In a Man’s Voice: Outside by Brent Aikman

Brent Aikman was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia.  He tried to leave the mountains twice, but always found himself back in the heart of Appalachia.  At the age of 7 he was sent to play outdoors, and he never fully came back inside.  “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir

Editor’s note: Brent is a long-time friend of mine. From junior high through high school, and years of Presbyterian youth experience, we share many childhood commonalities. It was not until I attended his mother’s memorial service that I had the slightest clue what a powerful influence she had on his love of nature. Brent is many things. He is my old friend, he is a poetry student, he is a husband and a writer and a son and a brother. He is a lover of the natural world, and he is a gift to that place and all of us in it. I hope you enjoy this dipping and swirling ride into the mind of a child who is discovering frogs, and fireflies, and the greatness of trees.

Outside | by Brent Aikman

I was six years old when we moved away from the neighborhood I had known as “mine.”

 Away from my best friend who lived next-door.

Away from the familiarity of the dead-end street full of kids, families, people, that at the ripe age of six, I could say “I know them.”

Away from the world as I had come to know it: Friendly people, the nice Valley Bell Dairy milkman who delivered milk to the house, “Shane” the ancient boxer dog that lived across the street, “Big Rock” down in the woods (It was really big, and it was truly a rock), and more.

Away from everything that a normal neighborhood, on a dead-end street, had to offer. We were ‘that family’ that moved away. We only moved about 4 miles, not far at all in adult understanding.

But to a six year old…

Ours was the third house to be built in the ‘new’ neighborhood. A subdivision of homes was being built in the woods. THE WOODS. We moved into the house in the fall, and I played in the woods around the house beginning then and through the winter. When I turned seven in April my mother sent me outside to play.

“No really, you have to go outside… and play…  Go…”

So I went. Outside. Into THE WOODS.

The writer in 1976.

My father was a chemical engineer. My genetics yielded neither the comprehension of mathematics nor science. Those numbers, those scientific thoughts, did not make it too far into my brain. I believe two conditions exacerbated this natural fact. First, if there was a window in the classroom, my eyes were drawn to it, especially when math came around. I just didn’t understand, nor did I really care about, multiplication tables and sums (I think they call this Attention Deficit Disorder these days). Second, I certainly was much more interested in being outside.

Outside, in the woods.

Late spring in West Virginia has a true magic about it. The world is a vibrant green that  startles the eyes. Everything is in bloom. Nature is finally awake after long months of winter. You can see it in the trees as they reach for every drop of sunshine they can grasp. The wind is soft and moist with warmth suggesting that summer is coming. Every wild living creature is either giving birth or going through the mating rituals that will lead to bearing offspring and moving the species ahead a generation.

That spring the woods almost seemed in a frenzy. Birds flying, chasing, singing. Squirrels darting, playing, chattering. Chipmunks, annoying chipmunks. The cry of the red tailed hawk that sent those chipmunks running for their lives. Blue tailed skinks sunning on the rocks. The green snake, brown garden snake, black snake in the bush eating baby birds out of the nest. I did not need math or science in school. I came to an understanding in the woods. There is a lifecycle. Mating, birth, living. If the black snake eats one of three baby birds, it is not only the death part of the lifecycle, it is mathematics. There are now only two baby birds.

I understood science and math, just not in the classroom.

I would lie in the cool leaves on the forest floor, looking up into the fresh canopy of leaves. I could stay there for hours, watching, looking, and listening. Engulfed in the enormity of the woods, but yet not feeling as though I were lost, or small. I felt like I belonged. Unlike my time in school, here I understood what was being revealed to me in the math and science of nature.

Math: Trees grow one ring every year. Birds lay eggs, maybe one, maybe more. The hummingbirds that we see in our woods flap their wings about sixty times a second. Black snakes can grow really big. That one was over four feet long!  A frog lays hundreds of eggs.

Once, I discovered an incredible secret outside. I found it, it was my secret, and I shared it with no one.

