Letting go, part 1

in which I process Bethany’s growing up.

[picture, Pine Cone, oil & canvas, by Bethany]Bethany and I have always been close. She wore a “Daddy’s Girl” tee shirt to school in her middle school years, and she visits my classroom after school most days in high school, or at least she did until this year. She’s a senior with lots of AP courses and art she’s always having to finish afternoons in the school’s art wing. She still comes by some, mostly to take my money or my food, but I’m fine with that, like most dads of seventeen-year-old girls.

Our relationship is changing, of course, and I haven’t always seen the changes coming. At a recent school dance – I’m expected to chaperone dances – I left my self-appointed post by the snack table to foray onto the dance floor, and Bethany intercepted me immediately and explained that I made her date nervous. Victoria and she have assured me that I won’t be attending this year’s prom, and since my principal, whose oldest daughter is a year older than Bethany, is going through similar life changes, I expect I’m off the hook.

But no single event exposes the changes Bethany and I are facing as much as the the fifteen-month college search that ended a couple of weeks ago. I took a keen interest in this project early on, and I had definite ideas about where Bethany should apply to. I knew all along that her college was her choice, but I guess I wasn’t willing to let her make it.

Years ago, I wasn’t sure Bethany would have so many good college choices. Bethany struggled with elementary school. She was diagnosed with ADD, and she had special accommodations to help her through. I remember visiting her second grade classroom on some parent visit day. All the other students sat at their desks, and there was Bethany, shy as she was, standing up by her desk the entire hour, hard at work.

Bethany is a born artist and would have done well in a less structured setting. School did not play to her strengths, and she hated it for years and often came home crying. One day, though, a middle school guidance counselor visited her elementary school, painted a glowing picture of college, and warned her audience that they wouldn’t get there without applying themselves in middle school and high school.

Bethany took the message to heart. She found ways to accommodate school just at the time the school was taking away its accommodations for her. She was diagnosed with anxiety in eighth or ninth grade, and she’ll have to tell the story herself of how she has struggled with it and has largely overcome it in high school. She worked hard and took more and more challenging courses as the years went on. She learned the game of school and reconciled it with her perfectionism and her need to learn things her own way and at her own speed, which is slow.

Sometimes she had to be pushed. Her parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents confronted her one evening at our annual beach vacation over her choice to eschew honors English during her upcoming ninth grade year. She ended up accepting a $5-a-head bribe to take the course. She’s been in honors English ever since, and for three years in high school she was the top student in her English class. The girl who was placed in the lowest reading circle in elementary school got close to a perfect reading comprehension score on her SAT last fall.

Throughout most of middle and high school, however, art was her safety valve, the course that made most everything else palatable. She got really jazzed about pottery, metalworking and jewelry-making, and she began to understand that small, three-dimensional art of some kind would be part of her life’s work. Most of high school art is of the two-dimensional variety, however, so Bethany put off the idea of developing her main passion until college.

Along the way, she discovered new interests that complement her art. She and I have always read a lot of books and poetry to each other, and her love of literature and writing has grown. She also loves biology and psychology, and she has done well in both of those fields. I love the social sciences and have no skill and little interest in science; literature is where Bethany and I intersect. But she has become interested in and proficient in many more areas of learning than I ever was, and her success contributed to the college-search drama that came to a head late last month.

We have visited a dozen colleges since spring of last year, mostly state colleges that seemed good matches for her interests, her temperament, and our limited teacher incomes. Most schools had something she liked very much, and it was fun to watch her process her experiences and refine what she wanted from a college. She went, for example, from preferring a medium-sized university to preferring a small college with some heritage and beauty to it. But her chief concern never changed – during each visit, she always took a long, hard look at the college’s studio art program.

This past year’s family beach week came in the middle of Bethany’s search. Instead of bribing her as it had done three years earlier, her extended family brainstormed with her about possible colleges. We poured over three catalogs of colleges we had picked up at the Island Bookstore at the beginning of our trip. It got Bethany, Victoria, and me looking beyond Virginia to colleges we couldn’t afford without need-based grants and academic scholarships. My father suggested a strong, small liberal arts college that seemed to fit Bethany very well on paper. Earlier that day I had met a graduate of that school for the first time, a clerk at the bookstore, a young English teacher with whom I had talked shop and from whom I had accepted a recommendation to buy an excellent poetry anthology. I went back to the bookstore and talked with him about the school; he couldn’t have been more informative or enthusiastic about his four years there.

