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Memorial Day: Remembering Two Lakes and Two Men


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4:00 am.  Montana.  May.

I awake to a hard rain and a deep longing.  I’ve felt it all day and can’t quite place it.  But the rain drums on the metal roof like it’s my skull, and scares it out:  I have been longing for a lost and very old feeling…of safety.  Of being held.  And I know that I have to listen to the rain on the roof of my longing.

It’s not a rational longing.  I know that I live a life that is for, all intents and purposes, safe.

It’s my heart that forgets.

It happens this time of year when winter so rapidly wakes to the greening and blooming of May.  With the robin eggs hatching and little yellow beaks pointing to the sky– puffed up red-breasted daddies poking at worms for their babies.

It especially happens this weekend, when my son was born and my father died.  Memorial Day weekend.

Remembering hurts and I don’t want it to.  I want it to bring me the solace and salve that their love gave me–my father’s open arms, carrying me up the stairs each night when he came home from work, my son’s eager limbs, letting me carry him until he was too big and a snuggle on the couch sufficed.

I lie in bed at 4:00 am, the dawn-soon birdsongs maybe staved off by the rain, and I wonder:  Where is this heart-safety now?  I can’t see it in my tomorrow—not the way I want to.  I’m losing the people in my house, one by one.  My son is about to go to college.  And soon it’s going to be just me.

I lie here and let the longing out, letting myself imagine what it would take to feel like I did in my father’s arms and with my baby boy before he became big.  When we’d sit on the porch and nurse, while the robins fed their babies.  I lie here and let myself want that tender pause time, where I felt tucked in to the promise of those particular loving arms.

But I have to feel it.  Not just long for it.  It’s still in me.  It must be.

Now the rain bats, adamant, and I reel through the places of my life, trying to land on that warm, cared-for, safe feeling.  To use this tender time between consciousness and sleep to re-create it, and let it lullaby me through ‘til morning.

And I land.  I land on lake.  Two lakes.  Two men.  One me.

073db487f4c4c2354d17ccad8d24eb24Trout Lake.  Wisconsin.

Here, I am baby, child, little sister.  Here I am safe from suburban swimming pool rules and an un-swimmable 1970s Lake Michigan.  Here I dare the cold clean Wisconsin water, staring into it, pretending that it is thick glass, that I am that brave, that powerful, that in need of this particular water.

I’m not scared.  This isn’t a swimming lesson and there’s no winning or losing.  I pray my hands water-ward and go with a grin, slicing through, cast in Muskie-kissed water.  I float down until my hands lay flat on the sandy bottom.  Here I am lake baby, invisible now to my other self as long as I can hold my breath from leaking tattletale air bubbles, listening to the zing of the ski boats on the other side of the swimming ropes.

I like the sound of ski boats in my ears.  It’s the day’s Reveille to the night’s loon Taps.  You can’t have one without the other, as far as I know.  But I don’t think a lot here.

Here I pick up lapped-at stones along the lake shore, but not forget-me-nots.  I have a pact with them:  If I don’t pick them, they will remember this me, while I am back doing suburban Chicago things.

While the others nap, I sit on the screened porch and polish the rocks with Baby Oil so they look wet again– amber, sienna, umber marbles.

Dad comes in to admire my collection.  “I think it’s even better than last year’s.”

“Will you make sand castles with me now?”

He puts on his excited face, and I can tell that he only pretends to like making sand castles, but I can also tell that he loves how I want him to play with me.  That he longs for it.  Always this pressing, this knowing, that this is all so fleeting, fifty years my senior.  Maybe I make him feel as safe as he makes me feel.

“Carry me!” I beg, and he puts on the same pair of Ray Ban aviators he’s worn since World War II and hoists me up to his sunburned shoulders.  He smells like Sea and Ski, not like newspaper and the Chicago Loop.  He warns of rogue tree roots.  Leeches.  Black bears.  But we both know that this place is safe in all the ways that count.

We walk toward the lake, looking for chipmunks as we go, and he tells me stories of the one chipmunk who is always here, all winter when the cabins are empty, and screened doors don’t slap.  This one chipmunk who knows my heart and who knows me, and who will look over the little polished rock cairn that we leave under the cabin before climbing back into the station wagon for home.  This creature will keep my wonder safe and my father will remind me of it at bedtime, every night until we are back.  But we both know that it’s my father who holds my wonder.

On Memorial Day in 2004, I am standing at the end of his bed.  I hold his feet while he takes his last breath after 86 good years.  My son is four.  We go to the lake after that.  It’s been a long time.  No rocks under the cabin.  The forget-me-nots help.

073db487f4c4c2354d17ccad8d24eb24Whitefish Lake.  Montana. 

