Category Archives: Essays

Wendell’s Obituary

Thirty two years ago today, I lost someone special to me. Here is the story of his burial, just six years ago this month.

RIP Rodney Wendell Emerson Roberts. I no longer dwell on you, but you cross my mind most days. You probably always will.

On Saturday, August 19, 2006, I traveled back into my past. The time machine was a small sailboat that left Santa Cruz harbor at 11 a.m. The cargo: six passengers, a guitar, a few pieces of paper, and the ashes of my first love. He was raised in Nevada County and died there, too, just after his 18th birthday. His name was Wendell Roberts. He was a brilliant, hippy teenager who washed dishes at Friar Tuck’s when it was a tiny place. Thanks to an early beard, he snuck into Duffy’s Success for an occasional draft beer. He scored 1460 on his SAT and turned down a full ride to MIT to go to UC Riverside, major in English, and stay closer to me. He was editor of the high school paper and on the wrestling team.

Wendell died on Dog Bar Road at 1:35 a.m. on August 26, 1980. He was returning home from the state fair. That wasn’t the way to his house, though, it was the way to mine, although I’d already left for college in the Bay Area. (I have always wondered why he was a passenger in a truck driving down that road. Officials named no cause for the accident, but family legend has it that his best friend, Danny, fell asleep at the wheel.)

He was supposed to leave Nevada County a few weeks later, also bound for the Bay Area to begin his second year of college. Wendell and I were experiencing great turbulence in our relationship at that time. His family elected not to have a funeral for him. Through the years, I’ve kept in touch with them.

In early August of 2006, I received a call from Langdon, one of his two younger brothers. He and his brother Mallory had realized they regretted their family’s decision not to hold a ceremony, and while their father (who lives in England) was in the states, they wanted to bury Wendell’s ashes at sea. “We need you there,” Langdon said. “You knew a side of him we didn’t.”

Wendell and his brothers had not been close, to put it mildly. Recently, when I reviewed old letters I’d written him, I noticed occasional pleas I made asking him to be sweeter to his brothers. Despite the emotional distance that marked their childhood, it was important, nearly three decades later, for Langdon and Mallory to give their brother a proper and soulful burial. More than once, I tried to talk myself out of joining them at the harbor. Why bring up so much old stuff? But in the end, I was there.

I got to the harbor about 11 a.m., the last to arrive in our group. I had not seen Wendell’s father in over 20 years, although I had spent some time with him after Wendell’s death. He greeted me with a warm bear hug. Langdon I see fairly often, since he lives in the Bay Area, but I had not seen Mallory since he was a young teen, since before Wendell died. His deep brown eyes were haunting–exactly like his brother’s. He held my hands in his and looked deeply into me.

We grabbed our sweaters, the guitar, assorted papers, and Wendell’s ashes and headed for the sailboat. Moments later we were out at sea.

For an hour, we shared our memories of Wendell. His father told of their formative father-and-son cross-country trip when Wendell was just four years old. I read “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, a poem by John Donne that Wendell had once demanded we read after we had a fight. Mallory played Led Zeppelin on his guitar and read aloud the vows Wendell had written for our wedding, a less than legal, very private affair some 30+ years ago in Pioneer Park. And one by one, we went to the bow with the urn of ashes and said our private good-byes.

As I sat there, six inches above the Pacific with his ashes in my hand, I thought mostly of our broken dreams. They were broken finally by death, but time and time before by youth and immaturity and all we were up against. I let some of the ashes fall back in the box, holding on to just a bit. I already knew what I needed to do, but I hesitated, because it seemed sketchy, even obscene. Even so, just for one moment–I had to experience some form of his DNA again. I rubbed his ashes deep into my cheeks. I ground them in, hard, absorbing their coarseness and their familiarity. I took another small handful and watched them sift down toward the ocean floor. I felt something leave me, then, jump out of a dormant part of me and join him in the water. Shaking, I took my seat and handed the urn with the last of his ashes to his father.

