Sunday, October 24, 2010

M&R: Quiet, Distant Things

Maeve appeared out of nowhere. Her delicate long snow-white fingers of her right bejeweled hand held a small plate of lefse and krumkake from the nearby picnic table. Her left hand held a long stem wine glass half full of red. She laid them quietly on the park bench next to Roxanne.

Roxanne held the youngest of their grandchildren in her lap. Norwegian Independence day celebrations even amongst the white blossoms of the Black Cherries of Central Park were a little too rowdy for slumbering tots. She sat upright on the bench, knees together, and eyes intently on the little one. She held the child with her left hand cupped underneath the head pinning the tiny ears in a vise like grip.

Maeve chuckled at her “sister”. As many children, grandchildren as they’d raised together, and Roxanne still looked like she feared dropping one of the little darlings. Maeve laid a gentle hand on the padded shoulders of Roxanne’s bunad.

Trying to imitate her husband’s voice, Maeve said, as she’d seen and heard her husband say to Roxanne a thousand times in this situation. “Relax.”

Roxanne’s shoulder’s fell. She tossed an appreciative glance towards Maeve. A smile came to her face. Her cheeks grew rosy; she turned the sleeping toddler in her arms and settled back in her woolen vest against the wooden bench. As Maeve slipped away to tend to the older children still eating tea sandwiches and chowder, Roxanne began thinking about quiet distant things to calm herself and the grandchild.

Across the park the cupola of one of the follies shined with a bronze hue. She chuckled to herself thinking about her first husband. Rex was such a force of nature; straw-colored hair, a wrestler’s body, a perpetual grin and endless energy. She sighed in remembrance of their carefree youthful marriage. He’d suggested late one night that they go camping. She pointed out he had to be a work the next day. He answer was, “We’ll take an alarm clock.” Sleeping bags in tow they drove his little car to the top of a pyramid-shaped “cinder cone” east of town. In the dim headlights she made out the sensuous form of an ancient windswept bristlecone pine where the firebreak stopped. It alone had managed to survive atop this shifting pile of pumice since the end of volcanic activity four hundred years before. Roxanne recalled hesitating at that moment. Now, she smiled at herself for the delicious night’s sleep that followed. While Rex laid out the sleeping bags, Roxanne braided her wild flaming hair and wrapped it in a stocking cap. Roxanne sang the praises of the brilliant stars above, as Roxanne snuggled into her bag. The soft rusty pumice pebbles, conformed to her shape and eased her towards sleep. Not a breathe of air moved the brilliant celestial lights.

She woke to soft crunching noises as her husband moved. He’d brought Danishes and pints of half-n-half for them to breakfast on. He wished his bride “Good morning, sleepy-head” and returned to gazing towards the East. Roxanne remembered rising from the soft cinders to see what her beloved stared at so seriously. She gasped then, and now Roxanne chuckled softly in warm memory of the moment. Before her emerald eyes laid the graceful “dawn” before the dawn in all its panoramic glory. A thousand feet below her, the Colorado Plateau rolled eastern, swallowing up small cinder cones, racing across the arroyos forming Walnut Creek, gobbling up lesser ridgelines, rushing across the Painted Desert and merging on the horizon with the Navajo Reservation. A cloudless sky the dim color of morning fog veiled the line between the world below and world above. Her husband whispered something about “streaks” as though not to spook them and after a moment she would see the bronze hue rising; gloriously streaming to heaven afar. She followed them heavenwards only to be unable to see them; the Milky Way blazed still above them. A gasp started out of her. Returning to the horizon the metallic light was almost too bright. The proverbial rosy fingers of the dawn rose in great shafts across the horizon to signal the stars departure. Distant ground fog formed. The brighten light revealed the hidden inversion layers among the canyon. The desert breeze began to move about slowly as though still stiff from a sound sleep. Radiant beams burst through the horizon onto her face. Roxanne gasped.

At that moment Roxanne took in a deep breathe of the chill morning air and found herself back on a park bench with the baby asleep in her arms. She smiled at the delightful old memory.

Across the way, Maeve and the little girls (in the glacial blue bunards of Alaska’s Little Norway) were putting away the picnic. The little boys waving miniature Norwegian flags in the air insisted their grandfathers take them swimming.

