February 2009

It’s already February third, in the high forties with the sun flashing off the wings of the hundreds of Canada geese nestled in the alfalfa field. We’ve let Stan our goat out for the day and he’s roaming the rimrocks. Or was until Jerry noticed that he had climbed into the back of the truck and was using the hood of the cab for his front feet. A no-no. Jerry has taken Bo to the vet because his ears keep giving him trouble. He lets us clean them out but during the night we hear him flicking his head and later rubbing his ears along the side of the bed until he reaches me. I scratch his ears as he leans in. It’s his early warning sign so off he goes to visit his doctor. Turns out he is prone to yeast infections in his ears. Almost every February. I’d go along but I’m on a deadline and I’m behind and we’ve just come back from a week in southern Baja where sun and sand and slow reading walked hand in hand with rest.

They say the longest day of the year is the first day back from a vacation and I think that’s so. Part of my obsessiveness when I return from a time of rest is my early warning sign that I’m in need of an attitude adjustment, a reminder that my pace needs to slow not just on vacation but when I’m home. Take the dog for a longer walk. Bundle up and look at the moon for awhile. Fix a meal that takes lots of fussing. Read in the early morning when I wake up at 3:00 instead of getting up and going to work.

February is the perfect time to change our pace. This is the month of celebration after all: Valentine’s Day; Oregon’s 150th birthday (also on the 14th); President’s Day. I have a nephew turning 22, a god-daughter turning 26 or 27; two great nieces, one turning 8 and the other one 10 on either side of my own gosh, my own 63rd birthday! (I tried three times to type 63 and kept hitting 53…even when I just typed it a second time. Hmmm, wonder what that means?) My nephew in Florida and his wife just celebrated their 23rd wedding anniversary. February is a big month for card-buying!

My grandmother was born February 12th in 1892, 117 years ago, in a narrow Wisconsin valley known as Cream in the rolling hills not far from the Mississippi River. While doing the research, we discovered that a few years later, after she and her family had moved to Winona, MN, that right down the road from her old farm my father was born on another farm. Small world. My aunt noted when we looked at the old property maps that her family must have come early to the area for they had the best lowland property, good for drainage and fine crops. “Those pieces were taken early,” my 91 year old aunt noted.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about my grandmother since I’m working on the second book about her that won’t be out until 2010. I’ve changed the working title to “An Absence so Great” from a letter sent to a friend of mine after the death of her child. The poet wrote: “How could I have prepared for an absence so great as you.” It may not be the final title…we’ll see.

I wonder about the attitude adjustments she had to make in her lifetime. Her only living child, a daughter, tells me that she frequently said of things “That’s water under the bridge” and didn’t allow the past to hold her hostage. She rarely found fault nor placed blame when things happened, kept her eyes focused up and forward. I don’t think she’d have thought of herself as a feminist, someone interested in removing educational, social, theological, employment or other barriers that prevent people (male or female) from attaining their greatest potential (my definition of feminism which I hold dear) and yet she was, striking out on her own to become a photographer, one who traveled to run other studios while the mostly male owners recovered from mercury poisonings acquired from the developing solutions. I wondered if she might have gotten sick from the chemicals herself though there’s no family story related to that. There’s a photograph of her with my grandfather, one of the very few of them together because they were usually taking shots of each other, that shows her looking very tired. I can see it in her eyes. I see that same look reflected in my own at times.

I showed a couple of photographs of her to my sister-in-law a few weeks ago and she said, “I can see the resemblance.” I can’t. She was tiny, barely five feet tall and wore size 3 shoes on her wedding day. But maybe there is some other resemblance: that tired look.

The family stories are mostly about her perseverance, her fortitude especially during the depression after my grandfather died leaving her with three children at home and two just launched. There were three step-children in her life as well but they were pretty much grown and away. Her husband, my grandfather, was buried on my mom’s 20th birthday. She was the middle child.

I’m writing about an earlier time, when my grandmother was actively involved in photography and also young , traveling far from home and I suspect a little homesick and also falling in love.

I think God was her guide in life. While exploring events and dates and when she was here or there and knowing part of what transpired as she pursued her career, I could see her making decisions that would later cost her dearly. I’ve been there, done that myself. And I wonder if she ever felt during those times as I have, a kind of spiritual absence, a “prone to wander from the God I love” as the old hymnist wrote. And if so, what did she do about it? Did she walk on a beach somewhere in a pondering mood, spend time looking at the sun flashing off the wings of trumpeter swans prone to flying overhead in Winona, watch them settle down amidst wild rice and arrow plants at the edges of the lakes and rivers and marvel at their creation and their freedom to come and go at will? How her heart must have ached at times as she was absent from home and the love of her life, the man who later became her husband.

Among some of the things my aunt sent me as I began writing was a poem my grandmother had written. It’s signed not dated and it speaks of hardships and the way through them. “Life is like a ship at sea, the waves of life toss us to and fro.” She goes on about trying again and again, speaking of Christ’s teachings “as the only real things that count” and no matter what we have to face, to keep going “straight ahead full speed until we reach our destination. May God be our guide.”

Part of why I write these stories about actual historical women is because I want to explore the decisions they made and where they drew their strength from. I hope to glean from their lives the universal qualities that speak to men and women of all generations. I want them to help them step from one generation into another to teach and touch us with their lives.

So I can speculate about my grandmother’s journey but discovering something written by her about her view of life offers richness both for me as a granddaughter but also as a writer. And hopefully that translates into something a reader will find of value as well.

For those of you who don’t consider yourselves writers, I’d encourage you to write anyway. Imagine the gift you could give to a grandchild, a special kid in your life, a nephew or niece as you write of where you draw your strength from, how you fill up when the gauge of your heart reads “almost empty.” How you sometimes might have wandered and what brought you back.

It’s that strength in her, that view to go “straight ahead full speed” and let God be our guide that I hope to convey in this novel about her, how she worked through the costly choices that I think must have rubbed her soul raw and how she kept her focus. It’s what I hope my own life might demonstrate to those around me. I’d like that to be “the resemblance” that others might see of my grandmother in me.

I hope you’ll check the schedule and join me in Leavenworth, WA this weekend; Aurora, Oregon on Valentine’s Day; at the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission gathering with me, Molly Gloss and Shannon Applegate in Portland, OR on February 18th; at the Salem Manor on February 19th and of course at Yachats for Beachside Writer’s on my birthday, Feb 20-22. But what better way for me to celebrate my next year than to cheer writers on toward their own goals!

So much for my plan not to schedule any events from January through March and just write. But then, I wouldn’t have been able to walk on the beach along the Sea of Cortez if I hadn’t adjusted that plan. Life is full of adjustments…make the best of yours.

Warmly, Jane