He describes the K-rations they lived on—cheese, crackers, and a slab of Spam—and the 1-in-10 rations—canned hash or spaghetti—they considered a luxury. They would poke the cans full of holes, so they wouldn’t explode, and heat them up by sticking them in a valve at the back of the plane. In the winter they washed their clothes in airplane fuel, he explained—they got cold running around in only their skivvies and it was a fast way to get the job done. Then they hung them out to dry on the wings of the plane.

After the war, he went to see “With God as My Copilot” with George, one of the navigators. “The way the author described his exploits,” Earl had said, “you would have thought he won the war single-handedly.” “No wonder God only made copilot,” George observed.

Since he hadn’t finished his tour of duty when the war ended, Earl flew feeder planes carrying refugees back to their native countries. Though the planes were designed to carry fifteen people at most, they were able to crowd in twenty-five to thirty because the refugees, concentration camp victims, were so emaciated none of them weighed more than a hundred pounds.

We decide to head south to Santa Cruz for dinner, but on the way we pass San Gregorio Beach, where I spot more makeshift shelters. Of course I have to go exploring them all. They’re more ambitious than the ones we saw before, the driftwood lashed together with cords of kelp and decoratively draped with seaweed like bunting. The sand is so fine, it feels silky to the touch, but it’s hard to walk on because of the sharp little fragments of driftwood scattered everywhere.

Here the waves roll in in four or five tiers and the dark sand separates out from light in ranks of spearheads that diminish in size to tiny arrowheads at the water line. I pull up my pants legs as far as I can and go scampering in the surf, but not too far out because of “sneaker waves”—and because a great white shark was recently spotted at Stinson Beach to the north.

Later, in Santa Cruz, we have dinner on the pier and watch the fishing trawlers come in at sunset. Earl tells me the story of Vally, short for Valentine, a wealthy, eccentric widow he knew when he was living as a struggling painter in Greenwich Village. “If she wasn’t served promptly in a restaurant,” he said, “she’d take out her cigarette lighter and announce loudly, ‘Well, I guess it’s time to set fire to the menu.’”

On the way home, taking the coast highway again, there’s a single streak of cloud on the horizon that catches all the colors of the setting sun. The whole west is rosy-gold above the navy blue waves. I see the shadow of Earl’s truck racing along beside us, so clearly I can make shadow puppets. Sometimes it doubles suddenly—a tiny truck poised atop a larger one. Sometimes the shadow reaches half-way across the cultivated fields. I see an arrow of pelicans in formation, so I tell Earl about the wily bird that perches atop the pelican’s forehead and, when its host lets the water out of its beak pouch before swallowing, it steals its catch. The highway is barely traveled now, the beaches deserted.   When I remember those driftwood wind blocks in years to come, I muse to myself, I know I’ll always think of Earl—and the sheltering presence he has been in my life.