We packed up the car and made the seven-hour drive to that college during a break in school this past November. Most college student bodies seem to develop a personality that can be caricatured; at least, the ones we read about did. This school’s did, too, and it fit Bethany better than any one we had visited. The students there love to talk about what they’re learning, and they learn for learning’s sake with little regard for their eventual careers. They are a little nerdy, but in an endearing way, I suppose, and they are, as a whole, unpretentious. No formal dress and no overriding frat scene. The college has a high professor-to-student ratio, a very well-respected and friendly faculty, a strong writing program (one of the few colleges that has students write across the curriculum, as we pedagogues say), a gorgeous setting, fine facilities, and (this is unusual) good food, from the students’ point of view. It also has fewer students than Bethany’s high school. The students are not cut-throat but supportive of one another despite the school’s academic reputation – a very important factor for Bethany, who withers in a competitive environment over the long run. She felt at home, she said – a feeling she hadn’t had up to that point. But she went away disappointed with the college because its art facilities were nothing like the art college she had visited the previous spring.

The art college’s facilities are unbelievable. Its art program spans seventeen buildings, most of them devoted to studio arts. It has a huge building dedicated to just the BFA studio arts candidates’ first year – the “foundations” year – and it has BFA degree programs for things as specialized as fabrics, jewelry and metals, glass, and ceramics. Bethany seemed so completely in her element when she visited there, and we visited that school three times. She had a long interview with one of the school’s deans and several conversations with professors and an administrator, all of them responsive and friendly. And it is the top art school in the country for one of the fields of art Bethany is most interested in pursuing, and one of the top ten in all of the other fields she’s interested in.

Bethany applied regular decision to six colleges and universities this past December, generally following the usual advice: apply to one or two “stretch” schools, one or two schools that fit your GPA and board scores, and one or two “fallback” schools. She first heard from the art school, which responded in December, long before the April 1 response date most colleges assign themselves. The art achool admitted her into their honors program with a full tuition and fees scholarship. The excitement around here was unbelievable. Although the program wasn’t as strong academically as the other colleges she had applied to, the other schools’ studio arts programs and facilities paled in comparison to this one’s. The honors program would help compensate for the school’s lower academic standards since it had a limited enrollment, small classes, and the school’s best professors teaching the classes. Bethany began to see herself going there, and the steady drumbeat of correspondence from the school raised her interest level even more. I was very impressed with the school and only encouraged Bethany’s interest in the school.

We learned by late March that she was wait-listed by one school but was accepted by the others, including her top three choices besides the art school. The two private colleges she had applied to offered her significant financial aid grants, and one of them – the one we visited in November – offered her a nice scholarship as well.  Now we were really excited. We knew she had done well in school and on her boards, but we didn’t know, particularly in this year when the number of applications to many colleges spiked by five or ten percent or more, how Bethany would fare. She got in some colleges to which some of her friends had submitted strong applications based on prior years’ admission statistics but to which they were ultimately not admitted.

Last month, Bethany essentially narrowed her choice to a decision between the private, liberal arts college we had visited in November and the art college. The differences between the schools were significant, and they represented two large aspects of Bethany. The liberal arts college represented her late-blooming academic success and her newly understood interest in literature and science. The art college represented what she was born to do – to make art.

I was beside myself with joy that she had gotten into the liberal arts college, and I quickly decided that it was where she needed to go. I reasoned that she could always get her MFA metals and jewelry degree after graduating from there. Victoria agreed with me; she believed that, overall, Bethany would be happier in a small college where students loved learning for learning’s sake. So I began implementing a propaganda campaign – subtle, by my standards, and fully in line with her prerogative to choose, I felt – to persuade Bethany to choose the liberal arts college.

