Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Finding Home: 53rd Avenue Cottage

The 53rd Avenue cottage sat atop Genesee hill at the back of an unusually large, overgrown yard still dotted with a half dozen ancient apple trees, remnants of the orchards that once covered the West Seattle hills. The day I saw the cottage the sweet fragrance of apples and lilacs laced the salty marine air as it swept over the hilltop. The little white cottage was surrounded by lush green, the sky cobalt overhead. It was love at first sight.

The cottage began life as an orchard shed back when West Seattle was farmland and orchards, when nobody, least of all the child who became my father, believed it would ever become what it is today - a densely populated Seattle neighborhood. But the farmland gradually disappeared along with the apple orchards once the first bridge was built between downtown and the peninsula of West Seattle in 1924 and later when WWII ended.
In the 1980s my aunt and uncle owned the cottage. When they offered to rent it to me at a price I couldn't refuse, I was ecstatic. Unlike my Santa Cruz cottage, this was a single-story, one-room structure although someone had put up walls to create a walk-in closet at the back of the large room, as well as a bedroom to hold a twin bed, a tiny bathroom, and a galley kitchen with a washing machine at the front end. After the noise of the Beacon Hill apartment, the spacious green yard pulled at my heart. When I moved in, there was only one door. You entered past the washing machine and through the kitchen to the large living room. Over time my uncle added a wood-burning stove and a second door—sliding glass.

I started flower gardens with plants and advice from Tony, my elderly neighbor. I explored the neighborhood: my father's childhood home only a block away, hilltop vistas of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, the deep ravine and tangled trails of Schmitz Park, the West Seattle Junction. I imagined my father as a little boy, later a young man, walking the same streets and park paths. I saw my mother and father, young lovers, sharing ice cream cones from Husky Deli and throwing stones on Alki Beach. I'd found my roots, but I wasn't home yet.
The cottage witnessed the demise of my first marriage. Our love could not sustain his comings and goings - Mexico City to Seattle to Mexico City to Seattle. We grew apart and went our separate ways. The cottage also witnessed the joys and fears of new love. When Tom entered my life, we got rid of my twin bed in the tiny bedroom and moved a large futon sofa into the living room. When I found myself pregnant, Tom painted fluffy white clouds on the closet walls, a bright yellow sun on the ceiling, and we had a nursery. When Baby Erin began to walk, he built a cement block and two-by-four fence around the wood burning stove.
It all happened so fast. One day I was an expat in Mexico City, the next I was back in Seattle. I found work, faced unthinkable pain of family tragedy, completed my Master's degree, found better work, divorced, remarried, gave birth, and was overcome by fear that the fragile joy, the comfort and peace, I was feeling would disappear, that I would awaken one morning to an empty cottage, that Erin and Tom were nothing more than a fantasy.

I didn't realize it at the time, but looking back I see that I'd begun to find the home I was seeking. I didn't yet have the self-confidence or trust I needed, the sense of self essential to feel whole, to accept and give unconditional love, to be home. But I was getting closer.

The fantasy was real, and my new family had outgrown the tiny cottage. It was time to buy a house of our own, a place large enough for a family of three. When we made the decision, when we found a house only blocks away from our tiny rental, when our monthly living expenses tripled with a mortgage payment, I was filled with terror. But we packed our few belongings, said good bye to our beloved apple trees, and moved down the hill to a house of our own, uncertain what the future would bring.

That was 1991. Since then the old orchard lot has been divided and the ancient trees torn out. Another house, a very large house, has been built on the front two-thirds of the property leaving the cottage seemingly unchanged at the back alley but for a paint job. Is it still a rental? Do my husband's murals still decorate the walls? Was the lilac bush that bloomed late the year of Erin's birth also sacrificed in the name of development? I do not know.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Finding Home: Other Voices

Today author Anesa Miller joins us with her poignant essay, "Now I Lay You Down to Sleep."

My daughter, Ruth, and I have come to my old hometown. I'm clutching a fringed leather pouch that my mother gave me not long before she died. I was sixteen then, five years younger than Ruth is now. It has often pained me that my daughter never knew her grandparents, so I’m glad she can be with me today as we try to draw close to the older generation. We find a sheltered spot behind a willow thicket to screen us from the eyes of our hosts, parents of a girlhood friend. Not that they would disapprove. I just could not explain what we’re about to do.

