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Posts Tagged ‘Magic Dog Press’


This is Emma and Rudolf, close to their wedding day.

I only know Emma in flashes. In the first flash she stands with the man she loves, my great-grandfather Rudolf. She is persuading her parents to overlook his less than aristocratic birth, to see instead what she sees—a man with a fine mind and a drive to succeed. She wins that battle, though her family never really forgives her for taking Rudolf’s name, leaving her “von” behind her.

In the next flash she stands on a rough pier in Bremen, enormously pregnant, clutching her toddler daughter’s hand, keeping an eye on her energetic son as he runs back and forth, shouting, “Wir gehen nach Amerika! Wir gehen nach Amerika!” Rudolf stands with her, holding their tickets. He has $3,000 dollars in his pocket along with the Kuypchinski’s address. The Kuypchinskis are their destination in Wisconsin, the bit of home they will find waiting for them in America.

I see her next in bed in one of the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s cabins, dreadfully seasick, and in labor. The ship rolls in a storm, back and forth, back and forth. She heaves, and pushes, heaves, and pushes. At last she gives birth to a tiny daughter, Alitor.

Emma spends the remainder of the voyage in the bed, Alitor beside her, and small Meta in a basket on the floor. She tries to keep a hand on Meta’s basket, but seasickness and birth have weakened her, and the basket slips from her fingers and slides across the cabin when the ship rolls one way. It slides back to her when the ship rolls the other. Emma keeps grabbing for the basket, and losing her grip, and watching her daughter sail away from her, only to return, time after time.

I see Emma next in her house. Snow lies deep and pristine all around. Branches snap and crack in the cold. Emma’s mother-in-law Anna sits on the porch, holding Alitor wrapped in shawls and blankets. It is Wisconsin, and midwinter, and that night Alitor begins to cough. In a flash and an eternity, baby Alitor is gone. Emma’s arms are empty.

Emma (left) Bill (second from right) and cousins, I believe.

In the flashes, Emma is never center stage—she is the woman at the stove, a gentle presence at the heart of a family whirlwind. Her eight surviving children grow strong and musical. They start a band, and travel the area, providing dance music at house parties. They court, and marry. The family thrives.

That’s what’s important to Emma: family. Emma and Rudolf’s farm becomes a safe haven for more and more of her family. They set off from Klein Morin in Posen, journey to that pier in Bremen, cross the Atlantic, pass through Ellis Island and New York, then venture home to Emma in Wisconsin. They stay until they have enough English and money to navigate in America, then buy their own farms close by, or, in the case of the daughters, become farm wives or maids for wealthy families.

Emma, front and center, with her children behind her.

And still Emma is there, in her house at the farm. She is there the night the house catches fire. The family wakes and flees the blaze searing their backs and heels. Morning finds them with the clothes on their backs and a box of pictures—all they salvaged from the fire.

Rudolf, their sons, their friends, and their scattered family rally around to rebuild. And still the family in the Old Country keeps on coming. When Emma’s first child after Alitor, her son Wilhelm, marries, he brings his wife Gladys to the farm. His first two babies are born in the new birthing room just off Emma’s kitchen. It feels very modern and convenient, does that birthing room—purpose built with cupboards for all of the linens and paraphernalia birth requires, and close to the stove for hot water.

When Bill’s family moves into their own home a few miles away Emma misses her grandchildren terribly and woos them with gingersnaps with they come home to the farm each Sunday for chicken dinner and baseball. It all feels very American.

When Bill has a truck accident the children come back to the farm to live, while Bill’s wife goes to work in a furniture factory to pay their mortgage. Emma feeds the children, and her youngest sons—still little more than boys themselves–drive the children to school each day in their Model A’s and play with them when they aren’t working with Rudolf on the farm. Her oldest daughter Meta takes a shine to Bill’s oldest daughter. And so the farm becomes home to her children’s children.

Emma, with two of her daughters

Those are good days for Emma, at the center of the family from Posen, and the family from her body. And then one day Rudolf goes to bed, sick with some mysterious malady. The doctor says he can smell the cancer on Rudolf. Maybe he can. Rudolf lies in the birthing room just off the kitchen, dying in the bed where his grandchildren were born. He becomes convinced that Emma is trying to poison him, and refuses to eat. His grandchildren stand in the birthing room door and throw shoes at him until Emma makes them stop.

Emma and Rudolf, in their driveway

When he dies Emma goes on keeping house for her youngest sons, the two designated to stay home and care for her in her old age. Bill’s children grow up. Her granddaughter, my mother, moves across America with her own husband and young daughter, to start again. And then, amid her dwindling family, Emma herself begins to slip away.

