Tag Archives: memoir

All those scares of the past

My mother was always one to get wound-up in a crisis. After all, she had lived through the Hurricane of 1938, and that was her reference point. She was 18 when the storm took most of Misquamicut, about a mile from the Crandall Farm, and she never forgot its devastation. The briefest flash of lightning could send her into a tizzy.

By the time Hurricane Belle arrived in 1976, when I was 16, my mother had worked me into a frenzy with her stories about the disaster of 1938. Even then I had a flair for the dramatic:

Today is August ninth, my mind reeled off, the seventh anniversary of the Sharon Tate killings – there’ll be a full moon – … and now this, the steady drone of the television coming upstairs, the meteorologist’s voice warning us of Hurricane Belle’s rapid, threatening progress towards the East Coast. Belle! Once a tempest in the lush tropics, now a swirling mass of wind and rain and vengeance driving toward us. I forced my eyes open and stared at the peeling off-white ceiling. So this was why I was so superstitious about today!

I reeled off all the stories I had heard from my parents about the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954. I thought the name was fitting because of my Great-Aunt Belle, a blowzy blonde woman from California who had been dead for years but about whom I had imagined all sorts of dramatic story lines. In my journal I wrote all that August day and into the night, trying to capture the significance of the storm:

The wind began to pick up around nine-thirty. I went outside to stand on the porch and feel the wind rippling against me. In the swirling blue-black darkness the trees, their branches black-tattered fringe, were bent and tossed and shaken by the surging blasts. The wind against me was oddly oppressive. Then, looking up between the parting dusky blue clouds I discerned the glow of a muted silver moon, full and swollen, drifting strangely in and out of focus, and in and out of the clouds. I was mesmerized. I ran upstairs and shed my shorts and tank top in favor of my light green classic Grecian nightgown, and ran back outside into the wind and black of night, staring up at the moon as my hair was whipped about and my gown blown against my legs. I felt like a goddess: Diana, of the moon and the hunt.

I don’t know where my parents were while all I was running around outside in my nightgown, but I can bet they were in bed asleep. I don’t know what is funnier: the turgid romance-novel prose, or the detour into a very specific wardrobe description that could have come from the pages of Glamour magazine. Not for nothing did I volunteer to write the commentary at all of our high school fashion shows.

To my disappointment, the storm left little in its wake but one felled oak tree and a lot of mud puddles. Like the power outages of 1965 and 1977, Hurricane Belle was a fleeting disaster that got my mother – and me – all worked up for what turned out to be temporary inconvenience.

My mother was equally afraid of contagion. If she were alive today, she would be apoplectic. How many times did she tell us about her uncle, Daniel Arnold, who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, leaving behind a pregnant widow and 8 children? This before Social Security existed as a safety net. Arnold’s children ranged in age from 17 to four months, and his daughter Virginia was born the April after his death.

I grew up in the shadow of all these old tragedies and disasters. The message was that ill fortune could strike at any time. If we poo-pooed my mother’s hysteria, she would tell us cryptically that we didn’t know anything about it.

Of course, we would grow up to witness 21st-century threats, like the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, and now the coronavirus epidemic. And I’m sure I’ve passed on my own obsessions to my children. It is no coincidence that my eldest is getting a master’s degree in emergency preparedness.

Maybe, like DNA, we pass on our fears to protect our children. We try to inoculate them against the threats of our childhood. But the nature of disaster, like the virus we’re hiding from right now, keeps mutating. So we remain vigilant, and we can never really tell if our fears are warranted or not.

The “light green classic Grecian nightgown”

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60 years of connections

Last night, this old house rang with laughter, story-telling, and not a few choked-up speeches. For my 60th birthday, at my request, my husband invited friends and family from every decade of my life to celebrate. And what a celebration it was.

Since we moved back into my childhood home, we’ve had a few parties. My parents were not party-giving people – the most they could muster would be cake and coffee with my grandmother, and she would bring the birthday cake. But my engagement with all these people – friends and family – must have come from somewhere. But where?

Certainly not from my mother, who was always delighted when her far-flung siblings came to call, but was otherwise introverted – her only friend was my father. (When I was in junior high I overheard her say to him, “She has so many friends,” derisively, as if it were a character  flaw.) Certainly not from my sister Andi, who could be similarly awkward in a crowd. That left my father, and suddenly it all made sense.