I had been watching the puddle for about a week. I finally gathered the courage to dip my hand in. I dipped, the egg mass oozed around my fingers. I held the gelatinous mass in my hand and looked at the single black spec floating in each little bubble. There really is nothing like holding a mass of frog eggs, freshly scooped from the standing puddle by the road. I put the eggs back after complete examination. I would come back to look at them again. Maybe I would not hold them again, I thought, but I would but definitely look. And soon, there would be frogs!

Science:  When it rains, the toads come out onto the road so they won’t drown, to get warm, and they get squished by cars. Hummingbirds can fly backwards. Bumblebees, according to the man-made laws of aerodynamics, should not be able to fly.

I love Bumblebees.

Outside was where I wanted to be, but If I had to be inside, I would be in the kitchen. The kitchen of the new house had a window that was almost six feet wide. The sill was less than two feet off the floor, so I could sit on the floor and look out. I looked out at a bird feeder that was four feet long and 14 inches deep. A BIG bird feeder. No. It was a bird feeding platform. My mother would tell me what each bird was, if we would see it again, or if it was just passing through. I could sit and see birds that others may never see; Scarlet Tanager, Grosbeaks, Cowbirds, Nuthatches, Warblers, Juncos, American Redstart, the Common Grackle with its blazing yellow eyes, and Finches of purple and gold that would sing the rise of the sun.

There were wonderful surprises including the Wood Thrush, the most elegant Cedar Waxwing, Indigo Bunting, Solitary Vireo, Northern Oriole, and many birds that were the gift of “passing through.”  There were Woodpeckers of all sorts and sizes; Downey, Red-bellied, Common Flicker, Hairy, and if we were lucky, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Then HE came.

Young Brent, OUTSIDE.

There was a great thump, and it seemed everything stopped. It was the Pileated woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America. If I was lucky, I would be sitting by the window and get to look into his yellow ringed black eyes. I would hear him ask me if I was coming back outside. And I would run for the door…

In this time of the spring, in the dusk of the early evening, it starts. The fireflies rise. My grandparents lived on the west side of Charleston and had a very large side yard with a Magnolia tree that I could climb. I spent a lot of time at their house. And while there, I spent a lot of time in the Magnolia tree. I would climb to my spot and sit and watch the fireflies come out of the grass and off the branches of the tree and flicker around my head as they searched for their mates. The world was alight.

My grandparents’ yard helped meet my incessant need to be outside. There was an area of rose bushes on which to feast my eyes and nose; grape vines growing over the patio that brought in birds; a small vegetable garden planted in spring that produced tomatoes, string beans, cucumbers, and squash.

Then there were the oak trees. There were four (I counted them using my math skills) HUGE oak trees, each one at least four feet thick if not more. At seven years old, I was small. These trees were huge. Spring allowed me to lie on my back in the yard and watch, and look, and listen. Spring brought a sense of urgency to the oak trees with lots of birds flying, squirrels scrambling, and the chipmunks – always, the annoying chipmunks. The giant trees provided life and a home to many creatures. Me, I stretched out underneath the huge trunk and spreading limbs and took it all in. I watched the birds and the squirrels and would wait for dusk, for the lights to start twinkling in the trees. It was magical. While it was not in The Woods, my grandparents’ yard was held in high esteem. And to this day, I long to sit high in that Magnolia tree and watch, and look, and listen as the fireflies rise into the spring evening.

As a child, I found solace outside, in the woods. I had to move away from my friends, start attending a new school, learn new streets and meet new people. My world turned upside down. My own mother had said “go play outside,” and then Mother Nature wiped away my fears and helped me understand that no matter where I was, I could look to her, and suddenly all would be right with my world.

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 4)

IV.

Our family collected songs about heaven like some people collect teaspoons. They marked and measured moments in our lives, like the dirge we learned around the time Mom went blind in one eye.

The world you know as a child is the one given you. You move because your parents move. You are from here or from there because your parents tell you so. You grow up in a religious group and are told it began on Pentecost Sunday and you believe this to the point of arguing in fifth grade with Catholics about primacy of origin, utterly ignorant that Campbell and Stone were 19th century Americans and that your particular religious group was born in the hills of Kentucky. Children live and move about in a world presided over by adults. The lucky ones never have to call into question that world, get to bounce about enveloped in love, oblivious to most anything but their wants. We were lucky and parental love covered over many sins.