It’s little things at first: A burned pot of potatoes, laundry left wet in the basket rather than hung on the line. The gingersnap jar stands empty. The vorgarten–the flowers she loved and planted on the gentle slope between her new house and the road–lies indifferently watered and poorly weeded. It gets worse. Emma, for whom home and family has always been everything, forgets them. While her sons work the family farm she begins to wander. Her sons seek her out when she goes voyaging alone and confused on roads and paths that have become foreign to her. They find her clothing first, and then Emma herself, naked, lost, seeking the home and children she can no longer find.

https://magicdogpress.wordpress.com/2021/01/10/emmas-family/
Emma, with two of Bill’s grandchildren.

Emma, who has been the center of the family, swings in increasingly irregular orbits. She cannot hold, and so they put her away. It’s called the County Home. Emma’s grandchildren call it the Poor Farm. It’s where families put people like Emma in those days before nursing homes. It’s where the county also houses the orphans, the indigent, and everybody else who no longer comfortably fits in the world.

And there Emma stays. Alone. My mother says they didn’t visit her because “she wouldn’t have wanted us to see her like that.” Maybe she’s right. I know my mother loved her—she wept bitterly when Emma died three months after I was born. At least the people at the County Home probably kept Emma clothed, inside, off the roads and out of the Wisconsin winter. But even now, nearly sixty years after my birth and her death, I think of her, spending her last days in a strange place, amid strange people, strange sounds, strange food, and strange smells, far from home and family. I wish it could have been different.

I never knew Emma, but the world she built lives on for decades after her death. The year I turn ten the whole family meets at the farm for a picnic and baseball. Dinner is an enormous cauldron of what Emma’s family call “barbecue” but most people call “sloppy Joes.” Emma’s daughters cook the barbecue over a fire outside the back door of Emma’s kitchen that green, humid summer day. We, Emma’s family, fill the farm to bursting, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren running, laughing, arguing, and eating. Women wear light summer dresses. The men wear plaid shirts and khakis, or bib overalls. One or two bold sons-in-law wear bermuda shorts. The air is filled with German and English, spoken in rich Wisconsin dialect.

The last flash comes one winter’s day. I am young and lost, and far from home. Somehow I find myself back to the farm. I sit in Emma’s kitchen with Great Uncle Fred, who has custody of the pictures rescued from the fire long ago. Thin winter sun pours over us, and over the pictures Uncle Fred has spread on the old formica table. His thick brown farmer’s fingers gently slide the pictures around as he tells me stories and laughs gently. Across the kitchen stands Emma’s stove, not far from the birthing room door. The winter house smells sharp, like cedar and damp wool. The sun warms my head, though icy air swirls around our ankles. At last I understand that though Emma and I only shared the world for a few short months,  I have found my family right where Emma left it for me.

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These are not my legs, nor are the legs in the approved Potty Dance stance, nor are these my shoes. About the only thing this illustration has going for it is that it looks awkward and funny, and the legs don’t look hairy. Don’t judge. I’ll put in a nice car farther down, and maybe a bike.

So I’ve fallen down–or up–stairs three times in the last month. This has had me concerned. I mean, I’m falling down more often than my mother does, but then she’s a remarkably fit 84. Actually she runs circles around me on a regular basis. So anyhow, falling down and worrying. This has had me thinking. And then tonight, as I was limping across my office and standing timidly at the top of the stairs, worrying about my descent, I suddenly realized that I was falling not because I was getting old–is 59 old these days?–but because my body is inattentive to bodily things until conditions have reached DefCon 1.

If you’re a classy sort who doesn’t discuss body stuff in mixed company, you’ll want to stop here, because I’m about to tell you about the Potty Dance. I’ll wait a minute.

Okay, they’re gone. On with the story. I learned the Potty Dance in early childhood. I executed it frequently because, my body’s pee meter wasn’t a gauge, which measures slowly increasing pressure, but more of an idiot light, which, like the little oil lamp in my car, only comes on when it’s far, far too late. This system does not work well, and never has.

As a small child I provided a lot of entertainment for my siblings and their friends, who took delight in trying to make me laugh when they could see I was performing the Potty Dance, a sort of Drunkard’s Path path executed with thighs pressed tightly together and legs scissoring in a sort of circular motion–all of this performed with what I must confess was an absolutely transparent air of casual ease–I was just staggering toward the bathroom this way because I wanted to. There is still a story enshrined in family history about the time I staggered into the bathroom door at my mom’s friend’s house, nearly knocking her lovely full-length mirror to the floor.

