July 21, 2009
SUMMER. This is an ironic term in San Francisco, where I live. But on the East Coast Island from which I’ve just returned, it truly means something. Even beyond the joys of sandy toes, sea-salted lips, and sleeveless evenings (miracles enough), there is a sense of stillness, as if time itself paused to inhale and to savor. Laziness seems to reveal a tenderness all its own. Though I was plenty busy with what constitutes work, the context seemed different enough that email became exercise and conference calls communion. Plus, there’s a special poignancy to being surrounded by family and one’s own children on the year’s longest days – for me, at least, the memories of my own youth and the lives of those whose history I share in parts great and small come alive, more vivid, more meaningful than much of what accounts for daily life during the more focused months of Fall, Winter, and Spring.
I walked along the beach one morning, not realizing until back where I’d begun that I’d amassed a small but rather perfect collection of shells. Admittedly, I do have a penchant for sea glass hunting, but shells I hadn’t heeded since…well, since my dad used to take me to Sanibel Island where we’d eat Munchos, drink Fresca, and create shell collections. He taught me to lay these assortments upon rolls of cotton and hold them tight with the glass of a picture frame.
He’d hang the displays of my seaside labor alongside the carefully catalogued frames of butterflies that he had captured from exotic locales. Many of these — my father’s discoveries — now sit in the collections of Oxford University, where he later held a chaired professorship in zoology. His life was nothing if not well-archived – rare sets of Lepidoptera, Chinese porcelain, ancient coins form a singular legacy. Yet, like a museum, so much of what made him whole were things I could see but never get close enough to. I stared down at the pile in my hands, and cried for all the places I wished he taken me, the days of mine he never joined, and for all the things we never told one another before he died.
I returned to our vacation home and there found my son and stepfather bent together thick as thieves in private conversation. Rather than a game of Bakugon Brawl, the rules of which my boy seems to make up as he goes, they were studying a map of the Pacific. Allan, the vascular surgeon, who fought in the battles of Iwo Jima and Tarawa, was tracing the course of WWII in historical detail and personal recollection. Some 20 years ago, my younger sister found his Navy uniform and began to ask questions about the war. At first, Allan told her he didn’t speak of it. Then, slowly, he began to talk. And then, he began to write and write and write. What started as a memoir, has become a treatise on the theory, practice, and history of war through the eyes of one person, a doctor who was also a soldier. I don’t know how much my eight-year old internalizes from Allan’s stories of life, death, justice, and moral choice, but I do know how very lucky he is to be listening to this great man and how proud it makes him feel. He said to me that evening: “Admiral Allan deserved more than just two stars.”
Before flying back to California, I spend a final morning with my amazing mother, who has recently turned from making vaccines to protect children in the developing world to bioengineering blue-green algae that simultaneously cleans wastewater and converts it to clean water and clean energy. As you can imagine, she was both heaven and hell as a role model.
Anyhow, she and Allan have just put their house in Boston on the market with the intent to move closer to my sister, my kids, and me. We spend some hours sorting through old photographs and family papers. I find a pile of notes taken by her father on a trip to Ireland. He’d copied down tombstone markings and recorded stories from the caretaker of Cashel Rock about the family line stretching back to 1068. My son Scully bears this name. Most of what I know of my grandfather revolves his internment as a prisoner of war, shortly after my mother’s birth in Malaysia, December 1941. I know that my mother and Grandmother escaped to England and only learned after the Armistice that he was still alive. He played polo and managed a rubber estate. I know that he called me Si Loh Quoh (Little Personage), but he died when I was very young and that pretty much taps out the details. He is a celebrated figure in family lore, but I realize there is so little that I can tell my children about the fullness of his life. I haven’t taken the time to dig further and uncover my mother’s own memories. But I will, and this will make him come alive again for the rest of us.
James Joyce speaks of epiphanies. Here is mine: We are all of us containers where knowledge, experience, pain, insight, kindness, anger, hope, and such collect. The places we have been, the words we have spoken, the disappointments and questions that drive us, the histories and myths we adopt as our own, we are full of these. These are what complete us. But we need to be observed, poured out. We need witnesses. It is a powerful experience to read a novel like Ulysses and absorb all that Joyce tries to capture. But, what of the real people around us – these living epics? What delicate multitudes and striking wisdoms can we decant from each other? Who is on your summer reading list? Will you share their tales? Speak, Memories. Fill our ears.
On Discovering a Butterfly
by Vladimir Nabokov
I found it in a legendary land
all rocks and lavender and tufted grass,
where it was settled on some sodden sand
hard by the torrent of a mountain pass.
The features it combines mark it as new
to science: shape and shade – the special tinge,
akin to moonlight, tempering its blue,
the dingy underside, the checkered fringe.
My needles have teased out its sculptured sex;
corroded tissues could no longer hide
that priceless mote now dimpling the convex
and limpid teardrop on a lighted slide.
Smoothly a screw is turned; out of the mist
two ambered hooks symmetrically slope,
or scales like battledores of amethyst
cross the charmed circle of the microscope.
I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer – and I want no other fame.
Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep)
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.
Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.
(Photo by: Christine Olsen Richman)
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