Global Mom: Our Daughter With The French Name

From Global Mom: A Memoir

The following I wrote in my journal:

The hardest moment was in our bedroom tonight. We’d already told P by himself, which was a good move. We knew he’d be ecstatic. But C just finished doing Marian the Librarian in “The Music Man” and just last week we promised her a dog. Finally, the dog she’s waited a decade for. For D and L, we would just announce the choice when we’d make it, not discuss it, so we didn’t involve them at first.

Claire as Marian

Claire as Marian

Claire living her dream: horses

Claire living her dream: horses

091

Piano teacher down the street

Piano teacher down the street

Big yellow American school bus also down the street...and a 6 minute drive to school

Big yellow American school bus also down the street…and a 6 minute drive to school

Free range living

Free range living

Did I mention a cottage and lots of open space. . .for a dog?

Did I mention a cottage and lots of open space. . .for a dog?

...Or for a little brother?

…Or for a little brother?

P and C were sitting on our sofa. We told them we had big news but wanted to discuss it. This isn’t final, kids, we said. Want to get your reactions. And when we told C, she immediately glazed over then her eyes welled up. P put his arm around her, and she just started crying, crying. “I don’t want to go back to that hard life. This is easy, good, perfect. I want to be here. I want to STAY HERE!” And she fell into P’s arms, bawling. I think I gave R an evil look, and I know I lipped to him, “This means no go.”

We kept trying to reassure her. We haven’t said yes to a thing, we said. We’ve just been asked if we could and we are free to say no, we said. We’ll never do something that makes all of us miserable and that Heavenly Father does not encourage us to do. We walked around and around the back yard, C between us, our arms wrapped around her shoulders, listening as she cried out all the reasons why this was all bad, all wrong. “All bad, all wrong,” she kept crying, stopping to catch her breath, to bend over and then shake herself upright. It broke my heart. I wanted to weep, too, but held it in. I was believing her.

I felt how selfish it would be to pluck them out of such bounty and ease, and I had just hung red geraniums on the wrap around porch, gorgeous! Why would we ever head to where things were, as Claire knew, much harder. The edges, harder. The expectations, harder. The language, harder. The traffic and school and rules and sky and air and everything, she said, HARDER.

Inseparable, these two

Inseparable, these two

What happened when Claire went alone into her room is something Randall and I didn’t ask or hope for. We sat, nauseated and sweaty, conflicted and brokenhearted, hands between knees, rocking back and forth on the edge of our bed. So what? we said to each other, if the company has an “acute” and “special” need? So what if that need is, as they assert, “tailor made” to be filled with Randall’s expertise? So what if this would only be “a couple of years” and then we could come right back to the home and the huge yard and the cul de sac on the hill and corporate headquarters where Randall, having done this, overseeing his function in the company’s largest subsidiary outside the U.S., would be “very well-positioned”, as he was told, to take on the job that his whole career had been grooming him for, the top and final level.

So what? I said.

So what? he said.

So what?

086

And Claire knocked on our door.

She wanted to talk. She came with news that became a turning point and a landmark to which our whole family would refer for years to come. She sat with us on the bed and told us she’d run while holding back tears to her girlfriend down the road. That friend, whose parents were in the middle of a horrible divorce, reassured and comforted Claire, and listened as her new friend cried. Claire had then come back home to kneel at her bed and pray. Not for an answer — to move or not to move, that was not the question — but simple comfort in this hurting moment. It was then that she felt warmth and heat wrap around her twelve-year-old shoulders and a voice (she felt it, she didn’t hear it), told her clearly that though this would be really hard at the beginning, over the long run it would be the best thing for the family.

Yes, she should, we should, move to Paris.

141

Annie Dillard: Frayed & Nibbled

The following text comes from the 13th chapter of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, a singular poetic/scientific meditation on heaven and earth, a Pulitzer Prize-winning walk through the world.  These photographs were taken in the vast and lush English Gardens by our gifted friend Rob Inderrieden the day before we moved from Munich to Singapore.

Is our birthright and heritage to be, like Jacob’s cattle on which the life of a nation was founded, “ring-streaked, speckled, and spotted” not with the spangling marks of grace like beauty rained down from eternity, but with the blotched assaults and quarryings of time?

