Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Swan Lake

Week of Oct. 12-19
. . . across the Swanee River
Down in Golden Glen, I saw her face
But I can’t quite remember when . . .

The windows of the house are all covered in plastic. Not that I’m complaining – a long-awaited home repair is in process - but the lack of light is bringing on a low-grade claustrophobia.

Then our daughters reminded us they'd be marching in a band competition down in Grant’s Pass. Why not make a long family weekend of it – Crater Lake on the way, loop down to the Redwood Forest, then back home up the Oregon coast?

Except the girls couldn’t see their way to coming down with us instead of in the bus with the rest of the band. The younger wavered a bit at first, but her sister put the steel in her soul with a few minutes of whispered confabulation

“You’ll miss seeing Crater Lake,” we said.

"I know. I wish we could."

"You may never get another chance. It’s taken us eleven years already,” we said.

"We love you. We’ll meet you after the competition, okay?”

Foreshadowing of days to come: my husband and I leaning on each other’s arm as we picked our way over the ice around Crater Lake. Our son ran ahead, throwing snowballs.

Yes, the lake is incredibly blue.

Too soon, our son wearied of his parents' undivided attention – Why wouldn’t we let him spend money at the gift shop? Didn’t we have anything else he could eat? Why don’t we ever get to stay longer at the fun places? Why did we always have to do boring things?

From the outside, childhood seems such an idyllic time.

There's a song I keep playing these days from a CD I picked up at a kiosk of local Wasatch Front musicians when we were last out to see my grandpa. I've listened so many times it starts to play now in my head, and my throat tightens and swells along with smoky-voiced Mindy Gledhill. In the background, an occasional violin like two sobs distilled and their echo, and the piano like something by Satie, simple and significant as a black-&-white photograph:
Deep within my memory,
Where the grass grows to my knees,
Where sparrows sing
And all creation speaks to me,

A long lost child
Falls behind.
Now she is miles and miles
From the present time.

And just like the birds that fly
Through the sky,
She’s been away awhile –

- Oh, but I will find her . . .
When I listen to this song I see my aging self back in that field of tall grasses, the purple flowers of alfalfa, the white flowers of shepherd's purse, bread-and-butter plant, puffy yellow dandelions and sweet morning-glory weed, and my scrawny, freckled, toothy, four-eyed self running to my outstretched arms, her stringy hair streaming out and all joy on her face to be reunited. Schmaltzy, I know.

This weekend, we stayed in the Motel del Rogue outside Grant’s Pass – a lost-in-time cottage-style motor hotel from the 1950s, very clean and homey, a little granny house with a tiny kitchen and a back porch looking out over the wooded river bank.

The first night our son had a hard time falling asleep on the daybed. Across the room, the big double bed on the other side of the main room still stood empty and waiting for his sisters who were roughing it (we guessed) in sleeping bags on the gym floor of Grant’s Pass Middle School with the rest of the girls in the band. (There was a second gym for all the boys, with chaperones sleeping on either side of the communicating doors, as our elder daughter had judiciously explained.)

Saturday afternoon we watched the girls perform. The younger: nervy, poised, her hair pulled up in a long ponytail, intent on setting up the instruments in the pit, then bent over mallets that kept popping up off the xylophone, keeping time with brisk bouncing nods.

The older one: doe-eyed beneath her tall hat, womanly in her sleek black uniform, suddenly short beside the other drum major - a towering six-foot senior boy. Her father and I watched her suddenly run all the way across the field, climbing her aluminum ladder to stand steady and serious-faced, chin squared, tirelessly measuring out the music at the top of her slender perch.

We are novices at appreciating these performances, never having been in band ourselves. I used to wonder what kind of commentary the half-time show was trying to make about the football game or the team and their opponents. Now I know.

Absolutely none at all.

Band geeks think the first half of the game is just warm-up, at best, the opening act for their gig. As for the score - that's what you call the director's sheet music - duh.

When a good band does their stuff, it is true, there is a spectacle that fills your eye, an excitement as the instruments skirl and blare, the drumthrobs beating through your body. Our band did a fine job, with no need to make allowances for their small size.

After the afternoon competition, before the final performance when we would be able to bring the girls home, we went back to the motel. I walked down with my son to the river’s edge. He looked for rocks, threw sticks. The water glowed in golden ripples as the river flowed down beyond him. I remember our girls being the same age. Deep in my memory that's the age they always are. Seven, eight, nine – the age of eternal childhood.

The day after their competition, both girls were tired. They complained - a little - about having to come walk with us in the redwood forest after church. But once we were all out in the air, the silence of the trees, so huge and old, made a quietness in us all.

Monday morning, our trip back up the coast was rushed – even with a sunrise start - because the girls had a mandatory band practice back home that evening. At noon we stopped, hiked a mile, two miles, into the Oregon Dunes to a beach all to ourselves. Gathered shells and sea agates and smoothed sticks. Stayed longer than we meant to and had to trot double-time back to the car. Drove without stopping the rest of the way up the coast. The girls kept falling asleep with their cheeks pressed up against the windows.

“Wake up. Look out the window at those big rocks. Are you awake?”

“I’m awake.”

“Wow! Look at the waves splash. Are you looking?”

“I’m looking.”

It's so strange to be on the other side of this conversation now.

