Fragmented Family Memories

Nobody wanted my grandmother’s sewing table when they were splitting up her belongings. The table she painted sage green decades ago; the old paint chipping off in fragments. 

And so, I inherited her table by fate.

Unwavering, shapely legs lead to carved, mandala stars at its knees. A flip drawer that still contains the two buttons, eight tails of thread, fourteen pins, and two clasps — just as she left them. A ridged lip with dark freckles leads to a splotchy top that I discovered, like a secret passageway, unfolds into a workspace. Nestled inside: a heavy, black, sewing machine embellished with gilded calligraphy. The hardware and craftsmanship of a bygone quality that was made before capitalism said things could not outlast their owners.

I wonder how it came to her. Was it a gift from her mother? I never thought to ask about her sewing table, inconspicuously housed in her upstairs room, in the corner she claimed as a painting nook. Now, it is in my art studio — a yurt to myself, a room of my own. 

Her table found its way to me.

I graze my fingers across the top, scattering the flecks, and I see her. Covering over the somber wood to make it bright and cheerful. Like her paintings of fluffy clouds above pastoral landscapes; children and butterflies; daffodils, deities, and stuffed animals. 

Studying her brushstrokes, I see her hands — elegant fingers I only knew in photographs — knobbed by the time they reached my memory. I see her transforming the gloominess. Giving it a delicate, whimsical shell.

Flaking the paint with my gentle touch, I remember hearing, after her death. Uncovering. Thirty years of anti-depressants that explained why she always seemed far away.

And how could an artist be happy in the confines of conventionality? Days regimented around care for others. The dreariness of living second-class to an upstanding member of the community, high-functioning — until it came to her indigo child. For whom being locked in the windowless, brick-lined basement was better than the alternative. 

My fingers reveal more of the stoic wood underneath. And I feel her artist soul alive within mine. A creatrix of beauty. Only now our work is not of covering over, but of returning. To our truth, our power, and our freedom. 

Because I can hold it all — the antique treasure, her long brushstrokes, and the dark spots.  

Children of the Earth and Sky

North out of Yellowstone, a two-lane road snaked along the hillside and next to a dark blue-green river, white ripples cascading from rocks. Around a bend, traffic slowed to a stop and go. I pressed and released the break with patience born from heart full of bison, caribou, and mineral pools. 

Onto a straightaway, we saw a bull elk down river, and knew the traffic jam was for him. 

As we neared, we found a crowd of people only tamed by the limited parking area. We got lucky. A car put on its reverse lights as we approached. And just like the others, we left our car with camera in hand to admire and immortalize the stag in our memory.

As we focused on the bull, a man excitedly approached us to point and say, “this is the most incredible thing. There’s a mom over there and baby in the grass!”

The mother relaxed close to the river, her golden back to the crowd, wanting to enjoy the view, but her ears turned back, knowing humans could not be trusted. We walked a few steps further to find the baby behind tall grass. It stood facing us, its innocent eyes on us. Nervous, yet unafraid, knowing its father stood behind in the river, his robust, spearlike antlers facing the crowd. Ready if necessary, keeping an eye toward us as he lowered his mouth to drink.

Listening to the river and tuning out the crowd’s chatter, I remembered the last time — the first time — I found myself in the presence of elk. At an empty campsite on a rocky creek in Oregon, in the cool morning just after dawn, I walked through the mist. Moisture hung low to the earth to make the lush ferns mysterious and magical. I had left my camera in the tent, having taken many pictures the day before. I wanted to lose myself on the winding trail that followed along the creek, beneath trees adorned with moss. As I bathed in the forest, I saw a family of elk drinking. Two cows, a bull, and a few calfs. I stopped, obscuring myself behind a tree, in awe of their elusive nobility. After a few breaths, I stepped around the tree and towards the creek to get closer. They each stopped drinking to watch me. Having their peace disturbed, they backed away into the forest and mist.

We returned to the road leaving Yellowstone after taking our pictures and enjoying the elk. We drove to a campsite nestled between hills. We walked beside a meadow while the sky turned pink and purple, passing deer who leaped as we neared. 

The next morning, we woke early, broke camp and continued north to Glacier. A haze had settled in over night. North of Bozeman, forcing us to abandon our plans, the air grew thick and brown. 

Smoke from Oregon. Forests burning. Flames intensified by human-created climate change, taking the moss, ferns, trees, insects, and wildlife — the elk. 

Under the smoke, my heart burned along with my relations, children of the earth and sky.

My Grandfather’s Sky

Hills that beg you to keep seeking the other side. A sky that calls you to fly up and above to the mountains of your dreams. My Grandfather, who I never met, grew among the grasses and hills, the deer and moose and grizzly, and under that sky who called. 

In the vast open space, I understood — I knew him — at last. I understood why he escaped his crib and ran down the dirt road again and again. And why, even though his parents put him in a boarding school to tame his wandering adventurer, they never could. Why he enlisted in the front lines in the Pacific. And why the monotony of a 9-5 in suburbia destroyed him. 

I felt him there within my heart, within my bones. I knew why and how his soul could be crushed — a wild bird locked in a cage.  He died of a broken spirit long before he left his body. 

On this trip, I couldn’t make it to the mountains of my dreams, the road to the sun blocked by Oregon’s smoke; yet, I gained more than my intentions. A feeling of wholeness, of integration, of knowing this man, this mystery — feeling his DNA come alive within mine. 

I’ll return in Spring. To let his essence bloom within my consciousness, to let him live on. For just like him, the hills and sky call to my Spirit.