“We are all of us clocks,” says Eddington, “whose faces tell the passing years.” The young man proudly names his scars for his lover; the old man alone before a mirror erases his scars with his eyes and sees himself whole.

“In nature,” wrote Huston Smith, “the emphasis is in what is rather than what ought to be.” I learn this lesson in a new way everyday. It must be, I think tonight, that in a certain sense only the newborn in this world are whole, that as adults we are expected to be, and necessarily, somewhat nibbled. It’s par for the course. Physical wholeness is not something we have barring accident; it itself is accidental, an accident of infancy, like a baby’s fontanel or the egg-tooth on a hatchling. Are the five-foot silver eels that migrate as adults across meadows by night actually scarred with the bill marks of herons, flayed by the sharp teeth of bass? I think of the beautiful sharks I saw from the shore, hefted and held aloft in a light-shot wave. Were those sharks sliced with scars, were there mites in their hides and worms in their hearts? Did the mockingbird that plunged from the rooftop, folding its wings, bear in its buoyant quills a host of sucking lice?

The summer is old. A gritty, colorless dust cakes the melons and squashes, and worms fatten within on the bright, sweet flesh. The world is festering with suppurating sores. . .Have I walked too much, aged beyond my years?. . .There are the flies that make a wound, the flies that find a wound, and a hungry world that won’t wait till I’m decently dead.

I think of the green insect shaking the web from its wings, and of the whale-scarred crab-eater seals. They demand a certain respect. The only way I can reasonably talk about all this is to address you directly and frankly as a fellow survivor. Here we so incontrovertibly are.

That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is, such a surprise that I find myself referring all subsequent kinds of knowledge to it. . .But knowledge does not vanquish mystery, or obscure its distant lights. I still now and will tomorrow steer by what happened that day when some undeniably new spirit roared down the air, bowled me over, and turned on the lights.

Can I say then that corruption is one of beauty’s deep-blue speckles, that the frayed and nibbled fringe of the world is a tallith, a prayer shawl, the intricate garment of beauty?

It is very tempting, but I honestly cannot. But I can, however, affirm that corruption is not beauty’s very heart.

And I can I think call the vision of the cedar and the knowledge of these wormy quarryings twin fiords cutting in the granite cliffs of mystery, and say that the new is always present simultaneously with the old, however hidden. The tree with the lights in it does not go out; that light still shines on an old world, now feebly, now bright.




I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating, too. I am not washed and beautiful,in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections, but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down.


Simone Weil says simply, “Let us love the country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love.”

“The fact is, ” said Van Gogh, “the fact is that we are painters in real life,and the important thing is to breathe as hard as ever we can breathe.”

Thank you, Rob and Tasha Inderrieden, for the beautiful photographs, but even more, for the indelible memories

I am a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the world’s rock altar, waiting for worms. I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like live maggots in amber, there are shells of worms in the rock and moths flapping at my eyes. A wind from noplace rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loose; I walk on my way.

Global Mom: Barnepark

Another excerpt from the forthcoming book, Global Mom, A Memoir.

Here, I have been advised by my new Norwegian friend, Johanne, to enroll our two barna (children) at our local branch of barnepark, Norway’s ubiquitous outdoor preschool. This is early January, an American’s season for hibernation, hunkering down.  But this is Norway, where weather is only the poorest excuse for escaping.

Besides, after a full week in this new country, I’m already  feeling compelled to go native.

I’ll let my children go first.

Norway, view from our window, 1994

**

Global Mom, A Memoir.

Norwegian Wood, January, 1994

Before petitioning the barnepark, as Johanna had suggested, I first set up a stealth surveillance post. Atop a hill and from behind a pine tree close to Blakstad barnepark, I  hunched behind my steering wheel, warm in my down sleeping bag and earmuffs.  Parker and Claire wore their hats and coats and were wrapped in a massive feather comforter while they read books to each other in the backseat.  I dissected the social experiment playing itself out before me.