Here I am mother.  Here I am teaching the littlest of two children to dive from the dock.  He doesn’t want to point his hands to the glacial Montana lake.  He wants to do 360 Moonshine and mid-air Karate kicks and see how big the splash.  He wants to do it again.  And again.  And again.  He wants to see how long he can hold his breath underwater, but he is anything but invisible.  There is no suburb to wash off of him.  He lives here.  His screened porch door slaps all year long.

He collects stones too.  Flat ones to fling across the water and see how many times it will touch before it falls, counting the ripples.

“Watch, Mom,” he says, not caring if I do.  But I always do, and he knows it.

“Sixteen times!  You have one heck of an arm, son!”

He beams and I grab him and hold him to my hot summer skin.

“1…2…3…,” he shouts and takes my hand and we jump in the lake together.  And for a moment I lose him, and then I feel his arms under me, and his extraordinary face emerges.  “Look!  I can carry you!”

Don’t forget this, I think.  Do NOT forget this.  And I let him swim me to shore.

“When you get big, do you promise that you will still let me play with you?  And hug you?  And that we’ll swim in the lake together?”

“Of course, Mom.  Of course!”

And I can’t help but think:  He looks just like my father.

5:00 am.  Montana.  The first birds.  Robins.

He’s graduating next week.  And then he’s leaving for college September 1st.  There’ll be a lot of baseball through to August and for the next four years.  Leftie pitcher.  Heck of an arm.

I lie in bed, tears melting into my pillow.  But I’m smiling too, remembering.  I have held and been held.  I feel it, lying here.  And I wonder:  can I feel held by myself?  That’s what I truly long for.  That’s what I truly want to feel.

I decide that this year when the robins leave their nest on the porch lantern behind, I will take it and place it on my mantle.  I won’t fill it with anything.  Instead, I’ll study its woven grasses and mud, moss and twigs.  I’ll study the holding.  It’s my turn.

With so many of you enjoying Memorial Day, likely at lakes and on bodies of water across the country, I hope that you will let yourself feel held by the waters of your heart, where you can always find loving arms.  Your own.



Come write with me on Lake Superior this July at the Madeline School for the Arts!

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Breaking Point: #2

Supple Weidner Ward

Supple Weidner Ward March 5, 1936 – April 28,1968

I am hosting an end-of-winter series featuring stories from the trenches of pain.  My hope is that in sharing these breaking points, we will feel less alone.  Thank you all for your bravery.  You are helping the world to heal.  To participate and for more info go here.

yrs. Laura

Submitted by: Lauren Ward Larsen, author of Zuzu’s Petals: A True Story of Second Chances (In The Telling Press, 2011) who blogs here.

“The Day Dad Died”

April 28, 1968. I’m so excited I can hardly stand it. Not even this gross water sprout hairdo—a tight ponytail Mom has centered on the top of my head—can ruin my mood. I’m wearing my favorite dress, the white hand-me-down from Pam Eldridge, who lives down the street. It has a big fluffy skirt, tiny black roses all over, and it even ties in the back with a big bow. I have my favorite storybook, Hansel and Gretel, all ready to go. Santa gave it to me this past Christmas. It’s really big.

Today is going to be great! I’m going with my best friend, Debbie, to visit her aunt, who lives in Maryland. Her mom is driving. I’ve never been allowed to go on a trip like this without my parents going too. It’s just for a day, but still. I don’t think the other kids in my kindergarten class have been allowed to go away without their parents.

Debbie’s mom blows the horn of her light blue car and I’m flying through the front door of our house before Mom can remind me to use good manners. I yell good-bye to her as I go. (Dad left earlier this morning. He likes to fly his small airplane on the weekends, so he’s already hanging out with his buddies at the local airport.)

We drive for two and a half hours, eating snacks in the car and pretending to read the words that go with the pictures in my book. Finally we arrive at the University of Maryland, where Debbie’s aunt is a student. The whole day is amazing! We walk around campus among all the grown ups. We eat at the university cafeteria where the college students eat. We visit Debbie’s aunt’s apartment and play with the stuffed animals on her bed. My favorite is the five-foot long lime green snake. Debbie and I slap each other with the snake, his silly red felt tongue hanging out of his mouth as his head whacks our bodies.

The ride home that evening seems to take a long time. When Debbie’s mom drops me off outside our home, I’m both exhausted and exhilarated. I burst into the house ready to share all the details of my adventures with Mom and Dad. And then I freeze.

Uh-oh. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’m in trouble. Why else would Mom be waiting for me in the living room with that weird look on her face, sort of mad, sort of sad, but also sort of confused?