Next posts:

Part 2, in which God gets my attention through textual insight

Part 3, in which Bethany selects a college

[Above photo is of Pine Cone, oil and pastel, by Bethany]

In celebration of SoloPoMo (Solo Poem Month), I hope to blog every day in May using Charles Wright’s poem “Images from the Kingdom of Things” from his 2006 volume Scar Tissue.  I’m not sure how many of these posts will explicitly refer to the poem, but I hope there’ll be some connection with the poem each time, if only felt.

Posted May 9, 2010.

Hymn 236

Bethany, our thirteen-year-old, has always loved to hear me whistle. I didn’t know I was that good until she told me I was, and I believe her because I want to. She’s pretty good now herself, and she joins me when she hears me whistle a familiar tune.

I had a song stuck in my head this morning when she wasn’t around. It was a Christmas carol my dad whistles out of season, like on summer mornings on the way to his car. When I was a kid, my second-floor room faced the front of our house, just above the cars. I always felt a bit lazy, lying in bed and watching my father’s shoulders and the tops of his head and shoes, and hearing snatches of his whistling coming through the screen beside me.

My mind wasn’t hearing my dad whistle at first. This morning I was tuned into the same organ crescendo he probably plays in his mind some of these summer mornings – the final verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” played at my hometown Episcopal church, sort of a high church where a good organ and organist can transport a congregant up and out of a blue collar shipyard town for an hour or so.

I don’t strictly whistle. Like Pop, I kind of whistle-warble and I throw in some “ya da da”s and even some words when they suit or come to mind. However, I’ve kind of taken Pop’s tools and built a louder and more obnoxious version of whistling, because I want to capture the drama built into the particular performance I am recalling. I wish to amuse myself. Pop’s whistling seems haphazard and thoughtless in comparison, more like the bubbles from an underground spring. He doesn’t consider his whistling on his way to the car, probably. The hymns in his head are kind of a quiet benefit of regular church attendance, the agreeable background noise of clean living.

Pop and I were the optimists in our family when I was growing up, or at least my mother says so. She alone makes determinations like this, since my father doesn’t speak about himself or about any of their three children in so sweeping a manner. His comments about someone tend to involve concrete proficiencies. He says, for instance, that I “interview well”– a point made in one of the many stories he enjoys retelling. (I love hearing that story.) He also has very little to say on abstract points concerning our faith and deflects all questions of doctrine to my mother, whom he refers to on such occasions as “the Vice-President in Charge of Religion.” Mom sometimes expresses what Pop feels at his core, the things he nurtured silently, perhaps while sitting for hours on the porch a lot of weekend afternoons, enjoying a quiet space away from a busy law practice. When my mother articulates a heart matter well, my father sometimes wipes away a tear or two, hearing it put just right.

I inherited my mother’s pull toward abstraction, so I distinguish my father’s optimism from mine by calling his a grounded optimism. I’ve adopted the line about there not being anything more practical than good theory. Victoria (my wife) would put it this way: if theory doesn’t direct me to do something, it won’t get done. Pop, though, sticks to practicalities, particularly with regard to his faith.

For instance, I don’t know anyone who cares about the sick or bereaved more than Pop. A few years ago, I asked Mom why Pop is so disciplined about calling or visiting people who, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity.” Given the same chore, I sweat over what to say, how to comfort, and sometimes I just chicken out.

“I wondered the same thing,” Mom said, “and I’ve come to the conclusion that he just picks up the phone.”

Almost every weekday morning of my forty-eight years, Pop has just gone to work. (At eighty-one, he’s now semi-retired; these days he substitutes for judges around the state and also mediates cases.) This morning I pictured him walking to his car some two hundred miles southeast of here in Newport News, under the same window I used to sleep beside until nine or ten o’clock summer mornings when I was Bethany’s age.

The organ faded into Pop’s “ya-da-da”s. Pop – the raconteur that he is – sticks to the narrative spine. No matter how beautifully high church performs a carol, it always returns to a melody line, to a story, to a lowly cattle shed.

Bethany is accompanying Victoria to rural India for two weeks this Christmas to help the poor. I’ll be home, whistling.



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Posted July 2005

Granny

The older I’ve gotten (and I do attribute it to age), the more I’m prone to seeing people as they might look years from now. It’s like I create those time-altering “Have you seen me?” photos in my head — the photos on the back of junk mail postcards sent to help rescue missing children.

