Posts Tagged ‘fathers’

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Bullets

November 11, 2014
PFC George Daborn

PFC George Daborn, 1941

Picture a dimly lit cellar,

an ancient wooden work bench,

hammers, hand saws, planes, and nails,

sawdust-coated mysteries.

.

Enter now a young boy,

silent, curious, alone,

the basement world of his father

draws him slowly in.

.

See the rusty cookie tin

far back on the bottom shelf,

a hidden place the small boy

had never before ventured.

.

Open, find the bullets there,

long and strangely heavy,

the brassy cartridge ending

in dull gray pointed tip.

.

Reach back even farther still,

the dwelling place of spiders;

touch metal — cold, smooth, sharp,

the bayonet pulled from the darkness.

.

Sit now on the living room floor,

plastic soldier battlefield

spread about in ordered rows,

attack in silent glory.

.

Ask the quiet man who’s there,

the unseen scars within,

Daddy, did you kill someone

when you were in the war?

.

Remember still his answer

frozen in that moment,

solemn, sudden, startling,

from someplace deep inside.

.

Sing a song of sixpence,

A shot glass full of rye.

Daddy came back from the war,

but memories don’t die.

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The Great Lawn War

October 25, 2014
eggplant george

George tending to his kingdom

My father came, they say, from a long line of gardeners reputedly once in the service of French royalty but later exiled to England for some unnamed transgression. Their craft was perpetuated through the generations that followed and then continued in America when a single branch of the Daborn clan ventured across the Atlantic to New Jersey. There James Daborn became a gardener to the rich folk in northern Bergen County. His second son, George, was my father. He saw to it that the tradition was upheld, for no king had grounds more tenderly cared for than that of our little brick house on New Bridge Road.

The lawn there was the site of my first explorations of the world, cautiously challenging the borders of my blanket to venture forth on the green expanse before me. It was the field of glory during many a summer’s day of make-believe and the hunting ground of lightning bugs in the sultry star-filled New Jersey nights. Most of all it was my father’s refuge, the place where he would retreat from all the hardships of his life, spending hours edging with the precision of a sculptor, stooping over the enemy weeds and prying them loose with an old screwdriver, standing with the hose patiently watering every last corner in the fading evening light. The sound of the mower and the smell of fresh-cut grass were a constant backdrop during my life at this house. Somewhere in the blur of those years gone by, the War began.

Next door to us lived the Talleksons. Astrid, a hearty Norwegian outdoorswoman, was the matriarch and absolute ruler of her domain. Her husband Teddy, a short white-haired man with emphysema, seemed to be relegated to watching over their frenetic dog, Trooltz. Since my father was half Swedish and therefore a fellow Scandanavian, one would have thought this to be an ideal situation, but that turned out to be far from the case.

Our property ended a good four feet before the edge of the Tallekson’s driveway, but the lawn extended beyond that imaginary line to their driveway cement, a natural border if ever there was one. This section of grass was logically an extension of our own lot, but it actually belonged to the Talleksons. Who, then, was to mow this strip of lawn? ”It’s just an extra couple of feet! Why not just mow it?” That was my mother’s sentiment (although she was not the one to mow the lawn).

Indeed my father had for years given that strip the same devoted nurturing that he had to the rest of our lawn. But for some reason, perhaps the result of an escalation in the already existing though undefined (at least to me) tension with the Talleksons because of some unneighborly incident (Trooltz had bitten my sister, after all), my father decided that he would no longer be responsible for what was, after all, not his to begin with. So when my father would mow, he would end at the official property line rather than the Tallekson’s driveway, leaving the final few feet uncut. It was as if there were a miniature green cliff marking the beginning of the Tallekson’s land, thus causing the imaginary line to become a real one, and the War was on.

Astrid Tallekson apparently decided upon the tactic of just letting the strip go, no doubt figuring that my father’s innermost gardener’s ethic would not allow any lawn, especially a piece so intimately connected with his own, to go untended. But he resisted, and the strip grew wildly. The grass cliff rose; the battle line had been unequivocally drawn.