I remember aspects about Mom’s blindness. How the morning she woke up and couldn’t see we were in a mountain village, several hours north of Managua. Dad had been holding a health clinic. We’d been sleeping in our Volkswagen camper. I remember our leaving Nicaragua, the time spent in Houston, the parents going to see specialists, the miracle of Mom’s sight regained. I think I remember their having talked about it that morning. I’m rather sure we headed back to the capital early. They probably talked about it all the way home and then long into the night and for many nights. But I don’t remember. Maybe they kept this from us. Maybe a mother touched by blindness was, for us children, inconceivable. As a child it’s hard to see beyond your own needs and desires.

Who can remember what street we were on? Dad was driving the Volkswagen they bought anticipating van-fulls of Nicaraguan brethren and sistren. And there always were. We often fulfilled Christ’s injunction to let the soldier ride along. But on this morning or afternoon, it was only us. Dad was recounting a nurse flirting with him. Only more. Even at seven I knew that overt and blatant propositions were improper. But I wasn’t worried. Mom and Dad were in their golden years and talk flowed between them like light. They trusted each other, were faithful to each other, and could talk about anything. This I do remember; but I don’t the worry about Mom’s blindness.

And yet, that song. One more step, one more step in faith, forward brother, forward, our prize waits for us in heaven. Like I said, a funeral march, each measure dragging like a tired foot up a hill. And mother, eyes closed, singing, One more stepForward brotherThere’s a prize.

In a Man’s Voice: Happy Again by Douglas Imbrogno

Douglas Imbrogno is an exceptionally creative man, someone who can tell a story both in words and in pictures.

His essay here tells of a pivotal dynamic in his childhood, and of the night his emerging adult identity intersected his parents’ stormy marriage.

Something has broken in me. I quiver head to toe, shaking uncontrollably for minutes. I do not to this day have the words to describe what broke, unless it was something like the compact between parent and child. It had something to do with the fact that never again could I look at my parents without complicity, a knowing and direct participation — both embarrassing and far too personal – in the magnitude of their estrangement.

Please watch the first 25 seconds of this video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ta3jFvl3gU, and then take some time to read Doug’s essay. He does here so well what I believe many writers want to do: Engage, tell, and reflect without expecting to understand or catalog.

Sometimes the telling is enough.

Happy Again | by Douglas Imbrogno

Tommy Helms ranges into the pocket at second base. He dives, nabs the ball then pops onto his knees, scooping it to Darrell Chaney. The shortstop foot-taps second base then whipcracks the ball to first base, inches above the head of an onrushing Dodger. A picture-perfect double play. The Dodgers are done for and the win at Dodger Stadium vaults the Cincinnati Reds back into first place in the National League West.

Then, several things happen at once.

In the time it takes radio waves to travel 2,400 miles across the better part of America, a triumphant fist punches upward from beneath a blanket decorated with trains in a Cincinnati bedroom. My 13-year-old fist. The punch upsets the applecart of my bed in the musty basement bedroom of our house at 707 Waycross Road. My G.E. transistor radio tumbles onto the floor. It is past 1:30 a.m. on a school night and I should be sleeping, but true-blue adolescent Reds fans sneer at the three-hour time difference between here and L.A. The radio crackles to life down on the blue throw rug beside the bed: “And this,” says Reds announcer Joe Nuxhall, signing off with a signature line that recalls his own pitching days, “is the old left-hander, rounding third and heading for home.”

Thump! Upstairs a door slams open. Light footsteps can be heard tramping downward from the third floor, then again, down a short flight to the family room above my head. Moments later, heavier footfalls trod the same path. My mother. With my father following. “Leave me alone!” I hear, muffled through the ceiling. My mother. “What! What is it?” I hear my dad say, in a furious strangled whisper. I grab the radio off the floor, retreat back into the cove of my covers.

The author's dueling parents in better days from a photo taken eight months after he was born.