The girls were a little late for their practice and the house felt stuffy and forlorn when we came home without them. The week started up again - Monday Tuesday Wedesday . . .On Thursday the plastic at last came off the windows.

The beauty and wildness of the flooding sunlight was a measure of how oppressed we'd been by its absence.

To celebrate I tried a new recipe: chard and pine nuts with fettucine. Not wildly successful. But the salad (slices of Bosc pear fanned out on a beautiful leaf of rose-tipped lettuce, sprinkled with blue cheese, walnut oil, salt and lots of pepper) was elegant and delicious.

Even if one of our daughters made a point of wiping the oil from her lettuce leaf before she'd eat it. The rest of us thought the salad sublime.

Friday, the girls and I had tickets for Swan Lake. Despite a frenzied hustle to get ready and sharp words at the last minute, we found parking in the City in plenty of time to walk the five or six blocks from the courthouse (monumental) to the auditorium with its giant's windows and modernistic portico. I watched my daughters stride along, hair flowing back from their bright faces. I admired our shadows wavering against the sidewalk, beneath the streetlamps, three women - heads leaning close, laughing apart - dressed as close to the nines as we are able, on a mild autumn evening.

The auditorium was full of elegant folk. As we entered, the lights dimmed and the orchestra plunged into Tchaikovsky’s lush score, the conductor’s hands blurring as he swept through the beat, until at last the curtains opened onto a stage setting fully composed, the colors pale and sweet but saturated - like a garden after rain.

The dancers moved with unashamed grace. And the weight of the past weeks of grief began to lift, like an animal waking and stretching up from where it had lain curled heavily on my lungs and heart. I almost laughed to hear my unpremeditated sigh of happiness so loud - as if I were easing into a hot tub after an aching day.I reached out and brushed my fingers against my daughter's leg, wanting to tell her how as a girl, younger than she, I had watched this ballet in the unfinished basement of our house on our tiny black and white TV, my feet tucked up off the cold cement floor, my hair up on pink foam curlers. How the watching had thrown me for days after into leaping and twirling from one end of the dark basement to the other. And now here we were. Seeing it together. I smiled - Isn't this wonderful?

She flicked my hand away, scowling.

The sting of it, the burn. Why would she swat my hand away? Why the look of loathing? Like I'd run into a glass door expecting to step out into the garden.

The dancers still moved, all graceful arms and long necks. The music still played. I sat there blaming myself, blaming her, blaming myself for her - (convenient how we can work it every possible way when we're the mother of the child).

I put an arm around her shoulder, drew her tightly in, whispered fiercely, "You hurt my feelings when you hit my hand away."

"I didn't hit your hand. I brushed it away," she squirmed. "You're bothering me."

I held my breath. Imagined the stillness of stone, "It embarrasses me that you would do that. And to pull faces at me in public. Why would you do that?"

"I don't like to be tickled."

"I wasn't! I didn't mean to! I was trying to tell you how happy I was. How glad I am to be here with you." I can hear the hurt and exasperation in my rising whisper. Neither time nor place.

She squirmed away again, scowling.

All around us were mothers with their elementary-aged daughters, grown daughters with their older mothers, enjoyment gleaming from their faces as they turned to one another.

After the first act and a compulsory solitary stroll around the lobby, my daughter came back, still stiff and grumpy. But the music and the dancing eased us both. After a while she lay her head on my shoulder, then kept falling asleep, waking only to complain that she had been looking forward for months to this night and now she couldn't even stay awake.

In the last act, I watched the heart-broken prince and doomed swan maiden dance their eternal goodbyes with a lump in my throat. Both daughters held my hands on either side. Fallen from the first bliss, but still we are here together and the music, the dancing's uncynical embrace of beauty and feeling still working its magic.

We walked out into the night, the air cool. Elegant grandmothers with small granddaughters in shiny patent-leather shoes, prosperous couples, their faces relaxed and clear-eyed, milled around us, surged with us at the green light over the crosswalk.

We walked back towards the columned courthouse, quieter than before but still together, where we discovered the parking garage was locked up and dark, the attendant gone home for the night. And our car locked up inside. We each tried the door. Twice.

Another woman and her daughter were already on the cell phone, "Dad, we're on the corner of 14th and - what's the road, Mom?" We followed their lead, calling home to my husband, who had been asleep - it was after 10 o'clock.

He would come pick us up (such a good man), Stay right there. He still had to wake our son and pack him into the car. And it's almost an hour's drive away.

The thought of loitering about an empty parking garage in the middle of the night - as the audience crowd dwindled away and the sidewalks emptied of everyone with legitimate reason to be there - didn't sound like a great way to end the evening - more like a way to really end the evening - so we turned and walked smartly up and around the block looking for something better. Lucky for us - for we found a door into the garage still left open and our car just up a short ramp.

Grateful for a car, for keys, for all the ordinary blessings, we drove home, listening to our music turned up loud, singing even louder.

Once we were home, I sat out in the car on the gravel drive to hear Mindy Gledhill's CD turn over from "Long Lost Child" to the first track:

. . . now I'm free to jump,
I'm free to fall,
Free to let it roll away
When I drop the ball. . .
'Cus you see it's falling
That's teaching me to fly . . .
And the next morning, sunlight poured in through the windows.


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