From the pouch, I pour handfuls of dry herbs—sweetgrass, cedar, and sage—into a handy aluminum pie plate. Ruth strikes a match. When flame rises, I feed it several old, yellowed letters in long envelopes. The paper curls and blisters like swatches of black silk under a hot iron. Wind whips the fire until it threatens to overflow the pan. I wish it would flare up to warm a gathering of fellow mourners, or rage out of control and destroy unwanted memories. But when Ruth says, “Whoa—it’s really burning!” my fantasies disperse, leaving gratitude for her presence: My girl, my firstborn.

I cover the flame with an abalone shell. When all is blackened and reduced, the ash fits into the shell perfectly. I let things cool and replace them in the pouch. Now we’re ready for a visit that has my knees quaking beneath me…

More than eight months have passed since my father died. I couldn't come here at that time. There was no funeral. He had lost touch with everyone he once held dear. But it wasn’t the lack of ceremony or absence of relatives that kept me away.

There's a stepmother. An old friend has persuaded her to vacate my childhood home for a few hours today. To me, this woman is a purely destructive force. Two years after my mother died, she entered my life and convinced me there is more than myth to the fairytale villainess. Does some deep need make her drive out the first wife’s fledglings so she can claim the man and his property for her own?

I often wondered if an unspoken disappointment poisoned the waters. My stepmother’s age was never mentioned, but she looked at least ten years younger than my father. Maybe she hoped for a baby. If so, it fell either to nature or my father himself (who, my mother once confided, was a hesitant dad the first time around) to crush that dream.

All I know for certain is that my stepmother’s tolerance of me collapsed on the sole occasion when I visited after my marriage. I was eight months pregnant. My father sat passive as “some deaf Buddha” (as I wrote soon after) while she harangued me and my bewildered young husband on the weak minds of women who "crave motherhood." “Don’t expect help from us,” she declared. “I won’t play your Earth Mother game.”

Twenty years passed before I heard from her again.

Then last spring, I recognized her handwriting on an envelope in the mail. Inside was a photo of my father, shriveled and vacant, dated one month previous. Folded with this picture was a newspaper clipping. His obituary from the previous week. There was no note of any kind.

While my mother lived, she moderated my father’s reclusive tendency. Once she was gone, coworkers came to regard him as a snob who couldn’t be bothered to chat about cars or sports teams. My stepmother was not a good influence. She once accused me of climbing trees to spy through her bedroom window. She accused my brother of sending threatening letters that mysteriously vanished when their existence was questioned. My father accepted her paranoia. Barriers grew that no old friend could breach, and they descended into a follie à deux.

…My daughter and I arrive at the house where I grew up.

My head is light, almost spinning. My hands tingle. I imagine if my stepmother were late departing, I might rip out handfuls of her hair. Break into furious shrieks. Some say extremes of self-expression are therapeutic, but I don't want my daughter to witness them. To think that Ruth was in my womb when I last stepped up this walkway and through these doors—!

I grip her hand.

We walk through the house. I won’t dwell on the rooms—every inch familiar as if the very boards could recognize and welcome me. I see many of my mother’s things, absorbed into the current decor, as if my heart might conjure her at any moment…

More important to me is a walk outside. We visit each tree that I know from my childhood and find a tangle of vines that used to be a garden. Stone paths my parents laid as young homeowners show through fallen leaves. I've told Ruth how I loved to play all over this yard. I've shown her photos from those days so she understands where we are: my mother’s garden and also her grave, where my father and I buried her ashes long years ago.

Here, I walk in a circle and pour out the ashes of my father’s letters. Letters in which he refused, time after time, to see me without his wife present, or to be any part of my life other than a silent absence. “I will fight no more forever.” My struggle, whether for love or revenge, is now at an end.

On an ancient rail-tie bench, I sit—fellow survivors in a corner of the garden. The day has turned windy. Overgrown grass shivers, and Ruth takes refuge in our rental car. A grade-school song comes to mind, and I sing,

            Like an eagle flying in the sun, I fly free from sorrow.
            Like a deer running on the plain, I run to tomorrow…

That is when I see my father, clear as a cloud in the sky—the way he looked, fit and cheerful, when we used to take long walks together. Back when I was a girl, and he was still the perfect dad. He turns to me and smiles, glad to welcome me home after a ramble.

Anesa Miller is a native of Wichita, Kansas. Her novel, Our Orbit, was just released this month from Booktrope Publishing. The passage included here is adapted from her book To Boldly Go: Essays for the Turning Years (2013, Artisan Reader).

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Finding Home: Beacon Hill via Issaquah

After a brief break, I'm back to continue this mini-memoir series that began on March 5, 2015 with this invitation: "In celebration of its upcoming publication, I'll be sharing a series of posts exploring my own search for home—the memories and emotions around each of the places I've lived. I hope you'll join me on this journey." That invitation stands! Also, don't miss the companion series, Finding Home: Other Voices every Thursday.

