Posts Tagged ‘daughter’

My Father’s Daughter

June 20, 2009

I sit at my computer, staring at the blank Word document, the nascent rumblings of an idea beginning to spark along the neural pathways of my body–beginning not at the brain and moving outward, but at the heart. By the time the idea actually hits the brain, my fingers are already moving on the keyboard. This isn’t exactly the way my father said it would be, but on a good day, this is how it works.

It’s not that I have no familiarity with what spills out onto the computer screen.  Whatever is spilling out has often been forming somewhere inside of me for days, weeks, or months. I have a flickering thought and seem to work with it, deep within my body, for a time. But I’m less like a brood hen, sitting on her eggs, giving them the heat of her body and the time needed to hatch, than like a monk going about his daily chores and somehow meditating at the same time. 

Sometimes I’m in the shower when the flicker of an idea comes wandering into my consciousness. Or driving my car. Or meditating. Some inspiration–that is, some drawing into the body of an idea–begins the internal process that, in turn, gives rise to what spills out from my fingers and onto the keyboard. When the words come, when they hit like raindrops onto the screen, they seem to pouring from my heart.

Heart to brain, back to heart, and then back to brain. Is that how it works? Or is it 8th chakra (the one outside the body) to brain to body to heart to brain? I’m not sure. But I know that however it works, my father never described it to me.

I’m sorry for that. We talked about books and writing when I was growing up. He was, himself, a writer. Something of a frustrated writer, because he was never published, but a writer, none the less. I think it must have pleased him when I learned to read and the first little sparks of interest in the written word quickly blossomed into a nice campfire, then a conflagration.

Writing is like fire (at least as much as it is like rain). We’re consumed by the flames that come from our pens and keyboards in a conflagration of the spirit.

I’d like to think it was that way for my father and I believe it was. He wrote at night, when most of the family was asleep. He sat at his desk (an arts and crafts dark oak one when I was small, then an industrial gray metal one later on), chain smoked cigarettes, drank beer, and sat in what appeared to the observer to be a meditative state–or at least a pensive one–for long periods of time. The quintessetial brooding Irishman. Of course, that “observer” was likely to be nothing more than a mouse, out from hiding in the quiet of the night, or me, back from a date or out of my room to get a glass of water during a late night of study.

He wrote thoughts and observations on scraps of paper and advised me to do the same. “When you get an idea for a story or anything you might want to write on later, put it down in writing, right then,” he told me when I was still a teen. “Even if it is just one good sentence . . . or two good words . . . write it down.”

It would be years before I understood, through my own experience, how important that advice was. Ideas are sometimes like dreams–ephemeral, disappearing as soon as you turn your head if you are not careful. It is important to capture them, like dream butterflies, in the net that is the pen or keyboard. Beautiful sentences are that way, too. I have lost many a beautiful phrase, sentence, and paragraph because I failed to stop whatever I was doing (that seemed more important at the time) and write it down.

I have, actually, pulled over to the side of the road to write something that would not wait. I have also rummaged in the nightstand for scraps of paper and scribbled something that nagged at me enough to prevent sleep. And I have captured my thoughts on paper when I was supposed to be attending to a meeting. It’s glorious when it happens like that, but it doesn’t happen that way as often as I would like. Still, I imagine my father smiling on the other side when it does happen.

My father tapped out his stories on a little Royal typewriter. I used that typewriter when I first cranked out papers in college and I inherited it from him. It gathers dust in my office closet but I couldn’t give it up any more than I could give up the old LP of Bing Crosby singing George Gershwin. He loved them both and so do I.

If my father were alive today, he would love tapping out his thoughts on a computer and he would marvel at the mystery of the machine. He would love its efficiency and he would love that delete key. He didn’t live to see a personal computer, let alone long enough to see his daughter’s name on a book cover, but I felt him behind my left shoulder (along with St. Germain) when I wrote my first book. And even though it was nonfiction, instead of the fiction he dearly loved, if he had lived long enough to see it, he would have surely claimed me as my father’s daughter . . . and I would have shook my head in agreement and whispered that it was also probably that brooding Irish anscestry.

copyright 2009 by Melanie Mulhall

My Mother’s Daughter

May 23, 2009

Every May, I am reminded that I am truly my mother’s daughter. Some dominant gene becomes activated that sends me out to survey my flower beds and think hopeful thoughts about what I might accomplish in them this year. By July, sweet hope has turned to gritty, raw survival, but in May, there is always hope. 

Spring waits for no one. Depending on the fickle Colorado weather, I am sometimes able to get out in the yard in April to cut back the dried and brittle stems of last year’s growth: purple coneflower, hostas, Annabelle hydrangeas, chrystanthemums, daisies, meadow sage, sedum, coreopsis, and all the rest. The roses–David Austins, miniatures, and assorted others–along with the tangle of clematis and honeysuckle, could be cut back earlier, but I never seem to get it done until April.

By May, the grass sprouts where I don’t want it and remains intransigently absent where I do. I know that if I do not pluck it from the flower beds, along with its evil cousin, the weed, the two will have taken over my beds by the next time I turn to look.

On my hands and knees, weeding and pulling grass, I can sometimes leave my body and hover a little above, watching the solid form of the woman so intent on her work. Sometimes she’s a wild woman, the female equivalent of Green Man, with dirt under her fingernails and bits of leaves and twigs in her hair. At other times, she is more fairy-like, an aging pixie talking to her flowers and herbs. Always, she is her mother’s daughter.

My mother grew up on a series of farms in Illinois. Her father was a dirt farmer and he was dirt poor, never owning any of the farms he worked. He was a tenant farmer. My mother worked the fields as a child, weeding in the hot summer sun. By the time she left home, she had no desire to grow vegetables, but had somehow come to love flowers.

The summers of my own childhood were spent reading books, riding my bicycle, and watching my mother work her little patch of earth. With trowel and fork, bare hands and shovel, on hands and knees or bent over at the waist, she produced flowers to rival any botanic garden. She had her favorites. Sweet William was one. And when she was older and her health prevented her from doing the hard garden work she had done as a younger woman, she still put out pots of impatiens and planted a huge, old birdbath with petunias.

As a young woman, I was first interested in houseplants, another of my mother’s loves, and we bonded over them. It took a bit of time for me to come into my own green thumb outdoors, but I am grateful that I came to be the avid tender of flower and herb beds some years before she died.  

Now I am near the age she was at in my favorite photo of the two of us. She’s clutching a cigarette, one she has yet to light, against her chest. The sun hits her short, curly, hair in a way that produces a halo effect. She’s as brown as a sparrow, thanks to the sun, and she is wearing a summer top she probably sewed herself. 

I’m next to her, my pale Irish skin sunburned, my hair pulled back and away from my face, gold hoops dangling from my ears.  She has a wise smile on her face, a smile that says yes to life, even though she’s had more reason to suffer than she ever deserved. At about thirty, I have the big, toothy grin of a woman who has recently escaped from violent circumstances and sees her life spread out before her like fields of lavendar. (Thirty years later, my smile is more like hers. I’ll probably never be as brown and wrinkled as her, thanks to sunscreen, good skin care, and an easier life. But the smile is there.)

My arm is around my mother in that photo and her right shoulder is up against my left. We could be a mother/daughter team, selling tomatoes and peppers at some farmer’s market. But, of course, that wouldn’t be us. We’d be selling flowers.

copyright 2009 by Melanie Mulhall