Friday, June 19, 2009

Treasure: My Father's Letters

My mother passed on in 2001, and my brother and sister-in-law have had eight boxes of miscellaneous stuff stored in their garage since. The idea was that I would go down to New Mexico to sort through the boxes with my brother, but I never got around to it. They are moving house now, and are sending me boxes.
Yesterday I opened a box that contained all the letters my father wrote to my mother during World War II. My mother kept them meticulously, numbered in the order they arrived, with the date she received each one written on the envelope in her careful book keeper's handwriting. There are 247 letters.
In April, 1942, right after his thirtieth birthday, my dad enlisted in the Army in San Francisco. His first message, a postcard, has a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on it. He wrote:
“Dear Nita: It's now 8:45 A.M. & we'll be leaving at 9:00. I guess we'll go thru town about noon. You'll address me as pvt. until further notice. Your private, John” The post card is canceled with a postmark that says: “San Francisco, Calif. Apr 27 5:30 PM 1942.” They must have been traveling by train. The main line does pass through Watsonville.
His second letter is dated May 1, 1942, from Camp Sutton, North Carolina. “Dear Nita: Well, here I am in camp, and is it a dirty dusty hole. We had a good trip across the continent...We came in Pullmans, three in a section. I was lucky to get a pair of brothers as partners and they wanted to sleep in the lower together. So I had the upper all to myself all the way.
“This outfit seems to be a swell bunch of guys, but they're having a little trouble getting used to the army, so you hear quite a bit of grousing. I really don't know what to write you as I haven't seen much of this deal yet. But, anyhow, maybe I'll have more to tell. Until then, All my Love, John”
On May 2, he writes: “Dearest Nita: I just came in from my first day of drill, & what a mess...My writing is kind of shaky but we have no desks & I have to write in my lap. This camp wasn't even here a month ago & it shows it. All the comforts of hell.”
Reading that one I pictured my father writing on this piece of paper in his lap. I've done a little lap writing in my time, and am amazed at how that image made me feel connected to him as I held in my hand the letter he wrote in his lap in May, 1942.
He says he doesn't know how long he'll be at Camp Sutton or where he'll go after. “They don't tell us anything and when they do, they change it.” He says they are spending a lot of time making sidewalks with gravel, using large rocks for borders. In letter #3 he writes, “We live six in a tent, and I happened to get a swell bunch. They're all common working scrubs, like me. There are quite a few fancy pants city guys in this outfit, but I steered clear of them.”
On May 12 he wrote two letters. The first one begins: “My Dear Wife: I got three letters today. They were all very nice. You mentioned hearing Kate Smith singing 'Rose of No Man's Land.' I was listening to her at the same time I guess, from the Charlotte station. They must be on the same network...I was on Regimental guard duty along with about 40 other men from H.Q. Co. from 1 P.M. yesterday to 1 P.M. today...I volunteer on almost everything once, just to learn the ropes. But I haven't had any K.P. or extra duty, on acct. of I'm too good-? Some change. I volunteered in this mess tho, so I have no one to blame, so I might as well do it right.”
Postmarked the same day is a second letter: “Dear Nita: I just wrote you a letter, but I forgot to ask for a few things I should have. I'd like to have my slippers. All of my medium weight dress socks like I wore away. Maybe you'd better send all but the lightest ones including which work socks are good, then I can throw away what I don't want. Also I want the soap box out of that other kit. That's about all I can think of. So goodbye again. All my Love, John. P.S. G.I. Socks are strictly N.G. Love, John”
That's a sampling of letters 1 through 6. They give me a look at my father and a first hand report on what it was like for him during the war. I'm grateful that my mother kept these letters, these treasures. Stay tuned for more!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Drew is 24 Today

