Jam jar of cigarette ends and ashes on his workbench,

 

Ceimatus 2012

Wild Clematus, Dublin 2012 (c) Carole Craig

Jam jar of cigarette ends and ashes on his workbench/hammer he nailed our address to a stump with/balsa wood steamship, half-finished—  What My Father Left Behind,  Chris Forhan

 

A year and a half into cleaning up my mothers things I have come to the conclusion that the venerable tradition of burying a person’s possessions with them — a horse to ride,  a sword to fight, a wife to serve, gold to appease an angry god — may have as much to do with aiding the living as smoothing a journey through the afterlife.

I have ordered the random: pennies put aside in case one was worth hundreds rather than a cent, 1940s on; a tin push toy with wings possibly Mexico, possibly 1945; a Christmas list with who got what and how much it cost, 1954; a once red paper flower labelled as from an Oud maker in Bagdad, 1973; records of building a garden fence, 1976.  I have sorted the voluminous evidence of her professional life: folders for festivals; songs lists for gigs; fan letters; milage records for the Farm Security Administration, diagrams of ship parts from World War II. Twenty four boxes, shelved and labeled.

It is the things more precious to my mother that defeat me. She liked pictures of herself — photographs and drawings. She liked the things that people she liked gave her. Once she liked spoons and bones to play and was somewhat a fetishist when it came to jaw harps. In the closet are lace up boots from the 1930s, moccasins with real Indian Head nickel buttons, summer clothes made out out of rice sacks from Southeast Asia. Without her, these things, always visible in her everyday life or carefully folded in everyday drawers,  are forlorn, of no more significance than the pennies. What to do? To throw them away is to be complicit in my mother’s exit from the world. I can’t do that. They languish in limbo— large plastic boxes under the eaves. At some point I will redeem the letters from Pete Seeger  and the others: Utah Philips, Gordon Bok, Kate Wolf, Malvina Reynolds.

I talk to a friend. She also had a difficult mother, one given to physical outrage. She too keeps as much as she can transporting it from the East Coast to the West. Members of our sisterhood, of our fraternity, she says, practice an archeology of self. What happened to us? Why? When?  We excavate.

My found artifacts: letters my mother wrote and letters she received, notes to herself, photographs, short stories she wrote, poems she copied, books she saved.

Before my mother became ‘Faith Petric, the Fort Knox of Folk Music’ — much loved as such, much needed, important — when she was still the person born in a log cabin in the mountains of Idaho making her way to the big city, she had a plan to sail to China. Among the papers I find is a 1940s application for that passport and her picture.  She has full cheeks and a white lace collar.

Seattle life — work in a bookstore, friendship with the painters of the Northwest School — and San Francisco life — the Black Cat bar, Chinatown, sailing on the Bay — held her instead. I like her then. She was adventurous. She had the intimacy of friends who read books in the French original and painted and sculpted and wrote funny letters and took photographs, who ran the San Francisco Labour School and went to Paul Robeson concerts, and to anti-lynching parties and wanted justice even as the FBI was breathing down their necks. From what was sent and received they seemed to have loved each other, been angry, disappointed, forgave and loved again. Relationships of equals.

Sometimes in old age my mother would say she was looking for a friend. Not that she didn’t have wonderful friends: Estelle who is making a film about her now, Bonnie who did so much to keep her at home, Morgan the saw player. But once she became the Fort Knox of Folk Music, the head of the San Francisco Folk Music Club, the recipient of the Noam Chomsky Peace Prize these were not quite relationships of equals. And power can corrupt.

I also like the earlier mother for selfish reasons. Shortly after she died I found a note she had written to herself.  I was visiting with my daughter who was young. My mother was having a hard time with that visit.   For comfort, she listed the qualities she liked about about me and those she didn’t. The didn’t like list had a dozen items. The like list had four – none substantial Do I wish it had been buried with her? I don’t know. I think not.