But why are her friends here? There’s Nancy, who lives around the corner from us. And Evelyn, who lives right down the street (she’s the mother of Pam, who gave me this great dress). And Susan, Mom’s best friend, who is single and spends a lot of time with our family. They’re all sitting quietly around our small living room, Mom in the old orange wingback chair. None of this makes any sense to me, but one thing is certain: I’m in trouble. I can see it in Mom’s face. I can hear it in the uncomfortable silence of the room.

“Lauren, would you come into the kitchen with me for a minute?” Mom says. It’s more a statement than a question. I quietly follow her. When we round the corner to the kitchen, she turns to me.

“Your father had an accident while flying his plane today.” Her voice is calm, almost flat. “Daddy is dead, Lauren. Do you understand what that means?”

“Yes,” I lie. “Can I go upstairs now?”

I walk in a daze to my brother’s room, where I find my three siblings staring blankly at the television screen. I sit down and stare with them. None of us says a word. My adventures in Maryland are already forgotten.


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Memorial Day Re-visited

Every year Memorial Day gets a little easier. My father died on this day, May 31st, seven years ago. He would have been an old man by now. He would have been miserable. He couldn’t stand it that his 86 year old body wouldn’t let him skim down the stairs at the Northwestern train station in Chicago anymore. He couldn’t stand it that he couldn’t figure out how to “work a computer.” He couldn’t stand that all of his years of service to the freight car industry was not hailed, but rather, that he was quickly being lost and forgotten, even though he went into the city five days a week to try to do what he considered, good work. When his younger, more techno savvy business partner died suddenly of a heart attack, it was no coincidence that my father went home that night and had a stroke. He died a month or so later. We were all there. We helped him die– with opera and weather shows, Marx Brothers movies and family stories. He had to go and we all knew it. Like I said, he would have been a miserable old man.

I’ve written a lot about my father in my book, so I won’t repeat it here. But I will mention a bit about grief. I have learned that it is as physical as it is mental, and the emotion of it feels at times impossible to control. I talk a lot about powerfully choosing your emotions. That happiness is a choice. That freak outs are a choice. But grief? Maybe you can teach me something about grief, because to me, it doesn’t feel all choice. It feels like its own category, both visceral and emotional. Sort of like fear.

In the first years after his death, it was like my adrenal system was engaged in fight or flight. Like if it wasn’t for my adrenals, I would have died in the trenches in what seemed a certain war. Year by year, it has become less so. It feels more like fighting a cold now, than fighting an enemy. I write that pain can be our guide, and I believe this with all my heart. Maybe what I have learned about the pain that comes with grief has to do with welcoming it. Not resisting it. Knowing that it is going to be part of life now. Death doesn’t go away. The loss of the physical presence of my father will not go away. I can’t call him. I can’t tell him about my day. I can’t ask him how he is. He isn’t.

Last night we had the neighbors over for a Memorial Day picnic. Usually I talk about my dad on this weekend. I raise a glass, tell a story, look through old photos. This year, I didn’t want to. Instead, this year, I wanted to be quiet about it. I wanted to keep my grief for myself. We sat around the fire and listened to the frogs in the marsh and the owl in the woods and swatted mosquitos, and did our annual burning of the Christmas tree. That hot roar was what met and blessed my grief. That was enough.

And in the night, while I slept, I had a dream. I was in my childhood bed and my father came in and sat on the edge of it as he often did for storytime, only he was gasping and saying, “Lord Jesus” over and over again. And I knew I couldn’t save him. It was between him and his God. Instead, I held him while he died in my arms. Maybe another year of grief died in my arms in my dreams last night. Who knows what the fire did when it roared its heat. But this morning, on the actual day of his death, I feel like I finally let him go.

Here is a poem that struck me so hard just now. I called a dear friend today wanting to somehow cry a little, and he sent me here, to these words. There are no coincidences…

Fathers and Sons
I will walk across the long slow grass
where the desert sun waits among the stones
and reach down into the heavy earth
and lift your body back into the day.
My hands will swim down through the clay
like white fish who wander in the pools
of underground caves and they will find you
where you lie in the century of your sleep.

My arms will be as huge as the roots of trees,
my shoulders leaves, my hands as delicate
as the wings of fish in white water.
When I find you I will lift you out
into the sun and hold you
the way a son must who is now
as old as you were when you died.
I will lift you in my arms and bear you back.

My breath will blow away the earth
from your eyes and my lips will touch
your lips. They will say the years have been
long. They will speak into your flesh
the word love over and over,
as if it was the first word of the whole
earth. I will dance with you and you
will be as a small child asleep in my arms
as I say to the sun, bless this man who died.

