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Tag Archives: musings

Mr Popper & Myself

D and Mr PopperMy mother is perhaps 13 in this small photo. It’s the mid-1920s and she’s looking a little flapperish.

On the back of the photo is written, “To Dorothy From Margaret West.” Perhaps on this spring day in Milwaukee Margaret and Dorothy dressed up and went to a party, or the silent pictures. On the way home they encountered the local constabulary, Mr. Popper, and Dorothy asked Margaret to take her photo. The ever-accommodating Mr. Popper is mildly amused.

Dorothy is holding a newspaper, part hanging down and part flipped up across her chest. Maybe there’s something noteworthy in the paper — something about Dorothy herself, or her school, or her father.

Or perhaps there’s no story, just a record of a moment when a girl shows a new composure, a new self-awareness, when grooming is not simply a matter of complying with Mother’s instructions, but a tiny and newly discovered window into self-expression.

view from year’s end

2015-12-31 goldfish
Up here on Sumas Mountain, the thermometer reads 24 degrees and though the sky is clear and it’s sunny in the valley below, the sun hasn’t yet made its way over the mountain. There’s enough frost on the grass that it almost looks like snow. In the small pool at the front door, the two goldfish move very slowly under the ice. A few birds flit among the blackberry stalks.

From this chilly vantage, at year’s end, I find that the forces of optimism and despair continue to battle for my attention. Although surely the scale of self-centered fear, shortsightedness and greed are greater than ever — impacts amplified by the sheer numbers of us on the planet — what I understand of earlier eras suggests that where human nature is concerned, little has changed. On the other hand, there is art and community, nature and beauty and love. There is the opportunity to create. These are likely evidence of privilege and freedom, for which I, for one, am very, very grateful.

Under the stiffening layer of ice, we move as we’re able.

With gratitude for your attention and wishes for a better 2016,

deux femmes

1966 - DAK w Tête de femmeIt’s 1966. In Antibes, at the Grimaldi, my mother examines Picasso’s Tête de femme aux grands yeux. My father’s black-and-white photograph emphasizes the rough texture and stark volumes of the sculpture. His own woodcarving was much influenced by the abstracted forms of Picasso, Brancusi, Arp, Noguchi and Henry Moore, which he studied with an engineer’s eye — not to replicate but to understand.

In the photograph, through some trick of light, angle or scale, the perspective is slightly off. Dorothy and the Tête seem to vie for the same plane, advancing and retreating, one in front, then the other. Whether my father saw that, at the time or later, I don’t know. Nor can I guess whether he framed the image with tongue in cheek, these two commanding women caught side-by-side in the stillness of their unique beauty.


DAK color study - backThe shelves and file drawers still bulge with my mother’s small paintings, drawings, handmade paper, collages and other ephemera. I consider these one by one, as I do the photographs, hoping for insight.

A rejected portrait of a pear occupies the back of an undated, unsigned 6 x 9-inch abstract color study on Arches paper. Dorothy applied the paint — perhaps acrylic — in translucent glazes, considering the colors, the roundness, the gloss of the fruit. But in the end, it was not the pear she wanted and before using the other side, she scribed a firm X through her effort.

She often painted on top of previous paintings, preserving some elements or obliterating the original entirely. But something about this pear was evidently beyond redemption — perhaps its bulging shoulder or pinched waist — and could only remain a haunting substratum to any future image. Still, she loved pears as both food and objects and painted them summer after summer.

Whether with brushes or words, we keep trying to get it right, every poem or essay (the very word!) a sketch, an underlayer to something better — or not. We pick away at vision and understanding, archaeologists with dental tools, miniaturists peering through the magnifying lens, hoping some part of the image will resolve, make sense, escape, for a while, the banishing X.
. . . . .
more on sketches


mallets by LRKMy father was a fierce advocate of the tool-for-every-job philosophy. He also believed that owning tools was a partnership and that a tool would function well only if it was maintained properly. I can see him testing a knife or chisel blade against the pad of his thumb; a chisel that was not sharp was not worthy of the name.