In that earlier time, when I am ten and she is not yet a folk star, she writes a letter to a man she loved giving news of her life. This one is the gold. “Carol is lovely,” she says.

 

 

 

What My Father Left Behind  — Chris Forhan

Jam jar of cigarette ends and ashes on his workbench,
hammer he nailed our address to a stump with,
balsa wood steamship, half-finished—

is that him, waving from the stern? Well, good luck to him.
Slur of sunlight filling the backyard, August’s high wattage,
white blossoming, it’s a curve, it comes back. My mother

in a patio chair, leaning forward, squinting, threading
her needle again, her eye lifts to the roof, to my brother,
who stands and jerks his arm upward—he might be

insulting the sky, but he’s only letting go
a bit of green, a moulded plastic soldier
tied to a parachute, thin as a bread bag, it rises, it arcs

against the blue—good luck to it—my sister and I below,
heads tilted back as we stand in the grass, good
luck to all of us, still here, still in love with it.

 

 

 

…the common objects of his disregard and the hot centres of stars

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Altar, Tenderloin, San Francisco

 

Each is composed of substances identical with the substance of all that surrounds him, both the common objects of his disregard, and the hot centers of stars  — James Agee, Let us now praise famous men

 

Ever peripatetic, I land in Dallas, Texas.  Throughout the airport are strategically placed volunteers ready to direct in-comers through the confusion of corridors.  The volunteers wear cowboy hats, cowboy boots and smiles.  I don’t expect to like them, but I do.  How can I not?  They are ripe with humour and good will.

After two glorious months in Dublin, I am back in the United States to deal again with my unfortunate choice in tenants.

Even before I arrive in San Francisco, I find myself greeted by the question that shadowed me as I left:  what part do I have of this country, whose people I like so much and whose government treats them so often with disregard and contempt?

Life in San Francisco is seductive: the expanse of ocean, the Mission where people are kind enough to understand my Spanish, the great roll of fog through the Gate, sunset among the decorous wine drinkers on Tank Hill, more affordable restaurants than I could ever eat my way through, North Beach and it’s memories, the vegetable markets of Clement Street, the free box at Green Apple Books, and, a glory and a prophylactic against my final surrender, the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library.

The library —  light filled, book filled, talk sponsoring, exhibit hosting  — rises with Beaux Arts grandeur on the edge of the city of the damned. In the morning, people who’ve slept rough roll up their bedding on the grass that runs between the library and the gilded dome of San Francisco City Hall.

Up a block is the Tenderloin, euphemistically referred to as an area of single room occupancy hotels and apartment houses, also referred to as an area of drug dealing, prostitution, history, poverty, and despair.  Midday finds long lines for a free meal.

In the afternoons on the library steps and in the shade of the trees across the street, the homeless sit.  They are identifiable by the mounds of personal belongings that sit beside them.  At times there is someone on a corner or leaning against a lamp post or at the bus stop or in the street who can’t take it any more, who is gesturing, mumbling, waving, yelling or weaving among the cars.

Without the library and its environs, I would become inured,  seduced and captured by the American cornucopia.

Strung across the library’s lobby is a banner proclaiming. “Anyone can get a library card.”  Anyone can roll in with their possessions and anyone does.   Anyone can sit at the internet computers.  Anyone can fill the desks with books.  Anyone can use the bathrooms.  Anyone can charge a phone. Researchers, browsers, aspiring novelists (me), students, use the library alongside the library’s neighbours, people with nowhere else to go.

The library,  vestige of a vanishing communality, a place in which we are all briefly equal, provides a balm for the rawness I feel at my comparative privilege — given to me by education, skin colour, and luck.

It is a  self serving comfort and of no use.  It is not nearly as helpful as the small cheques my mother wrote every few months to antipoverty campaigns, women’s rights groups, environmental warriors, cheques so small that their value was probably used up in the regular snail mailings of free calendars, petitions, address labels, membership cards, and appeals for more money  such donation’s attract.