Photo credit: Flickr

From this outpost, I spied a trio of red-suited adults (only later did I discover that they were women) standing sentinel amid fifteen to twenty or so small bodies that played in hip-high snow and chased snowflakes with their tongues. The women in red stood there, removed from the activity in the snow.   Unless there was real trouble like the random child stuck head first in a snow bank, limbs flailing wildly for help, the women stood far away, stamping their boots every so often, clouds of breath rising from their faces.  Occasionally, they would sip from thermoses or slap their mittened hands on their thighs. This same silent movie repeated itself all morning long, the sun never really rising very far into the sky, dusk a constant backdrop on those limpid midwinter days.

Photo credit: Flickr

At midday, and with the ring of a hand-held bell, all the children would gather into a small wooden barrack for an hour. After the hour, they emerged again. Repeat of silent movie. All afternoon. I would later learn that this was the pattern, day in and day out, sleet, hail, snow, hell or high water, all year long, for three years of these children’s lives.

And everyone in Norway did this?  Everyone?

Just watching the ice slides made me choke on my swig of peppermint tea from my big green Land’s End thermos. Some of those kids were whizzing so fast down slides packed so hard with gray ice, they looked like upholstered torpedoes shooting out of polished marble barrels.

Claire Bradford, Blakstad barnepark, January 1994

One tiny figure in particular (to whom we still refer today as Hannah the Human Bullet) seized my attention.  She might have been three, but a small three.  Her snowsuit was red as was her little knitted cap that looked just like a strawberry, green twig stem and all.  From where I huddled in my unmarked car, I could just make out her mounds of cheeks; two buffed pinkish apples in a grocer’s crate.  She was either intrepid or on Phen-Phen.  Circuit after circuit, she hiked the slick path to the top of a handmade precipice where she flopped herself prostrate, planted her mittens to get some traction, and like a teensy pebble out of a sling shot, exploded down the steep incline.  Sometimes she landed on her belly.  Sometimes on her back.  Always, she caught some air. No one, least of all Hannah, seemed to flinch at the peril, the astronomical potential for lawsuits, the sure threat of injury.  I, on the other hand, was left winded and jittery just keeping up with her above my dashboard.

Photo credit: Flickr

Kids were roaming about, gluey noses scarlet with cold, all those clouds of breath hanging over their heads like empty thought bubbles in a comic strip. The tall red suited adults only piped up every half hour or son, maybe, while all the children kept doing normal kid-in-snow things like pelting each other with snowballs, grabbing the littler guy’s shovel, constructing elaborate fort and tunnel systems.

When they were whonked over the noggin or got stuck in the frozen tire swing, no one came rushing with theatrical rescues and apologies for the misery of it all.  No one came most of the time, in fact.  Generally, a tall person’s hooded head raised itself a bit, I would hear the faint holler, probably reciting a rule, and the child maneuvered itself to safety or self-consolation.  Once or twice a big person split up a knotted wrangle of clawing cubs, barking in about four syllables something that shut down the scuffle like a lid over fire.

This?  No-sir-ee-sir, my two would never survive.

Photo credit: Flickr

I had raised Parker and Claire — my treasures, my snoogly-wooglies — to be softies. Like me.  Accomodating, even obliging, sensitive.  Freaked by speed.  This Nordic system, as I watched it agape and gasping, would make them hardy, that’s for sure.  But in the process it would give me a heart attack. Putting them here would be like tossing them into a doggoned menagerie, I shuddered, more of a farm, even, than any well-organized playpen.  I second-guessed myself.  I second-guessed the Norwegians.  I was back to second-guessing Norway as a whole.

Parker, Norway, 1994

After a couple of days of playing driver’s seat anthropologist from an unmarked Saab, I slipped into my best jeans which I tucked into my fancy red cowboy boots, a big hit when I’d worn them in New York City, and they made me immediately identifiable as The Girl From Utah.  I pulled on a padded but flattering and therefore actually not so padded and therefore totally useless down parka, and checked my foreign newcomer smile in the mirror while drilling my Norwegian lines. I’d written them out phonetically while Johanna had coached me over the phone. With a prayer in my heart and one bundled child on each hand, I waddled gingerly all the way down the slope to the Blakstad barnepark barrack.

Mother on a snow stroll with children in tow
Note the attempt at a flattering pose. . .