An engineer by trade and nature, he also understood that things didn’t always work as intended. If the tool didn’t do the job, he would figure out a way to make it work.

Before repetitive motion injury had entered the vocabulary, tool handles were one of Les’s most persistent frustrations. A wood sculpture might require thousands of mallet hits against the chisel, hours of abrading with rasps and files and sandpaper blocks. If the tool didn’t fit the hand, the entire body paid the price.

So new or modified handles were one of his most consistent fixes. Sometimes it was just a matter of carving a smooth thumb-well into a chisel handle to keep the chisel from rotating; other times a new handle became a sculpture in itself. Or an entirely new tool.

Thumb testing the blade of this musing, I see that words are also tools. Practice, sharpen, adapt, invent. Repeat.
. . . . .
mallets by LRK, 1963

turning point

DAK asparagus and artichokes
When she was 70, my mother had surgery that kept her in the hospital for a while and on a low-roughage diet for even longer. Days before her 71st birthday, she sent me a note on the back of this drawing. “Oh How I love those asparagus and artichokes!” it says, her arms full of vegetables, her belly showing a neat line of stitches.

Dorothy did love asparagus — green or white, hot or cold, slathered in brown butter or dipped in creamy sauce. At dinner with my grandmother in some swank restaurant, she didn’t hesitate to pick up the green spears with her fingers and she joked that we should put asparagus on her grave in lieu of flowers. (When the time came, there was no grave — her ashes, like my father’s, scattered at sea. His choice, I’ve always believed, which she followed, perhaps longing for asparagus into eternity.)

Torn from her sketchbook, the note celebrated her post-operative return to driving and to her volunteer job as a peer counselor. “It also was a bit scary,” she wrote, “Would I be as nice as everyone thought I was in absentia?”

Dorothy’s surgery was a turning point for me as well. Since I had left home, all my return visits had been constrained by my mother’s needs and aggressive scheduling of my time. But during those couple of weeks, I had her car and many hours of freedom between my visits to the hospital and meals with my father. Suddenly Los Angeles changed from the quite-limited place I knew as a child to a vibrant city where, for the first time, I could imagine being an adult. Having left home at 17, I could also see that if I was to have an adult relationship with my parents, this would be the time. After nine years in Seattle, I was ready for a change and later that year I wrapped things up and moved to L.A. to begin the next, as it turned out, long chapter in my life.

Even now, back in the Northwest for a decade, Dorothy gone for longer than that, it’s my mother I think of when I see the profusion of asparagus and artichokes growing in local gardens, when I pick up a bright green spear with my fingers and take that first crisp bite.

Mother’s Day

first Mother's Day jik-DAKIt’s my first Mother’s Day. I’m three months old; my mother is 37. Neither of us look entirely certain about the arrangement.

In my baby book, Dorothy has already noted that I “grew high and wide from the beginning,” that I was “unusually greedy for food” and that by the time this photo was taken, she had already added cereal to my formula because I “was always hungry.” Though it’s hard to know what she might have imagined about motherhood, this was more than she had bargained for.

It took her a long time to realize that neither she, nor I, could go back. The clock would not be unwound; her carefree life could not be recaptured.

Her hope for that miracle persisted, but, to her enormous credit, she became Mommy. If her enthusiasm for the role was limited, my father and Dr. Spock offered balance and direction. I thrived, grew high and wide, and learned to tread lightly.

I’m grateful — for all she did right and all the many, many things she could have, but didn’t, do wrong. Still, I wish that somehow she could have had the life and happiness she wanted.

a missing tile

DAK smoking
I never saw my mother smoke; she quit just before I was born. In this photo, taken late in her pregnancy, Dorothy holds what was perhaps one of her last cigarettes. She looks pensive and calm. She’s wearing polka dots.