It was summer 1984. I was back in the Issaquah Valley, now in the third house my father built there, a house I'd only visited on rare occasion during the fourteen years since I'd graduated high school. It was no more home to me than the house we'd moved into the summer before my senior year of high school. It was spacious and painfully empty with all nine children grown and gone. I could not live there. I needed a place of my own, a place to build a life with my Mexican husband.
I found an apartment on Beacon Hill along with an ESL teaching position at the same school where I'd worked as a resident assistant years earlier when I studied at Seattle University. The building was a brick three-story walk-up. I was on the top floor, my living room and bedroom windows facing the four way stop and the fire station just across the street. 

The one-bedroom apartment felt massive by comparison to my tiny place in Mexico City. There was a separate kitchen with glass French doors, a large walk-in closet, and an equally astounding bathroom. Despite the street noise and sirens, I was in paradise. The only fault in my new paradise was the lack of a shower. The bathroom had a dramatic black and white tile floor and a large cast iron bathtub, but no shower. A fault my father quickly remedied one Saturday morning shortly after I moved in when he and Mom showed up ladened with copper piping, a shower head, and a solder iron. "Put on the coffee, Honey," he told me, and he set to work.

Like so many things I failed to photograph, I don't have a picture of the shower Dad created for me that day, but the memories of his desire to remedy my problem, to make me comfortable, to welcome me back into the family-fold in the only way he knew how - with his creativity and labor - have stayed with me. If only all problems were so easily solved.

 I collected used furniture and pulled together a comfortable nest for my husband and me, but truth was, he was spending less time in Seattle than back in Mexico City where he worked to finish a university degree. In his absence, I struggled to understand the home and family I had abandoned, and I did so under a veil of tragedy: my youngest sister was missing and presumed dead. I spent time with my parents and each of my siblings still living in the area in an attempt to understand the past and build a new future, but the past was shadowed and the future as unknown as my sister's whereabouts or the identity of her killer. Still, my parents and siblings seemed determined to show me they were pleased I'd returned "home." The problem was, I still hadn't figured out what that meant. Much of the time I felt like a stranger going through the motions of family, torn between my Issaquah Valley roots with my first family and the family I had begun to build in Mexico City. I spent hours alone in my Beacon Hill apartment trying to figure out where I belonged.
It was in that spacious living room on the rust brown velour sofa I'd scavenged from the basement garage that a social worker told me the words I could never be prepared to hear, "Your sister's remains have been found."

I remember little else. I don't know how long I stayed on the third floor of that beautiful old brownstone across from the fire station in an apartment that was noisier than my place in the heart of Mexico City. I don't remember if I broke the lease or stayed six months. I only remember my aunt contacting me to offer a small cottage in West Seattle at a rental rate so low I couldn't refuse. Or maybe it wasn't the price at all. Maybe I was just running from more memories and pain than I could handle.

Monday, June 22, 2015

What a Week!

Spring quarter and the academic year ended last Monday as I taught my ESL students how to register for summer quarter while secretly rejoicing my own upcoming freedom. Don't get me wrong. I love to teach. But summer is when I become a fulltime writer. A time I cherish.

On Tuesday I arrived with time to spare before my Memoir Writing Workshop at the Duvall Library. I came across this bench as I wandered about town and wondered how the authors would feel about the current employment of their hard-earned words.

I 'd never taught a library workshop. I didn't anticipate the friendly support of librarian Kathleen O'Keeffe, or the serious determination of the nine women who participated, or that I'd fail to use the final version of my PowerPoint presentation. A fact that woke me at 5:30 a.m. the following morning.

The bulk of the week was spent on CreateSpace, culminating Friday with the publication of the last of a dozen short books in easy English for adults. Pamela Hobart Carter and I are pleased to share these books with new readers and educators through No Talking Dogs Press. Our website is still under construction with titles, links and curriculum yet to add, but you can find all 12 books on Amazon under Pamela Hobart Carter or Arleen Williams. If you work with ESL or ABE populations, or know someone who does, I hope you'll share this new resource. 

When Saturday rolled around, I was at the Morgan Community Festival in West Seattle where eleven local authors shared their work in a series of readings throughout the day. Many thanks to Alice Kuder for spearheading this event and to Merryweather Books for being on hand to sell our work.

Yesterday was Solstice and Father's Day. For my family, it was a day of morning Dim Sum and afternoon boating in the Seattle sunshine. It was the kind of day I dream of during the long gray months of winter: a day of family and relaxation, a day to remember how grateful I am for this life I lead.