It might have occurred to you that the soles of cowboy boots are meant to slip easily in and out of stirrups, an advantage while roping calves in rodeos.  The relative slickness of the soles helps cowgirls slide in and out of stirrups with ease, even elegance, so they can win big trophies and custom-made chaps.  But this engineering factoid never crossed my mind before I stepped out onto my first Norwegian iceberg.  Lesson learned? Aerodynamically designed boot toes and high-gloss soles are no help on a 70˚ angle of black ice.

Parker, Norway, 1994

Slush-splattered, a massive bruise forming on my left hip and limping lightly, we arrived.  I’d timed our entrance for noon, knowing this was the children’s lunchtime, a prime opportunity to beg for dagbarn plasser.  A few whacks on the wooden door and a very tall, attractive brunette woman wearing several layers of woolen sweaters under a lumpy red snowsuit unzipped to and gathered at her waist, opened to me.  Her pronounced, flushed cheekbones pointed right to her broad, sympathetic smile.  Behind her shoulder I caught sight of a spartan but cozy interior filled with a whole picnic table of ruddy-cheeked children, most of them toe-headed, leaning over small bundles of what must have been sack lunches.

In silence they examined their strange, shivering visitors.

Blakstad barnepark, Norway, January 1994

Two other blonde women, also in half-zipped red jump suits, appeared to be manning the lunch break.  The interior looked so soothing after the piercing cold outside. Claire, shy and clingy in new situations, was gripping my brittle fingers so desperately I thought they’d break. And both children really needed a toilet.  I was afraid.  Afraid for them.  Afraid for me.  My feet were searing with pain. My rump was soggy and sore. I searched inwardly for my first line.  This is where my years as an actress kicked in, shoving me through stage fright.

The woman waited, smiling.

I was frozen on all levels.

I licked my lips to defrost them, but they remained immobile.

Out of a mouth that felt like two stacked Goodyear radials I forced a smile and the following in halting Norwegian:

“Good day.  Sorry that I disturb.  We are Americans.  We inhabit house not far.  We freeze.  Have you dagbarn?”

Tall, gentle tante Britt, as I later learned was her name, responded in Norwegian-For-The-Learning-And-Hearing-Impaired, and drew me at once into the barrack and into a wobbly but warm conversation.  All this was done while the two blondes, (whom I was later to know as tante Eva and tante Anna) invited Parker and Claire over to sit on a bench and sing nursery songs with the others while I beat my hands back to life.  They smiled, my two, a bit stiff with fear of separation and all-eyes-on-us self-conciousness.  But that lasted less than five minutes.

Picnic time, Blakstad barnepark, Norway, January 1994

My hands began thawing. The palms started itching like crazy.  I watched my two wriggle into a place between other children on the bench. Claire’s cheeks a flaming shade of fuchsia, Parker’s bangs matted and angular after he tugged off his thin American beanie.  A spot in my lower torso felt ignited, heat-filled, by the sight of my two crammed in between a girl, maybe four, and another, not much older. The first sat next to Claire and secretly put her hand on Claire’s thigh, smiling, whispering something Claire of course could not understand, but to which Claire nodded a bit sideways.  This is where that torso hot spot took quiet flame.  I honestly felt warmer. My eyes must have been defrosting, I knew this, because they were leaking down both cheeks.

But my fingers remained concrete.  I never did get blood to them, in fact, but I nevertheless managed to sign, in runic alphabet, the sheet of paper that admitted our two as dagbarn the next morning.

Parker Bradford at barnepark

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Global Mom: Snow Angels

As promised, a short teaser for Global Mom.

This comes from early in the book, soon after we have moved from the Bright Lights of Broadway to the Northern Lights of Norway.  Randall has been invited with his new team at work to attend a week of the Olympic Games in Lillehammer.  I am with four-year-old Parker and two-year-old Claire, holed up in a snug wooden home in the mountains west of Oslo.  There, I’m learning two basics for becoming Norwegian:

Snow and Speech.

