evanescent

Until this moment there had been no sound of a dancing, sparkling stream: not yesterday, or the day before, or even weeks before. Then out of nowhere, I heard the startling sound of rushing water gurgling unfettered. Incongruous, it sang from beyond the shady green sliver of muddy lawn behind our house. Usually, I went about the day’s chores accompanied only by the slosh of the dishwasher and the whir of the air conditioning.

Until now, on this languorous hot spring day heavy with aching nostalgia. We were homesick for where we recently moved from and didn’t know for sure where we would go next. Then came this flash of brilliance: more than swiftly flowing water, more like magic unleashed from some mysterious provenance.

The shallow creek bed strewn with leaves had not shown a drop of moisture since we moved into the tattered rental home at the top of an ordinary suburban street. A house remarkable only because of its perch on a beautiful mountainside.  Steep and meandering, the creek bed had, in fact, become almost invisible in the shadows under the cottonwoods and willows that bordered our backyard. I wandered out onto the back step transfixed by the music of the stream mingled with the shrieks of children . . . joyously distracted children: laughing, splashing, chattering, released from the mundane heat and lethargy of a late spring afternoon. 

My children, stirred from heat induced drowsiness,  instinctively waded into the water and with the plentiful creek stones, began building dams above crystal pools, and grottos amidst crenelated castles. Smooth round, flattened, and egg-shaped stones which had spent eons being shaped under the sylvan hand of snow melt dripping from mountain peaks and ledges and coalescing among the springs and ravines above our mountainside home. Noisy freshets, carrying a  sweet unforced joy, gained momentum tumbled down the mountain unrestrained and were unleashed in our back yard. But unleashed from where exactly? Where had it been imprisoned? Why did it hide until this rapturous moment when it burst forth at our doorstep?    

We barely questioned the source for being absorbed by all the avenues of play and delight that having our own enchanted stream presented. And we were enchanted: by the sound of water on stone, by the slick squish of mud between our toes, and the bracing baptism of muddy feet in the ankle-deep freezing water. Imaginations were suddenly awakened to dreams unfettered on what had seemed a dead end day.

Later, when the magic disappeared,  I suspected that some demand of yearly maintenance stopped the normal diversion of water into the more civilized irrigation canal that bordered the subdivision. And thus, for a brief time, liberated the water from being carried neatly, well-behaved, and on schedule to the farms and gardens below unleashing it into its ancient wild courses. Which unleashed the children and I from a spate of listlessness for a few quixotic days.

It was a brief flash of enigmatic fun. As small as our postage stamp yard but as large, and splendid as the snow-capped peaks above us. When the water abruptly stopped flowing, the tragedy was so poignant we just shrugged it off so as not to feel the loss. We were between permanent homes and couldn’t absorb another drop of sadness. Later, I reflected on the joy of those few days and marked them as important, a shimmering family memory. Reflecting back is useful, but there is a skill less common and deeply quenching to our rushed souls:  slowing down this moment and sensing its iridescence, savoring the rush of joy from common occurrences that are a wild privilege in our neatly channeled lives.

Too often I have been missing from some of the most important moments of my life. Much later, they reappear to remind me that there is extraordinary magic that unexpectedly comes not from grand events or spectacularly rendered achievement, but from gleams that can be lost in the blink of an eye. A more attuned mind might immediately see such moments shine in faceted brilliance. A testament to the of the sorcery of small things.

 

Some Things Should Never Be Forgotten

Places inevitably change but the old magic should never be forgotten. Thirty long miles northwest of Salt Lake City is a very important four corner intersection. Here lies the location of what was, for a few short days in summer, my childhood Narnia. This intersection now looks nothing like it did back then. Why does that come as such a shock to me? Suddenly, it seems unbearable that this magical place is being absorbed into suburban sprawl.

I will try to sketch it out for you as best I can remember. It was a tiny four-corner town in the middle of rural farms and pastures. On the northeast corner was a church building that was fairly new back then but has since been torn down. On the southeast corner was a plumbing business, a pool hall, and next door a tiny cement block city office building. On the northwest corner I’m pretty certain there was only a pasture, no buildings. On the southwest corner was an old fashioned country grocery store which had the most tantalizing penny candy display.  On more than one occasion I was sent to that store with a dime to burning in my palm.  I left with a tiny crinkled paper bag full of sweets (my favorite was cherry flavored candy lipstick). South of the store was the enchanted kingdom of my maternal grandparents. We called them Mother and Dad.

