Maitlin and the Moon

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Me at around a year old, with my dad.

When I was a baby, one of the only ways to get me sleep was to drive me in the car. At least that’s how the story goes. My dad said he would take me in the truck and drive the long circle of 35th to Sand Point Way and back around to 90th. If I wasn’t asleep when he came back to the house he’d make the loop again. It was a treacherous way to get a baby to sleep, especially as this was the early 80’s, before detachable car seats, when the whole endeavor could unravel if I woke back up while being moved from the car to the bed. I, of course have no memory of this, but I know the route. I’ve had the early Seattle houses where I lived pointed out to me by both my parents: the apartment on 15th just off University Avenue where I was born, the married student housing near U Village where my sister was, and the Wedgewood house we moved to next. This one I do have memories of, it was up the street from a Catholic school with a playground we dubbed “The wiggly bridge”. When I was just past the age of needing to be driven to sleep, my dad and I would walk down there in the evenings, stopping at the tree by the parish residence to construct “cakes” out of leaves and grass.

I don’t know if the driving bedtime rituals were the inspiration behind the story of “Maitlin and the Moon” but it’s hard to imagine they were completely unrelated. “Maitlin and the Moon” was the first in a long, long, series of bedtime stories that my dad told me and my sister nearly every night for years and years. It was the only one I remember being repeated more than once, and the only one in which my sister’s alias, Balin, was not present. Once Balin came on the scene the stories changed nightly, the ongoing adventures of Maitlin and Balin lasting through at least two more houses. The only one of the later stories I remember details of was the one he told to prepare us for the move to Japan. In this story, Maitlin and Balin take a ship to a faraway land inhabited by people with straight black hair and white teeth. I think there may have also been more than one featuring adults slipping on banana peels, during a phase where my sister and I considered this to be the height of comedy.

Because this was my reality growing up, I didn’t realize until much later how absolutely remarkable the ritual was. To have a father who not only sat with his daughters every night when they went to sleep, first between our two futons, and later in the narrow hallway between our separate rooms, but sat there telling original stories night after night, about two little girls with slightly more exciting lives, but with names that rhymed with ours.

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My sister, my dad, and me on the porch of the Ballard house.

Maitlin and the Moon

I know at some point my dad wrote this story down, but I can’t find it, so this is my best recollection of how it went. I think that sometimes he made it longer by having the trip to the moon and back repeated several times before the curtains were closed all the way.

One night when Maitlin’s dad put her to sleep during the full moon, he closed the curtains, but not all the way. After he left the room a moonbeam came in through the window and tickled Maitlin’s cheek, waking her up. She crawled up the moonbeam, and when she reached the moon she curled up into a little ball and fell back asleep on the moon’s broad face. A little while later her dad came in to check on her, but the bed was empty. He saw the open curtain and understood. He went outside and started up the truck, then he drove it in circles faster and faster until it lifted up off the ground and he drove it all the way to moon, and parked. There on face of the moon he found Maitlin fast asleep. He picked her up carefully, buckled her into her car seat, drove back down to earth, carried her to her bed, and tucked her in. Then he made sure the curtains were closed all the way so that no more moonbeams could come inside.

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The Language Legacy

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me at age three with my dad

My dad told amazing stories. I would say he was the best storyteller I knew, except that is what my dad said about my grandfather, his dad, and I knew my grandfather so I defer to his judgment. Regardless of which one of them was superior, they both told amazing stories, they would get animated, add in arm movements, gritted teeth, voices that always seemed to be necessary, not put on. You would get swept up in the experience, you would laugh, always laugh, and the point, if there was one, would be forgotten in the course of the storytelling. It was the journey that mattered, it was the communion.

