The following essay, “Looming,” was recently published in Hippocampus, and is part of my memoir in progress. It is the story of a the eldest daughter who contemplates her role in the end care of her father’s life. Hospice and the final dose of morphine, meant as act of kindness, left her grief-stricken, guilty and searching for signs of forgiveness. Would the father she revered—naturalist, explorer, and her guide in all things— have rather chosen half -life in a hospital bed with a feeding tube? Looking for solace in the legacy he left her—a reverence for nature, she begins to find peace in the perennial life of her gardens.
My boots broke through a crust of rime, down deep into the hardened snow knocking me off balance with each step. The sound mixed with the papery rustle of a last few umber-colored leaves, skittering across the icy surface of the field. Otherwise, the afternoon was still—back-lit by an incoming storm.
The dirt road between my home and the cedar lot was quiet and few cars passed, only a handful more than when I was a girl on the farm. Stalks of Jersey cow-corn and fescue lay flat and frozen as far as I could see.
I was looking for signs of my father, even though he’d died in October and left me hollow as the oldest apple tree in our orchard no longer bearing fruit—one I couldn’t cut down. We had taken many walks on this land together—300 acres on which to search for wildlife, arrow heads, and tiny agates he would drop in my pocket while he hummed out Red River Valley on his harmonica and I sang along. I traced our steps by memory, but in these many months he had not yet come to me, only to my mother.
A pungent smell of rotten Osage under the snow, and the pissy scent of cedar perfumed the cold air. Smells I’d known forever. The leafless sycamores at the edges of the woods cast tall, authoritative shadows reminding me of him— stretched dark blue like his eyes on the snow the color of his hair. I felt at home here where I had wandered for generations with him and his father, looking through binoculars and down their barrel sites for rabbits or pheasant. This place was mapped on my memory like that old song he had played for me.
I needed a sign his spirit was looming. I wanted an eagle—a human connection to the divine, a bird we both revered. Pleased when I reported they were returning to nest near the river, he encouraged me to watch for them the spring before he died.
Walk across the bridge on River Road and search the treetops for the bend in the branches.
I scoured our land surrounded by the low, rolling Watchung Hills bordered by the Raritan River where perch and brown trout abound. Surely the bird would deliver. Be patient, I could hear him say.
With the fading sunlight and a swath of winter sky overhead, I looked up, saw an inky flock of starlings flow and roll like oil on water and knew snow was on the way, tasting the metal of it on my tongue. I picked my way around the frost-heaved hillocks of uncut, browned-out grasses—the soggy bundles yielding under my weight —smelling the frost in the air, swallowing mucus back.
Then I saw him and froze.
A buck. In the near distance. Twelve points to his rack of ivory-colored antlers, standing stock-still fifty, sixty feet away. His dark, broad chest flared against the sky. Bursts of white stormed from his nostrils as he snorted a warning not too come close to his herd. Sweat trickled down between my breasts. I had been looking for the eagle, bald-headed and bold, but a twelve-point buck was unusual, a sight Dad would have relished. Was this the sign he meant to send me?
Mouth open, lips stiff with cold, my breath became a film in front of my face. Suddenly, with a flick of his white tail, he turned away and bound for the safety of the cedars, the herd following hooves that barely touched the ground.
A slowly circling vulture dipped low to look at me, and a swifter red-tailed hawk flew circles around it, a sparrow on its tail. I was an intruder here.
The sky was turning a darker grey, with flecks of iron and indigo on the horizon and sleet began to sting my cheeks.
A flock of Canada geese nested in a wet ditch running parallel through the field just in front of our silvery split rail fence. They scattered as I approached and ascended into awkward flight skimming the earth with the tips of their wings.
Shivering now with a heart that felt pelted by sorrow, I picked up a dislodged goose feather. Dad had stuck one in the band of his canoeing hat, a Stetson that fell to the floor from its place on a rack of antlers mounted on a wall of our house, two days after he died. It was the first sign he sent my mother he was still with her.
I spoke aloud to the flock as it flew away in V formation, that I meant no harm. I was only looking for my father in all the places I thought he might be. I pushed the feather into my jacket pocket, a place he had once put agates and arrow heads and with my back to the cedar lot, I headed home.
This is me at age five, in front of Cedar Ridge Farm’s perennial rose garden holding a squirming, feral, barn kitten. I grew up on this farm and I live here now. This garden still exists and is filled with my grandmother’s peony and Iris.
Heirloom: My Memoir In Progress:
In 2014, I enrolled in the Vermont College of Fine Arts Creative Nonfiction Master’s program. I knew I wanted to write about place, nature and family, but I had no intention of writing a book…. I simply wanted to become a stronger writer, learn the craft and pick up where I left off after a Communications degree I left behind when I started a family.
I began the first semester writing essays about my family’s unique summer canoe trips through Ontario, Canada. My father organized and led them (with my mother by his side) entirely on his own. We were a completely self-sufficient group packing in all our gear and food, catching fish if supplies ran low, drinking lake water and picking thousands of low-bush blueberries to fill us up. I have many wonderful memories of those days and I couldn’t write fast enough to get them all down.
But my Dad died half-way through my first semester, and all of a sudden his death and my grief were all I could write about. Eventually by the middle of my final semester my advisor, the wonderful writer, Sue William Silverman, said, ” I think you have a book.”
Here is an excerpt from my memoir in -the-works tentatively titled Heirloom. It’s a story about my love for my Father and my family, his unfailing support of me, and about our fifth generation farm, Cedar Ridge –my heart’s home– the place he made sure my husband and I were able to buy when it came up for sale in 1995; the legacy he left me.
A Winter Mourning
I should have cut the clematis back but it was too late when I saw it through my bedroom window shrouded in ice and clinging to the gray latticework covering that hid an ugly propane tank behind one of our farm’s outbuildings. I should have pruned it back in the fall but my father had been failing since the beginning of spring and by the last few days of summer he began dying. I was too numb to think about even the most menial tasks in the gardens after we buried his ashes on the first of November. Household chores, returning phone calls, even heating more than a can of soup on the stove, were all outside the corral of grief I’d locked myself into.
On that cold day in January when I looked out the window and saw the clematis, the bed I had risen from stayed warm, and like other winter mornings that year, the tangled, cream-colored scalloped-edge sheets and lofted down duvet looked like a bird’s nest. I had woken earlier that morning and gone down stairs quietly to make a cup of coffee. I crept back into bed with the full and steaming mug, as had been my habit after he died, but I only curled back into my nest to sleep, leaving it untouched on my bedside table. Every morning that winter, the coffee went as cold as the ice in the corners of my old widow panes. It was almost eleven o’clock when I woke, and finally took a sip, still wrapped up in my father’s black and green tartan bathrobe– the one I kept when my mother cleaned out his closet. The flannel, so warm, draped around my ankles and encircled my body almost twice. Sitting up slowly, I looked out the window to gauge the weather. A gray day, again. Snow on the way, again. The clematis out there, burnt by cold. My father’s ashes.
I rose and caught sight of the vine with its roots buried under a bed of ice and snow—a reminder of the day two months ago we committed my him to the ground—no box, no bag—in a memorial garden at the back of our family church. The vine–a tangled mass of woody stems-like witch’s hair on a windy day— clung to its lattice support. I thought how my father would scold me– you should have pruned it before it had hardened off. It would be difficult to trim come spring. I knew that. He had taught me that. Instead, it would hang there, black and brittle for the rest of the winter right into spring– a daily reminder that both of us would be blistered by death right down to our roots.