Hang the flags! It's Drew's birthday! It's also Flag Day, but it's always been nice to see the flags up on Drew's birthday.
Drew was born on a warm beautiful day 24 years ago, at Swedish Hospital. His brother was born at home, delivered by midwife Susan Anemone. Drew was delivered at Swedish, caught by a nurse-midwife who was called in to do the honors because the doctor had decided I had an hour to go before delivery and he went off to make phone calls and run errands, or something. We don't know where he went or what he did. We just know he was gone, and that we had to pay him for delivering Drew even though he didn't.
I had to go to the hospital for Drew because I developed gestational diabetes when I was pregnant with him, and no one would deliver him at home.
He had what was called a “precipitous birth,” meaning that he came out fast. The doc looked at me, said I was at 9 centimeters and it would be about an hour, and walked out. And then my body started pushing the baby out. My conscious brain had no control of my muscles – the nurse yelled at me not to push! Hah. Dream on, protocol girl. It was about two minutes from the time he crowned until he was born. This is not usual, I guess. Babies are supposed to come down the birth canal slowly, being squeezed into life. The process fires up the respiratory system, I've heard. Drew didn't get that.
He didn't breathe well at first. The attending nurse (protocol girl, not the one who caught him) slapped the soles of his feet to wake him up and get him crying so he'd start inhaling and exhaling. After those first few dicy moments, he was okay.
We headed for home that evening and missed the ferry we were trying to catch. “Well, Drew,” we said, “a great start to island life. You've missed your first ferry.”
Drew was a sweet kid. He had ear infections his first year that affected his speech development. He prefers to speak with his guitar these days, but I gotta tell you that when Drew talks, I listen, because he has good things to say, and some of the driest, smartest wit I've ever encountered.
I could tell you more: how school sucked for him (for both our sons), how music saved him. What a pleasure he has always been to have around. How he went and aced the GED exams when he was 18. How he's been employed since he was 16 or 17, currently at the Bone Factory, but he lives for playing guitar.
You can see him play on YouTube. Search for paperboy128, and have a listen. Happy Birthday, our Drew. Love you.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dick and Jane's Spot in Ellensburg

Sometime back in the mid-1980s there was a feature in the Seattle Times' Sunday magazine that mentioned, and pictured, Dick and Jane's Spot, a one-of-a-kind art happening located in Ellensburg. Soon after I read about it, the trio played a gig in Ellensburg, and I insisted that we go find this place.
That was the first of many visits to Dick and Jane's Spot for me. Every few years I'd go back to see how things had changed – what was different, what was the same.
The Spot was the house and yard of Richard Elliot and his wife Jane Orleman, both artists, and friends of artists. They began in 1978 to make their home and yard an ongoing, ever changing art gallery for their own work and the works of others. It was meant to be fun, and it certainly is.
Jane is a painter, mostly, still. Over the years Richard became interested in making geometric works of art with reflectors, and patented a process for protecting the reflectors once he had them in place. He did several public art installations of his reflectors, which can be seen at their web page,
Dick and Jane enjoyed how much people enjoyed looking at their house and yard, but had signs up saying that it was a private home, and to please respect their privacy, so all the public got to see was the front yard, the exterior walls of the house and garage, and the fences that circled the place. The first time the trio dropped by, the north side of the house featured a painting (of Native Americans, as I recall, but my recall is shaky), and you had to walk around in a dirt parking lot to get a view. Now the City of Ellensburg has set aside a strip of land on the north side of the house so that you can walk along looking at the reflectors there without walking into traffic. The public art extended from the house to a series of “totem poles” on the north edge of that strip.
On a trip to the mysterious east about a month ago I went by Dick and Jane's Spot to see what was new and take some photos, and sign the guest book at the front corner of the property. It had been a while since I'd been there, and when I got to the guest book I was sad to learn that Dick passed away last November 19, after a fourteen month fight with pancreatic cancer.
After arriving home from that trip, I went to the web site to learn more about Dick and Jane, and was rewarded with rich images and the stories of two interesting human beings, who happened to be artists.
Jane chronicled her process of recovering from childhood sexual trauma through her paintings and writings. That's something you'll never learn from looking at the Spot, but it's there on the website, and her sharing is a great gift to others who walk a similar road.
So – here are my pictures from my last stop at the Spot. It's still there, and if you're in the neighborhood of Ellensburg, it's well worth dropping by. The Spot is located at 101 N. Pearl Street. Going east on I-90 you take the 106 exit and head north on Main until you get to 1st Street. Turn right, and you'll see the house on your left at the end of the block. Going west on I-90, take the 109 exit, and follow the same directions from there up Main. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Singing at 61