My immediate family lived in southern California with traffic an towns unending from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, all sandwiched in between the ocean and the desert.  For many summers we traveled across that desert to Utah to visit my mother’s hometown which was sandwiched in between mountains, orchards, farms and the Great Salt Lake. My mother packed fried chicken, carrot sticks, and celery sticks (no dip) along with a cooler full of ice water for the midnight crossing of the desert.  Our car had no air conditioning. We drove off the heat by rolling down the windows and wiping our skin with a wet cloth. It was a mysterious night journey through the warm darkness among Joshua trees, past the lights of Las Vegas, and through steep wind-carved canyons.  By morning the fried chicken was gone and I would start saying,  “are we there yet?”

By the time we had reached Mother and Dad’s place, I felt like I had entered an older fantasy world. The two bedroom clapboard house was nestled in the middle of a large lawn shaded by tall cottonwood trees, lilacs and forsythia, currant and chokecherry bushes.  Mother was quite proud of what she called her “rock garden”  which bordered the sparkling quartz gravel path that approached the front porch.  I enviously eyed the tidy “chicks and hens”, pansies and hollyhocks, and decorative rocks she picked up from her  travels.  All so pretty and cultivated compared to  the wild tangle of ice plant in front of our California home.  A shallow irrigation ditch ran down the middle of the property from the larger ditch along the street to the garden at the very back. When the ditch was full of water my cousins and I would carve squash from the garden into a regatta of sail boats and barges.

Northwest of the house at the end of a long driveway there was a garage where an ancient Ford sedan was housed.  The garage smelled of grain and engine oil. Beyond the back lawn was a sprawling garden brimming with treasures: shiny red tomatoes, yellow squash, crisp cucumbers, silken corn stalks, and sweet onions. Behind the garage was an old outhouse and a chicken coop that for many years supplied the fresh fryers that were eaten at Mother’s kitchen table.  Dad quietly dispatched the critters away from my impressionable eyes. But I watched as Mother cleaned out the innards and plucked the feathers from more than one of those ultimately delicious hens on her kitchen table.

Dad would sit in a corner in the kitchen and smile and nod as the clan bustled in and out of the back screen door which at some point had a hydraulic arm installed to keep it from banging.  The round kitchen table in its place by the sunny back windows would be loaded with plates of sliced cucumbers and onions in vinegar, juicy red tomato slices, fresh baked fluffy white rolls,  and ears of corn. Once, at least, there was wild asparagus that I picked from the fields on a foraging expedition with my mother.  This was daily fare for our relatives that lived in the area year round but to me it was the feast of a fairy kingdom rich from the bounties of the earth.  I don’t know why but we never grew such things at our home in California.

One year I was around to see Mother make homemade soap from the grease drippings she so frugally saved from every meal.  She poured the hot liquid soap into pans and cut it into bars which were then grated into soap flakes for use in the old wringer washer stored in a corner of the bathroom.  I was fascinated by the sight of clothes being cranked through that wicked looking wringer which of course I was warned, gravely, never to get near with a finger or arm.

Mother had a talent for making her home beautiful with patchwork quilts, hand painted and decorated wood chairs and cupboards, braided woolen rugs, and sparkling china knick-knacks.  It took an enormous amount of work to run that tiny two acre farm but to me it seemed as seamless as magic.

On several occasions we arrived late in the night at Mother and Dad’s home in Syracuse, Utah.  My mother and father and my sister’s and I somehow shared the one extra bedroom of the house.  We were hastily fed a snack of buttered rolls with homemade chokecherry jam then ushered into the bedroom  where an extra folding metal bed was opened at the food of my parent’s bed.  A soft homemade feather mattress was laid out and made up with sparkling clean sheets fresh from the clothes line, smelling of sunshine and homemade soap.  We snuggled down in the depths of that feather mattress and were covered with a brightly colored quilt, artfully sewn by hand and with the aid of an old treadle sewing machine, into a log cabin, or flower petal, or crazy quilt pattern.  A bed worthy of a princess,  a home worthy of all the castles, in all magical kingdoms, from all the fantasy books I have ever read.

Bit by bit, as I grew up and grew older that magical world was dismantled.  The wringer washer was replaced, the chicken coops and outhouse were torn down, the house was moved to a different lot miles away and served some other family down through the years. The four corner town is now a tidy suburb with new homes, new parks, new schools, and a new city building.  Today, Mother and Dad’s little farmstead is now the site of an Arby’s fast food restaurant.

But the old kingdom is still in my heart and soul and down in my bones. I am told nothing on the internet is ever completely deleted.  In this case I hope it is true because some things should never be forgotten.

(In Memory of: Elnora Stoker Dalton and Horace Orlando Dalton)