On our way back to the harbor, we blasted Bruce Springsteen (Wendell’s favorite) and huddled together. Our hands, intertwined, gathered a puddle of our tears. Our shoulders shook. Just then, twenty-six years might felt just like one minute.

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Farm Notes: Early July

It is about 8 a.m. on July 2 and I am wearing a long underwear shirt and winter slippers as I sit here. I’ll go out for my walk in awhile and will pick up my pace through the shade to get out of the chill and the consistent swarm of gnats that seem to congregate there. After that I’ll wander out to the vegetable garden and start weeding. If you wonder what I’m up to this summer, just think weeding.

When I got back from Abbey Country mid May, I could see instantly the price I paid to see my mother and all my friends down there (most specifically The Huachucas–very close friends of mine.) It had been unusually warm here on the Sierra’s West Slope, and instead of the closed, grey winter garden patch I left, I found the half acre swathed in viney weeds and dandelion. “One year’s seed, ten years weeds” the saying goes, and I immediately realized my mistake in prematurely abandoning my garden last fall to turn my attention to work and school and motherhood. Now I have a ten year sentence, and I’m beginning to serve it. At least the conditions are nice. The amaranth has joined the weedy vine now, and the word I am officially farming this summer is pernicious. It keeps bubbling up through my consciousness and coming out my throat like a mantra when I weed: pernicious! pernicious! pernicious! But I am slowly winning. Four five gallon buckets of weeds, twice a day. That’s all my garden asks.

For the entire month of June, I don’t believe it broke 80 degrees here. It is still not warm enough at night for me to germinate basil without heating the trays. The peppers and tomatoes are politely absorbing nutrients and water, but they need the heat’s enthusiasm to kick into gear. The strawberries finally became mystified and began putting out shooters anyway. A Western tanager daddy has been sneaking into one patch, disappearing, and coming out a moment later with a whole strawberry in his mouth, bound for the nest. We made a mental note to always leave some strawberries unnetted. We really like Western tanagers.

Of course this reveals that we are not farmers by nature. Not by a long shot. We are adventurers, travelers, whimsical folks that are still surprised, when we look in the mirror, that we aren’t twenty three or so. It was the nature of the world–not our nature –that drove us into the land rather than over it. Disciples of Edward Abbey, we can only imagine his disdain at our decision. But then again, alcohol not vegetables, made up his favorite food group.

The cooler weather, while retarding our garden, has given us a window to do heavy work. This property has been gradually reclaimed by several owners, and is now, for the first time in about a hundred years, officially clean. A couple years ago I was talking to a farmer friend of mine, and she said that some years the garden is not her focus, but the land is. Her words puzzled me at the time, but now I understand. A family farm is a complete, breathing being, and every inch of it must be evaluated, nourished, optimally preserved. This season, so far, has allowed me time to reflect on that, and the land shows it.

We only have a tiny cabin here, so in the good weather we set up palapas and other seasonal structures, and practically live outside–our tiny space becoming palatial for a few months. Now we are out in the evening in layers of clothing we usually wear in April or November. While the rest of the country is sweltering, we are birdwatching from the palapa in polar fleece vests, staring at the brave melons and beans and cucumbers as they wait patiently for heat, listening to the chamber concert of bird calls from the ring of trees surrounding the garden and the hum of bees, like a baseline, resonating from the forage near the warm dirt.

The bees have returned, undaunted. They’ve made good work of the chives and are now absorbed in the even purpler blossoms of the cooking sage. The butterflies engage in high drama over the Sweet William flowers, and the Anna’s and Calliopes flutter around them and drink from the small circle of water from the sprinklers. The morning glories, like the beans, have yet to put out shooters and reach for the fence. Once they blossom the hummers will have more secure forage.