Walking past one of my ninth graders, I may catch a turn of the chin that makes me see her at fifty. It’s 2040 and she’s not in looks, having spread like fertilizer around a seed of trouble a parent may have carefully planted in her throughout the 1990’s. At a future reunion she sees Jerry, now stone-faced, long ago having forgotten emotions that “weren’t working for him,” as the kids say today.

Happily, it also seems to work in reverse. We spent a week this past summer in Tennessee with my in-laws, including Granny, Victoria’s eighty-seven-year-old maternal grandmother. Granny moves slowly but insists on going with us to relatives and to malls. She doesn’t hear very well anymore, even with hearing aids. But now and then her eye sparkles and she’s beautiful; she’s twenty-two or fifteen or thirty-seven or even eight.

Granny insists on cooking our favorite country dishes for our visits to her farm, including the sweet potato casserole that she makes just because I love it. When we’re not around, Granny tirelessly visits her contemporaries who don’t share her good health. She works in her garden and takes good care of her cat and dog. She dresses beautifully.

I’m not sure why it doesn’t feel right to say that age is hiding the young girl inside of her. It’s safe to say, though, that she’s fully alive.



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Posted July 2005

Fear the turtle

Last fall two baby turtles, about the size of pickle chips, reached our doorstep in a Styrofoam hamburger box. They were the fruit of long family deliberations over what pet to get. Fur makes me sneeze, and my wife has a thing about the snakes and lizards my son wants.

The turtles belong to my daughter, who played the tortoise earlier this year in a skit based on Aesop’s “The Hare and the Tortoise.” She got to say Aesop’s punch line: “Slow but steady wins the race!”

Bethany was well cast for the role. She has accommodations at school that permit her to complete tests in another room after the other students have turned their tests in. The school also allows her to cut corners through some of her homework because it takes her so long to complete it. But she usually gets straight A’s.

I tried to be positive about her speed when she was three and four years old. “You’re fast!” I would tell her, hoping to build her self-esteem. She would stare at me, weighing my words. The last time I said it, she responded, “No, I’m slow.” She was smiling.

Bethany’s quiet persistence beat out my wife’s objection that turtles stink. Plus, the turtles at the old Virginia Living Museum building we’d visit usually made us laugh. The male turtles there would wiggle their claws against the females’ cheeks and the females would start avoiding them. I’ve tried this at home with similar results.

The museum turtles also were speedy under water, and we loved to watch them zip around. Scientists may one day explain that Aesop’s race had been under water. Or we’ll find a lost fragment from the fable: “‘You choose the contest, and I’ll choose the location,’ said the Tortoise, quietly.”

Until recently I would have accepted an underwater theory over Aesop’s explanation for the race results. After all, Aesop would have us believe that the Hare would choose to sleep during a race. The Hare’s sleep doesn’t seem to be from weariness, either. The Hare sleeps with swagger, perhaps the original power nap. Despite this obvious fiction, the fable persists as one of Aesop’s most frequently cited, and it resonates in our cultural subconscious. Why?

Turtles were not always associated with slowness. In ancient times, they were considered infernal creatures, and the word “turtle” probably derives from the Greek word for underworld. Maybe the expression “inexorable as death” makes the connection from the Greeks to Aesop’s view of the turtle.

There are all kinds of slow. A turtle won’t shut down on you, insisting on some insupportable point, like a dog with your pocketbook clamped between his teeth. The turtle’s slowness has something more to do with patience.

Our pickle-chip sized turtles presently require a 25-gallon aquarium. Slowly, they will grow to be six to twelve inches in diameter. The last time we went, the Virginia Living Museum had just moved into a new building with “four times the exhibit space” as its old one. And its turtles were growing. Our turtles will win in the end, too, and I’ll be buying museum-size tanks.

I risk a friendship with a hasty word, and I lose my equanimity if the checkout lady says more than, “Debit or credit?” to the person in front of me, daring to waste my precious time with a conversation, with a touch of humanity. But I could not conceive of the Hare risking the race for a nap.

No Hare can conceive of it, and so no Hare can relate to the Hare. The Turtles know, though, that the Hares will always make time to sleep during a race. The Turtles start the race with a deeper conviction, which the Hares usually mistake for starting from a deeper hole. The Hares make pronouncements at the start of a race, and time disproves them. The Turtles know that time is always on their side.