***

This, from my journal:

I spent over two hours shoveling snow in the middle of a major snowstorm this morning.  While Parker and Claire stared on from the safe warmth of the house, their rosy faces pushed against the window next to the front door, I snorted and huffed away like a rabid mastodon packed into neck-to-ankle lycra.  The craziest thing about this is that everyone else on the street was doing the same thing, although perhaps not in lycra. Not a one of us exchanged as much as a greeting, and in silent, sober duty we jammed our shovels, heaved the weight, and moved mountains.  Half sissy, half Sisyphus, I clenched my jaw, doing my part to build neighborly solidarity. 

As another meter of snow fell (and we all knew another two more were forecast for that night), we scooped and piled, scooped and piled for a couple of hours at least.  Our monuments grew much taller than the tallest man I could spy at the bottom of our hill, digging and lobbing in the unbroken rhythm of jab-heave-heave-hurl, jab-heave-heave-hurl.

I’m not sure exactly what it is yet that I am learning in this new lifestyle, but I think it has something to do with discovering the inherent significance buried in the mundane. I’ll keep digging.

Photo credit: UK Telegraph

Sometime after that storm blew over, the sun shone brightly for an exceptional six days straight. This was just long enough to cause a crisis when the ice started to thaw. One morning, I found that the entryway ceiling was streaming in several synchronized tributaries onto the floor.  Seems I’d been distracted by snow removal from the shoulder down, and hadn’t noted the glacier accumulating on the roof.

I should have known to climb on the roof and shovel off the weight, my tall neighbor from the bottom of the road announced flatly as he took to the roof in two long strides (the snow was so high it met the bottom edge of the rafters) and, in a dozen or so brusque gestures, attacked the slushy beast with a pick and spade.  A couple of muscular kicks with the toe of his hunting boots and my roof was dripless.

“Always clear the roof”, he offered in an accent I now recognized as coming from northern Norway, and he stabbed the shovel into a snow mound before leaning his bony elbow on the pick.  “Next time the whole roof could fall right on your children and—” he made a fierce sound like a polar bear winning at Go Fish.

You can bet that after every storm that followed I was the first from my neighborhood to shimmy up the drain pipe: The Shoveler on the Roof.

This was at about the same time Randall was on something euphemistically called a regional business retreat at the Olympic Games.  He called often from Lillehammer, feeding me with color commentary and cultural play-by-plays, always spilling over with details about this high-pitched initiation into the Norwegian spirit. At noon, he’d be yelling to me over the explosions of cheering spectators right and left; at midnight, he’d whisper like a spy, reporting dispassionately below the rowdy drinking choruses gurgling in the background on whoever was at that moment spread out cold under the table.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

I took copious notes.  I envisioned the scenes.  Breathlessly, I’d pummel him with questions and prod him for more.  And I hung a bit, I’m embarrassed but not too proud to admit, on those calls. There was a big world out there.

Not that I wasn’t keeping very busy in my small world at home.  I used that week to invite over a steady string of little friends—Jesper, Eirik, Knut, Karolina, Per-Ole, Louisa—to the Bradford house.  Bringing Norwegian under our roof in galloping, knee-high form was, as I’d hoped it would be, better then Berlitz. I was the half-mute kneeling hostess, crawling everywhere the conversation went, hungrily watching the kids’ lips, mouthing sounds with my brows furrowed, questioning kiddies on every expression, every turn of phrase.  I tell you, I never want to know what those children told their own parents about that new mother who mostly crawled and wrote down every word they said. Because most of the time they’d  look at me with their noses crunched in a bundle, and say, “So. . .you’re not Norwegian, are you? Because you do speak a little weird, you know that?”

That tots who couldn’t even pull on their own mittens could spew flawless phrases like that in Norwegian kept me on my knees.  I was their humble boot-licker.

Photo credit: Kim Rormark

During a few of those uncharacteristically sunny hours in early February, I hosted our own preschool Olympics.  With ten guests I staged an activity that left my whole backside plastered with snow that fell off in slabs when I lurched into the house to grab Randall’s telephone call. I’d been in the yard with a dozen children making snow angels. I was pooped. The sun was fading (it was almost two o’clock, dusk in a Norwegian winter), which meant we’d soon be coming inside.  The very thought of undressing the whole fleet of mushy astronauts made my spine go floppy but my jaw go rigid.