Many a winter night a knock would come upon the door, and there would be one of his friends – an old-timer like Herman Whitford or Wallace Burdick, or a new pal like the builder John Gaccione of Westerly. They came after supper for a cup of coffee and a leisurely hour at our formica table in the kitchen, hashing over everything from the price of two-by-fours to the proper way to dig a well. Sometimes I eavesdropped (particularly when Gaccione brought his teenage son, who was hotter than a kerosene stove but literally never said one word), but mostly we women folks stayed in the living room and watched TV.

My father always had people around him. His business, sawing lumber, brought a steady stream of customers – friends and strangers – to our backyard. He befriended men and women alike, from the old Swamp Yankee Ben James of Woodville, a potato farmer with a hooked nose and a big heart, to the colorful Marguerite Kamp, a bleached blonde in bluejeans who brought us homemade butter and bacon.

He was particularly close to the former Police Chief Dudley Wheeler of Stonington, and in the 1970s they would travel regularly to Vermont to visit their mutual friend, Frank Clark, who owned a sweeping farm in the hills of Peacham. There, under the guise of helping Frank run his sawmill, my father had a ready getaway from the cares of home life. The real attraction was not Frank’s mill, which had its charms, but the hours they spent around the woodstove trading stories or out and about in the Vermont hills, visiting old timers like Ben Berwick.

The friends who gathered with us last night entered my life in different ways, but they have enriched it just as my father’s circle enriched his. The oldest friend was Karen, whom I met on the first day we moved into this house in 1965, when she strode up the lane that connected our houses to see what was going on and found me sitting on the stone wall with a bowl of canned pears. Although she and neighbor Deb were three years older than I, they immediately took me under their wing and what followed was years of playing Barbie dolls, Yahtzee and Monopoly. When she walked through the door last night, all those years slipped away, and I felt that stab of connection that comes between people who have shared a childhood.

Then there was Andrea, whom I met in ninth grade. I was immediately drawn to her wit, intelligence, and high spirits. Although we drifted apart, five years ago we reconnected, and the renewed friendship has been a blessing for both of us. When she read a poem in my honor, I cried.

Not far after that came Cheryl, another high school friend, but one four years younger. When I went away to college, Cheryl wrote to me every week, with care and concern way beyond her years. Since our days of listening to Dire Straits in her bedroom and sunbathing at Scarborough, she has never wavered in her wisdom, caring and loyalty. 

Like my father, I met some friends through work. Laura spoke movingly of the years we had spent at two newspapers, working full time and raising our families, our “lives intertwined,” as she put it. Long after we left the newspaper world, our friendship continued to blossom, and we have laughed and cried together on many an occasion. Kristen worked by my side for years, but in the post-newspaper world we have found a renewed bond in our college teaching. She understands things no one could who has not faced down 20 college students on a regular basis, and her sharp humor puts it all into perspective. Arline, an admired colleague for years, has grown into a dear friend with whom I share an oddly similar childhood and a taste in reading. When we get together, the talk is nonstop.

Marc is another friend who has listened to my travails through thick and thin, and with him I have served on a historical board and started an authors series that lasted 10 years. But mostly Marc is a generous and intelligent companion who always has something interesting to say. Through him I have gotten to know Joanne, with her sly wit and deep caring for her fellow man. 

Then there was treasured family. The oldest, my uncle Tene, will turn 98 in a few days. He looks 20 years younger and with his son, my cousin Frank, held lively and engaging conversations. My sister-in-law Jane said we are “sister friends,” and nothing could be truer. My brothers-in-law David, Paul, and Jack were on hand, the brothers I never had. 

My three children attended, of course, along with my daughter-in-law Cassie and my daughter’s boyfriend, Ryan, and their tributes also made me cry. Colby reflected on the time a local reporter had pegged me as “the town historian,” and I was furious. Why? He wondered. Because, he concluded after much reflection, I was so much more than that, and the label was reductive. (How insightful of him, and how characteristic of him to be that insightful.) Mary said that everyone always asks her if she’s my daughter, and, bless her, she does not resent that in the least. Perry remembered my efforts to keep in touch with him when he was at Keene State, even writing him letters. 

And how can one not love a daughter-in-law who calls you an “intelligent, caring, down-to-earth, easy-to-talk-to, bad-ass mother-in-law”? And a future-son-in-law-we-hope who is your new go-to always-win trivia partner?