“You think sex is something …” I don’t hear what he says after that. I don’t want to hear. Please, I really don’t. But the house is made of plywood and plaster. It rests in one of the fast-built subdivisions north of the city, at the edge of the country where the cornfields start. There’s not much you don’t hear when someone shouts the next floor up. Or cries. No, my mother isn’t crying. She’s weeping. I doubt I knew the distinction back then, though now I do.

Through my basement window, which I keep open on all but the coldest nights, I can hear cows lowing on quiet nights as their exclamations carry from the hilltop farm a mile away. I hear overnight trains hoot-hooting through the valley on their way somewhere else. On nights like these, which are all too common, I dream I might hop a train like the hobos do.

Be gone.

Far gone.

This time, the shouting, the weeping, it just won’t stop. Fierce words from my father. He doesn’t hit her, I know that. He never has. He never will, though I hardly know that this night. Nor has he ever hit us, the six of us kids. We will later come to know how his own Italian father beat on him and his brother. Finally, my dad escaped, decamping to the Merchant Marines, floating off at age 17, across the waves of Lake Erie and Lake Superior. Free at last. It would take me decades, with the usual succession of therapists, to grant my father this award of fatherhood: He stopped the forward progress of physical beating in the family line. Right in our family. He stopped it.

But words, the rageful, out-of-control, spitting words frustrated fathers and anguished mothers fling at each other, these are a kind of transmuted violence. Not for nothing do we say the words he spoke ‘cut like a knife.’

I curl in a tight fetal ball beneath my covers. We curl like this – the thought comes to me four decades later – because of an unwilled body memory, an abiding recollection of what it was like when we felt utterly safe. Before we are born, that is, with a shout and a cry into a world that is anything but.

The volume upstairs rises. What is happening? Is he going to do something to her? Why can’t they be quiet? I have to stop this. Shouldn’t I do something? Aren’t I responsible for doing something? I am 13. In olden times, boys at 13 worked farms. They shot dinner. They banged a drum in civil wars. They stood up and they did things. I can’t take it anymore. Can’t take the shouting. The terrible pain in the voices, in my mother’s cowering voice, which sounds like a cornered animal. I fling off the covers, sending a hundred black locomotives flying into the dark.

I stand up. My feet miss the bunched-up area rug, hit the cold concrete floor. I shake my head as if to clear it of marbles. I don’t really know what I’m doing. But my feet seem to want to stride across the bedroom. They take me up the five or six basement steps. I see my right hand, as if seen in a movie, reach for the brass basement door handle. Twist it. The door opens. I round the corner into the family room, the sofa against the wall to the right, the TV on the left where we all watch “The Ed Sullivan Show” together each Sunday. Much later, I’ll note the ironic resonance in this scene unfolding in the ‘family room.’ The lights are off, but it’s a moon-filled night. A pale, milky aura pours through the room’s glass doors, which open onto the backyard where a tall weeping willow dominates. In summer, my brother and I can earn a quarter from my dad for rounding up the scores of thin dead branches it routinely drops.

My mother sits scrunched in a corner of the sofa, hugging herself. My father is on one knee on the carpet in front of her. As if proposing. Is his arm raised in the air? Or is he just gesticulating in his pained raged? My feet again, with a life of their own, advance me into the room. I now stand six feet from this tableau. I am probably standing there in a white t-shirt, pajama bottoms. Their voices die off. An eternity takes place between the second my parents’ eyes unlock from one another and my mother’s head turns. Turns, like a rusty gate. Towards me. My voice is talking. What will it say?

“I can’t believe,” I utter in a breathy gulp, “two people would treat each other like this.”

My arms. Where are they — at my side? Akimbo, on my hips? I don’t recall. And were those my exact words? Something like it. What I recall most clearly is the next moment. A kind of a cry, but not a cry, rises from my mother’s mouth. It’s a grieving sound beyond the ability of language to translate into vowels and consonants. Not a wail, not a moan. Something in between which drew from both.

Then, I swivel on my heels. Am gone, back down the blackened stairs. Back into my redoubt, which on train-haunted nights full of the moo of cows can be a real sanctuary. Not this night. I grab the flung-off blanket, rebuild a hidden cave of covers. Crawl in. I huddle there. Something has broken in me. I quiver head to toe, shaking uncontrollably for minutes. I do not to this day have the words to describe what broke, unless it was something like the compact between parent and child. It had something to do with the fact that never again could I look at my parents without complicity, a knowing and direct participation — both embarrassing and far too personal – in the magnitude of their estrangement.

