In This Issue
Notes: Looking for Mariwood · New Words: The World Needs More Hypocrites (Starting with You) · In Other Words: Killing the Monster · Postscript: The Bizarre Concrete Vision of Fred Smith
Looking for Mariwood
Maybe the past isn’t as lost to us as we think.
Spring has finally come to us: the bare trees are rushing to unfurl the green flags of their leaves, and the apple tree in our backyard, usually heavy with white blossoms by now, is full of pink flower-buds, ready to explode. The air is filled with pollen and flying insects, and the noisy partying of dozens of birds. We who make gardens are hurrying to prepare beds for summer plants like tomatoes and basil and peppers. Only a week or two ago, it was too cold to think about leaving them out overnight, but suddenly it feels like summer.
Sometimes I listen to podcasts and audio books while I garden. The other day it was Pádraig Ó Tuama’s gentle Irish accent that accompanied my spring weeding of creeping Charlie; he was reading and commenting on Richard Blanco’s “Looking for the Gulf Motel.”
In the poem, Blanco tells about returning to Marco Island, on Florida’s west coast, to look for the eponymous motel that was the setting for a family vacation when he was eight. Too poor to afford to eat out even on vacation, he remembers how embarrassed he and his older brother were at the luggage cart his parents pushed through the motel lobby, laden as it was with enough groceries for a week and a pressure cooker containing a pork roast, fragrant with garlic. Blanco paints a series of scenes from that vacation, one after the other: his Cuban-born parents slow-dancing on the balcony; his mother, beautiful in her teal bathing suit, making arroz-con-pollo in the motel kitchenette; his father lounging by the pool, watching his boys swim, unaware that he wouldn’t live long enough to see them grow up.
A refrain recurs throughout the poem: There should be nothing here I don’t remember. The refrain foreshadows the last stanza, in which his grown-up self drives along Collier Boulevard looking for the Gulf Motel, long since torn down to make way for condominiums.
As I listened to this poem in the garden, I remembered my own Gulf Motel: a little green cabin on Gunlock Lake in Wisconsin’s piney north woods. Built by hand by my grandfather and an assortment of friends and family members in the 1950s, the place was nothing fancy, but our family went there every year, making it the refrain of my summers until I was well into my twenties.
The long trip to the cottage (we never called it a cabin, for some reason) was a well-rehearsed pilgrimage marked by obligatory stops at the ramshackle ice cream stand in Ladysmith and the outdoor museum of concrete statues in Phillips. You came up to the cottage by means of narrow, two-lane blacktop highways cut through second-growth forest, then you turned off the blacktop onto gravel roads, raising a cloud of dust behind your station wagon. Large ferns bent toward the road, and white daisies speckled the sunny spots where the grader had left little embankments. Coming around the curve around the little bay that the cottage sat on, we’d honk the horn—a tradition recalling the days when the road was even narrower, apparently. Then we’d turn off the dirt road onto a long, bumpy dirt driveway, usually decorated with balloons and welcome signs our grandparents had put up.
By the time I came on the scene, the cottage had electricity and a single phone line, shared with the neighbors. It even had indoor plumbing, but we were only allowed to use the inside bathroom after dark. During the day, we had to go to Wally’s, a two-seater outhouse off in the woods that was usually guarded by a large spider sitting up in the corner of the ceiling. The outhouse was named Wally’s in honor of a guy who allegedly stood by idly watching my grandfather and another friend as they dug the pit, shirtless, sweaty, and fly-bitten.
Out back by the shed and the fish-cleaning house, a string had been tied between two pines; six smaller strings hung down from that one, each with a nail tied to the end. We kids would stick a peanut (in the shell) on each nail, then retreat into the cottage to wait. By and by, a chipmunk would come along and leap up to grab the treat, putting on a show as he (or she?) dangled in the air. It could take a few minutes, but Chippy always left with cheeks stuffed full of peanuts.
The cottage was fronted by a simple deck, shaded only by towering white pines; the adults would sit out there and talk, watching us kids play in the water down below. Grandpa always cleared out the lilies and reeds in the spring, leaving a large swath of clear water for swimming. I’d wade into the cold water slowly, watching the minnows dart around my legs in rippled strips of sunlight. We kids would spend the better part of an afternoon down by the water on a warm day, alternating between the water and laying out on the warm dock.
Other times, we walked down the dirt road, always bringing a hat and a towel to discourage the biting flies. We picked daisies and raspberries and noted the names of the places we passed by, each marked by a homemade sign by the mailbox; the only one I can remember now was Pieces of Eight. My grandparents named their place Mariwood.
In some parental stroke of genius, my mom told my sister and me about a “secret fort” that she and her younger brother had kept in a sunny clearing in the woods. She showed us the spot, gave us the “secret keys,” and left us with our imaginations while she went back to the cottage for a couple hours of peace. We always buried some kind of treasure in glass bottles before we left, intending to dig them up the next year. But like squirrels who don’t collect all their buried nuts, I don’t think we ever recovered those treasures.
A lot of times after supper, I’d go fishing with my grandpa in his little motorboat. The first time he took me out (I was maybe seven or eight at the time), I got a big northern pike on the line. With his coaching, I managed to bring it up next to the boat, but I was standing on the net, and that fish broke the line and swam off with my lure.
“What do we do now?” I asked, supplying my grandpa with a story that made him laugh every time he told it.