Last but not least was my best friend, the hub around which my world spins, my husband Tim, who had put together this party, and who makes every day into an occasion. When he spoke of how we can have fun just driving around on the weekend, he captured the essence of our life together.

Some good friends live too far away for a party like this, or could not make it because of other commitments, but I still feel their love from afar.

What do these people have in common? What makes a friend? Who was my father drawn to, and what people engage me? I could only say, looking around at the beaming faces in our dining room, that all of these people are open, not closed. By that I mean they come to me as friends and family in a spirit of openness and truth. They are all creative in one way or another, and creativity and openness cannot be separated. They are not posers. They are not trying to one-up me, or hide their vulnerabilities, or retreat when I try to connect. They are not jealous, or petty, or back-stabbing. I try to live up to that. It is an honor when someone shares their inner world with you, and that cannot be taken lightly. But for those who would make the effort to reach out, to be open, the rewards are deep. I felt the rewards of these connections last night, and it made 60 seem like an age to be celebrated, not a number to be dreaded.

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The witness tree

 

The Christmas tree came to us the year there was no Christmas – at least, not a Christmas anyone remembered. This fir was supposed to be high-end, and I suppose for the 1960s it was: a conical shape, like a balsam or a spruce, with lush up-curving branches. Artificial, of course, but a step above the typical tinsel-strewn or aluminum tree that resembled a retractable clothesline. It came from Grants.

For 11 months of the year that fake evergreen lived in a cardboard box in the spare room. In early December my father would haul it and the boxes of ornaments downstairs, and for hours my sister Andi and I would puzzle out how to put it together. Each wire branch was color-coded, red, yellow, blue, according to how it fit into the green wooden pole that made up its trunk. 

My mother mostly sat by and watched, and my father retreated to his sawmill in the backyard. They had grown up with real but scraggly trees that would be adorned with a few presents: an orange, hand-knit stockings, a metal toy.

After getting pricked by the spiky metal branches and removing and replacing those that seemed out of place, we would pronounce ourselves satisfied and hang the ornaments. They were glittery Shiny Brites, green and red bells, and faded balls, most from Woolworth’s. We had one strand of garland that did not quite reach to the fir’s wide bottom, and some colored lights. The bare pole could be camouflaged by bendable wire greenery; a piece of white felt was then bunched around the base to approximate snow.

My parents would never have bought themselves an artificial tree, least of all one this elaborate. It arrived in the fall of 1967 with my older sister, one of the remnants of her brief disastrous marriage. Mary Jane came home with that tree and a few wrapped presents to put under it, though that had never been our custom. My mother always waited until Christmas morning to bring out the gifts.

I don’t remember anything about that Christmas. I can’t recall one item pulled from our stockings, a set of three embroidered by my Aunt Leona, mine with my name misspelled, perhaps because she had run out of room: Mary Jane, Andrea, Betty Jean. Not one gift tag scrawled “from Santa” in my mother’s cursive. Not one pair of socks, Barbie doll, or Milton Bradley game.

I remember Christmases before and after; I can even conjure memories of the days before that holiday and days after. But Christmas itself has been vacuumed into a black hole from which it can never be retrieved. Each time I try to recall it, I know my generalities are mere inventions, the mind taking snippets from Christmases before and after and trying to knit them into a new memory of what must have happened the year I was 7. 

Of course, we had Christmas the year Mary Jane died, though 11 days before she had walked out into the night to meet two men in the Chevy Corvair that would send her to her death.

Everything went on as before. The presents she had left beneath the tree – a blue or black pocketbook for my mother is all I recall – must have been opened. Someone filled two stockings instead of three, wrote Santa’s name dutifully on the gift tags, boxed and taped and wrapped our gifts. For me, especially, they must have made an effort. For what does a child know of grief when Santa has pulled up in his sleigh and dropped off boxes swathed in red and green paper?

Yet, the memory of the day has been wiped clean. A sensitive child, I could not have been immune to the struggles of my mother, my father, and my sister Andi that Christmas morning. And so something in my mind flipped a switch and opened the black hole, extracting that day forever from the clutches of memory. Even a child knows what it can’t handle.

Each year after Mary Jane’s death, we continued to unbox the artificial tree and assemble its metal branches. It stood in the same corner of the living room, a talisman of continuity against the gaudy floral drapes and flesh-colored walls. No one suggested getting rid of it, or returning to my father’s practice of cutting down the spindliest scrub pine he could find. Like everything else in our old farmhouse, from hand-me-down furniture to faded rugs, once that tree arrived, it was assured of living out its days with us.