I don’t know where the picture was taken, or who took it. I’ve never seen the actual photograph. What I have is a print on plain paper and it’s curious to think that someone else — who, I wonder — has or had the original. Who would have wanted it more than Dorothy herself?

There is so much we don’t know — tiles missing from the mosaic we assemble each morning into our world view. Still, we turn them into a picture, call it complete, think we know what we know. Until we find a missing tile.

I love polka dots.

September, wistfully

Jonagold applesAfter the rain — yesterday’s really BIG rain — the morning earth is nearly black, the greens ultra green. In some places, September is the hottest month. But here, in our corner of Cascadia, the word Fall has found its way into many conversations. There’s a chill in the morning and evening, and leaves on the ground. I consider that it might be time to put away the fans, time for a heavier blanket on the bed, for sweaters and socks, for moving a pile of firewood nearer the back door. The garden beckons me with its autumn work, apples heavy on the tree, a last clutch of plums ready to pluck.

Father’s Day

LRK and Taco - 1964Put off by the weight of advertising circulars in each day’s newspaper, I think about how little my father relished shopping. He would find something he liked — faded blue denims, for example — and buy several at once, railing at the world when they eventually became unavailable and he was forced into change. He accepted my mother’s additions to his closet, mostly without notice or comment, though he was always reluctant to part with the clothes that had been wear-softened to perfection, with their frayed edges and incipient holes.

He readily got dirty with whatever engaged him and eagerly got clean when it was done.

He wore bow-ties for every occasion that required a tie, including work, but vastly preferred casual comfort, changing from street clothes into old favorites as soon as he came home. (I do this too.) When he retired, his ties retired, and except for the rare wedding, he never wore them again — sometimes being the only man in the room without one. I think he was not unaware that he was a handsome man, but never preened or fussed, his appearance being merely another given, like hair color or height. He was easy in himself.

I miss him.

. . . . .
photo: Les with Taco, a brand-new member of the family, 1964

random gratitude…

Dorothy at 36
My mother made the Two Hardest Decisions entirely on her own, without discussion or persuasion.

One day, when she was in her 80s and my father was still alive, Dorothy announced that she was not going to drive any more. Another day, about three years after my father died and my mother was already on the slippery slope of dementia, she turned to me and, absolutely lucid, said, “I’m feeling too isolated in the house. I want to move to assisted living.”

In each of these choices, once she determined her path, she never looked back. That’s not to say there weren’t some terrible struggles getting her into and out of the car, when she would plant her feet and stiffen her frail 100-pound body, refusing to bend, responding to a Stop sign that only she could see. And that’s not to say that she didn’t sometimes complain about the food at the place she called “this hotel.”

But for all the difficulty we had being mother and daughter, these two decisions were immeasurable gifts and I continue, more than a decade after her passing, to be grateful.
. . . . .
photo: Dorothy at age 36

the search

1932 - Dottie at 21My mother always wanted to be this version of herself: happy-go-lucky party girl, zany and carefree. But she also wanted to be taken seriously, to be seen as an intellectual. And she wanted to be sexy and beautiful. And she wanted to be the elegant, cultured, ladylike person her family expected her to be. And she wanted to be free of the constraints of her family’s expectations.

Throughout her life, she struggled with these desires, embodying a little bit of each of them, always looking for the moment when they would be fully integrated into the Dorothy she waited to see in the mirror. Even in her artwork, she “tried on” style after style, looking for the one she could own, the one that would be a mature and original expression of her true self.

I recognize this search.

her tractor years

Dorothy on tractorIt’s hard for me to imagine my mother on a tractor, but there she is, next to a bare-chested and bereted man I can’t identify. She was a fair-skinned redhead who avoided the sun and could never be called outdoorsy, but there she is, in scarf and sunglasses, facing into the wide glare of afternoon.

Her tractor years were the war years, when she worked at Lockheed and was part-owner of a horse. She looks happy in the pictures from that time, unencumbered and unselfconscious. Her face is relaxed, her smile genuine. She has friends and work and, in a way that was unique in her lifetime, worth.