There was a time when singing and my voice were my identity, my reason for being. It mattered a lot that people knew I sang, and sang well. Then the songwriting started, and that became important, too, but perhaps never quite as important as singing.
So I sang. I sang solo; I sang in choirs (secular and church); I sang with my husband; I sang in the trio, Women, Women and Song. I kept singing. I'd walk on a stage and look out at an audience and say to myself, “I was born to do this!” Then I'd sing.
Singing for fun is a joy. Singing professionally is hard work, and I never got it all together. Singing professionally is as much about bookkeeping, touring, photographs, bios, trying to book gigs, and keeping yourself mentally psyched up to handle all the rejection and poverty, as it is about singing. It's a heavy burden to lay on a talent, assuming you have talent. There are plenty of people who have the business side together and do fine with musical careers with very little talent. You know it's true.
I have a little talent, a God-given voice that is pleasant to listen to when I'm singing to please. I never was as talented as I wanted to be. I wanted to be Joan Sutherland. The position was taken, so I had to settle for being Mary Litchfield, and that was a process of acceptance. I used to be mystified that people liked my voice. I didn't think it was all that great, because I wanted it to be so much better, by which I mean I wanted to have four good octaves and be a coloratura soprano diva. I had to settle for about two and a half octaves, the middle of which were good. Turns out that's what a lot of people enjoy listening to.
One thing I had going for me was that I had pretty good pitch. I sang on-key most of the time, and I've learned that singing that is on-key is relaxing for people to listen to. Singing on-key makes sense. Your body goes ah, I'm safe here. Even if you are not a singer and don't have a great ear, I believe you enjoy someone singing on key a lot more than someone singing off-key. On the American Idol show contestants are often told that something they sang was, “pitchy,” meaning, off-key.
I have a tendency to go flat, especially when I'm tired, and have come to appreciate accompanists and other musicians who tell me I'm off, so I can get the pitch up where it belongs.
There have been people who told me that I was obligated to sing, because my singing and songs had meaning for people. I believed that – I wrote a song: “Give yourself to your gift, bring your gift to the world.”Singing as obligation. Sigh.
From the 90s on I sang mostly in the church choir. When I became ill with mononucleosis and a few other pesky diseases in the fall of 2007, everything stopped for me. Even singing in the church choir. I was shocked. I still am. I thought I was supposed to sing there every Sunday forever. But I had to stop everything, and the choir went on without me, and so did the church, and so, to the best of my knowledge, did God. How 'bout that. Turns out I'm not indispensable. Which was OK by me, because I was so tired.
For the last year or so the only singing I've done has been at the nursing home. Every couple of months I go in and sing songs I learned from my mom. The residents and I have a great time together. We like each other. They sing along, and some of them are pretty darn good, so it's a real give and take.
I sang there yesterday, and realized that my voice is pretty rusty. That's understandable when I only take it out every two months. Then I considered that maybe it's more than rustiness. Maybe it's that I'm 61 and time is taking its toll on my vocal chords same as on the rest of my body.
That's true, I'm sure, but the rustiness is real, also, so this morning I set the timer for an hour and sat down at the piano to do some vocal exercises. I would like to apologize to any neighbors who happened to hear that. Limbering up my voice is not a pretty process. Never has been. I sound like a loud strangling chicken. I hit a high C this morning, and I don't think the high C will recover. I was pleasantly surprised that I could squeak it out at all, but stayed a good five whole steps below that for the rest of the workout.
My voice is developing the gargliness of old age – or the old lady whoops, I've heard them called. A vibrato that would knock a squirrel off the bird feeder. I'm not quite there yet, but I can hear it coming. It doesn't bother me as much as I thought it would. It's kind of a relief, to tell you the truth. Now maybe people will get off my back about how I owe it to them to get out and sing.
So I did my scales and jumps, and agonized through a soprano version of Gershwin's “Summertime,” which was originally sung by a soprano who sounded like she never got much below high C. I decided I would do it to stretch the chords a little. Definitely not something I would do for public consumption.
After a while I got out the guitar and played a few standards (“Sweet Georgia Brown”), and then worked on some of my originals. I was embarrassed to realize I had forgotten the words to one. I considered again that when I go, those songs will no longer be sung.
Oh well. “Somebody else will take my place, some other hands, some other face...” That's from Malvina Reynolds' song, “This World.”
For now it feels good to have sung this morning, and to plan to sing again tomorrow morning. I'd like to see what's left of my voice after some of the rust is polished off. I'd like to sing those songs a while longer. Maybe go out and sing them in public, as my retirement hobby, if I don't sound too bad. We'll see.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Farmer's Daughter Gets Back to Her Roots