I experimented more with direct seeding this year, mostly due to my limitations keeping seed trays warm. I’m planting tiny plots and experimenting with crop rotation on a micro-scale. I’m having some luck with cabbage, brussel sprouts, greens, squash of course. My celery and dill remain dormant. The black-eyed Susans, daisies, and cosmos are trying to bloom. The coreopsis and echinacea have, thank goodness, and the bees and butterflies are grateful.

Last year my garden happened at the last second, really (See My Ad Hoc Garden). This year I had more time to plan and, as it turns out, much more time to plant, yet at the moment less to show for it. I am confident it will get hot, probably with a vengeance. My polar fleece vest will find its way to my bottom drawer, and I will finally kick the two wool blankets off my bed. My garden will explode in growth and catch up with my expectations. I will have to get up early to work in the garden while it’s cool, instead of waiting for it to warm up.

I grew up not more than an hour from here, and have lived near here most of my life. Summers weren’t like this in the late 20th century. The Wilderness Wino thinks this patch of earth we occupy is becoming a temperate rain forest. This summer, it sure seems like he’s right. Whatever is happening, it’s clear we need to accept it, adapt to it, and learn as with all things to be flexible and patient. Often I wonder why we decided to engage in exhausting activity outside our comfort zone–especially as we fully embrace middle age. The answer might be, in part, that I wanted to work in an environment where things didn’t happen so fast, where I could watch the cucumber start push its way to the sun in a lazy day’s span. Where, unlike radio, six minutes wasn’t a long period of time, and where relative silence can blanket the landscape for a stretch of hours. I’m so far not a big fan of the 21st century, and this quiet, cool patch of land is my oasis. I’ll take what comes, and I’ll work with it.

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Daddy

This radio essay is from 1995–six and a half years before my dad died. I saw him many more times after this, including a memorable visit a few weeks before his death, when he was still perfectly healthy. I am blessed to remember our time together with such potency.

A friend of mine says the other day that those Father’s Day cards make her sick–the ones about Dad always being there for you. And sure enough, the first one I look at says just that. I don’t buy that one, but not because it isn’t true. My dad is always there for me. Dads like mine are called “Daddy” by their grown daughters, and this frequently makes people roll their eyes.

When my dad told me he’d come to see me soon, he told me to make a list of all the little things I wanted. Instead of making a list of 200 or so little things, I made a list that says only: one cord of oak. This will disappoint my dad, who hopes silk and silver are on a long list written on pink linen paper. I did get my dad a Father’s Day card, the one that says: When I was fourteen you were stupid, Dad, but you’re smart now. I got about the last one of those, so you probably got one too. All dads, but especially dads called “Daddy”, love to be told that they are unequivocally right.

The card is perfect for my dad. I couldn’t say more than “pass the salt” to the man from puberty to adulthood. In those days it bound my feet to even make eye contact with him. When I was nineteen I wrote him a letter, asked him to visit me in San Francisco. He slept on my couch. We walked on the beach just as we did when I was four and we lived in Ventura, then a sleepy beach town. In those days we’d walk for miles sucking on jawbreakers and talking about–well–just about everything. Now he says, “I spent more time with you than with all my others combined.” Maybe that’s why I’m the only one of his kids who calls him “Daddy”.

Next month he’ll come to visit, grimace that I have no television, garbage disposal, dishwasher, or dryer. He’ll try so hard not to comment on my son’s long hair, or the hair on my legs and under my arms. He won’t be able to resist asking about men, why I don’t want to live with the man I love, why I like waking up alone. He’ll tell me that he just doesn’t understand me. He’ll ask me what I want besides a cord of oak. We’ll walk on a path in the pines just as we once walked on the beach. And of course I’ll call him Daddy, when no one is listening.