Soon, either through the complaints of other neighbors, the intervention of the town fathers, or Astrid’s own considerable horticultural conscience, she did cut the contested space, but never in synch with my father’s mowing. Thus the dividing grass cliff continuously reversed, and the battle line remained.

Time did not wilt the resolve of my father. It did, however, take from him his strength. The beloved reel mower was replaced by a power one, the frequency of mowings grew less and less, and when the stroke stole from him the ability to care for his once impeccable kingdom, it was time for me to take over.

The intrusion of life’s daily obligations shaped the time I could spend driving up the Turnpike to my father’s house, but I went when I could. He would watch as I mowed, always in the precise methodical way that he approved of. The first time I got to the disputed border, I too left the small green cliff. I don’t know if he thought I would have, not knowing if it was something of significance to me. My father could no longer speak, but he did not have to. I saw in his eyes a mixture of pride and happiness. He knew that his War would be carried on.

It was. After my father could no longer leave the house, he saw it, smiling as he stood with his walker by the front door. And after he was gone, his line of demarkation stood.

It’s been years since my father died. I no longer mowed his lawn; a local outfit took care of that. Young guys — they did a nice job, my mother said. I hadn’t really bothered checking, but they probably mowed right up to the Tallekson’s driveway. Not that it mattered. She had since departed this life as well. But I do remember the last time I did mow my father’s lawn.

It was not out of obligation that I did this task (certainly not always the case), but rather with a sense of reverence, a final communion with my father. As I crossed back and forth, mowing the straight rows and then recrossing them in the manner that pleased him, I thought back to the time when this was no more that a bothersome chore. The lawn had never been in my charge when I was young, only occasionally pitching in as forced labor, usually manning the hated rake. Still, the family secrets of good lawn care were taught to me (use a reel mower, border cut first, lift and spin to catch the edges, always crosscut). I did pinch hit from time to time, though reluctantly. My father’s penchant for manicured lawns was not shared by me. There was a world out there waiting to be explored — no contest for mere grass.

But I was now grown, and that growth had brought change, slow and torturous, I’m afraid, for my father, who I think never really understood the resentment and rebellion that filled his son through so many years. I had now come full circle, longing to be and do what I once rejected, and I found myself with the lawn once again.

As I maneuvered down the Border creating the grass precipice for the last time, I felt my tears falling, falling on my father’s lawn, mixing with the clippings and the lawn moths that flitted up and settled back with my passing just as they had always done when as a child I watched my father mow. I hoped that somehow he knew that it would end this way. I hoped he knew his son would carry forth out of love and oversee his wish, the one wish that I knew of and that we had shared at his life’s end, and it was as though all his unfulfilled dreams and unconquered hardships were within my power to make right on this day. It seemed a fitting tribute, one worthy in its own small way to mark the last battle of the Great Lawn War.

When I was done, I stood on the front sidewalk and looked at the lawn, the soft evening sun glinting its approval.

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The Glory of the Innocent

January 6, 2013
crested terns, Captiva

crested terns, Captiva

Ever since I can remember, the most important people in my life liked birds. When I was a little boy, I recall watching as my grand-daddy put suet in a wire mesh feeder that hung by the holly bush in the back of his house to feed the birds in the winter. A cement bird bath sat along the back border of his garden where a wide variety of feathered friends would splash about during the summer. My father also had these same attractions in our own yard, and I found it to be both educational and entertaining to watch all of our visitors eating and bathing and chirping to the world for what seemed to be no other reason than for the pure joy of it. This turned out to be the beginnings of a lifelong relationship with the avian world.

Birds are for the most part beneficial; I know of no species that do us great harm (besides those in the Hitchcock movie) other than occasionally pooping on the odd car. Their colorful plumage has been exploited for fashion, their eggs and meat have nourished people of all cultures throughout history, their special skills have improved our lives from the vulture’s removal of carrion to the hummingbird’s pollination of flowers. We have kept budgies and parrots for pets, trained cormorants to fish, marveled at the incomparable virtuosity of the mockingbird, made poignant movies with penguins, and even used various raptors as symbols of the greatness of our nations. They populate every continent and have been an inextricable part of humankind’s existence for all of our time on this earth.