Posted April 2004

 

Chaise

We inherited my grandmother’s chaise lounge. Mimi died at 91 with enough possessions to fill a two-bedroom apartment and its patio, where this chaise held forth with about four other wrought-iron pieces. Mimi was a raconteur, and almost everybody in town knew her back when the town was that small, before I was born.

My brother and I took turns spending afternoons under the big green awning, hearing stories of Newport News from around 1870 on. We were amused and quieted by the conventions she insisted on: the offer of a seat and then of ice cream, the means of handling a teacup or a book.

Her storytelling was vivid. What impressed me most was the way she could jump twenty-five, fifty, or a hundred years, back and forth, by means of the queerest associations.

catbird’s canticle
written and bound

 

At Betty’s

[flower]

In the morning, I can read only in her basement.  Every other room has someone sleeping in it, usually on a couch or floor.  Betty’s house is small, but it’s big enough.  One toilet and bath got seven of us through with a little charity.  I fixed the toilet yesterday and was treated like a hero.

I read on the floor of Betty’s office, the only room in the house with wall-to-wall carpeting.  She keeps a lot of her books down here.  Like her home, her shelves are simple and Spartan, clean of unexplored interests.  She cooks, and she collects cookbooks.  There are also books about God and lots of Victoria’s old storybooks, textbooks, and yearbooks.  Each summer, two or three of Victoria’s old friends come over, and we inevitably open the yearbooks.  Pictures of Victoria at every stage of life grace about every room, even in the basement.

[flowers]

And Betty grows roses.  This morning I discovered Betty’s vases, the delivery systems for her simple charity, hidden in a basement recess.  I found some roses in her icebox last night, ready to go.  Yesterday I spent time in her garden, photographing her flowers.

[flowers]

I have a photograph of five generations: B (my daughter), Victoria, Betty (my mother-in-law), Granny (Betty’s mother), and Grandma H (Granny’s mother-in-law, who at the time was 109 years old).  Betty’s in the middle, the hinge in this lineage.  She takes care of Granny and showers gifts on us, too.

B inherited Betty’s quiet and her gentle fingers.  Betty holds and arranges and mends with entire attention, and her artisan ways made room for B’s art.  Betty’s concentration and fingers, which seem dexterous enough to have four joints each, remind me of a spider at work.

We just got back from ten enjoyable days in Nashville this morning.

[flower]



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Posted July 6, 2008.

The story of my birth

[Hotel Chamberlin postcard]

Each year my high priestess, not without blood, phones to recite the story of my birth. We danced by the Chamberlin against a night of few stars, she says, colonnade women and poplin men in brick-soled bucks on bluegrass. Heat lightning tugged at tankers in a dark offing.

We were at a point; you’ve seen the Chamberlin from a skipjack, rising and falling against sky and Hampton Roads, respectively; well, we rose and fell in the barest swell, I’m sure, the Navy Band’s brass and dress whites narrowly ruffled in black water. It was hot, a solstice hot, not unrelenting but apogeic; I think a June night is an anomaly and a celebration, brief as it is, and a summer night young enough to admit that summer hasn’t come, and 1957, too, the boom year of baby boom babies, the height of something you were born to fall from, and the top of a clock; I wanted you born by midnight.  I didn’t want you born on the thirteenth.

To the side, in a green, cotton dress, your grandmother, just five years older than you are today, her hair a black and silver you never knew, talked with her friends. I have never thought of her with either friends or dark hair, I think to myself, but later I realize that I had thought last year when Mom had called how I had never thought of her that way; this year, though – I think for the first time – I think: nor have I ever thought of her in a cotton dress.

Between numbers, after months of expansion, the contractions, the clock hands climbing and not falling, the heat a haze and not unrelenting – a presence and a midwife, really – and your father, excusing himself from his fellows, took me by an elbow, if you can picture that.  His long, black Studebaker bent around Newport News Point to 50th Street and the hospital, ablaze above the James River and its own silent ships.  The doctor and I worked to have you born today; your father, outside, rocked on his heels.  11:43.  There you were, and she hangs up again.