Roxanne laughed at the thought of sleeping bags. She hadn’t slept in a sleeping bag since God only knows when! When she turned 29 for the 11th time, she announced that they would be no more sleeping in the dirt! Except for that time at the cabin. Now,a gentler softer smile graced her rosy face. Their men folk at the deer camp awoke them in the middle of the night. “Leonid Showers!” her brother-in-law whispers over the satellite phone as though he hadn’t wakened all the adults in the house. Her grown stepdaughters were relieved that it wasn’t bad news and excited about seeing the meteorites showers. Maeve volunteered to stay behind with the youngest children who’d stayed asleep through the general alarm anyway. Roxanne and her stepdaughters gathered up all the older girls, sleeping bags and blankets they could.

Accompanied by the family’s dark-furred, sharp-fanged Jake and Gizmo, she led them all down to the bank of the Stikine River and settled into the dry river-washed sand above the high-tide mark. Roxanne smiled in delight at the memory; the young women and their daughters oohed and aahed at the passing of each ephemeral streak in the Alaska’s star-studded sky. She recalled with a heave of her ample chest how her darling little granddaughters had gathered around her, in her lap and under her blankets to guard against the chill. Each had to outdo the other’s in pointing out the fast-moving stars. “Grandmother look!” “Over her too grandmother”. “Aunt Roxanne, look here.” Now on the park bench she felt warmed by the cool memories. (Maeve always says she is the single most adorned person in their broad extended family.)

Naturally, Maeve’s (secret) favorite granddaughter got them all to notice the starlight dancing atop the overhead glaciers. Agatha convinced everyone to lie in the soft sand and wait. After a few moments of quiet, the stars seemed to grow brighter. When the little girls fingers were no longer tracing the falling stars from the sky, it get their eyes a chance to see the finer bits of light falling by the thousands over their heads of the bevy to dark-haired little girls. All was calm, all was bright.
With warm little children in her arms under the pile of blankets, they were all soon fast asleep.

Little Gizmo, wagging her whole moppish body, licked Roxanne awake shortly after that. With children in their arms, the women returned to their “girls-only slumber party” in the cabin. Still sleepy and fretting over her granddaughters, Roxanne never noticed the absence of Gizmo’s big, drooling mate. It wasn’t until the next morning when they found the paw prints in the dew-drenched sand, did they realize Jake had been keeping the bears at bay.

Roxanne turned her body a little to keep the slumbering tot from the sun and brushed back a black lock of his stray hair. “Holy infant so tender and mild.” She more whispered that sang. Then laughed and admitted to herself that she was no round young virgin!

She thought fondly of Maeve’s love of the Christmas Eve service at the Lutheran Church. They always arrived as early so the whole clan would sit together in the balcony. It was warmest there, what with the heavily bundled crowd below and the heat from the candles decorating the church. Roxanne chuckled again. Heat was an important considerations given that the furnace had failed twice in her memory during that service. (Once was a power failure.) As the little children tottered between sleep and excitement about Santa’s visit, their parent and grandparents watched the pews below become packed with women in bunards worn only for high holidays at church and the week-long festivities during Little Norway Days. The men all wore Norwegian sweaters with the exception of Maeve and Roxanne’s family. All their men wore three piece wool suits.

Two enormous trees flanked the altar, one dressed in ornamental balls of red ribbon, the other done up in white Christmas tree decorations. Twinkling lights peeked out from the foliage of both trees. Fresh cut spruce bows decorated the window sills (cedar was too rare and hemlock shed needles too quickly). Amongst them stood candles in tall glasses lighting the holy silent night outside with love’s pure light. Most years the ushers and “owners of the church” brought folding chairs out of the fellowship hall to seat the overflowing crowd. The congregation seemed more subdued, if not actually louder than normal, but that was probably due to its size. Pastor would be somber and nervous. Here was one of his twice a year chances to convert the heathens (husbands) accompanying their families. The service was all about shepherds quaking at the sight, Christmas carols and peace on earth. As the overhead lights began to dim, the acolytes lit their own candles from the “Jesus Candle” before the festive altar. Pacing with practiced steps down the aisle, they would share the holy flame with worshipers on either side. They in turned passed it on to those beside them. His light and warmth spread through the church. A silence full of awe fell upon the worshippers as they began to sing softy and sweetly of a silent night, holy night, … “Sleep in heavenly peace”, heavenly hosts and “Jesus, Lord at Thy birth " They were in the presence of the Almighty. That blessed assurance stayed with Roxanne and her family as they blew a kiss that darkened their candles as they filed out of the nave. In addition, on a rare occasion, on the holiest night of the year, fresh flakes of snow would be falling as they exited.

Something soft and silky slipped down the back of her neck. A cold chill ran down her body. If it weren’t for the sleeping babe in her arms, Roxanne would have jumped up screaming. She looked up to see the cherry blossoms floating earthward like new falling snow.