prehistoric-looking pelican

brown  pelican

I am not a fully committed extreme birdwatcher such as the ones in the delightful little movie The Big Year who travel hither and yon in search of as many species as possible (the record is 755 in a year). However, I do take great delight in sighting them wherever I happen to be. I have been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit, and in virtually every place I’ve been, there have been memorable birds, some of which I’ve been lucky enough to capture on film from the oddly shaped pelicans of the Atlantic coastline to the graceful egrets and herons of Florida to the feisty sandpipers of the beaches of the Eastern shores and the majestic eagles of Alaska.

white heron, Florida

Great Egret, Florida

At home, too, the birds have provided plentiful pleasure. When we first moved to our house, there was a swampy wooded area behind our backyard which became the home to a pair of mallard ducks. They would paddle about contentedly in search of food until the arrival of winter, and the next spring return again. My wife (who named them Mal and Honey) was quite happy to find out that they mated for life. They were our neighbors for years until, much to our dismay, construction of a new housing development began, and they left in search of a new residence.

mallard male

mallard male

We always put up a bird feeder during the winter months (my father always said they need to fend for themselves the rest of the year). For years it has hung from a tree limb in our backyard. We would spend many an hour watching for who would come, first the smaller ones, juncos and chickadees and nuthatches, then the bright red cardinals with their grayer mates, the blue jays, the mourning doves, and finally, our favorites, the woodpeckers, the colorful red-bellied and the smaller black checked downy.

red-bellied woodpecker sharing with a sparrow

red-bellied woodpecker sharing with a sparrow

In our front yard stands a patch of corn flowers that bloom yellow in the summer and draw myriad bees and butterflies. Each fall, however, when the flowers go to seed, the tiny yellow and black Goldfinches arrive to gorge upon this windfall of protein. They flit to and fro from the surrounding trees to the flowers, high-pitched cheeps accompanying them as they go. Observing them in this autumn feast has become a ritual in our household, and a strange sadness settles over us when the time comes for them to move on before the heart of the winter comes. These little fellows are part of the fabric of our existence in this house.

I’m not sure why I like birds so much. Perhaps part of it is the marvelous diversity of these creatures from the awkward to the beautiful, the tiny to the powerful, the gaudy to the simple — just like people, I suppose. I must admit that there are some I am not so fond of, the bullies of the species such as crows and blue jays. I tend to have a soft spot for the small and the vulnerable, the common brown sparrows and the timid chickadees. I think this too reflects my feelings about their human counterparts. I remember well the first time I read poet Anne Marie Macri’s poem “Glory,” how I was moved by these lines: “And what about the meek and lame? And the glory of the innocent? What about the thumb-sized heart-broken birds? The ones who die in their sleep, their long beaks warm from probing flower’s throats and answering the trumpets. Their emerald bellies heave. One last time they heave, having worked their whole lives to stay aloft.” And isn’t that true of so many of us, working our whole lives to stay aloft, fending off the dangers of the world and suffering the bullies amongst our own kind?

I think most of all I like birds because they make me think of my father. He could be a gruff and taciturn man, but his tender side revealed itself when I watched him tending to the birds, looking out for their welfare, protecting them when they may not have been able to do so themselves. I think of him when I look at his ancient copies of The Book of Birds, Volume 1 and 2, from the National Geographic Society, 1937, now on my book shelf. I look back at some of the pictures within — the one of the owl, talons sunk in the rabbit it caught that upset my sister so, the one of the last surviving Great Auk that looked both befuddled and lonely, the one of the Man-O’-War-Bird’s throat puffing out to court a mate — and I remember my fascination and awe of these creatures. I think of him when I can identify the song of a bird — he knew them all — and recognize one when I see it on our feeder. I know for a fact that he worked his whole life to stay aloft, and I believe he too had a soft spot for the vulnerable feathered creatures that are all around us but so often ignored. If I too can help preserve the glory of the innocent as he did, then I shall maintain this connection between us, and that brings peace to my heart.

sandpiper

sandpiper

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Watching My Father Die

October 25, 2012

From the kitchen I could hear the TV.

He sat before it for hours,

not watching.