I look out my window, appeased.  I cradle the phone.  I can see the same moon, now an infant, that floated below those ruffled colonnades.  But I reflect that the hospital is now a parking lot, and my June nights have become like asphalt, too, expanded and contracted by a hundred solstices, buckled like lips turned upwards for their mother’s kiss.

Wings, boats, & asses

Before the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News gussied itself up over the last thirty years, my brother and I would play in its small-craft building, which today would look like a warehouse, were it still around.  Not like a big-box store made to look like a warehouse: it was a real, un-air-conditioned, sheet-metal-sided, concrete-floor warehouse.

We’d climb on old gondolas and tugs and dugout canoes illuminated only by a translucent, fiberglass ceiling. We could see the pine needles and dirt accumulating in rows along the corrugated roof from inside the building.  We played underneath a white, fallow field blessed by inattention and sunlight.

A sign in the aisles said not to climb on the boats, sure, but no one was ever in the room with us: no docent, guard, member, or guest.  Only birds.

The building’s doors stayed open.  The prefabricated construction invited nests.  The birds’ sudden flights drew our attention.  The room echoed with their pipes and amplified their wings. Beneath them, my brother and I were like Mole and Water Rat; each boat seemed headed for adventure.

From adulthood, I see the glory and the dream the birds and we shared. Like Thomas Cole, I look back and paint a guardian angel in each boat. The whole, eclectic fleet we played in could have been headed for the Gates of Dawn.

And now?  Is there such a room? I’ve spent my life nesting or looking for places to nest.  My mud and pine needles protrude out of the walls of professions and spill out of a church community.  I fly to my small library with bookmarks of straw.  Like the birds, I utilize; I don’t use things as they seem intended.

Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God.  [Psalm 84:3]

I feel myself circling, or I feel myself building.  (It’s never all circling or all building, though, but it’s primarily one or the other; it’s a season of one or the other.) I’ve been circling for years now, looking for your altars, O Lord.  It has been a beautiful search, and I am grateful for the wings.

Most of the time, though, I think I’m just looking for Little Portly.  Trying to keep a kid in line at school or helping him learn past participles.  Saul looking for his father’s asses.  Could be.  Could be each of us is looking for his father’s asses.

[There are no birds in the new, 17,500-square-feet International Small Craft Center.  You can see the boats we played in, but you may not touch.  I should complain.  If you exhibit part of my childhood, at least make it interactive.]

William at forty

On my first visit home after William died, a storm shook brittle branches and brown needles from my parents’ longleaf pines for my father to pick up and rake. My father’s ’68 Continental, no longer subject to falling branches thanks to a tree removal he had ordered, was still in the driveway with one side of its black convertible top still sagging. But the feeling about the large, old subdivision lot was different, and after the storm I walked the place to look closer. Songbirds chirped with impunity and thought nothing of hopping on the grass. My shoes sank into the sandy, Tidewater soil beneath the lawn, now undermined by moles. And, for the first time in sixteen years (as far back as my memory served), there were cats.

My parents’ place was full of life that day; nature’s balance seemed restored; the great ring was somehow destroyed in the mountain where it was forged long ago by some immortal hand or eye. In short, there was a general sense of ruin.

For most of my childhood, our home had been the center of a vast empire. In contrast, my parents’ place that day had the feeling of an outpost of some lesser empire, or the feeling maybe of an overlooked parcel between two small, competing empires, the ground between the two clay feet in the great king’s dream.

I wonder if William’s dreams ever sent him to the astrologers, or if he fretted much over succession. He had ruled our neighborhood with an iron paw, but the compromises of his declining years and his Prince Hal-like ambivalence toward his subjects – chiefly my parents, my two siblings and me – must have brought succession to mind on bright, fall afternoons he spent dozing in the warm hammock he created out of my father’s ragtop. The cat, though, generally kept his own counsel, and he always had a healthy sense of what was beyond his grasp.

“Where’s Billy?” my brother’s friend asked my brother Ford, who, like my sister and me, was home from college the Christmas following my walk.

“‘Billy?'” Ford repeated, raising his eyes momentarily from the TV. “He would have scratched out your eyes for that.”

“Okay. Where’s ‘William’?”

