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.

 

 

 

My mother and I are isolated…

Image

shipyard arc welders lunching, 1943

My mother and I are isolated, but not alone.  The very old are everywhere, scattered over the landscape, worn and scraped but going still.   Common wisdom is that it is the duty of their children to keep them running.

This is an unexpected shower on the Baby-Boomer parade.  My generation which has had so much — Elvis, the Beatles, college educations, smoking and inhaling,  Timothy Leary, jobs, Andy Warhol, the Pill, Woodstock, owning their own homes, only one war  —  finds added to this cornucopia gems like the Boomers’ Guide to Ageing Parents and agingparents.com.

I’m not sure I am a true Boomer; I was too early for that famous surge of post war euphoria. My mother’s first memory of my birth is people crying on the streets of Mexico City because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was dead.  Her doctor wanted to attend an important horse race and used drugs to hurry me into the world.   It was two days before she recovered enough to really know I was there.   My mother and father met in New York when she as an arc welder in the wartime shipyards.  I am the daughter of a Rosie the Riveter.  My father was an artist in Greenwich Village who abandoned her before I was born.   After that, the offer of work in Mexico seemed a good idea.

I have another story from that time, not one my mother told;  it comes from a playwright who shared our pension in the heart of Mexico City.  Paris Siete was owned by the Aranals,  in-laws of the great Mexican muralist David Siquieros and were involved with him in the first, unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky and probably the successful one that followed.  I think the assassination was a tragedy, but am impressed by my early proximity to shattering events.

The playwright befriended my mother because, although nursing me, she wasn’t given as much food as the other lodgers.  The Arenals, bless their Stalinist hearts, fed her less because she paid less.  Dear Karl Marx  (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”) must have spun in his grave.

Never mind, we’re here now.

My mother just lies on her bed or the couch most days, eyes closed or open, in the sun if it’s there. She smiles beatifically at visitors, tries to follow conversations, and drops in one liners when she can.

People are making me a repository of ageing parent stories.  The vet vaccinating my dogs tells me her ancient grandmother does nothing but sit at a table all day and stare sadly into space.  The vet’s father, who must walk the length of his Spanish village to do his duty as her carer, is dogged at every step by advice from neighbours on how  to make his mother happy again.

The owner of my local hardware store’s mother is almost the same age as my own and we’ve been exchanging information for some time.  His mother had a fall, breaking her pelvis and her hip,  but has made a complete recovery.  The conscientious Irish government sent home help to visit her.  His mother’s first response was invite the visitor to have a seat, “and I’ll make you a cup of tea, love.”

The Palestinian grocer tells me about his grandmother in Nablus.  Her husband divorced her and sent her to live with her grown children.  Broken by grief, everyday she loaded wood onto her head and walked back to her old home.  “I was sent to get her. Everyone knew her, it was okay.”

The stories from San Francisco are different.    “Of course he didn’t want to go.” “It was the hardest decision my sisters and I ever had to make, to put my mother in a home.” “We had to explain that everything can’t be perfect.”  “My mother wasn’t happy there, of course she wasn’t.”  These are good people, I know them, and I may have to do the same.  Are we really such a brutal place?

Outside there is the sun and it is the day of the Bay to Breakers race.  In true San Francisco fashion, the real object is to dress up.  I see a man in a toga go into the hamburger cafe.  Spidermen, Batmen, Ghost Busters pass in droves.  On the corner a group hold long poles with bird heads painted on top, swans probably, although they look like geese.  The bottom of the costumes, for both the men and women, is a tutu and a long, blue feathered tail.  Exquisite.

Near them is a bus shelter with a sign:  “Get unfreaked out by repossession.  Call 188-995-Hope.”   A few feet away a young man is rummaging in a white  plastic trash bin.  He throws things on the ground and once in awhile lets out a cry that sounds like a cartoon “aarrgh.”   He is thin and tall and handsome, with  neat red hair and a neat red beard.  Neither his skin or his layers of clothes have yet acquired that patina of grey, impregnable dirt.  He has not been on the street long.  He stops his search finally, circles three times stamping his feet and sits down.  He lights a cigarette butt, looks at it, lights another and studies them both.

I hear Patchen again: “Have you seen the homeless in the open grave of god’s hand?”