The fishing was never about the fish, really; I didn’t like handling them, I didn’t like the barbed hooks, which could send you to the emergency room if they snagged an ear; I definitely didn’t like cleaning them; and after choking on a bone, I refused to eat them. But I did like sitting out there on the lake in the cool evenings with my grandpa, casting the lure so that it hit the water just short of the weeds.
In the evenings, we’d play long games of Rummy 500 with my grandmother at the dining room table. She loved cards and baseball; she was a big fan of the Milwaukee Brewers. The other adults sat nearby, talking or reading the paper or watching the news on the staticky little black-and-white television. After dark, the black windows filled up with the pale forms of hundreds of moths and other nocturnal insects, drawn to the light.
My siblings and I slept on the floor in the next room while the adults stayed up to watch the late news, and maybe Johnny Carson. The place being small and the walls being thin, the insomniacs among us kids got to eavesdrop on their adult conversations. The only war stories I heard from my grandfather’s lips were heard this way—fragmentary, from the next room.
Like Blanco’s Gulf Motel, the cottage was a place set apart from the routines and distractions of ordinary life. It was a place for family relationships to take root and grow—a place for sharing the important family stories, and making new stories together. And in time, these set-apart places serve to hold the memories of those relationships, too.
Even if the Gulf Motel still stood for Blanco to find it, he wouldn’t have really found the place that he remembered, because the people—especially his father—were absent. I know this from personal experience. After my grandfather died, our family returned to the cottage once or twice; but of course, we didn’t find the place we remembered. That place, like Mr. Blanco’s Gulf Motel, was gone, and so we stopped looking for it.
Sometime in my early twenties, I realized that the refrain of those summer days at the cottage was winding down. One night, I slipped out of the cottage with my camera. Standing in the dark yard under a sky awash in stars, I looked back into the living room where my parents, grandparents, and siblings were still gathered. The sliding patio doors framed the scene as perfectly as if it had been painted there.
I lifted my camera and shot the picture. When I got the prints a few weeks later, I saw that it had turned out, despite the bad lighting conditions. I taped it into my journal as a sort of icon of those days and nights at the cottage.
Mr. Blanco’s poem ends with the poignant wish that he could “pretend for a moment, nothing lost is lost.”
But if I were writing my own version of Mr. Blanco’s poem, I don’t think I’d end on that note of irretrievable loss. Not out here in the garden, anyway, where the plants and animals are constantly reminding me that the point of one season yielding to the next is not loss, but abundance. What if there were only ever one season of tomatoes, basil, corn, zinnias, sunflowers? What if there were ever only one generation of people? The passage of time extends and enlarges creation, which is always unfolding into some new possibility. If my camera had been able to magically stop time, preserving that golden moment forever, my possession of that moment wouldn’t have been a gain, but a loss of every good thing that came afterward.
And who is to say that all that is lost is lost forever, anyway? Even many cosmologists believe information is never truly lost. If God “remembers” these moments more perfectly than we ever perceived them in the first place, and if God shares that memory with us, clarified, then maybe the people and places we loved are not forever lost to the past, after all. This is what I hope, anyway. Until I know for sure, I have this season’s garden to plant, and this life to live, and new memories to make with the people I love.
The World Needs More Hypocrites (Starting with You)
The sin of hypocrisy is among the cardinal Thou Shalt Nots of the Internet. Mention of the words hypocrisy and hypocrite have markedly increased over the past twenty years, according to Google Trends. But is that because we’re actually becoming more concerned about personal integrity, or is it because it’s an effective way to disarm and discredit our rhetorical opponents without having to do the hard work of engaging their arguments?
I’m going with (b), but either way, the inevitability of being called out as a hypocrite shouldn’t cause us to withdraw from the public forum; instead, we should continue to speak up for what’s good and right, but with humility. Read the full essay on Medium: The World Needs More Hypocrites (Starting with You).
IN OTHER WORDS
Killing the Monster
This week, I’m tapping a piece of writing close to home—my wife’s essay about dealing with our twelve-year-old son’s battle with Crohn’s Disease. Before his diagnosis, we had no idea how serious CD could be—how it could ravage a child’s body, mind, and spirit. Now we know better.
“For all these reasons,” she writes, “the Crohn’s monster must be destroyed—or minimally, tamed into a submissive sleeping creature that has let go of my child. I love him. So you, foul monstrosity, must go.”
Read her essay here: I Hate Crohn’s Disease.
The Bizarre Concrete Vision of Fred Smith
The Bizarre Concrete Vision of Fred Smith
Earlier, I mentioned the Wisconsin Concrete Park that my family sometimes stopped to tour on our way “up north.” The park contains more than two hundred pieces of folk art, mostly large concrete figures decorated with glass and other found objects. The sculptures were made by Fred Smith, a retired lumberjack, who installed them all over his property over a sixteen-year period.
The figures include animals, people, and patriotic or historic scenes. One of the most interesting pieces depicts the ratification of a treaty between the local tribe of Anishnabe and local settlers. The piece depicts a white woman shaking hands with an Anishnabe man who towers over her, twice her size. Although Smith’s depiction of native peoples would fall short of current standards for cultural sensitivity, his intention was apparently to depict the Native Americans as a people of great stature—a people to “look up to.” You can take a virtual tour of the park and read the story of how it came to be at the website of the Wisconsin Concrete Park.
Stay warm, stay well…