When my mother died, the tree was still upstairs in its over-sized box, a jumble of spiky green metal branches, though my mother had long ago stopped using it. As we cleaned out the house, I might have picked up one or two of its curving arms. Perhaps I daydreamed for a moment about that first step of laying them out on the floor, painted tip to painted tip. I might have flashed back to all those Christmases it had served us, long after its original owner had vanished into the cold December air.

But one Christmas would remain elusive, a TV screen gone black. I lifted up the box. In the triage of sentimental objects, this one was too big, too sharp, too overwhelming to stay.

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Beat on loudly, heart

I’ve had many echocardiograms over the years. When you have what one doctor described as “the second loudest heart murmur” he’s ever heard, you’re going to get some attention.

The first test was in 1978, before I was due for wisdom teeth extraction. The doctors were so nervous about my heart murmur that they put me in the hospital over night and gave me general anesthesia.

Back then the technology was so primitive I couldn’t make out what the technician was looking at. All I saw on the monitor were a lot of scraggly black and gray lines, like a half-erased chalkboard.

But just as whiteboards (and smartboards) have replaced slate, so too has the echocardiogram blossomed into full-color doppler splendor. 

Thus it was that the other day I decided to watch my echocardiogram in progress. And lo and behold, I could really see my heart.

There was the mitral valve, open and closing like a little gate. It didn’t look floppy to me, or seem to be letting much blood back into the chamber. In fact, it looked tight as a drum. Beat, it opened, letting out a rush of blood like so much cattle heading to a field. Beat, it closed, letting nothing back in.

And so the mystery of my loud heart murmur remains a mystery. My cardiologist said, as he does every time I have this test, that I’m fine. Despite the loud murmur, there’s little evidence of regurgitation.

“You always were loud,” was my husband’s only comment.

Watching that computer monitor, I pondered what an odd thing the heart is. We never see it or touch it; we can’t hold it in our hand or even feel it beneath our skin, beyond the flutter of its beating. It never rests. Whether we are sleeping or eating or briskly walking, it continues its work behind a wall of ribs, indefatigable, steadfast.

Unique among our organs, the heart has been endowed with meaning. It, not the brain, is supposed to be where our emotions lie. Politicians try to win both “hearts and minds.” Our heart is “broken” when we lose a loved one; if a person lacks enthusiasm, we say, “His heart wasn’t in it.” We get to the “heart of the matter” in boardrooms and “heart” someone in our Facebook feed.

Meanwhile, our heart keeps on beating, oblivious to the symbolic weight we’ve placed upon it. Speaking of which, our “hearts grow heavy” in times of tragedy or sadness, while we are “light-hearted” when we feel happy or playful.

The writer Gail Godwin wrote an entire book meditating on the heart in literature, religion, philosophy and history, all while grieving for her half-brother. Curiously, the idea for the book came from someone else, and she resisted it at first; but once started on the subject, she – really put her heart into it, you might say.

Since watching my heart in action, I’ve felt a new awe for the work it does every day. Despite being taken for granted, and blamed for both grief and joy, it has never faltered, and it actually does a fine job, despite the murmuring sound.

So what am I to make of that noise? Medically misleading and benign, maybe that loud murmur is just a quirk of the self, no different than my off-key singing or thunderous sneezes or riotous laughter. Maybe, as the man said, I am just loud.

 

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Other days, other lives

 

My parents were married 72 years ago, on July 12, 1947. All that survives of that day are a few black and white snapshots – my mother standing awkwardly in her ill-fitting wool suit (I know it was blue only because she told me so); a blurry photo of the couple cutting the wedding cake, in the dining room of her father’s farm; a snapshot of them together. I cannot look at these without thinking: 

Weren’t they roasting? I know she bought the suit out of practicality, so she could wear it later, but … wool in July? (The high temperature that day was 79 degrees, according to the weather station at Quonset Point.)

Is it true my father hated the floral hat she wears? And if so, why does it turn up in her honeymoon pictures?

What happened on July 13? and July 14? and the next day, and the next?

I know they honeymooned in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a journey they took in my father’s new truck. (The high the next day was 84 degrees.) A few photos of this occasion survive, too: My mother in front of a tourist cabin; my father in front of the same cabin; his truck parked beneath a majestic sweep of mountain. When we were young, my sisters and I loved to point out the primacy of that big logging truck of which he was so enamored.