Perhaps the land and the horses and tractors — and the people who tended them — allowed her to forget her feelings of inadequacy and ugliness. Maybe she could stop comparing, stop measuring herself against others and against the lofty impossibility of her mother’s expectations.

A sketchbook always tucked into her purse or pocket, she has dirt on her shoes and the smell of horse on her hands. She has an easy comfort in her body, fresh air on her skin. I wish I had known her.


fringed figure by jikThe drawing is undated, but my mother’s notations on similarly-fringed crayon artwork suggest I might have been between 3 and 4 when I made this one. How constrained it is, already. How tidily the blocks of color meet, but do not overlap, one another. And the palette — no red, no green, but these dark hues, and two pinks and a generous lozenge of yellow. Who was this girl and what did she see, without or within?

Home from several intense days at a huge writers conference, I leaf through a tattered scrapbook until I recognize this small figure rendered in such odd colors. I’ve returned with stuffed pockets — materials and conversations and the words of fine writers to be sorted and recalled, considered and absorbed.

Still buzzing and overwhelmed, not yet bursting with concrete ideas, I feel the electric pull of possibility as I lean into the wide canvas of morning.


Palazzo dei Conservatori, Roma
The woman in the photograph is not the mother I knew. From her beret and straightened hair to her sensible shoes, she is outfitted for travel: a “good” suit, a voluminous purse, the ever-present guide book. The constrained 1950s still in evidence, she carried white gloves, wore a girdle and stockings and packed no pants.

My mother was a good traveler, mostly untroubled by the physical ailments that plagued her at home. She did research, highlighted maps, constructed an itinerary filled with art. She carried and used a sketchbook and a tiny watercolor set.

Although he would have been entirely content to stay home and play in his workshop, my father enjoyed these trips, too. He carried the suitcases, drove the dizzying European roads, wore a tie, took photographs with his tiny Minox camera and identified each one in his engineer’s printing: “FRAGMENT CONSTANTINE (?) / PALAZZO DEI CONSERVATORI / ROME 10/63.”

I wonder how my mother felt when she was being this person. The counterpoint to her desire to be “normal” was her desire to be seen as zany and wild. She struggled throughout her life to be accepted, admired, desired — by others and by her self.

Perhaps here she was comforted by her successful adherence to the Rules, by her ability to don the camouflage of a sophisticated traveler. But two weeks was never enough to manifest any real change. The disappointments of home waited for her at the foot of the airplane steps. The understandable order of travel would be packed away with the suitcases. Ordinariness would assert itself. The struggle would resume.


This is JakeI never knew my mother’s father, Jake, who died more than a dozen years before I was born, but among the things my mother kept was a small notebook of his. It’s soft leather, pigskin, perhaps, and much worn with handling. Embossed on the front are the words COMPLIMENTS OF BRODY & FUNT* and a New York address. Calendars for 1907 and 1908 line the front and back covers and printed pages include a compendium of essential information, such as USDA Weather Bureau Explanation of Flag Signals; the National Bankruptcy Law; Facts about Panama; Height and Weight of Men; New York Hotels; and much more.

Jake sold insurance, and tucked inside the notebook is a cellophane cigar sleeve imprinted with his name and New York Life Ins. Co. There’s also a long (14 column Jake's notebookinches!) newspaper article from the Milwaukee Journal, “Journal Carrier Upholds His Rights,” that recounts the trials and triumph of young “Jakey,” whose newspaper delivery route put him crossways with a local citizen. I imagine him bringing out the ten-year-old much-refolded article to regale customers and anyone else he might encounter on the road.

The blue-graph-paper pages of the notebook are covered with my grandfather’s untidy writing, the contents as eclectic as the book’s printed pages. Some are reminders, scrawled and crossed out, “Ma G birthday Oct 2,” (his mother-in-law, my great-grandmother). Many pages are covered with columns of names and numbers — perhaps a record of installments paid or owed by his customers.