Many people are planting vegetables this year, some of whom have never gardened before. I gardened with great passion and little skill before I had children. We had a near-sunless, sodden little yard, but I planted in faith. There were squash: zucchini, yellow crookneck, and patty pans, my favorites. The squash did well, and covered the yard with their odd splintery leaves. I also tried to grow lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and corn.
One year I planted two rows of corn. At harvest each stalk had one perfect luscious ear. That small crop was worth all the effort – there is nothing in the world, that compares to sweet corn on the cob fresh from the garden.
I heard that horse radish was easy to grow, and mail ordered a root. Probably the less said of that experience, the better. Horse radish isn't easy to grow – it's impossible to stop. My husband hunted it down and killed it with a shovel after a year or two, muttering about clogged drain fields and warning me sternly that I'd better not plant any more of that damn stuff.
The lettuce and other greens were clear cut by the slugs, so I put in marigolds to repel the slugs and the slugs ate the marigolds, too. Then I tried putting cups of beer out, and the slugs obligingly crawled in and drowned, but then I had to dispose of the slug-slimed beer, clean the cups, and refill them with fresh beer. I began to feel like the dead slugs were having a lot more fun than I was, and I resented having to pay for all that beer. One organic gardening book advised going out in the morning or evening and picking the slugs up and putting them into a container and then...what? Dispose of them, somehow. One morning I went berserk and starting impaling slugs on a paring knife. “Die, die, you slimy sonsabitches!” I caroled as I wreaked my havoc. Within minutes I was sick to my stomach and sick at heart. I just don't have what it takes to wage a successful war, I guess. It was soon after that I gave up on vegetables. I realized that I enjoyed communing with flowers in my yard a lot more than the losing battle that was vegetables, and decided to buy my produce at the store and grow flowers.
After the babies came I gave up gardening. I would read magazines in which strong young women were pictured, working in their beautifully tilled gardens, smiling broadly, with sturdy compliant infants bundled into packs on their backs. I envied those women, and hated them. I wished I had that kind of energy and organization and will, and that kind of cheery easy child, but I didn't, so I'd sit on the rug on the living room floor with the boys and stack blocks with them and try to keep them from killing each other, and left the yard on its own.
I still had the longing, so I would buy plant starts. I developed a method which I have learned is quite common among gardeners: you bring home a plant, you put it into the yard or pot, you water it and if you really like it you give it a shot of fish emulsion now and then. You say, “OK, pal, you're on your own,” and then you wait to see if it makes it. If not – well, it had its chance, and you've had your learning experience.
This spring I decided to grow some vegetables again, but on a scale I could handle. I bought four wide, shallow pots, filled them with soil, and planted lettuce, spinach, green onions, and radishes. I also got two seed-starter trays in which I tried to start tomatoes. Their little cotyledons came up, their first leaves began to sprout, and then – something ate them. So much for tomatoes.
The lettuce, spinach, and green onions are coming along. Today for lunch I went out and thinned a few sprouts to throw into my turkey wrap. Not bad. I felt the warm glow of the farmer enjoying the fruits, or in this case vegetables, of her labors.
I've got my eye on the first radish that is plumping up in the radish pot. It will be ready soon, and I'm watching closely because I don't want to miss the peak of its perfection. Which is odd, because I've never really liked radishes.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Two Things

This morning I decided to start the day by reading scripture: Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. This slender little book is holy writ to editors and writers, and I read it like a born again Christian reading the gospel: “Oh yes! Oh, sweet Jesus, yes!” My grammar is far from perfect, but I love reading the rules and the examples of perfection. I was pleased to note that in a series of words, “red, white, and blue,” for example, there needs to be a comma before the and, but in the name of a business or partnership, like, say, “Women, Women and Song,” the comma is not used. That's the kind of thing I worry about, and I was relieved to see that the authority on punctuation said that the way I always wrote the trio's name was acceptable usage.
Of course, I have also come to believe that punctuation is an art as much as a science. How you punctuate is the way you apply your verbal brush strokes. I still believe that periods, commas, question marks, and exclamation points go inside quotation marks, not outside, although I'm aware that that is subject to personal and cultural opinion. My personal opinion is “outside,” and that's how I'm going to do it.

There are few things so pleasant as a cool evening after a hot day. We open the windows and let the refreshing breeze soothe us awake from the torpor of the mid-day heat. I have always regretted that the price for such a delicious evening is to live through the blazing day. But there it is, summer again, with its rewards and punishments.
Today was hot and I felt like I'd run a marathon even though what I really did was sit on the couch with ice on my bad knee, folding laundry and watching the last two episodes of season 2 of “Breaking Bad.” This series is not an upper, but it is so well done.
Then when Rick came home we watched the 1974 movie, The Taking of Pelham 123. A remake of this movie is opening in theaters right now, with Denzel Washington in the Walter Matthau part, I believe. It was fun to see several actors as their younger selves: Matthau, Jerry Stiller, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo. It was also fun to see 1974 again – the clothes, the hair cuts, the cars.
Having turned in almost four hours of television watching, I didn't really think I should feel worn out, but I did. Then the sun went down, we opened the windows, and now, at almost midnight, with a cool breeze passing through and frogs and crickets whooping it up out in the night, I feel downright alert and energetic. Just in time to go to bed.