Recently, leaving the library, I see a figure on the on the street at the foot of the Pioneers Monument that stands, its Eureka rampant, between the library and the Asian Art Museum.

I and two homeless men go over. It is a girl in a foetal curl. Her black trousers are pulled down slightly, exposing her lower back. The trousers are worn and have the patina of street. I can see a tattoo, an edge of breast, the very short hair on the back of her head.  A mobile phone is held tightly to her ear. She is alive, she is conscious. The two men and I stand a while considering what we can do. In the end we do nothing.

It seems to me the perfect cypher for me in America. I’m here, I know there is a problem and I don’t know what to do.

 

Each is composed of substances identical with the substance of all that surrounds him, both the common objects of his disregard, and the hot centers of stars: All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it ever quite had precedent: but each is a new and incommunicably tender life, wounded in every breath, and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining, for a while, without defence, the enormous assaults of the universe.
 
 
So that how can it be that a stone, a plant, a star, can take on the burden of being; and how is it that a child can take on the burden of breathing; and how through so long a continuation and cumulation of the burden of each moment one on another, does any creature bear to exist, and not break utterly to fragments of nothing: these are matters too dreadful and fortitudes too gigantic to meditate and not forever to worship.
 
James Agee, Let us now praise famous men

oh antic God….

Book stall Madrid, Spain)

Book Stall, Madrid (c) Carole Craig

 

oh antic God, return to me my mother in her thirties —  Lucille Clifton

A year and a day: put off the black, fold back the weeping veil. It is finished, final, over, done. The ashes are scattered, the book is closed, the bell takes back its tongue.

I find nothing final in this moment. There is the slow seep of sadness and a fresh mingling of my mother’s life and mine.

In San Francisco I have taken to selling things. Not by choice. I rented to a tenant who took me in dangerous dislike – I am told he wants to see me bleed. Among his many revenges was the building inspector and thereby the discovery of a myriad of things done to my mother’s house as acts of love and friendship, as acts of gratitude to Faith Petric folksinger that must now be undone, repaired, rectified, approved and stamped.

It will cost more money than I personally have. Her second best guitar will go, the ‘guilute’ she carried and played in Ireland more times than I can count, the large, loved Morris Graves painting, the small collection of silver dollars, the Chinese figures, books and more books, both hers and mine.

For making me really look at the books, I can be almost grateful to the tenant. They would have languished forever on the ToDo shelf, unmarked and undiscovered. I never would have known, for example, that her father gave her a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam for Christmas in 1939. She was deeply angry at him all of my life, for good reason I believe, and I never heard a good word about him. I don’t know if he gave her The Rubaiyat because it was popular then or if it was unusual and he recognised that it would suit his unusual, intelligent, estranged, daughter. It is the Edward Fitzgerald version, boxed and illustrated. It might fetch a pretty penny, but won’t be going. For the first time ever, I have a link with my grandfather.

The ten small blue volumes of the World’s Thousand best Poems (1929 and arranged alphabetically) will go, without regret, but I am sorry to lose the leather bound Scrapbook of Elbert Hubbard, socialist, anarchist and follower of William Morris.

That sadness is not just because the book, printed on Hubbard’s own press in true Arts and Crafts fashion, is a symbol of much that I hold dear, but because it, and so much else in the collection, represents my mother’s younger, intellectually aroused self.

By the time she and I could have real conversations, she held her ideas firmly and saw my desire to discuss them as a threat. The variety of books is comforting, they show me that we once had that need to question in common after all.

In fact, as I come speedily up to my 70th birthday, I see the same questions for my life that I see in my dead mother’s: what gives meaning and coherence to living?

I find among her things a note written to herself at 2am on the 7th of July, 1949. “It is as if, through all my life,” she writes, “there has run a kind of paralysis. I am sitting in a room at 223 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, doing nothing. (Nothing, that is, that ‘matters’ or of the things I tell myself I should do ….)”