Here’s the bike I promised you, because I always keep my word. Also because I love this guy, with his big nose and his clodhoppers and his fat-tired bike, freewheeling through life. I would never dare to do this. Again, this has nothing to do with the subject matter, but who cares? I’m feeling rebellious. Who says stories and illustrations have to match? Not me! At least not today. It’s a guy on a bike.

When I was a teenager I worked on a ranch. Much of my time was spent in fields where men might come driving up in pickups at any moment. Having to strip in the field (bib overalls were my garments of choice in those days) for a quick whiz was risky business. So how did I cope, you ask? Did I go to the bathroom in the outhouse down by the grain elevator at the river?

I did not. The outhouse was there for the convenience of the truckers, true, but none of us ever used it. This was because we had robust senses of humor. We found it hilarious to pelt the outhouse–which was metal–with rocks if anybody went inside. For some reason there was an outside latch on the door. Rumor had it that some newby had gone into the outhouse one time, and a trucker had locked him in. And then everyone stood around and pointed and laughed as the newby huddled inside, mortified. So–no outhouse for me.

Instead, I developed a bladder that could have doubled for a blacksmith’s bellows. I mean, that thing had muscles on its muscles. Halfway through my first summer driving harvest I realized that I was going all day–that’s twelve to fourteen hours, for those of you who have never drive a harvest truck–without a potty break. Nor was I performing the Potty Dance. How did this happen? I don’t know. I just know that during the summers I developed muscles everywhere, even where nobody ever thought to look.

Ah, if only that happy state of affairs had continued. I had a baby. I had my lady parts removed a few years ago. And suddenly here I am, performing the Potty Dance regularly again. It still provokes amusement. Now it is my son who takes pleasure in my complicated and gyrations as I stagger to the bathroom.

And now my feet are getting temperamental, going along for months, carrying me everywhere without an issue. And then one morning I’ll swing them to the floor, stand up, and fall back on the bed because it hurts too much to stand. My feet will have cracked in the night. Imagine, if you will, trying to stagger through the Potty Dance when your feet insist that yes, you can and should levitate.

But there’s another complication, this one psychological rather than physical. Like all new mothers, I was faced with the complication of having to wrap, feed, and carry my child using my hands and arms. I got very good at juggling a baby, a diaper bag, a baby seat, various bags of groceries, and sometimes a cat.

In those days, I learned to load myself up on trips between the car and the house. Otherwise I would have been toting groceries all day. I’ve never really broken the habit. When I can’t skive off completely and rush into the house while Patrick and whoever is riding with us at the time bring in the groceries–Potty Dance!–I Do My Part. I load myself up with boxes of soda, jugs of milk, occasionally the eggs when I’m feeling very brave, the bread, vegetables–you get the idea.

So picture me a couple weeks ago, loading myself up with groceries and juggling a large cup of ice water and a Strawberry Mist Frost as well–a Strawberry Mist Frost from which I had only taken two small sips. I got two steps from the car and the idiot light went on. I Assumed the Position–thighs clamped to the knees, lower legs swinging out to clear the gravel and leaves lying beside the driveway. I made it to the two little steps leading up into our pergola, stared at them doubtfully, took an enormous risk, and unclamped my thighs just enough to lift my foot onto the bottom step. I knew instantly that had been a mistake, but I still had another step to go and then the walk to yet more steps unless I wanted to spend the night under the wisteria bush. I grimly lifted my other foot, resigned to the knowledge that I would be changing my trousers in just a few minutes.

And then I navigated the walkway, doing a flamboyant, twisting rendition of the Potty Dance, tacking back and forth across the walkway like a sailboat in a strong wind. The sole mercy was that The Boy had preceded me into the house so there were no witnesses. I made it to the steps. My arms ached. I took a better grip on my Strawberry Mist Frost and my water cup, hoisted the grocery bags, and attempted the first step. I got my foot up on it, but I was off balance. I lifted my other foot quickly to the second step–always a mistake when one is performing the Potty Dance. I made it again, but there was another step, and now I was really off-balance. I lifted the first foot quickly to the porch, then took a couple little running steps, thinking, as I always do at times like this, that if I could just catch up with myself I’d be okay. I don’t know why I believe this because never has that ever worked. I did, however, realize suddenly that that idiot light had gone on for a reason, and it would shortly be going off again, whether I made it to the bathroom or not. I didn’t have a lot of time to think about this because by now I was seriously falling. I was close enough to the door that I smacked it with my forehead–hard enough to break the door jamb and pop it open, but not so close that my head couldn’t continue its journey to bounce on the concrete porch.

