Tuesday, September 22, 2009

For My Father, Who Would Have Been 87 Today

People say of someone who is no longer here: not a day goes by that I don't think of him. It's a way to express love, to say you think about a person every day. I don't say that about my father.
It doesn't capture how much I miss him.

Standard-issue words won't hold the thoughts and feelings in my life that relate to my father, my mentor, my first best friend.

I can't separate us. Not only does my love of the natural world, and gardening in particular, connect us, but within that, our preferences, predilections, aesthetics. The spicy green scent of crushed geranium is home to me no matter where I encounter it (pelargoniums, we now know, but in those days we called them geraniums). I am once again my father's Sidekick (for such was my nickname) in the San Francisco Bay Area, where anything is possible at any moment.

One of my father's geraniums got away from him. In a herculean spurt brought on by the most perfect confluence of soil, light and water, this particular plant reached a diameter at its trunk (imagine a pelargonium with a trunk!) that was so thick my father could not get his hands around it, and mine fit around it the way your ears fit around your head. It was taller than I was, and I was just about right for a girl in the first grade.

Then there was the fire in the bamboo grove. Dad built a clay and stone fire pit into the side of an embankment which he outfitted with a grill. We didn't just barbecue. We cooked outside, and somehow dad's grill made it all a big adventure.

One day sparks escaped and lit the dry interior leaves of the bamboo he had recently brought home and planted ("Bamboo is actually a large grass," he explained. "Who do you think has to mow it?" I asked. "Maybe Paul Bunyan," he suggested,"and if the grass is this tall, how big do you think the ants might be?"). Flames erupted immediately in the bamboo tinder.

In an instant, we were no longer cooking outdoors. We were firemen! The hose! The buckets! Keep the little ones away! We did it. We overcame the blaze. The bamboo lived to sprawl indefinitely, and it would have overtaken the entire garden if it had not been surgically removed several years later.

He brought me many things: cotton bolls from a field in Mississippi; candy that looked just like rocks from Las Vegas; Sequoia sempervirens pinecones that were over a foot long from the mighty Redwood Forest. The best thing he ever presented to me was the Indian washing rock.

It was round, somewhat flattened, and it sparkled slightly with the mica inclusions you see in California granite. This particular rock had rumbled through riverbanks for millenia: it was perfectly smooth on every surface, and perfectly symmetrical.

How did I know it was an Indian washing rock? Easy. From all our visits to the Spanish missions that dot California, we knew many little facts about the native populations whose land we lived upon. We knew what they ate. How they diapered their babies (shredded bark and cattails). How they sewed their garments with sinews. We also knew how they washed those garments: crouched by the edge of the river, with the clothing submerged, women pounded and pounded with round river rocks until the garments were clean.

There are many tons of river rocks in California that could serve this purpose. Any one of them, now discarded, could have been brought into service at one point or another and later forgotten until my father found it.

But he found this particular rock because it had a red and blue Indian design on it. What good fortune! And he brought it home to me.

I was overwhelmed to have an actual artifact in my hands. Immediately, I wanted to share my excitement by bringing it to school on Monday.

"Well," my father said, "it might be a better idea to keep it here and protect it--respect it. What if you brought it to school and something happened to it?"

"Something like what?" I asked.

"Peanut butter and jelly might take the design right off the rock, for one thing," he said. "Also, someone could drop it."

"Oh," I said, disappointed but convinced by his wisdom. "Let's leave it at home." That dropping a rock might hurt it seemed logical the way he said it.

So instead of bringing the rock to school, I worked with dad to build a felt-lined exhibition box for it, and we put it on a bookshelf where we could see it without having to touch it any more than necessary. That rock was my most important thing.

Gradually, with other treasures of childhood, the rock was forgotten. I grew up and realized that one afternoon my dad had probably stopped by a river that appealed to him (trout spotting from the riverbank in his Brooks Brothers suit?) and then came upon this perfectly shaped specimen. He couldn't resist picking it up. Looks like something Indian women might have used to wash their clothes. I know what I'll do...

One rounded river rock. One red and blue editing pencil. One extraordinarily imaginative and loving father. Those were the three ingredients that went into the creation of my best thing.

My rock is right here beside me as I write this morning. The image has faded but it remains visible. I can feel his energy and see the bold, artistic strokes my father made with his pencil in his hand.

The rock still radiates the sun as it shone on that California riverbank one day so long ago, when the mica glinted and caught the eye of a young father who had stopped his car to breathe in the beauty of the natural world. Then he picked up that rock and thought of his daughter, and he knew what she would like, so he brought into this world the touchstone she holds precious to this day.

It's your birthday, Dad, the first day of Autumn. It's sunny here in Seattle. But you're right--if I look closely, I can see that the sun's rays are cast at a lower angle than they were earlier in the summer. In the morning, I can smell the coming of fall now in the damp air. Please tell me one more time: how many hazel nuts can a squirrel put in her mouth? Is it a million or a billion?

Photography: Pelargonium, about.com; Giant Bamboo, Scotteaux, 8 January 2008.

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