“You wouldn’t believe it, sweetheart” Randall laughed, “but there are trolls everywhere here. Huge troll statues, little troll dolls, troll sweatshirts, troll oven-mits, troll bumper stickers. It’s a total troll-o-rama.  Wish you could see the poor guy we saw in head-to-toe troll gear grilling meatballs. Incredible!”

I tried to conjure the picture.  Jesper needed to go to the toilet and had to be totally undressed.  Hard, with a phone pinched between ear and shoulder.

Randall kept feeding me images:

“And we just passed the biggest ice sculpture I’ve ever seen.  Solid ice.  Gorgeous. Mammoth. A Viking ship.  Or a polar bear or something, I think.”

“Not a troll?” I asked, unzipping Jesper who now lies flat on his back on my kitchen floor, and I don’t have the Norwegian words for, “Me your slave?”, and I’m tugging at his rock solid Cherox snow boots so I can then pull off a couple of layers so he can now waddle, dripping a trail of snow, to the toilet.

“No, a moose, maybe.  Anyway, I’m thinking winter’s not so bad here after all if you can do it like this every time:  the press, the cameras, the celebrities, the perfect blue skies.  I guess—“

I couldn’t’ make out the rest of his words for all the noise on his end.

“Where are you?  What’s all the yelling?” I wondered as I adjusted the phone in hand, mopping up Jesper’s mush tracks with a rag under my foot, all the while keeping an eye on the happy scene of several very sweet angels indeed, including my two, flapping and chortling outside on a mantle of diamonds.

Randall was on someone’s cell at the ice hockey rink where he was sitting only rows—“only rows, honey!”— behind Hilary Clinton, who’d swung through Norway to support the U.S. hockey team.

Up to that point I was smiling, though sweating, on my end of the conversation.  But in an instant something stung and deeply.  The collision in my mind of those two scenes–the Olympic, versus the Neighborhood Games—pinched a nerve in me.  Just then, the hockey team made a goal and pandemonium from that end of the line covered the silence on my end.

Jesper was now standing forlorn in the kitchen doorway.  His below-the-waist bareness and wide open stare said he needed toilet paper.

“Mel?  Hon? You still there?  Hey, I got you a great sweater. Please tell the kids I’ll bring them back real troll hair.”  (Laughter.  A roar for a missed goal.) “Honey?. . . Mel?”

Some moments say more than one can grasp in the instant they strike. This was one of those moments.  There I was in bigger-than-life Norway, the momentary focal point of the globe. Important people were discussing important things; and even if they weren’t, at least they were discussing something.  It was then that I feared what loomed on the horizon: that our two geographies, Randall’s and Melissa’s, would from thenceforth be cloven down the middle, distinctly and necessarily disjointed. Just like the bucket seats of our very first, poor student car, a V.W. bug: Driver (gear shift, and) Passenger. Instead of sharing that joint adventure with Randall, I was afraid I’d only get the adventure second hand, across a gear shift or through the irritating filter of a cell phone exchange. Instead of being there, I was here.

“Thanks, sweetheart, for the sweater,” I said. And I meant it.

But he hadn’t heard my words over the hockey rink bedlam.  The Finns had just made a goal.  And I was busy handing a roll of toilet paper to Jesper.

“Well, can’t hear you so well,” Randall yelled,  “So if you can hear me, Thanks, hon.  I miss you here!

Click.

On the raw pine floor, a puddle of snowmelt spread in a dark pool round my boots.  Lillehammer was only two hours’ drive away.  But impossibly far from my world where tottering, snow-encased trolls were now lined up outside along the floor-to-ceiling kitchen window smashing their pug noses and smearing slime on a frosty pane that barely muffled the new music of Norwegian banter.

Photo credit: norskogarchiv notam02

I watched a row of children, soft faces pressed to transparency, mouths and nostrils expelling little gusts of spirit that clung to glass like ragged circles of moist gauze.  Their shrieks and pantomime jarred my stupor, and I waved back as they turned into the sunlight, plopping into their custom angel prints.  It was only then I noticed this amazing thing: Parker and Claire,  heads bobbing naturally while their mouths spoke simple Norwegian phrases, mixing in with these others from whom they are virtually indistinguishable, those small bodies weaving in and out of light and shadows.