But the pages that interest me most are collections of cryptic notations — “Barber, where do you get shaved” — “Keep off Michigan Ave. (rubber ball)” — a firm line dividing each note from the next. Whether these are observations, punch lines, song lyrics or random firings of Jake’s magpie mind, I can’t know.

Maybe, if I keep studying it, this little book will teach me something about my mother. Or maybe a few of these unmelodic lines will find their way into poems: collaborations with the laughing man I never knew.
. . . . .
*Brody & Funt, as the first interior page explains in eight lines of text and a half-dozen different typestyles, were “Makers of well made popular priced Ladies’ and Misses’ Cloaks, Suits, and Tailor Made Wash Suits, separate coats and skirts.”


The dream is gone, but displayed on the marquee of my sleep-memory are three words: ICE COW PANCAKE. There are no lines drawn between these disconnected dots, only the three breadcrumbs.

Google tries (cow pancake, pancake bunny), but offers no ah-ha; amazingly, cowWikipedia, knower of all things, doesn’t even show up on the first search page.

I suppose I’ll have to craft the Wikipedia entry myself, and begin watching the little movie that projects in my mind: ice-skating cows on a pancake lake, cow-shaped icebergs in pancake parkas, pancake cows grazing on an icy meadow….Um, I better go now.
pancake. . . . .
ice cow pancake

tea leaves…

jik age 6 to DAK side 1

jik age 6 to DAK side 2

jik age 6 to DAK envelopeMuch has been thrown away, but over the years my father, my mother and I each made decisions about things that would be kept. This letter, which I wrote at age 6, was in a folder my father labeled “Treasures.”

I read it like tea leaves: the chaos of a rare rainy day in Los Angeles, the sudden rainbow, the two names with their inverted letters — Jan, the girl I envied, the girl I wanted to be, from earliest school days, and Julie, my best friend.

And the letter itself: the formality of Dear Mother (had her long absence when I was 3 and 4 changed her from Mommy and tucked a wedge of caution or suspicion into our relationship ever after?), the surprise of the quite-adult suppose, the unfinished because you, the picture of my red-headed mother in a fancy dress walking a green dog.

The letter covers both sides of a sheet of newsprint and another sheet has been folded in 6-year-old fashion into an envelope, with a liberal application of Scotch tape, and addressed in ballpoint pen, each letter carefully inscribed twice over.

So much is unknown. Sentences unfinished. Wrong-headed suppositions. But as my friends will attest, I still sign my letters xoxo and I can’t resist a green dog.

and yet another postcard…

Oberndorfer-Aarons card

Oberndorfer-Aarons card backI know so little of my grandfather (seated at right, with his sister’s husband). I think my mother liked him, but she didn’t talk about him much except to say he was the youngest of ten children, always a joker, ready with a prank, and he died young.

In his six-page handwritten letter to his future in-laws asking for my grandmother’s hand, he wrote, “…promise you now & forever that you will not find me lacking in any detail of true manliness, & devotion for your dear and my dear.”

His gold wedding band, on my middle finger, is engraved inside, January 15, ’07. My mother wore it; she had it on when she died.

Here, at age 27, his life more than half over, bowlered and cigared and finely dressed in the voluminous fashion of 1910, he looks like he can barely contain the impulse to jump up and be silly.

in sepia memory
color of your eyes
timbre of your voice
chromosomal gift

questions for my mother…

1923 - D and girls

What were you at 12, on your birthday, in the very front, where you liked to be, your hair smoothed, for the moment, into a bob, like all the other girls? And who were those girls? Did you giggle together and share secrets? Or were they being nice to you because it was your birthday? Did you carry, already, your small tarnished coin of betrayal and fear? At 12, on your birthday, smiling uncertainly into the hard spring sun, were you happy?

I want to think of you as innocent, happy, undamaged. But in your face I can see only the self you gave me: wounded, lonely, hungry, afraid, peering ahead toward rescue.