The TV just passed the time.

He had no choice.

.

The shows paraded before him

in a fog of partial comprehension,

and he, unable to change the channel

even if he wanted to, sat,

waiting to die.

.

I too had sat alone before the TV,

paralyzed by my fear,

trapped by my anxiety.

The shows paraded before me,

but I comprehended all too well,

I, who had a choice.

.

So I went to his house

and busied myself with jobs

trying to fashion a farewell

that he’d understand.

I’d look in on him,

his eyes dazed

as the TV chattered on.

.

There was so much I wanted to tell him,

things held inside for years,

at first chased there

by the storms of my youth,

and later because

I knew no way

to let them out.

.

I didn’t know how to tell him

I loved him,

at least not in words.

Instead, I mowed the lawn,

I patched the porch cement,

and still I held it all inside

as I watched my father die.

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Gargoyle

August 5, 2012

I remember it clearly even from a time before I knew what it was called.  It awaited me at the bottom of the dimly lit stairs that led to the basement of my childhood home. From my earliest years I had to pass it as I made my way each day to play in the rumpus room that lay beyond it.

The gargoyle hung on the entrance to my father’s workshop, a simple dark pine door with a small iron latch. It was painted silver and clad in strange armor with wings spread in readiness, a menacing scowl on its face. Like a guardian of forbidden territory, it looked down on me from its place high on that door, the piercing eyes possessing a power not normal for inanimate things. I remember being both fascinated and scared by it, much the same as I was with my father.

Through the hanging bead curtain that separated the stairwell from the rumpus room, it must have glimpsed the events of our lives: the Christmas mornings of gift opening delight beneath the tree, birthday parties with screaming children playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, the surprise twenty-fifth anniversary party my sister and I had sprung. The gargoyle witnessed my personal changes through the progressing years as I operated my train set on the red and black linoleum tile floor and practiced my basketball dribble around the stationary adversary of the lolly pole and sought a private refuge for teenage romance with my girlfriend. And after I had left that house, it stood vigil during my parent’s remaining years. It was only when the house lost its loving occupants and was being cleared out for sale that I took it from its place.

Bringing it home along with my father’s old tool box and its assorted containers of old screws and nails or my mother’s sewing box filled with the buttons I’d played with as a boy was never in question, for these particular items seemed to be somehow imbued with the life spirit of my parents and the house in which I’d lived. What is this crazy animism that makes us hold onto this old stuff belonging to those who have left us?

The gargoyle is now hanging at the top edge of a tool pegboard — no longer a position of prominence like the one of my youth — but each time I pass it, I become a child again, its gaze appearing to follow me across the room.

I think of what will eventually become of this gargoyle. It has no meaning to anyone other than my sister and I.  Though I know that in the greater scheme of things this has little import, I trouble over this, with images of the forlorn creature sitting on a table at a garage sale, no more than a dusty oddity now. Perhaps it might be bought and once again have its place in someone’s house, staring down at a new timid child. More likely, though, just like the Velveteen Rabbit, it will end up in the trash heap, only with no hope of rescue, the destiny of old stuff.

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Medals

May 27, 2012

They were in his top dresser drawer

in the painted wooden box

where they had always been.

.

As a child, they were playthings,

the multicolored ribbons,

brass in the shape of stars and eagles,

.

exotic, though without real meaning,

stories of war more from comics

than from life.

.

When I emptied the house

of its artifacts and memories,

I sat with them  before me,

.

ribbons faded, brass tarnished,

longing to touch

what I no longer could.

.

I put them in a cardboard box,

carried them out,

closed the trunk.

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The Old Man in the Bed

October 25, 2011

The old man in the bed

made sounds

as he was about to begin

his journey.

The sound of his hammer

pounding

endless nails on the roofs

of New Jersey houses,

the sound of his hands

rustling

as he searched the closet shelf

for his hat each day before work,

the sound of coffee

percolating

in the old dented pot

early mornings on the stovetop,

the sound of the lawnmower

whirring

on the summer lawn he loved to tend

and the sprinkler

hissing

late into the firefly dusk;

then, finally,

the sound of silence

signaling

the journey had begun.