I landed on top of my Strawberry Mist Frost and my cup of ice water. I also bruised a lot of vegetables. The Boy appeared to see my lying flat on my belly, cursing into the concrete as the Strawberry Mist Frost soaked through my coat. “You need help, Mom?” he asked, because he really is a good and kind person.

“No, I’m fine,” I said even though idiot lights were going off all over my body at that point. It is part of my Code that I must get myself back to my feet On My Own at times like this. Having help would be taking unfair advantage. I got myself down there; now I have to get myself back up. Don’t look for logic in this–there is none. I clawed my way back upright, limped inside, and continued to the bathroom without needing to perform a single step of the Potty Dance, if you take my meaning.

So that was one fall. The falls before that had resulted from a simple arithmetic error: I went down a flight of six steps, but only planned on five. It could happen to anybody, I tell myself. And then tonight I stood up from my desk, only to realize my feet had developed cracks like the Grand Canyon, but had kept that information for a little surprise. I winced and rolled up on my heels–the cracks run across the balls of my feet–only to have the idiot light come on.

I hobbled to the steps, doing a strange truncated version of the Potty Dance. I stood at the top for a long time. And then I slowly, slowly descended, sideways, one step at a time, bracing myself on the wall. And I made it. I’m learning. I’m learning to think in terms of time since my last visit to the bathroom, rather than expecting my bladder to alert me that perhaps I should start planning a trip. I’m learning to accept my son’s arm when I go up and down the outside steps. I’m learning to stop loading myself up like a pack mule when there are groceries to bring in. Making a second trip is not a mortal sin.

And I’m learning to laugh at myself when this happens, even though it feels shameful and humiliating. I’m learning that changing my trousers in the middle of the day is not the end of the world. Well, it kind of is right now, since our dryer’s on the fritz, but I digress. Mostly, I’m just letting my idiot light and my poor feet remind me that I’m traveling through life with somewhat temperamental equipment, and if some things don’t work as well as they once did, other things work a lot better. I’m learning that it’s okay to be human.

And here’s the car, like I also promised. Here’s hoping I’m not feeling as rebellious tomorrow. I really do like it when my stories and pictures match…

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20200614_101846_HDR

…the more they stay the same. At least here in the Magic Dog House they do. Today The Boy got his first college degree. As of this weekend, he’s also a partner in our newly incorporated LLC. All of this sounds very dramatic, but in reality it’s been a slow evolution. He’s been contributing his talents to presentations, to typesetting and laying out books, and to developing data management programs for years now. We’ve just made it official.

Friday, we worked on client stuff. Saturday we played. Today we watched his online graduation. This evening he’s having his socially distanced graduation party–several folks he’s been friends with for more than a decade. When we moved here he was in fourth grade, and nine years old. On the day we bought the house I made a commitment: We would not move again until he was through high school, and possibly college if it was convenient. I wanted him to have a home town, a place where he had roots. We’d moved four times in his first nine years. I didn’t want to yank him up again.

So–here we stopped, and here we stayed. It hasn’t always been perfect, but it’s been very good in a lot of ways. And today? It’s pretty danged wonderful. My house and yard feel full of boys–bringing their wives and girlfriends now. Normally they congregate in the living room; today they’re outside, keeping their distance, and strengthening those connections that have served them so well. Happy Graduation, Patrick. I love you.

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Leroybookfrontcover

Here’s part of how I said “good bye” to Leroy.

When The Boy and I first moved to Milton Freewater we came under duress; our home in Portland had flooded and the landlord chose to do nothing–for a month. We lost everything, including our health. We came here because houses were cheap and the weather was dry. We came to start again.

But a funny thing happened. We acquired our House Leroy. It turned out that he, like me, had roots in the Valley. It turned out that we had complementary skills. It turned out that, against all odds, we became a family, in a town made for families. Those first summers The Boy had a whole neighborhood of kids to play with. Our little old house rang with shouts, laughter, and occasionally tears.

We had come to Milton Freewater to start over. What we discovered was that those old roots we had still had a little life in them. We took evening drives through pale evenings, past peach, pear, and apple orchards. I started doing a project for the local historical society. Those evening drives took on a timeless quality. Some evenings it almost felt like the road had carried us back to when we first drove it, back in the sixties, when summers were hot, corn came in the husks and often included ugly little worms, tomato fields and yes, strawberry fields, stretched forever.

VBcemetery

It was, for those few years, a life out of time. The Boy progressed through the school system. He competed in track. He played football. He played the tuba. Life wasn’t always easy–2008 happened, and 2009, and there were signs that the world was changing, but it was out there, beyond the borders of our town, and our lives. In our world, we went to football games and track meets and solo festivals and jazz festivals, and we drove through quiet evenings, and then we sat on the porch in the golden light, and talked, or listened, or just felt the breeze on our faces.

