(Just a quick paragraph I wrote today from my novel-in-progress. Kind of like the images it conjures up for me.)
It was only a half day, the last day of school of my third grade year. We had early dismissal and as we ran out the doors into the early afternoon sunlight, a strong wind kicked up out of the west and blew thousands of helicopter seeds off of the gigantic maple tree that bordered State Street. They filled the early afternoon sky, some travelling hundreds of feet as they silently took flight, spinning and whirling, landing on the asphalt of the playground and the dark green and freshly mown grass of the neighboring lawns. And we all ran, all the kids from the old grade school, as if we were helicopter seeds, too, set free from the walls of the school by the warm June wind into the early summer air that was never before and would never again be as pure and clean as it was at that moment. It was the most perfect expression of pure freedom I’ve ever known, the helicopter seeds and we children, none of us caring about where we’d end up when we finally landed, just lost in release and flight, happy to go wherever the warm wind sent us.
The breath of the breeze on my face ,
a whisper through the trees,
its fingers on the water.
Pale blue sky with soft translucent clouds,
fading sunlight on the leaves.
Blue below and above
the thin blue line where water meets sky
for an arm wrestling match,
the unending versus the infinite,
while the breeze laughs, knowing it can easily
tip either’s arm.
Even the sun will set
and darkness will own the sky and sea for a while,
but the breeze, despite its soft caress, is stronger than them all,
stronger than day or night,
sky or sea,
rising or setting sun.
You can hear it laughing
as it moves, making leaves tremble,
imposing its will on the helpless sky and sea.
Yesterday was Father’s Day. My sister posted a photograph of our dad, 10 or 12 years old or so, on Facebook. My dad was born in 1926, so the photo had to be taken some time in the late thirties. I haven’t seen many photos of my dad as a child, and I hadn’t seen this one before.
In the photo he’s with his horse and dressed as a cowboy, complete with a hat, kerchief, and a holstered pistol on his belt. I remember him telling stories about his horse and the time and adventures they spent together. I recognize where he is standing, in the driveway to the old farm house he grew up in, with the Chippewa River flowing behind him. And when I look close I can recognize him, my dad, the same slight smile, a hint of sadness coupled with an unshakable and almost defiant confidence, and the same dark eyes through which he saw a world where wonder and humor always trumped grief and sorrow.
What I know about my father’s childhood is that it wasn’t easy. At some point, he was seriously ill. He was the only boy with three sisters, and his relationship with his father was complex and difficult, and he was the victim of physical and psychological abuse. He also saw his share of tragic and unexpected death close up, death by fire, by motor vehicle accidents, and by drowning.
But my Dad was strong. That’s what is remarkable and revealing about this photo. Despite the harshness of the reality he was exposed to at so young an age, he was strong and defiant enough to believe in cowboys and horses and adventure, and he was strong enough to emerge from all of this a good and happy and funny man. He was a great father to his children and a devoted husband to my mom. The photo shows the same strength and sensitivity that would define him as a man was always there inside him. It was what made him such a rare and special and unique human being, and it’s what I loved so much about him.