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New Frontiers: Kartchner Caverns

Cochise County, Arizona

Whenever I visit my mother in Abbey Country, I try to take her to someplace she’s never been before. My mom is over 90 now, a world traveler who still lives alone with relative autonomy. She’s buried a husband, son, and grandson. She is as wise as her years. There isn’t a lot she hasn’t seen. When my dad was alive, they traveled to many places near their southern Arizona home, so finding something new can be a challenge. Amazingly, she’d never been to Kartchner Caverns, a state park about 20 minutes from her house. I went there a few years ago with my husband and sons, so I already knew how indescribably special it is. Not even photographs can express the cavern’s intricacy and majesty. I figured the walk would be too much for her, half a mile in dim light, so we borrowed a wheel chair at the front desk, hopped on the tram, and I wheeled her into the side of a very ordinary looking little mountain.

Cavers Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts discovered the caves in 1974 and kept them a secret so they wouldn’t get trashed by idiotic people, and thank goodness they did. Ranger Dave, who led our tour, said that men walked on the moon before setting foot in this natural cathedral. Dave, who seems to be a reincarnation of Mark Twain (who himself was a big fan of stalactites and stalagmites) was quite solicitous toward my mom, making sure she could see clearly from her perch in the chair. Her enthusiasm got the better of her several times, and she practically leapt from her seat, holding the rail and staring at the unique and bizarre formations that always look more to me like beeswax than millennia of rock, water, and nature’s chemistry. Wheeling her up and down the ramps, looking down at her soft grey curls and delicate shoulders, I felt a different kind of love for her than I’ve ever felt for anyone. It is not exactly a direct inversion, when the child begins to care for the parent. It is a sort of poetic payback, a retributive act that is in its own way romantic and warm. Pete, Ranger Dave’s assistant, kept a special eye on us, locking the chair for me when we stopped on inclines, offering his own brand of humor in his deep baritone. “What’s the difference between a cave and a cavern? A cavern has a gift shop.” Mom didn’t miss one joke, one soda straw formation or trippy “bacon strip”, or the deeply spiritual tone of the hidden world of Kartchner.

When Tenen and Tufts set out to keep their secret, they gave the caves the code name Xanadu. The most magnifcent formation in the Throne Room they named Kubla Kahn. There are benches in front of this formation, and the tour ends here with a light show, complete with music. I sat next to her, she in the chair, I on the bench, in perfect silence. I thought of all the Masses she’d taken me to, then later dragged me to, all the Hail Marys and Memorares I recited with her throughout my childhood. Now, here we were in my church, and she got it.

Witnessing her enthusiasm for this gorgeous place filled me with pride. Once again I’d succeeded in showing her something new in her own back yard. She came into my room to tuck me in that night, and put her hand over her heart, holding it there, pressing gently. “Thank you so much,” she said, “for showing me those caverns. We will always have that now.” Our identical green eyes danced with each other a moment. All around us, we felt peace.

[This link offers a map of the Caverns, and clicking on the map offers you several photographs. Visitors are not allowed to take photographs inside the caves. Extensive information about the Caverns is available onllne.) http://www.pr.state.az.us/Images/parkmaps/kartchner_map.html

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Joyce’s Ambassador

I wrote the first version of this essay about ten years ago, and revised it recently. This harkens back to my college days at San Francisco State. Photos by Peggy Sue Amison, 1984.

Whenever St. Patty’s Day rolls around, I think of my old boyfriend Patrick Quinn. Sometimes I am irresistibly drawn to the type of man I call the angst-ridden genius, and Patrick was that. He was a meth addict, although he wasn’t using when I knew him, and he was obsessed with James Joyce. He watched me from a distance for a long time, coming home and moping, his roommates later told me, about his Mengan’s Sister. He called me  Mengan’s Sister because of Joyce’s story “Araby”, in which  the boy loves the girl he’s never met, and watches her from his window. But one day, feeling talkative and outgoing, I marched right up to him after class and started talking about how much I liked Noam Chomsky’s grammar theories. Within moments we were in love. He took me home to his flat on Fulton Street–right up the block from where Grace and the guys used to hang out–and introduced me to Peggy Sue Amison and Joe Carli and other roommates I’ve forgotten by now. We don’t believe you’re real, they said. We don’t believe that you are Mengan’s sister.