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me about age eleven, with Grandpa Steve

My grandfather died when I was twenty-five after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer. He’d had the disease for most of my life, but had also been in remission for much of that time. I always knew him as a vibrant, dynamic man, who loved good food, would talk to anyone, and had a funny story about his latest doctors visit. We never lived in the same city, so I didn’t see him when he went out of remission, when things got bad. He was in his eighties by then, living in the Twin Cities so he could be near one of his four children, my Aunt Deborah. My dad was with him at the end, flew out from Seattle and sat with him through hospice visits, through the morphine. He told me about witnessing the moment of death, about the way the breathing changes, that so-called “death rattle” and how he talked to him then, told him he’d been a good father, that he’d been strong, that he loved him, and that it was okay to let go, coaching him almost in the last moments, in the act of dying. He told me that afterwards, after he’d called his sisters and told them that their father was finally cancer free, after he’d made the arrangements and signed the papers he needed to, he went back to his hotel in a daze, and sat at the bar. The bartender came up and asked him how he was doing and he looked at the man and said “My father just died, I think I need a drink.”

I’ve felt that way a lot these last few weeks. I wish sometimes I could respond that honestly to the friends, grocery checkers, customers at my restaurant, anyone who innocently asks me how I’m doing. I usually go with “I’m okay”, it feels less like a lie than the standard “I’m fine” or “well” or “good”. “Okay” is an emotion I can cop to without feeling like a fraud. It’s true, I can walk and talk and feed myself and act like a person most of the time, I am okay. But I’m not fine, I’m definitely not well or good or great, and I wish sometimes that instead of this deceptively vague but true statement I could just tell them “My father just died, I think I need a drink.”

His fight with cancer was much shorter than my Grandfather’s. He had a seizure two months after my little sister’s wedding, was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer, and lived another twenty months, six months longer than the prognosis. And they were good months, he shared that with his dad, living with cancer he was still a vibrant, dynamic man. He continued working, he continued traveling, he cracked up all the nurses. He got a fedora for festive occasions, but still mostly wore his Boston Red Sox baseball hats. He took more naps than before the cancer, took longer to do things, sometimes he’d forget to shut doors, sometime his speech would slur, especially if he was tired, but he never lost himself, and he never lost track of who he was and who he loved.

I was there when he died. Not in the room, my sister and I left and our stepmother held him in his last moments, but I was there. I sat with him alone for a bit, his eyes were closed, his breathing labored, but I held his hand touched his face and told him how lucky and grateful I was to have him as my father. I said a lot of other crap too, I’m sure I rambled. I knew it was the end and didn’t want my language to betray that I knew, wanted to keep all my tenses rooted in the present. I told him I’d found the poster of the play he’d done and I directed back when I was in college, right before he met my stepmother. In the poster he wears a business suit and wields a samurai sword. “You were such a bad-ass” I said, and then caught the tense and corrected myself “you are such a bad-ass.”

My father and I shared a love of writing, of language and of communication. We shared an ability to observe situations and interpret them, the way people behaved, the reasons we didn’t like certain things even though they seemed friendly or harmless on the surface. We shared a deep appreciation of history and rituals.

I will never be the storyteller he was, I don’t have the same gifts for animation, and I’ll never be the storyteller my grandfather was, even my dad couldn’t do that. My grandfather was an extrovert, so where engaging a live audience was concerned he will always hold the advantage. My dad was an introvert, as I am. But like him I feel called to carry on my family legacy. We have always been a family of readers, of philosophers, of storytellers, a family without much talent for the hard sciences, but with an understanding of the unique power of language. He left me with a lot of stories to tell.

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The Ski Trip

This is the story my dad told at my grandfather’s memorial and credits with being the first story his father told him, I remember it was one of the first ones he told me and my sister as well.

One winter my grandparents went skiing. They were a young couple and they skied all day until the sunset. On his last run down the slope my grandfather fell, wiped out right by a tree. He got up and finished the run. Then he and my grandmother headed for the car, but when they got there the keys were missing. They looked everywhere, in all their pockets, under the car, by now it was getting quite dark and they were faced with the fact the keys must have fallen out sometime during the day, somewhere on the slope. In a Hail Mary attempt my grandfather went back to the top of the slope and tried to go down slowly, peering into the dusk, hoping against hope to catch a glint of metal. As he was making a turn he wiped out again, and looking up noticed the same tree he’d fallen by earlier, and then on the ground, not yet covered by the new snow that had begun to fall, he saw his keys.