Their tourist cabin was typical of the time period. It had a front porch with a few simple pillars and an apron wall. I have scrutinized postcards of the time period but cannot place it. The cabin is so like, yet not like, all the postcards I found: The Green Granite Cabins of North Conway, the Chester Lodge and Cabins in Jefferson, Rowin’s Cabins and Guest House in Franconia. It could be any of these, but in each one some detail is off or the picture too obscured for a positive identification.

I don’t know how long they stayed, but I’m guessing only a few days. Whenever they journeyed north, even for their 30th anniversary, they only stayed a day or two. The times I accompanied them on these trips were interminable – long stretches of highway, my father making time, and me growing bored and antsy in the back seat.

The truth is my parents’ wedding and honeymoon belonged to them, and them only, and anything that can be known about that time faded away with their deaths. I can admire my mother’s traveling outfit, a white blouse and jaunty Mexican skirt; I can take a magnifying glass to my father’s face, searching out the inscrutable expression beneath his gangster-like fedora. But I can never know what they knew, or feel what they felt.

This, of course, is why we write. Not to tell about the days well remembered – the anniversaries, for example, or the births or holidays – but the ones that came afterward. To answer the questions: What happened then? What happened after that? How did it all turn out? 

And for that task our imaginations are all we have.

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A return to leisure

 

This time of year leaves me in a quandary. On the one hand, I’m delighted by the end-of-semester freedom: Even if my summer break will be interrupted by two classes beginning June 24, for now I revel in the luxury of no material to prep, no reading to do, no papers to grade.

On the other hand, I miss the routine college teaching imposes. No matter what, during the school year I know I will be in class at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example, and that afterwards I will hold office hours until noon, returning home to prep for the next day’s obligations.

It is not as though I have nothing to do. Indeed, I usually obligate myself plenty on my time off: Writing theater reviews, op-eds, book reviews, and fiction; editing work for hire; and, this year, the continuing opus of an institutional history I’m writing for a local hospital. Yet somehow, it is both not enough and too much.

My husband says the words “I wish I had accomplished more” will be on my tombstone, for that’s usually what I tell him when he asks how my day went. Today, for instance, I conducted an interview for the hospital history, finished editing notes for a client, and wrote 1,000 words on my novel-in-progress. Yet here I am, a rodent on a wheel, working on a blog – because always there’s the sense that more needs to be written.

It’s not guilt exactly that moves me. Sure, some might sneer at my cushy schedule – working nine months out of the year, four to six hours a day, etc. I make no apologies for that. Adjunct professors make poverty wages, and when I left journalism – hardly a lucrative profession – I took a steep pay cut. I traded money for time, and it was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

When I think back on my years as a newspaper editor, I miss the people I worked with, but little else. The deadlines were punishing, the schedule unforgiving. Sometimes I spent 10 or 11 hours a day at a desk, editing and writing. My health had begun to suffer. I developed ocular migraines, a lightshow my brain would put on when I’d spent too much time staring at a computer monitor. That’s no way to live.

Yes, I wanted that bromide, “quality of life.” I wanted to walk more, to spend more time with my husband and (grown) children, read more books.

My old Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines leisure as “Freedom afforded by exemption from occupation or business” or “time free from engagement.” I am often engaged – indeed, I would want to be – but my occupation or business is my own time, and I am in charge of how it is spent. At least, that’s the theory.

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts,” Thoreau wrote in Walden. “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.” Thoreau built a cabin in the woods and lived there, “deliberately,” for two years, two months, and two days. My cabin is metaphorical, and still under construction.

The root of leisure is from the Old French, leisir, “permission,” from the Latin licere, “to be permitted.” We need permission to enjoy the freedom of leisure, either from an employer (the standard two-week vacation) or our minds (which must let go to enjoy that time, whether it’s two weeks or two months or two years). Perhaps I have only traded one form of servitude – the 40-hour work week – for another – my Puritan work ethic.

As children we understood leisure well. Freed from the strictures of school, we knew summer was meant for fun, not accomplishments. All too soon the back-to-school ads would appear, the buses begin to run.

When I was 9 or 10 or 11, July and August days seemed to unfold endlessly. My friend Debbie and I would stave off boredom with games of Yahtzee and Parcheesi, and then walk to the center of a our sleepy village for a Pepsi and a bag of penny candy.