Ford fingered the remote. “He caught a cold, so my father had him destroyed.”

The vet told my parents it was leukemia, and certainly my father wasn’t going to pour hundreds of dollars into propping up the house’s rival alpha male in a losing battle against cancer. Besides, we all had seen the signs during recent summers home: the dusty, gray-brown coat replacing the sharp, gray stripes of his youth; the battle scars after difficult nights fighting a new, young male down the street; the bitter bites he would give guests (like Ford’s friend) who wanted to rub him but who always rubbed him the wrong way. The end was near, and the sickness probably wasn’t a pretext, in fairness to my father.

I was eight when William was born the biggest and liveliest of a large litter produced by our neighbor’s Siamese cat and “a traveling man,” as a deed my father later drew up at his law office put it. William spent his first night with us running around inside Molly’s box spring, bringing to life her six-year-old fears of monsters and causing her to cede the cat to me the next morning. William, of course, never acknowledged the deed or any indicia of ownership. In a single day, though, my sister had given him the benefit of a suitable name – William Thomas – though her subsequent relationship with the cat led her to refer to him only as “the Devil.”

[picture of William]By his third year, William was carousing every night, and the vet bills led my parents to have him neutered when I was about thirteen and had just begun my paper route. From then on it wasn’t about the sex but about the territory, and I still heard William far away from home on those dark mornings at this dawn of his empire. I would be about to throw a folded newspaper at a stoop when I would make out a gray shape or perhaps his sharp, yellow eyes, and William would start those long, guttural moans that frequently precede catfights. He was on the stoop, demanding that the cat that he knew to be inside come out and fight. This happened on three different mornings at three different homes on my route. Why we didn’t get more calls from the neighbors I don’t know. I guess they knew who ran our place.

William had Odysseus-like craft to complement his large size, and he frequently had recourse to both his size and craft while hunting. William was the largest half-Siamese imaginable – his small Siamese pinhead only accentuated his size – but he would somehow seem small just before he turned the tables on his favorite victim, the catbird. He would emerge wide-eyed from underneath a parked car, crawling tentatively until this show of weakness attracted a catbird. At the lowest point in the bird’s trajectory, the cat would flip himself on his back, grab the bird around the neck with a paw, and bounce the bird’s head on the pavement. Then he would lunge at the neck of his stunned prey. After sharing the carcass with his protégé, a younger, full Siamese with the ignoble name “Duppy” who lived next door, William would drag it into my parents’ shrubbery, which he stocked year-round with a wide variety of bird and rodent carcasses. It was always gratifying to watch a real professional.

When the kids next door first introduced us to Duppy, we figured he would quickly go the way of our catbirds.  But William stared at the month-old kitten for a minute or two, and then began to bathe him with his sandpaper tongue.  It was Elijah throwing his mantle on Elisha, who was to be prophet in his place.

But if William ever harbored hopes that Duppy would succeed him, they sank quickly. William was a realist and a keen judge of talent. He must have remembered the day Duppy, under William’s tutelage, caught his first bird. Duppy trotted proudly from the woods bordering our lot with a bluebird in his mouth, but then he stopped and coughed. The bluebird found some wiggle room and flew out of his mouth. Duppy just stood there, coughing up blue feathers, and I never saw him hunt much after that. Duppy was like a son to William, and I’m not sure how William coped with his disappointment over how Duppy turned out.

Except for Duppy, William let no cats near our place. A large tabby lived two doors down, and infrequently he would lose his bearings and stumble into the heart of William’s realm. I would hear Thomas (the cat went by William’s middle name) give the cat fight moans for about ten minutes as I watched William and him slowly circle each other beneath my bedroom window in the predawn light. William would finally cut to the chase, his voice about two octaves lower than Thomas’s, and the rout was on. Thomas wouldn’t be back for at least a year.

William died at sixteen years of age, and he would have been forty years old this coming week. I suspect that my father and sister aren’t aware of the anniversary, and I will call them in time for them to celebrate it in their own ways.

My parents still live at our childhood home, and my wife and I visit two or three times a year. Not much has changed in the twenty-four years since that first walk around the lot following William’s death. A few more pines have succumbed to lightning and hurricanes. Birds, raccoons, dogs, and moles still punch in and punch out. But everything there just reminds me of when the yard carried a real distinction, when all of nature seemed to bend around where I grew up.