These many years later, I am aware that given the littered landscape of shocking memoirs of household terror and abuse, my story is small potatoes. Kids with deranged, unstable, unloving, physically and sexually aggressive fathers or suicidal mothers – their lacerating wounds are the big leagues of lifetime anguish.

My remaining wounds are mostly cauterized. I know both my parents deeply loved us. Plus, I was granted the grace of telling them both directly, several times, I loved them and hearing the same back at me. Yet there is another story I have been trying to write of how I think my entanglement in their troubled relationship – and it went far beyond that night – helped upend my own life later on. The result was self-violence, bloodshed, a trauma that also rippled through the household. Those days are behind me. Yet in a sort of symbiotic blowback, I terrorized them both – back at you, mom and dad! – via my own emotional breakdowns years after those interminable fighting nights on Waycross Road.

My mother died first, after an excruciating bout with Alzheimers (is there any other kind?). My father, a man who did not make close friendships in life, was truly left behind, bereft and alone, but for us kids and a rare visit from a brother or sister. Despite the fact that they hailed from two different planets, if not galaxies, my father loved my mother, loved her beyond the words he was never good at formulating. She was – and this is no exaggeration – his all. He had trouble sleeping in their marital bed after she died. On my visits from West Virginia to Cincinnati, I would arrive to find him snoring on the sofa in the TV room of the big house to which they later moved, John Wayne astride his horse on the blathering screen.  “I saw your mother in this room,” he said one time. “I saw her just as clear as day, standing right there.” He pointed to the spot. He often slept in that room, we think, in hopes of seeing her again.

But the house was too big for him to keep up. I had come to help him find an apartment at a retirement home.  One day, we checked out a place called The Seasons. The place seemed empty of staff, so I poked around. A doorway bore the sign ‘Driving Range.’ When I looked inside the room was full of mops, rags and Spic’n’Span. “This is too much,” he said, as we inspected a showcase, two-bedroom apartment on the third floor. “All I need is an efficiency apartment.” Later, over a lunch of chicken fajitas for him and a halibut sandwich for me, he said something that reminded me of how lonely he was in the world.

“Soon enough,” he says, putting down his cup of unsweetened black coffee, like he always drank it, “I’ll be joining your mother.”

A pause. A rueful, sad smile.

“Then, I’ll be happy again.”

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

Kitchen 101: Art and History

"Get a shot with the cake stand showing."

Nothing is quite as grounding as visiting my parents’ house — not for any higher emotional reasons, but for the sheer hilarity.  I have two short examples to share for your mid-week lighter fare. 

First, my mother took great care to make sure I saw her living sculpture of onions.  These are sprouting on a fine china plate that is also elevated to a special status on top of a glass cake stand.  Note the onion skin that has been pushed off of the bulb by the new growth.  Try — if you can handle it — to process how long it took for this skin to be raised aloft to this level, undisturbed.  “I just thought it was cool and amazing, so I have let it keep going.  Be sure to get a shot where you can see I have it on the cake stand.”   Mom has always had an artist’s eye, and she really took it to a new level for me with this combined science project and onion sculpture. 

Ambiguous feelings about Polish knights. OK then.....

Now, padre.  I’m not sure what to say about this, except on the same day I found the onion art I passed this newspaper clipping in the kitchen.  Yes, that is correct, it says “Poland marks mixed memories of knights.”  I love the alliteration and the photograph of the battle recreation.  This is the kind of thing I find scattered around mom and dad’s house all the time, and though maybe I should be used to it by now this one just really cracked me up.  I think it’s the “news item” feel of a clipping with an “action shot” featuring a long, long-over period from a country many people may not even remember is a country.  When is the last time you saw Poland in the news?  Well, I’ve just fixed that for you.  You can thank me later, perhaps over a cup of mead. 

We can quaff until that skin falls off the onion.  What say?