And then we lost the House Leroy, and it was just The Boy and me, and we tried, but we both knew that losing Leroy was a grievous wound. The timeless world in which we had lived had shattered beyond repair. Driving the old roads became too painful because the history that we had built, that connection to the past that had shielded us like a golden bubble, had shattered beyond repair.

frogs3smallThere were some bad days, months, years. We struggled. We developed coping mechanisms. I developed diabetes, sleep apnea, cancer. The Boy developed depression, anxiety, and cholinergic urticaria. But still, we coped. We still fought for every bit of joy we could find. But for me, there was the sense that we were on borrowed time.

And then came last December. The university where I teach, and where The Boy was finishing up his first degree, got hit with a cyberattack, just before finals week. And we coped. All of us on campus. Finals were re-vamped or canceled. Papers came in as hard copy, rather than uploads. Grades had to be entered when that part of the system was liberated. When winter term started we were still coping. And then halfway through the term, we had snow. Then we had a warm stretch, and all of the snow accumulated in the mountains came rushing down into the valley. Water was everywhere. The Boy, the cats, and I had to evacuate to a Travelodge. We took litter boxes, three changes of clothes for each of us, the gaming systems, the computers, our cell phones, and The Boy’s tux and tuba; he had a concert that weekend.

The Valley rallied. Schools shut down and high schoolers filled sandbags for frantic homeowners. People with big rigs helped people without. Local construction companies carried gravel to washed-out roads. We managed. When the cats, The Boy and I returned home it was to find that though homes at the bridge end of our street had had to be sandbagged, our little old house sat high and dry on its little hill. We breathed a sigh of relief and settled back into our home.

And then, just a few weeks after the flood, the Corona Virus reached Washington, and then Weston, a little town about fifteen miles away. The uncertainty has been hard. What’s happening? Will there be a vaccine or not? If we get sick, what do we do? Where do we go? How do we pay the mortgage? I work in the “gig” economy; I don’t have the luxury of sick leave or unemployment insurance. I have only what I earn.

Advice started. Wash your hands. Keep your distance. Closures started. Schools and businesses in California and Seattle. And then word came that our university was closing early. All finals would be administered online. Next term will start not on a busy, lively campus, but in silent rooms where teachers will speak to screens.

The Boy had his last concert–it was the swing band, and he had a solo and rocked it. He had his last presentation and rocked that, too. He’s graduating this term, but there will be no ceremony–just a quiet acknowledgment, and a quiet party at home.

When we came to Milton we slipped back in time for a few years. We lived in a beautiful, twilight eternity. And then the bubble cracked. We lost Leroy. The Boy and I got sick. The world around us got sick. Politics, which for a while allowed us Hope smacked it right out of us. It became a foul, cynical, vicious thing, a cruel joke, and endlessly, openly, corrupt.

Even for people like us, in quiet backwaters, the stench of our dead and rotting system has become unbearable. The cyberattack, the flood, and now the Corona Virus pandemic are all symptoms of a world breaking down around us. We have always had crises, but in the past we took pride in stepping up and meeting the challenge, not just endlessly spinning, spinning, spinning. We have reached the point where the center no longer holds, and where even our quiet lives have become unrecognizable.

We have a president who, rather than enabling our own world-class scientists and systems to work effectively in combatting the virus, tries to make it into a money-making opportunity. Though overwhelming numbers of us support Medicare for All–something the virus has shown is in all of our best interests–we are saddled with a Congress refusing to act on our wishes and in our best interests.

The only solution on offer is to wash your hands and hide in your house. The thing that should make all of us stronger–our national self, our friends, neighbors, towns–is the thing that might well sicken or kill many of us. I am washing my hands. I am hiding in my house. I’ve worked from home for decades, so I know the moves. But contracts are being canceled as events are canceled or postponed. If I lose too many more I’ll be in serious trouble.

So what’s the point of all this? No matter how this comes out, I think we have reached a watershed. Colleges and universities will go back in session. The companies that survive the closures will re-open their doors. Children will go back to school. But I think something has irrevocably changed.

That beautiful golden bubble? The bubble in which for a while we lived out of time? That’s gone. It’s not even shards on the floor. The pace and magnitude of crises are accelerating, spinning us ever onward to that moment of freefall. The past wasn’t perfect. But there were certain things upon which we felt we could rely. Those things are gone. The center has not held. Yeats may have been writing about events he was around him; he might have been writing about our times as well. If the beast has not yet reached Bethlem, he has certainly programmed it into his GPS, and is no longer slouching, but speeding through the night.

The Second Coming
By William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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