Months went by in a blur of literary Irish Americanism. We hung out at the Plough and Star tossing Guinnesses, shared Marlboros on our way to class–we were both seniors in college, studying English literature. Patrick work black wing tips, dress pants, and dress shirts with every button buttoned.  I took to wearing black combat boots with frilly dresses and worn out leggings. Patrick quoted James Joyce every waking moment, and knew Molly’s soliloquy, the end of Ulysses, by heart. We spent hours reading Joycean texts in the Ecumenical House cafe just off campus, and, for the first time in my life, I started seriously writing. He would listen to my poems and stories, nod thoughtfully, and say lyrical. Quite lyrical. We had parties in the kitchen of his flat we called hooleys and listened to that Clancy Brother’s song “Courtin’ in the Kitchen” almost every day.  Poor bloke, Patrick would say, lighting a cigarette and taking a swig of his black coffee, bet he wishes he’d found his Mengan’s Sister.

The last time I heard from Patrick Quinn, I was married and had kids. He phoned in the middle of the night, out of his mind on meth, from Chelsea, Massachusetts. He kept repeating: Have you seen my obituary?  Did you know I’m dead?  My oldest son–now in his 30s–came in, rubbing his eyes, and my then-husband followed, wondering whom on earth I was talking to. Patrick was quoting Molly and asking me why I’d left him. I can’t do this, I said, I have kids now.  I can’t talk in the middle of the night like this. Later, I spent hours looking for him long distance, but his common name made the search futile. I began to figure he was dead.  I  still don’t know for sure.  But I like to imagine he got through that time and is now looking forward to throwing back a Guinness this St. Patty’s Day.  I hope he’s nudging the man next to him on the bar stool, saying, Hey, this reminds me of that time in Ulysses where….

Joe Carli (left) and Patrick Quinn: a hooley in the kitchen.

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One Sunday Morning at the Farm

“Sunday morning
You’re doing your thing
And I am doing mine
Speaking words
More a formality
Cuz we can feel we
Are of one mind
Sunday morning” –Ani DiFranco

I got up a little before the man today, ground up the last of the coffee that was out on the counter. (Usually I’m an Earl Tea lady, but I’m out right now.) I headed in for my second cup of joe an hour later, took the new bag of beans out of the freezer, and read with horror “Caroline’s Coffee: Sumatra DECAF”. Uh oh. Who bought that? Could have been him. Could have been me. We need to learn to bring our reading glasses in to SPD.(The box of decaf Earl Gray ensconced on the tea shelf is proof of that as well.)

The man is up now, pouring the beans into the grinder as I write this. Will he read the label? Will his Sunday morning be compromised? No, apparently not. He’s pouring the water, munching on little spicy rice sticks while he waits for his java. He makes his coffee strong. Maybe enough caffeine will make it through the portal.

I wonder when he’ll notice, or if he will. I’m not going to tell him. But I am going to buy some more Earl Gray tea. Very carefully. With attention.

It looks real enough.

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Coyote Woman’s Birth Timeline

I’ve been remembering the Coyote Women lately. Raven Joy, Susan Lamela, Robyn Martin, Penny St. Claire and other womyn from the Ridge created the ad-hoc troupe of performers in the 1990s. I was honored to be included, and the lessons of autonomy and honesty I learned through them have served me well in the many years since.

Here is a piece I wrote shortly after the birth of my third son. He’ll be a teenager next week, so I wanted to remember this time and mark my last Birth Day. “Have three children, make four journeys upstream.” Carole Oles

I was fortunate to have a Coyote-Woman-Friend at each of my births. Stephanie at the first, which was in hospital, and Melanie at the second two, which were at home. I needed them so much, and their presence helped me immeasurably.

