A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

You Gave Me Words

You gave me words. You spoke them with the soft, refined vowels and inaudible r’s of Kent, near the English channel.  Up, no, more, eat, drink, sleep.  Baby.  You read aloud Beatrix Potter to the three-year-old at your side to prevent her from being jealous of her new sister.  She wanted to hear Mrs. Tiggywinkle.  Again.  Again. Again. The words flowed over me.  Pinafore, plaited, hedgehog, starch, stout, damask, goffered. 
You lose words, now.  Over the phone, your words wobble and falter.  This place where I am… your place, where you live… Four thousand miles away, I gently find the words you once gave me.  I pass them back to you.  Massachusetts.  Alaska.
You gave me whole sentences.  When I left your side to enter school, my sentences were so much yours that I spoke them in your voice, a little British child in New York.  I can already read.  I read my books in the rotunda while the other kindergartners are learning phonics.  I shed the accent, but I still sat in the rotunda with my books, my words, my sentences.
Now, your sentences sometimes turn on themselves and unravel.  Their endings become unwound from their beginnings.  The edges fray.   It’s like… that author, you know, but nobody reads him the way they used to, I suppose he did go on a bit, paid by the word, but such brilliant characters…  I rebuild sentences for you.  Oh, yes – you always loved Mr. McCawber, Mrs. Malaprop, Mr. Fezziwig.  I rewind the yarn of your thoughts until you catch up the needles again, and find your pattern.  And what about Miss Havisham, forever in her wedding dress?  Two plain, one purl. 
You gave me stories.  I loved the impossible ones: Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Black Riders.  I loved the might-have-been-real stories, too: The Picts and the Martyrs, The Hill War, The Railway Children.  You took me to the library.  Again.  Again.  You spent so much time at the library with your children that the library offered you a job.  You worked at that library for thirty years. You were never a librarian.  You’d never even gone to college.  Everyone thought you had.  You had so many words.
Over the phone, I offer you your stories back.  Remember the Amazon pirates in their red caps?  Faraway Moses?  Wild, Fiona, stalking the Scottish highlands in a beautiful, righteous snit with her brother Ninian?  Roger sliding downhill in his knickerbockers?  I’ve passed these stories on to your grandchildren, I tell you. The hard-bound editions, dark-green covers discolored by time, are stacked in Molly’s bunk.  Lizzy will use anything as a bookmark.  I hear the smile in your voice.    Nesbit’s time-traveling children have survived the test of time.  The harbour lights are shining on Wildcat Island.
You gave me your own true tales, the wispy-distant ones you could barely remember even before the sands began to shift.  You hid under the table, listening to the doodle-bombs overhead.  If the engine of the unmanned planes cut out, it meant they’d run out of fuel.  If the engines died, the bombs would fall.  They fell somewhere.  Not on you, though – not on you. There were ration cards and victory gardens.  The beaches were covered with barbed wire.   There were no oranges. 
I pass your childhood back to you, and you reweave it with me, joyfully.  You picked berries and rosehips in the hedgerows.  When you were naughty, you threw partially dried cow pies. You do not question the paradox, the intrinsic anachronism of my recalling a time a quarter century before myself.  Your big brother John and his friends collected fascinating bits of broken planes from the hills.  John is gone now.  John let you play too, even though you were little. Your daddy had a job that was secret, but special.  He was allowed a petrol ration.  Later, you learned that he helped develop radar.  His name was James.  He was quiet and gentle, brilliant and kind.  He died when you were still a teenager.  I never met him, but you gave him to me.  I give him back.  James.  Daddy.
You gave me the stories you wrote yourself, as an earnest nine-year-old sitting down with pen and ink and a blank notebook.  Margaret wrote stories, too.  She lived just down the road. The four volumes are perfect in their utterly precocious imperfections. You penned highly derivative British boarding school books -- fan-fiction for a genre that was already a parody of itself, from fifty years before Harry Potter.  Angela did the illustrations for both of you. 
When your granddaughters reached the age you were when you began your first ambitious opus, I read aloud all four of the volumes you produced before puberty.  Angela grew up to be a real artist.  I cannot draw nearly as well as your friend could when she was not yet ten.  You named your fictional boarding school Saint Margaret’s.  I tell you about Lizzy’s writing.  I tell you that she asks me, anxiously, if her highly derivative cat-warrior fan-fiction is as good as your books.  Your young heroines discovered a Nazi hideout in a cave.  Lizzy’s fearless cats find and raise an orphaned puppy, and win a war against a rival clan.
You gave me your adventures, from that mysterious grown-up-but-before-I-was-born time.  They were rich and improbable, historical, other-worldly.  All those A-level exams, but you saw no point in University.  You didn’t want to be a spinster teacher or a spinster nurse.  You learned to touch-type more than sixty words a minute.  On a manual typewriter.  You were fluent in French.  You worked in Switzerland.  You joined the Foreign Service as a secretary, but before long you were in Cambodia transporting secret mail bags and translating codes. Sihanouk was in power.  The Vietnam War was raging. The Khmer Rouge were rising.  Your embassy was sacked.  Almost everyone fled.  You stayed.  And after that, after three years of that, you were immediately posted to Turkey.
No, you tell me, they didn’t send me right away.  I had a bit of time in London.  A few months.  A summer.  I helped with… that tunnel.  You know.  The Channel Tunnel?  The tunnel to France?  But that wasn’t built until years later, I don’t think?  Wouldn’t this have been the mid-sixties?  Yes, yes the tunnel… there were just two chaps, and me.  They were working on getting that agreed, all worked out.  I carried all sorts of papers back and forth for them, to the French, at their, their… the French Embassy, in London?  Yes, the French. 
I Google it later.  The Chunnel didn’t open until 1994, but England and France officially agreed to build the tunnel in 1964, and carried out the initial extensive geological survey.  It was faster than the post, so I offered to carry the papers.  We got it all worked out about the tunnel.  The Channel Tunnel.  I never knew.  You still have stories to give me.  I will tuck that one away and give it back to you, too – next week, next year, whenever you need it.
You gave me my own details, the ones I was too little to remember.  You had an argument on the way to the hospital about what you were going to name the boy you were sure you were going to have.  You would have gotten your way.  I would have been James.  Like your father.  The engineer I never knew.  He was a lot like me.
The details snarl and snag, so I untangle them for you.  Remember the trip we took in the Rocky Mountains?  I was three months old. I had no words then.  But you granted them to me later, more vibrant than all the dusty carousels of slides.   A tour bus pulled in right next to your Volkswagen Beetle and its occupants stared down as you tried to nurse me discreetly. In 1972, breast-feeding was not in vogue.  I was eighteen months old when you took me in for testing on my blind eye, to see if anything could be done to repair it.  I had to be lightly anesthetized, and I developed acute separation anxiety for a while afterward.  You’re sorry, you say.  The eye was useless anyhow.  I got over it, I tell you. 
But, you say, your voice a four-thousand-mile, forty-seven-year echo, you still worry.  You still worry about my having only the one eye.  You always have.  I remember.  We remember. We remember that you always worried.
I’ve done just fine without that eye, I tell you.  Pretty well, in fact.  I laugh.
Yes, you say, laughing with me, winding forward, fast-forward across the blurring calendar of years, I guess you have done pretty well. 
Your voice still sounds like Kent.  Like the English Channel. 
You give me words: I love you.
I give them back: I love you, too, Mum.