Unless and until

Or, Just because you fall off a cliff doesn’t mean you don’t have some hard choices to make

The coyote looks down. There’s nothing beneath him but the warm tones of the desert far below the top of the mesa he neglected to keep underfoot. He realizes he’s going to fall. He holds up a sign to us, or he unfolds a well-used parasol. Maybe he waves good-bye. At all events, he falls.

My eight-year-old son and I have watched this Looney Toones gag over and over on DVD together, and we laugh every time. I always thought we were both laughing at the foolish coyote because he carelessly steps (or rockets or bicycles) over the mesa’s edge. But it turns out Warren has been laughing because the foolish coyote foolishly looks down. Now I understand my son better.

I discovered Warren’s point of view last night, halfway through Warren’s bedtime routine. Warren’s routine includes our adaptation of the coyote gag. Warren’s stuffed snake loses control of his tail and it becomes a helicopter blade. The snake screams as he takes off from the bed, but things get worse for him: his tail sputters and droops when it runs out of gas. The snake looks Warren in the face, the snake’s eyes bigger than usual, if that is possible. “Oh, no,” he says, softly; then he falls.

Warren laughed, as always, but last night he was not completely satisfied.

“Pause the game. Next time, have the snake look down before he falls.”

Huh? Oh.

The difference between the truths we extrapolate from the coyote’s fall is precisely the difference between Warren and me. Examine the competing laws, stated succinctly here.

My Law: The coyote won’t fall until he looks down.

Warren’s Law: The coyote won’t fall unless he looks down.

Get the distinction? I understand that the gag works because the coyote will fall. Warren, on the other hand, sees the possibilities.

It comes down to the difference between unless and until.

Until is a preposition, inexorable as its object. Prepositions let you know things about the world, things you have to know to get along. Your job is to adjust, to understand your limitations, and to show as much individuality as conformity will permit. Your medicine fell under the table. You’re driving on the wrong side of the road. You came after your sister. That remark was over the top, Warren.

Unless is a conjunction, a grammatical contrivance evincing a far different human impulse than a preposition. Conjunctions put pieces of life together, and you have a lot of latitude there. Stick an “and” in for an “or,” and maybe you have two cookies instead of one. (Warren, in fact, often holds up his index finger and says, with a slow detective-like voice, “Unless…”) Life is not preset. Just because you fall off a cliff doesn’t mean you don’t have some hard choices to make.

Until has its soft side, too, when it also serves as a conjunction. I can relate to until’s ambivalence. After all, many of my fixed stances have fallen before Warren’s conjunctive assault. Here’s a discussion we had two weeks ago:

W: [Holding up two of my screwdrivers.] If you were going to give me one of your screwdrivers, would you give me the big one or the small one?

P: Warren, I’m not giving you any of my screwdrivers.

W: I know…

P: You may use my screwdrivers, but they remain mine.

W: I know, but if you were going to give me one, I think I know which one you would give me.

P: Okay, which one?

W: The small one. [Grins.]

A week later, it was his screwdriver.

I hasten to add that I’m not the only authority figure bending. When Warren was about five, he discovered prayer. He applied it by his bed each month on the night before his children’s church program held its drawing. He won the drawing and took home nice toys four months in a row as children more needy than he looked on.

Warren got so confident of his hotline to God that he tried to whip up a little unscheduled vacation for us that winter. One morning when I woke him up for school, Warren closed his eyes and mumbled for a moment, then gave me a knowing grin and rolled up the window shade. He was surprised not to see two feet of snow.

I thought Warren was in for a crisis of faith that morning. Instead, he took the bungled snowstorm in stride and walked down to breakfast. But he doesn’t pray much anymore, as far as I know.

Sometimes I wonder how Warren can have lived on this planet for eight years without assimilating more of the rules required for life down here. Victoria and I struggle to make sure Warren is aware of some certainties, expectations, and conditions precedent. But our work doesn’t often seem to have much effect. Maybe Warren showed up on the planet just yesterday, after all. How long have any of us been here?

Or maybe Warren never got here, and never will. Unless he looks down.