Family Dirt, part 2 (Mabel and Florence)

( – promoted by ek hornbeck)

There is summer, and there is summer.

For those who live in seasons that change, that air, that scent of heat and sun, (because the sun does smell of life and air and heat and all things hot and white-yellow bright), the summer air is fleeting. Summer raises the heart, like a glad sweet song, then whispers to the soul silently with sweet-bitter notions of cooler Autumn straight ahead. Autumn, days that masquerade as portage between brief spurts of hottest days and stifling nights to cooler twilight and longer, darker, colder Winter.

Look at the fate of summer flowers,

  Which blow at daybreak, droop e’er evensong;

  And, grieved for their brief date, confess that ours,

  Measured by what we are and ought to be,

  Measured by all that, trembling, we foresee,

  is not so long!

(part 1, go here)

Also posted at Dailykos

In Seattle and along the Pacific north coast of this country, from upper Washington State to Northern California coast, the song is a quick multi-octave tune of the summer days blended with spots of wind and showers and clouds, a mosaic of white-gray moisture grouted with blue. And then the sun. So glorious, a high note when it shines. It shines brighter here than anywhere when it appears in the Pacific sky. Gold, rare, precious, polished.

Cross the Cascades to the central side of the state, and summer is a tonal blue-grass and country riff; the theme is desert, and sagebrush, dust and the heat is a living thing setting the harmony. Drumbeats and backbeats in hills like the Horse Heavens, the Satus pass; all the way to the Pend Oreille, and Spokane and down to Oregon, to Pendleton. Arid desert country, sliced by the mighty Columbia and taller mountain ranges pasted on the skyline, scrub pine, alpine, plains and plateaus. There, right there, is summer.

If human Life do pass away,

Perishing yet more swiftly than the flower,

If we are creatures of a ‘winter’s’ day;

What space hath Virgin’s beauty to disclose                

Her sweets, and triumph o’er the breathing rose?

Not even an hour!


My best memories of a real summer are of late 1960’s mid-July days in the Yakima valley. For a kid from the south coast of Oregon, where the heart of summer temps rarely rise above 75 degrees and are usually in the upper fifties and sixties with a salt-mist wind off of the ocean, the valley was my blast furnace. The air of those summers lofted a hot unbottled aroma of sticky hops vines, trellised on rows and rows of high wire and long pole A-frames;  the oversized mantis-colored grape leaf-like thorny foliage wholly inadequate as sunblock; a surrounding sound of the sliding legs of clothespin-sized grasshoppers and their tobacco wing whir kicking up grit between stifling dustbowl rows. The heat, the heat.

I’d steal my aunt’s cheap white plastic thermometer from the front porch, a gauge with the address of the local Wapato Phillips 66 station etched in a fading red Geneva font, and carry it through the cracked dirt-pie fields to make myself feel hotter. Silly hot, dirty, sweaty, freckled, eyeglass burdened kid, alone, yelling “it’s a hundred degrees in the shade!” to nothing and no one in the middle of a hopfield.

I remember the mercury rising to 121 degrees somewhere around the end of July 1970. Each summer from 1968 through 1972 or so, my mother and I would travel north to the valley for her annual reunion with family. All kinds, all shapes, ages, many races.

The deepest grove whose foliage hid

The happiest lovers Arcady might boast,

Could not the entrance of this thought forbid:

O be thou wise as they, soul-gifted Maid!

Nor rate too high what must so quickly fade,

So soon be lost.

There was Great Uncle Bob, the “eatin’ Uncle”. Mother’s word was that he was able to inhale an entire multilayer chocolate cake in one sitting. I remember Bob as a frail old man in a wheelchair, or sometimes sitting awkward and hunched in a broken-down plastic and aluminum woven fold-up lawn chair. Unable to move much, crippled with time and travesty, a man who was the left-over remainder of Depression days. Wraith-thin, hollowed cheeks from missing teeth or missing dentures – I’m not sure which. Graying skin, sparse hair. Veined and bony hands with knobs for knuckles and joints on spindly long arms, always buttoned up in some kind of long-sleeved madras plaid shirt and brown worn gabardines. A man who looked like he had been hungry all of his life.

I don’t recall what Bob did for a living, if anything much, but it was surely hard. Mother always hinted that he was somewhat lazy and avoided a job when possible, but who knows what the underlying story was. He was that kind of relative we all have, a husk of a man, made of stories never fully told. His health failed each year I saw him until his death somewhere in the very early ’70’s, but Bob could still eat. I don’t remember that he ever spoke a word at any of our reunions, at least in my presence; I’m not certain he ever talked given the nature and temperament of my Great Aunt Mabel. I do recall him picking up the oversized Tupperware green bowl of freshly unwrapped potato salad that my Mother brought one year. He consumed the entire dish before any of us had a chance to sample it and he never apologized or said one word. In retrospect, it’s difficult to blame him for such quiet gluttony. I still sometimes dream of that deviled potato salad on occasional July evenings, and I’ve come mighty close to approximating the salad’s silky ovicularity on occasion. I’ve never had the dubious honor, though, of seeing my entire creation devoured in five minutes or less.