Like all births, the births of my two were at once common and astounding events, universal and unique. Now I knew I needed to turn my focus to the everyday protracted labor of rebirthing them—these two,  these extremely important people — into a new world.

Actually, no.

What I first needed was to turn my focus to boiling a dozen hot dogs.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

In Amber

After eight years in Paris, our family was moving to Munich.  A big move, a bit of a sad move, but not an impossible move, given that we were sending Parker off to college at exactly the same time, and this seemed like a practical juncture for turning in a fresh direction on our family’s ongoing international track. Besides, we couldn’t just keep on enjoying Paris without the one family member who loved Paris as much as or more than any of the rest of us.

You know by now what happened during that move.

It was a logistical tight rope for about two weeks as all six of us straddled continents: our goods had just landed from Paris in Munich where I had been setting up house; the three youngest  we’d sent two weeks earlier to the States to be with relatives; Parker we’d sent ahead to something called Freshman Academy at college only a five-hour drive from my parents’.  And Randall, who was setting up Internet and cell phones and getting traction in his new job, I had just left behind in Munich when I flew ahead to the western U.S. to rejoin our children and visit Parker on his campus. We all kept in touch every day with wildly flying texts, emails, and phone calls.

Randall and I were on the phone several times a day, in fact, plotting what was going to be his earlier-than-expected arrival that Saturday, July the 21st.  We would show up at the door of this oldest son’s first college apartment, Randall and I snickered on the phone, all five of us, swim suits in hand, since there were all these “fun swimming holes” in the area, Parker had told us, places all the local kids had taken the newly-arrived students to.

A big family surprise on Saturday morning.  That had been our plan.

We were all together that Saturday morning.  That much was true to plan.

But under such circumstances as to make my fingers shake even today, five years later, when I try to type them.

So I won’t try to type them.

Only days after Parker’s funeral we found our family of five stepping off a Delta flight in Munich’s airport. New home.  New world.  Alien world.  Cold world.  Death-drenched world. The apartment we had chosen before major tragedy blew the floor and ceiling out of our universe, had been strategically situated for our planned needs. It was in the center of Munich.  A short bike ride to Munich’s Univeristät.  A block from the adjoining English Garden.  Our plan had been that I enroll in a Ph.D. program and in December Parker would return to us for Christmas.  He would wait the few weeks or months for his assignment as a missionary for our church. He would share a part of the apartment with Claire, his best friend and sister, who would be slaving away at the International Baccalaureate at high school.  He could help her.  He could also be close to student life at the nearby Universität.  He could cross country ski with his little brothers across the vast English Garden.  We could soak up being all together again before his two long years of missionary service. Those were our plans.

And by now you’re beginning to understand the relative uselessness of plans.

Plans.  They can blow up in shrapnel and smoke, and underneath those plumes of dust and debris, you finger through ruins, making up something new.

But “fingering through” is misleading as a figure of speech, since what really happens is more of a bloody-knuckled scraping and bare-handed shoveling, which demands full body-and-spirit engagement. It saps you.  And because it does, you spend a great deal of time lying down.  And sitting.

Randall and I walked, when we could, throughout the English Gardens.  And more often we sat.  There were many dedicated benches throughout the garden — “Für Mutti, zum 70en Geburtstag”, “Helmuth und Brunhilde, Immer Liebe.”  We sat on these tributes to the living, most of the time exhausted by sorrow and by the work of just breathing.  The work of just sitting.

Along a tributary of the Isar River in Munich’s English Garden

One day, I envisioned a bench in this park. For our Parker.

Randall and I found our way to a small yellowish converted home in the  middle of the park, the office of the one and only gentleman whose job it is to oversee the installation of dedicated benches. Herr Barthlemes was lanky in his worn beige corduroy trousers and heavy rubberized walking shoes, his bony shoulders poking like the angles of a metal clothes hanger under an olive-green sweater with five dark leather buttons.  As we walked the garden, this man, my husband and I, talking quietly about where to place a bench for our eldest son, Herr Barthlemes wrapped and tucked a plaid woolen shawl in orange and mustard around his neck, a neck as lean as the trunks of the trees that looked underfed and desolate as they shed their fall colors.

Fall.  The dead season. To my grieving eyes, absolutely everything spoke death.