I inhabit that feeling intimately, life consumed in the living of it.

For my mother in July of 1949 it was her messy drawers, my toys that needed mending. Later, it was “her desk” and reading and answering endless, endless emails.

I don’t know, – because she never, aloud, admitted she was dying, never summed up, imparted wisdom, said goodbye – if at the end she thought she had done what mattered. Whether for her,  her life trailed off into a mist of undone “should’s” or felt complete, finished, done.

 

oh antic God – Lucille Clifton

oh antic God
return to me
my mother in her thirties
leaned across the front porch
the huge pillow of her breasts
pressing against the rail
summoning me in for bed.

I am almost the dead woman’s age times two.

I can barely recall her song
the scent of her hands
though her wild hair scratches my dreams
at night. return to me, oh Lord of then
and now, my mother’s calling,
her young voice humming my name.

Coming for to carry me home

sunrise, passage grave, Loughcrew, Ireland (c) Carole Craig

sunrise, passage grave, Loughcrew, Ireland (c) Carole Craig

 

31st July
Tonight —  five thousand miles away and, in my mind’s eye, juggling fire — the circus are putting some of my mother’s ashes in the river at Orfino, Idaho. She has come full circle.

In Ireland, unable to travel because of a stupid fall over a bad book, I am filled with memories. They are of ‘early’ mother: when she sang Methodist hymns and cowboy songs and Burl Ives songs and Leadbelly songs and “My name it is Sam Hall” on which I was allowed – greatly thrilled — to join in on the chorus of “I hate you one and all/ God damn your eyes.”

It is the hymns that I am hearing now. The night that’s in it, I suppose, and my grandfather the itinerate preacher, and my great grandfather the same, and my firm belief that, bad as she found it, as gleefully as she rejected it, religion can take substantial credit for her formation.

Not the religion of the superficial questions: such as whether there is a god or not; or whether said god is male or female; whether he/she/it is human or elephant; or the vexed argument of how humankind is supposed to engage in worship, if worship is required.

But the more profound religious sense: that to be properly human raises the question of a moral life, of trying to be good, to be just, to leave the place better than you found it. If she were still alive, she’d be marching for Gaza, not, of course, with the expectation that this would solve the problem. But to try again. Fail again. Fail better.

And thank you New Old Time Chautauqua, she enjoyed it very much, I’m sure.

 

Swing Low Sweet Chariot

Well, now I looked over Jordan and what did I see
Comin’ for to carry me home
There was a band of angels a comin’ after me
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home

Well, I’m sometimes up and I’m sometimes down
Comin’ for to carry me home
But I know my soul is heavenly bound
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home

Well, now if you get there before I do
Comin’ for to carry me home
Tell all of my friends that I’m a comin’ too
Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Well, now they’re comin’ for to carry me home

 

Written by Wallas Willis described as both slave and freeman of a Chowtaw Narive American and sung frequently during the struggle for civil rights (my mother would like that)

The real question of life after death…

 

The real question of life after death isn’t whether or not it exists, but even if it does what problem this really solves. — Ludwig Wittgenstein

Image

Statues, Berlin, (c) Carole Craig

 

I am waiting for my mother’s ghost. So far, she has failed to appear.
Do I believe in ghosts? Yes. Whether they are of our own or another’s making is not important.

My mother, proudly atheist, would have said she expected to disappear, a that’s-all-there-is view of life. She was the daughter and the granddaughter of Methodist ministers; neither were good men. When I was still young enough for her to sit beside me as I fell asleep she would tell me about lying in her own bed as a child and  praying every night not to die in her sleep because she knew death would bring her straight to hell. Oblivion was the safer option.

Can anyone really wish for that?

