Friday, July 22, 2011

From retreat prompt to memorial tribute

While retreating with the above crew at my summer home in Northern NY State in June, I posed a writing prompt I lifted from a post by Kim Pearson, a fellow contributing editor at The Blood-Red Pencil:
Describe a room in your house, perhaps the room you are sitting in now. Describe everything and anything in it – without using any adjectives or adverbs that imply opinion (such as pretty, or dirty, or jarring, or too anything). Use only words that cannot be disputed.
Since it was a beautiful day, I suggested my retreaters might also choose an outside space. Yet when we began writing, no one moved from the room we were in. So I went outside and sat in an Adirondack chair to serve as a role model. The first thing I saw was "Mahn-Go-Taysee," the canoe pictured above. I started writing from this prompt through a filter of loss; my father. who died at the end of April, had loved this canoe. With a little adaptation my writing became the piece below, which I read last Saturday at his memorial service.

[Note: When trying to get your writing life back to normal after suffering such a loss, I recommend you refrain from posting a picture of your father looking youthful and handsome on your blog. It's been very hard for me to add something that would push him from the "front page," scrolling him into my past. I'll do so gently, by sharing here my tribute.]

* * *

The overturned canoe graces the lakeshore as it has every year, vivid yellow against green growing grass. This year fore and aft seem more neck and tail, curving over sawhorses in a reverent bow. Above it, in the pines, birds twitter strange syllables as if calling its name: “Mahn-go-taysee.” If they could tell the story of that name, I’d love to hear it.

The name was from Uncle Bob’s Hiawatha period. Translated, the Ojibway means “loon-hearted brave.” I never heard anyone venture a guess as to what that meant, exactly. Perhaps Dad approved simply because of the name’s reference to the majestic bird that returns to the lake with its mate every summer to raise its young, just as he did.

I think of this as I place my palm on the canoe’s back. Its warmth surprises me. I almost expect a heartbeat, as if it has absorbed and reflected the life around it. My fingers skim blemishes formed by hardened sap, and stuttering scars left by generations of children navigating submerged rocks discovered too late.

It seems like only yesterday this canoe wintered over in the basement of our Maryland home, its ribs exposed, although in truth it has been some forty years. Dad had asked that we each take short shifts with the sanding; with seven in the family it would be done in a jiffy. But my memory is of my father’s hands on the sanding block, swish-a-swish-a-swish, raising dust into the air that tasted sweet on my tongue. I watched him from a perch on the basement steps. At fourteen I knew nothing of endurance, and tired too quickly to be of much use. But I sensed the importance of the project, and of witnessing it.

I run my fingers over the letters. With a sure hand and the flourish of the artisan, Dad had painted them so bold and thick that even the blind might read them with the hands: Mahn-go-taysee. Was being loon-hearted anything like being “crazy as a loon”? I suppose that phrase refers to the bird’s giggle-laugh that, like the cries of a child relentlessly tickled, is actually a sign of distress. What if being loon-hearted is to be crazed with love to the point of foolishness?

Perhaps it was foolish of my father to spend so much time preserving this old boat, with so many other low-maintenance, hi-tech materials becoming available. Yes, it sliced through the water leaving only its thin wake in evidence, but it was tippy. Dad taught us to paddle in this canoe, as soundlessly as an Indian whose very life depended on stealth. To abandon our mother’s hand-caned seats and kneel in the center if paddling solo while caught in a stiff wind. He taught my sisters and I how to switch places, one crawling through the straddled legs of the other. Balance and harmony were paramount; a canoe was no place for squabbles. And within the confines of this vessel we kept the peace well—as far as I know, it did not once overturn.

I can still see my father in the basement, working night after night within the glow of his worklamp, as alone as the loon can sound with its haunted, hollow call. The restoration would end up taking ten years. Maybe to be loon-hearted means to carry on despite what one knows of abandonment and lone effort. Yet in the end our ever-buoyant father painted the canoe the color of sunshine, building the brilliance coat after coat.

My hand skims the chipped keel. I was married by the time I helped fashion this finishing touch, to Dad’s specifications, from a hard-to-find length of oak with no knots. It is rough now from running the boat onto the sandy shore, time and again, like Mom told us not to. In ways both constructive and destructive, this craft was a family work of art.

The breeze bends long grasses and pushes ripples against the shore but the canoe continues its vigil with the patience of an elder. No one is immune to the ravages of age, not even Mahn-go-taysee. Upon the completion of her restoration in 1985 my dad wrote, “My modest assessment is that it is absolutely gorgeous!” Now deepening cracks cause mildew-edged canvas to peel from her gunwales—but inside, bathed in the spirit of the loon-hearted brave who revived her, resilient ribs have clung to both strength and beauty.

A motor starts, a dog barks in the distance. Beside Mahn-go-taysee, I watch as out on the lake a child or perhaps a renter flails oars, sending a rowboat into a spasmodic circle. I smile; they too will learn. I pat the canoe, soon to earn temporary respite from such training sessions.

One day we will restore her. Even Trout Lakers who’ve traded in double-seater outhouses for indoor plumbing understand the importance of clinging to some aspects of bygone eras. And I am one of Jack Graham’s children: if what stands between one of us and something we find meaningful is simply the acquisition of new skills, the scraping together of elusive funds, and monumental effort over an indeterminate stretch of time, why not go for it?

But before sending her to her well-earned rest, unable to resist the way she is stretched before me, soaking up the sun and the view as my father himself so loved to do, I slip my arms around Mahn-go-taysee and lay my cheek one last time against what warmth remains on her flawed, beloved surface.

My new, smaller family