Sunday, January 4, 2009

Snuffed Out

Cities, from the air, are maps of silver and gold and copper, with an occasional sequence of red or blue or green. Strings and chains and rectangles and circles of glass. At any moment, these could be snuffed out. Oahu had that experience recently, losing its power. I wonder what that must look like from the air, for a city to suddenly go dark. To suddenly witness night closing in on a place.

My father, late in the evening, forgets to walk around his house and turn on lights. I am comforted by this, that I can watch the night approaching without having to switch on a lamp. Something primitive still lingers in this experience. Rather than snuffing out, it is a letting go, a relaxing into the arms of dark skies and crickets among the trees.

The sun slips to the level of the woods – long, red, yellow, black shadows, like a red-winged blackbird. An unidentified bird squawks loudly down by the pond. Fish break the surface. I don’t know the names of birds around here any more. Have been gone too long from Virginia.

In my family, not many generations have passed since electricity was first put into homes. I still have cousins who live in the Appalachians – raising chickens, pigs, and cows for their own use. My grandmother said they recently had a telephone installed for the first time. They haven’t had electricity for very long, either. I wonder what they would think about cell phones . . .

My grandmother is collecting glass, perhaps because she likes beautiful things, too. So many colors in her cabinets, mostly vases. I have given her a couple of pieces – Chinese medicine bottles from San Francisco, painted with flowers and birds and a Chinese sage. These pieces will be given away when she dies, much as her sister’s collection of glass and porcelain and pottery shoes have spread around the family.

This Christmas, we get to choose one of Francis’s shoes as a keepsake. The Fenton glass pieces, which I remember from when I was a child, have not been found yet. A little disappointed, but I choose a porcelain boot with flowers on the tongue. Laugh – a K-mart tag still intact on the bottom. Sentimental value only. K-mart is going out of business, at least in Phoenix, as are so many other stores this year. Strange what marks time.

The Sky Mall catalogue contains a selection of ornaments for a bride. Apparently, according to a German folk tradition, a newlywed woman should have twelve different ornaments to hang on her tree at Christmas. Each symbolizes some aspect she should have or cultivate in her new home. A rose, a fish, a basket of fruit, an angel, Santa Claus, a house . . . blown glass, an art in Germany.

My father and I went into several antique and gift shops in Farmville. Blown glass everywhere. In one of the gift shops, was particularly impressed with their collection. Glass tools–hammers, saws, screwdrivers. Glass witches riding broomsticks and stirring cauldrons. A menagerie of birds – robins, bluebirds, cardinals, doves. Didn’t have space to take any of these home. Wanted to buy all of the birds and make a tree of them.

I have in my collection of ornaments some vintage glass balls, from when my grandmother first married, and a number of other glass pieces collected over the years – icicle, bell with angel inside, heart with roses on its face, hummingbird . . . haven’t pulled them out and hung them in several years, but have decided to get an ornament tree and display them year round, rather than just at Christmas.

Over the years, my cats and other circumstances have crushed or broken ornaments occasionally. It is the risk one takes with having these fragile things around. Disappointing . . . sometimes saddening when there is a memory connected to a thing.

One of my glass balls disappeared a few years ago, knocked to the floor and broken by a rogue paw. A multi-colored star painted on its surface, each point a different color. I still miss it, the light it projected on a tree. It connects me to a friend of mine, who lives several states away. A gift from her.

My mother is more afraid than she will admit this Christmas. She is giving away her possessions as gifts and making her will. She hands me a copy but tells me not to look at it until she dies. She gives me a tree of life pendant from Peru. Later, she confesses that all the women she worked with years ago have had cancer in some form or are dying of it now. One woman had breast cancer but has survived. Another has cancer in her brain and will not live.

They all worked in a medical supply unit at a hospital together. She wonders if they have been exposed to some chemical or metal and it is only a matter of time . . . she will be going to have a colonoscopy this coming week. Blood in her stools. Hemorrhoids? Cancer? Will soon know the answer.

Vulnerability. A child standing on the side of a narrow country road. He is hunting with his father or some other family member. The man remains in the truck, but the child stands there leaning the palm of his right hand on the barrels of two shotguns. Why is the adult allowing the child to do this? If the safety on the guns is tripped by accident, his head and arm will be blown off. Snuffed out in a matter of seconds.

Along these back roads, timber companies have come in and stripped hardwoods from people’s properties. Landowners sell trees for cash. Snuffing out what little woods are left. Huge gaping wounds in the middle of wooded lots. The timber companies don’t bother to clean up their messes. They take the wood and leave. Supposedly, they must plant pine seedlings to reinvest in the land, but what about the hardwoods? Lots of stumps and trashed brush, a pocked landscape.

The deer have nowhere to go when this happens, so hunters, even though they know it is illegal, stand on roadsides and roust deer out into the open, so they can take pot shots. My father had to chase a few of them off his land. Once a group of them went after a herd of sixteen does on my father’s property. He stopped the hunters by walking downhill toward them with a gun in his hand.

He says they are crazy. Says they will do anything to shoot a deer. A limit of two per season, but most of them go over that, he thinks. Says he couldn’t ever shoot an animal like they do. But he has a gun . . . what does he plan on doing with it?

My father also hates the timber trucks, rumbling up and down these roads at breakneck speeds; one of them hit his border collie Teddy. The dog disappeared for several days; finally showed back up at the house, limping. His back legs will never be the same, but he still runs. Bows his head when he comes up to you and lets you pet him on the head and ears. Graceful, despite what happened. And he still stands at the fence trying to herd the horses. It’s in the blood of these animals, a fierce will to survive and to do what they were born to do.

I sit in the almost dark and listen to cows mooing in the field. They do not approach the fence when I stand their taking pictures of them on my cell phone. A big chocolate animal; the others are spotted brown and white.

Intelligent. Will fight if they need to, but right now just cautious. Animals, like humans, have an emotional life. I wonder if they fear death in the way humans do. Or do they not think about it, like that child who both desires to kill and is one step away from death himself? Or do they look it in the eye and welcome it and say yes, it is time?

1 comment:

Patricia said...

Brook, your writing of home in Virginia is beautiful and heart-breaking. Have you thought of writing a longer piece about your visit..?