Among my mother’s papers (myriad, obsessive, revelatory), in a folder with the poems about death and the quotes about living well, is an interview with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, she of dying’s five stages fame. The interview is not, as one would expect, about those famous stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — but about life after death and Kubler-Ross’s late life conversion to a firm belief in same. As a scientist, Kubler Ross’s words, it was the empirical evidence, the near death experiences that did it. Later, Kubler-Ross would speak of contact with ‘afterlife’ guides in a manner which would have done any19th Century Spiritualist proud. Before her own death, hobbled by strokes she was asked what stage she had reached. “Anger” she answered and said she would be making no return.

I wonder where my mother was on Kubler-Ross’s list. Certainly not  acceptance, she didn’t die with that. Depression? Perhaps. If so, it seems unkind to ask her back, but among her things I find so many questions.
Love letters. dozens of them, from a man I’ve never heard about. Who was he? Did you love him back? Things she wrote about me that were unkind and seem unfair. Is that the way it really was for you? Terracotta tiles she painted with frail blue fish; they are beautiful. Why did you stop making things with your hands?

The more residue of her life I encounter, the more she becomes like smoke sliding through my fingers. A ghostly form sitting by the bed would be more corporeal. Who were you? I’d ask. I’d like to know.

 

That’s why I came here, bringing nothing.

Stones back garden 885 Clayton Street (c) Carole Craig

Stones back garden 885 Clayton Street (c) Carole Craig

 

“That’s why I came here bringing
nothing. There was nothing to do but leave things.” Ken Smith — Possessions

The eyrie that was my mother’s room has been visited by disaster – drawers open, clothes scattered, papers sliding to the floor. It is as though she died in a cataclysm, not peacefully, in bed, sung to, cared for, loved. I should have foreseen that death, even quiet death, is catastrophic, cyclonic uprooting and displacing the familiar and the known.

I travel through like a rescue team sifting debris. Triage: what from this life can be saved? Not the carefully coiled lengths of string, the dry ballpoint pens, the bits of paper cut into squares for notes no larger than ten words, the calendar pages so handy for making envelops decorated with the sticker that admonishes the receiver to “Save Trees!”

Grey areas are harder. Who will want the pile of unused Christmas cards, a tape recorder, two plastic kites, the tangled and never worn strings of beads, the fifty, at least, tee shirts, stamped with organizations joined, festivals attended, trips taken, politics engaged?

“I grew up in the depression,” my mother said. Waste not want not.

There are things less easy to explain: Christmas lists beginning in 1954 and going on for every year thereafter, the presents given and the cost, the receipts in an envelopes attached with decaying paper clips; a box with a folder for every significant illness endured; monthly outgoings 1954 to 1965 and for Mexico in 1945; carefully inscribed lists of cards received; the complete contacts for a tour of England 1980; twenty unused covers for the San Francisco Folk Music Club Directory, 1971; the minutes from a PTA meeting, 1952.

Why? They seem a burden. If she didn’t keep the evidence would the life itself disappear?

On the ground floor, behind the hundred year old leaded glass, among the clay figures from China and the miniature Mexican children’s toys, are open necked bottles that in the 1960’s and 70’s held cheap wine. Did they hold memories for her?

In the basement are drawers full of shells, in the garden jars of stones. The jars, metal lids rusted tight, sit on wire shelves hung on the fence. There are more jars of stones under the sink that serves as a potting table, so green that their contents have disappeared; other jars sit precariously on the wooden cross beam of the fence. The stones in the jars are grey, white, red, brown smooth, rough, broken, whole; there are abalone shells, fracturing rainbows, whole sand dollars and the plain shells of clams, oysters, and mussels. Nothing is valuable or rare or even arrestingly beautiful.

The picture of my mother on my wall in Dublin is of her sitting on a rock at Stinson Beach, palm open, head down, looking for pretty pebbles. The stones and shells I understand.

In the days before she died, my mother’s time was filled with dreams, knotted memory and fear. She was on a cliff, afraid of falling. Once when waking, she was puzzled. There were people at the bottom. She was worried about them. We had to discover who they were. One was once dear but from the long past, the other a friend who had disappointed her. “I still feel responsible for them,” she said.