If I dared utter that forbidden word – “bored” – my mother would declare in her haughtiest voice, “I wasn’t put on this earth to entertain you.”

So we learned to keep ourselves occupied. No one, least of all ourselves, expected us to be productive. There were no summer reading lists back then, no playground programs. We were our own camp counselors. This limitless freedom did not make me anxious – on the contrary: It was the return to school that gripped me in anxiety.

It seems I have forgotten what summer is for. I want the pages of writing to pile up, the to-do tasks crossed out. I want to justify my idleness.

Surely there is room for puttering too – watering the garden and folding laundry and picking wildflowers. This afternoon, when nothing urgent beckons, perhaps I can lose myself for a while in doing nothing much. The cat sleeps in her red chair. Oak leaves stir lazily in the breeze. I sit here in a sudden drowse, forgetting what I’d intended to do next.

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My father, the douser, the diviner

 

My father was a douser. He could cut a V-shaped stick of willow or cherry, grasp each end in his hands, and walk the land until he found water.

He had a calling. “Electricity in the veins,” as he said. To prove it, he would stand over the septic tank and that stick would point straight down, while the muscles in his arms popped from the strain of holding it steady.

People knew this and sought him out. Old Ben James, who was more Swamp Yankee than my father, had him walk his potato farm in Wood River Junction. Others asked him to work his magic before they called the well driller.

Our own well went dry off and on after we bought the house in Shannock in 1965. That year, and the year after, one of the worst droughts in the state’s history choked off the springs that kept our dug well full. In the winter we melted snow to wash hair. In the summer we collected water in a rain barrel.

Finally, in 1971, the task could no longer be postponed. My father called the well driller. He must have walked the yard first, but I don’t recall it. I was 11 years old that fall and reading the “Little House” books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which didn’t seem all that far from how we were living.

All of this has been on my mind because last week they tore down the corn crib. It was about ready to fall down, anyway, and we had salvaged what tools we could – the potato digger, the post-hole digger, spades and rakes and hoes, a cross-cut saw.

With the contractor’s attention turned elsewhere, the roof lay flattened atop the floorboards. I picked up a rusty metal rake and began poring over the contents. Most of what littered the floor was empty walnut shells left by squirrels, but a few artifacts remained: A brake light. A commercial license plate. A Nehi soda bottle.

Then I saw it. Stretching, I was able to hook the metal tines around one end and pull it forward.

My father’s dousing stick.

How easy it would have been to mistake this for a piece of brush. I held it to my chest, amazed I’d spotted it, grateful I could save it.

He had hung it on a hook in the old shed. Its end looked freshly sharpened.

I grabbed each end, thumbs up, the way he’d taught me. The wood trembled at my touch. I aimed its pointy end outward and began to walk.

I crossed the driveway, passed over a patch of lawn, and paused at the septic tank. But after that first vibration, nothing happened. My father had long ago given up on passing his magic to me. I didn’t have the electricity in my veins, he said.

But he was wrong about that.

I might not be able to find water. The ancient Yankee art of dousing might have died with him. But I have a different sort of power in my veins. Like his, those veins rise under my skin, blue highways on a relief map.

My father told me about other wells, other springs. Boiling springs: “There used to be one at Mame Thomas’s. She had a house over on the Mooresfield Road … up behind the barn was this boiling spring. … they used it. Fine water.” The well at Tug Hollow, where he grew up: “One year we had a drought. I’ll tell you, people from all around were coming to us for water. Used to put a trout in it [to kill bugs].”

I jotted his stories in notebooks large and small, in diaries and journals. They still give rise to sketches, and stories, and novels.

As sure as a dousing stick, I wield my pen. I pace these pages every day, looking for water, remembering my father. Like his blood in my veins, his electric voice runs from my head to my hand to the ink on the page.

No coincidence that divining is a synonym for dousing (sometimes spelled dowsing). For what are we doing when we search for water but telling the future, portending, showing the unseen? Surely a man who can reveal what lies underground has some powers of prophecy.

And what do we do when we write, but discover, guess, explore the unknown? Consider this meaning of to divine, from my old Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “to perceive through sympathy, or intuition; to detect; to conjecture.”

Walk the land, my father told me. Cut the branch of a willow or a cherry. Hold that stick fast and pace. And you will find the water that runs beneath, the subterranean vein, the well of creativity.

 

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