“Normally,” Herr Barthelmes explained as we walked slowly along the pathway that encircles a big open field smack dab in the garden’s heart, “we only put the dedication plaques on the backs of these green painted benches.” He pointed to six benches placed along the path we were walking.

“And if we understood correctly,” Randall said, “we have to choose a green bench that’s already standing in the garden, is that right?”

“Right,” the gentleman nodded. I thought then that if he spoke English he might make a good Jimmy Stewart from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“But. . .what if we’re thinking of a place other than where these green benches already stand?” I asked. I had thought of something maybe close to water, even next to the small canal-like river. A place by a waterfall? Was there a lagoon? Anything that looked like Idaho?

View to the Grosser Wasserfall, English Garden, Munich

“It depends on when you want this finished, Frau Bradford.  You mentioned February 20th? Is this your son’s birthday? You want to surprise him?” Barthlemes smiled softly and winked.

Randall and I looked at each other. We all kept strolling.

“Herr Barthlemes, you’re right.  That’s our son’s birthday,” Randall said. “But it won’t really. . .it won’t be a surprise for him.”

The trees were dropping leaves –- ochre, burnt red, even some bright green ones — as I listened to my husband explain to this tall German stranger the story of our boy. I’d never noticed until that moment that green leaves fall, too.

As Randall finished, Herr Barthlemes stopped in his tracks.  I looked at him. His face was different from the face of two minutes earlier. Melted. And his eyes seemed larger.

“Herr Bradford, das ist ja doch etwas ganz anderes.”

Now that’s something totally different, he said.

Very close to February 20th, Herr Jimmy Stewart Barthlemes, whom I never saw again and whom I have never thanked in person, hand made a handsome one-of-a-kind brown bench —an etwas anderes, or something different. He had told us he wanted to do this for our son. We ordered an inscribed bronze plaque, delivered it to his little office, and he had it affixed, the whole thing weatherproofed, then installed in an ideal spot as a gift for what would have been our child’s 19th Birthday.

The bench stands right next to the tributary of Munich’s Isar, a place where two canals converge, pass over falls, and get swallowed up under a bridge.

I wrote this poem in increments sitting, at times, on that very bench.  It is there right now awaiting others who are maybe crazy in love (I’ve seen them kissing there), weary from life (I’ve gathered the discarded cigarette butts myself), or exhausted by sorrow, a natural counterpart to love, a natural part of life.

Photo: Rob Inderrieden

In Amber
Ezekiel 1: 4-7
Im Englischen Garten
München, November 2009, All Souls” Day
Für Christa B.

Go straight toward Himmelsreich,
turn right into Paradies
cross into the tunnel upholstered in
the gingered patina of brocaded taffeta.
Tread the suede elegance of fallen flames,
bind to your soles these hieroglyphs of silence
which draw you deep into muted fluorescence.
You are rapt.
You are in amber
Or Bernstein, burned stone born of
interior clefts in injured trees.
You are in resin,
that umber ooze of congealed spirit
spilling out of hurting hollows.
You are lured,
captured
You are saved
as were nature’s relics 320 million years ago. . .

Two years ago
(same month, same trees, same branches and tunnel)
this was not the same. I saw only desolation.
Haggard branches scratching for air, cadaverous,
grisly. Gasping their last breath of death.
I walked this sodden altar piled with sacrificial scabs
in elegiac tones
(bruise, gash, decay, corpse)
as the dank air clung to my neck
like ashes and dust.
Since then, no whirlwind nor great cloud nor fire infolding itself.
Just this load of despair like moldering foliage
which has soaked my soil, seeped through sediment,
spread to root, been incorporated
a mineral swell compost
so that today
this All Souls’ Day
I have grown new ears for flamboyant hymn-singing trees
and eyes for upthrust birded limbs, celebrant and winking
throngs of happy timber
and out of the midst thereof
in the midst of voluptuous shade-fire
I could swear we are captured
every last living thing is enclosed
in this furtive moltenness the color of burnished brass
so that all things are present,
preserved in amber.

***

For a related post I wrote on this topic, please refer to:

segullah.org/daily special/all-saints’-day-all-souls’-day/

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.