My brother has implied that it’s because I don’t add pickles.

Bob’s wife, my great Aunt Flo, my grandmother’s sister. My mother called her Aunt Pornie, for no other reason than that she wasn’t able to say “Florence” when she was a child. I suppose, looking back over decades, not having lived them but learned of them, I can suggest a faint, uneasy irony in the nickname. You see, Aunt Florence, had relations with Mabel’s husband, my Great Uncle Bob. And Mabel was pregnant at the time. An encounter long enough to produce a son, who in looks and actions appeared much as a brother to his direct first cousins, Mabel and Bob’s children. Two sisters, two children, one father. Whispers, sussurant minor notes in B- flat.

I shiver as I write this, such a family scandal, with some of the players still living. It’s the sound of a chill, I suspect, of my Mother sighing from beyond this life. Not to worry, I think to Mom. I have faith they are Republicans and will not read this or connect those shaky dots I’m creating from family lore and long-dead names. Who’s to care when seven or five or three decades have passed?

Whatever transgressions occurred, years tumbled by without a word between Aunt Mabel and Aunt Pornie, older by a couple of years. Family reunions, funerals, weddings, more funerals than weddings, happenstance meetings with common friends. Mabel and Pornie would attend gatherings and mix and mingle…yet never speak to the other. Their children, adult in midlife by the time my Mother and I started to attend reunions in the 1960’s, would chat and throw yard darts and horseshoes, trade recipes and anecdotes, drink beer, eat, and compare children. Who’s to care when time has passed?

Then shall love teach some virtuous Youth

         “To draw, out of the object of his eyes,”            

         The while on thee they gaze in simple truth,

         Hues more exalted, “a refined Form,”

         That dreads not age, nor suffers from the worm,

                 And never dies.

Mabel and Pornie were much alike in appearance. Both possessed blued white-haired, beauty parlor teased and wavy modest do’s. Both wore pastel or mother-of-pearl colored horn-rimmed glasses. Theirs was the faintly wrinkled pinkish-parchment crepey skin common to a certain generation of women who took some light care, at some age, of their complexion in the habitually dry desert climate. Both women wore pastel polyester pants with the sewn seam down the front of each leg, short-sleeved patterned tunic blouses, and white nurse-like shoes – still a rather common casual elderly uniform. They were both in their mid 70’s at the end of the ’60’s decade, and they had both been working women and had had enough of frippery, hats, and gloves.

I saw Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock many years ago (I was a movie projectionist for a time), and there is a scene from the movie so evocative of Florence, Mabel, Dean, and my grandmother Nellie in a photograph taken of them when they were in their early and late teens that in my mind the Aunts become separate people from the young girls they once were. The posed photograph was taken at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century somewhere on the city side of Union Gap – maybe near the Autanum creek or up the Naches river.

A sloping dry grass riverbank, oak trees, willow trees by the water almost shimmering in the still sepia. Lovely girls in Victorian white dresses with puffed shoulders and tightly fitted long white sleeves; full white skirts to the ankle buoyed by peeking petticoats. Shined black leather button-up shoes. They were posed sitting and lounging, or leaning and dreamy against the shade of an old oak. Two sisters have sunbonnets on, the other two sisters do not. When I saw this picture years ago I glimpsed the magnitude of the interplay in lives woven, shared, sundered, mended; battles fought, children birthed and buried, hearts damaged, the transit of wars, the opportunities missed over the course of a full century. Age redecorated, reinvented, and finally, reduced by time.

I haven’t told you enough about Aunt Dean, but I will. A teaser: Aunt Dean of the four mildly to moderately developmentally disabled sons of the fedoras and Timex watches and starched long sleeve dress shirts (and her two other “normalish” children as well), Aunt Dean who lived with her four boys all of her life, or most of it, until she died at 101 in the mid-1990’s. Aunt Dean who never drove a car in all her years, and it was rumored, was abused through each pregnancy by her husband who will remain unnamed. Aunt Dean who was, in the end-days, a quiet and meek glue in the twisted fabric of one generation over a century.

In the passing of certain summers, the hottest days melt like clear clover syrup into honeycombs of time and memory.

And, grieved for their brief date, confess that ours,

         Measured by what we are and ought to be,

         Measured by all that, trembling, we foresee,

                 Is not so long!

There are summers. There are summers.

(lines by William Wordsworth, written at Rydal Mount.)


    • exmearden on September 5, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    are on the internet now.

    How does this impact the worth of such artifacts?

    • Robyn on September 6, 2008 at 12:55 am

    …seem to have been quite different.  Anything near 100 meant the wind was from the east, blowing down the gorge…but mostly our weather was moderated by wind from the ocean way.

    I always liked September best.

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