I will hold you then, your hurt mouth curled
into my chest, and take your lost flesh
into me, make of you myself, and when you are
bone of my bone, and blood of my blood,
I will walk you into the hills and sit
alone with you and neither of us
will be ashamed. My hand and your hand.

I will take those two hands and hold them
together, palm against palm, and lift them
and say, this is praise, this is the holding
that is father and son. This I promise you
as I wanted to have promised in the days
of our silence, the nights of our sleeping.

Wait for me. I am coming across the grass
and through the stones. The eyes
of the animals and birds are upon me.
I am walking with my strength.
See, I am almost there.
If you listen you can hear me.
My mouth is open and I am singing.

Patrick Lane

Witness: Selected Poems, 1962-2010
Harbour Publishing


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The Raw World of Memoir

I hear from a lot of people who were particularly touched by the chapter in my book called “MY FATHER’S BLUE DUESENBURG.” It makes me think of all the people grieving their lost parents, and to that end, I thought I’d post a small piece I wrote a month after my father’s death, seven years ago. It was never meant to be published, but it was never quite meant for my journal either. People ask me about memoir and how it differs from fiction. They wonder if it’s crafted or if it’s just heart language. I think it’s the intersection of both. Fiction finds that intersection too, but memoir is a special bird. It’s the mind’s way to find the heart’s course. It begs for steerage. It wants pure truth. To me, memoir comes from this place I share with you below. It’s no small surprise that it ends in a prayer. Maybe that’s what memoir is: a prayer.

Remember the Virgin Islands? On the catamaran, with Mom and Dad arriving as the sun was setting, dark and windy with flotsam around the dinghy and we were kids with kids and a crew, paid in full by the kids with kids with kids on the dinghy? Remember?

I was a new mother then. Everything was magic. My father could have died on a small island with chickens and wild dogs and naked children running around and I would have made it just fine I think. Back then. When life was light.

Dad, instead died a month ago. When I wasn’t in the Caribbean. When I was here in Montana, ten pounds heavier, with a skin condition, probably from years of heavy writing and heavy rejection and heavy mothering.

I know I need to practice light right now. To have a Caribbean mind. To be like the girl bartender on the island at the Soggy Dollar Bar with the piercings and the dun skin and more attention and power than anyone could ever hope to have. Remember the large black man – Bamba—at the Bamba Shack on Tortola who looked up at the way Venus was positioned near the crescent moon and said, “Something is going to happen soon.” And then terrorists flew planes into the World Trade towers and killed thousands and broke the world’s collective heart, and my father was still alive, so mine did not entirely break. I had my father. The something that I was waiting for to happen, did not happen, until a month ago.

I am a writer largely because of a lifetime of fearing this event. I said it at the funeral– “I have been fretting this moment my whole life. My father was nearly fifty when I was born. And I spent months and months of my life trying to pre-mourn his death in journals and novels and poems and songs and dreams and dark-nights-of-the-soul. And he was there for everything. He knew my children and my husband and my house and land and career and walked me down the aisle; he was there for more than I ever dreamed he would be. It was all a waste of time. You can’t prepare for grief.” I guess I used to think that I wouldn’t be anyone’s fool if I tried to. But the mind does not experience grief. Not nearly as much as the body does. That was a surprise. I have been preparing in my mind, and letting my body go cheap. Grief is visceral.

My father feared his death. He taught me everything I know about death. We were joined at the hip in our fear of death. And now he succeeded in taking that fear away for himself, and I am left alone with a choice. I choose not to fear death. And yet my mind does not comply. It seems to me that the mind is the true enemy.

The day before my mother called to tell me Dad had had a stroke and developed aspiration pneumonia, I was like Bamba. I said, “I feel like something huge is about to happen.”

I think we all have the power to be prophets. But are prophets like the messenger? Do we need to bear bad news? And what happens to us when we do? I heard there was a hurricane that took out the Bamba Shack. Or did I dream that?

If I am to be in my mind, let it be in a Caribbean state. Let me be with my love, collecting tiny sand dollars on a sand bar in the shimmering silver of sky and water and not knowing the difference between water and sky, and not needing to. Let me be fifteen. Let me be a green young thing tasting my first rum and coke and buzzing down the beach in the heat in my first bikini. And let me flirt with my first black man and consider drugs and not worry about my father dying or myself dying or my children dying because that buzz won’t let me and I have so much less to love. Then. It was all high. I won’t know then that I’ll be chasing that exact buzz for the next twenty years. God, let me be that girl. Let me be in my body and let it be green.

Make my mind Caribbean blue.
Make my heart agree to be so broken that it forgets to cling to the idea of broken and mended things.
Make me vulnerable past fences.
Make me new.
Make me.


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