This piece was originally published in Ina May Gaskin’s Birth Gazette in 2000.

February 26, 1999

8:00 P.M. Enjoy early contractions while watching television. Hold Husband’s hand.

8:45 P.M. Go to bed to get some rest. Toss and turn with contractions.

9:30 P.M. Warn Husband: “This might be it.”

9:32 P.M. Listen to Husband say, “This might not be it.”

9:33 P.M. Agree with Husband. With great effort, roll over. Doze off immediately.

10:00 P.M. Wake up Husband. Ask him to call Midwife.

10:05 P.M. Listen to Husband talk to Midwife. Hear pause in conversation. He asks you, “How long are they, honey, thirty seconds?” You answer, “Maybe twenty.”

10:06 P.M. Husband puts the phone to your ear. “Let me hear one,” Midwife says.

10:08 P.M. “That was a 70 second contraction,” she says. “I’ll be right over.”

10:11 P.M. Together with Husband, get candles out of cupboard. Have contractions while Husband lights candles. Have more contractions. Begin to chant. Watch Husband move one-and-a-half year old from the bed to the bed extender. Stare at them both in amazement.

10:45 P.M. Midwife and Coyote-Woman-Friend arrive at the same time. The former begins to set up. The latter infuses the room with lavender. The former informs the latter that she can’t reach her apprentice. The former promotes the latter to Official Midwife’s Assistant.

11:00 P.M. Midwife tells Husband that the room is too cold for the baby, who will come soon.

11:01 P.M. Husband goes to build a fire. You go to the bathroom with Coyote-Woman-Friend. She grabs the kiddy chair and sits across from you. She meets your chant as you begin the next contraction. As your voices fuse in the candlelight, the pain focuses to a pinpoint, dissipates into sensations of beauty and power.

11:10 P.M. Husband comes into the bathroom, simply stands with you and Coyote-Woman-Friend. Somehow he knows the perfect spot on your neck to touch.

11:15 P.M. Midwife suggests you return to bed. You know it will get harder now.

11:17 P.M. Midwife says, “Between 8 and complete. Do you want to push?”

11:20 P.M. You say, “Pushing’s too hard.” You roll on your side and start chanting. Your older son wanders out of bed, settles in the room. Somehow you manage to say hi to him. He nods and smiles.

11:30 P.M. In the bathroom again, your top teeth on the skin of Husband’s shoulder. You fight instinct, relax your jaw, remember that you love him.

11:35 P.M. As you return to bed, you notice your one year old is now awake, stock-still, and watching. Your eyes lock with his and he, all-knowing, infuses you with calm.

11:50 P.M. They make you get ready to push.

February 27

Midnight: Midwife reminds you of the earlier plan to take the pushing slow, avoid tearing.

12:01 A.M. You suggest that you and Midwife revise the plan.

12:02 A.M. Midwife reminds you that you like sex, which you get to have sooner if you don’t tear.

12:09 A.M. Midwife says, “I”m ready now.” Coyote-Woman-Friend nods her head at you. Midwife says, “Push now through that ring of fire.”

12:10 A.M. Slippery, wriggly, and ruddy, your third son explodes from your body and is instantly on your chest. One-year-old screams “BABY!!!!” Husband wipes tears. Your eyes leave him, lock on Coyote-Woman-Friend.

12:30 A.M. Husband remembers to ask Coyote-Woman-Friend to take pictures.

1:30 A.M. Midwife leaves. Candles burn down. One-year-old is still hollering “BABY!!!” up and down the hall. Husband watches him and oldest son, who is not yet ready to sleep.

2:00 A.M. You are hungry. Coyote-Woman-Friend brings you warmed-up pizza and a glass of chardonnay. You eat cross-legged on the bed while she holds your new son. “I’ll sleep,” you tell her, “in an hour or two.” “The moon is almost full,” she says. In the quiet and the waning candlelight, you both watch him breathe.

1999

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