I think this is the heart of the stones and shells. She had gathered the stones collected the shells, touched them and altered their course. In her moral universe it would have been wrong to discard them because they had become inconvenient or dusty and took up too much space or because she had too many. She was responsible for them. A moral imperative: you must take care of what you touch.

Several years ago, tired of so many, I made her a rock garden with some of them. It was not a success and now I am planting flowers there. The stones and shells have become mixed with earth. To find them all, I have to sift the soil and it takes a long time. Carefully, I put stones and shells in empty pots until I find them the right resting place — my mother’s daughter after all.

Possessions — Ken Smith

They spent my life plotting against me.

With nothing to do but cultivate them,

but to be there, aligning their shadows,

they were planning to undo me,

wanting to own me completely.

They have marched through the rooms,

their presences litter the surfaces

close at my elbow calling attention.

When I sleep they being with their meetings,

when I leave home they hold a convention.

The minutes, the notes, the chairman

calls order, the lamps signal aye. When I die

they’ll start in on another,

easy at first learning his ways.

Now they’re gone, taken from me, good luck.

IIf I kept them I’d never be free. I’d die


and have to begin picking everything up,


all the waste paper, baby teeth, beards,


I’d have to go back for the fingernails.

So I’m shut of them, all the gossip and malice

the tables, the chairs with their jokes on me.

All the prying, the scanals. The telephone

stored it all up, the books lied to me.

Thats why I came here, bringing

nothing. There was nothing to do but leave things.

I saved only a few smells of tobacco

and blankets, a dream of a waterfall,

a length of ribbon, my name, my number,

the holes in my suitcase.

Ken Smith

“The worst of it is over now,

kensal angel
Kensal Green (c) carole craig
“The worst of it is over now, and I can’t say that I am glad.   Amy Hempel, BG, SL TOG, INC, CONT, REP 

I don’t know how to grieve. Perhaps I lost the knowledge when my daughter was very ill and there were times, many times, when it wasn’t clear if she would live or die.  I would come back from the hospital, lie on the bed, and wrap my arms around the dog.  After awhile, I would get up and go on with the inconsequential tasks of living. I believed, egotistically, and probably erroneously, that if I went down into the pit, fell into the abyss, if I didn’t keep going, my daughter wouldn’t either.

With my mother it is different, of course.  My daughter lived, my mother died.  Since her death I’ve filled time with the things to be done: papers to find, papers to sign; her cremation and her wake (yes, in that order),  papers to send, papers to examine, her garden to save, her house to repair, her memorial to plan, her plants to water, her friends to find the right words for. “It was a good, long life, a triumph,” I say.  “She was herself until the very end.”

It is not that I don’t recognise that something is wrong.   I talk too much. I don’t call my friends. I say the stupid things and have to apologise often.   I take the dogs on the short walks only.  I can’t sleep.  I don’t play with the cat. I can’t clean my mother’s room. I sleep too much. I can’t clean my own room.  I almost remember my dreams.   The basement is full of dust.  I don’t cry.

I hoped the Day of the Dead might me teach something.  In the Mission,   people whose faces have been painted white like sugar skulls follow Choc Mool.  When the line arrives at the square, brimming with its alters, its photographs, its candles, it as though some darkness has been conquered, the zombies smothered in a blanket of love. Next year, I think, maybe, I can put something there for my mother there.

But I don’t feel any different and I get on with the jobs.

There is a meeting to plan my mother’s memorial.  We discuss the tickets and who will perform.  What is needed and how to get it.  These are intelligent, competent people.  They loved her. She will enjoy her memorial and I can leave it in their hands.  When the meeting is over I walk out into strange, dark Berkeley and realise that I have now done everything for my mother I had to do.  There is nothing left.  For the first time I am profoundly empty. I am bereft.