When I was a child my days were wild and unpredictable, and I sometimes miss the peaks of emotion present in that old life. Most of the time I abhor the drama of my past when my life centered on the loudness of my hard-drinking parents. But that day in the still young wilderness of Milwaukee County’s Schlitz Audubon Center with DJ, during our quiet moments, I wondered if the life we’d built for our last child, this last-chance-to-get-parenting-right son, held all the joy and excitement we wished for him. Was our life too quiet and too correct?
DJ is the ours in our yours– mine – and– ours family. Before marrying Paul, my nuclear family was only a duo, me and my daughter, Andrea. She was born into a marriage of two young kids who hadn’t a clue about how to choose a spouse or build a life. My daughter grew up without her divorced dad and with a mother who was often at work, college, or at home, studying. We did have our intense doses of scheduled together-time, squeezed in between responsibilities while I strained to build a stable life and advance from nurse’s aide to director of nursing. Paul’s three children were more privileged than my Andrea, and they enjoyed the devotion of their stay-at-home mom who grew to be dissatisfied with her often-absent physician husband. So now here we are, Paul, with a history of giving most of his life to his job, and Amy, practiced in allocating her time to the survival needs self-evident in single parenting and career building, and DJ, born to oh-so-responsible older parents.
DJ is eleven and our other kids are all over twenty-five years old. My youngest camped and hiked with me since he was able to walk, and we grew accustomed to our outdoor time together while I served as his Cub Scout den leader. Conceived in a sleeping bag at Mauthe Lake, he’s always seemed at ease in nature. He isn’t, however, surrounded by riotous family fun. DJ’s life has been subdued by the nature and age of his family. At many of our holiday celebrations, we draw our guest list from those who live at Luther Manor Retirement Center. Many of the adults at these geriatric festivals display their wildest party nature when they accept my coffee. They generally drink decaf, but I mix caffeinated beans and decaf to make my brew. Wow, what a night we had last Thanksgiving; Grandma stayed up until nine. DJ’s always loved his older relatives, perhaps realizing that their overlapping lifespans were narrow and therefore precious in their brief commonality. He collected jokes for them, gave cello recitals, and listened to responses to his conversation, which were only phonetically related to the questions asked. And just like he has always been accommodating to the elder set, he’s generally been good about our nature outings.
Even though DJ willingly accompanies me on our walks, he usually wants to know what else is in it for him. This time he settled for a stop at a bookstore and breakfast. Over George Webb Restaurant’s pancakes, DJ kept kidding me about my literary fascination at the store. I’d leaned against a pillar and started to read Hannah Holmes, The Secret Life of Dust: From the Cosmos to the Kitchen Counter, the Big Consequences of Little Things. Suddenly hyper-aware of the concentration of dust between my eyes and the pages of the book, I’d read about the little particles we will all become and how many millions were floating in my morning orange juice. Realizations of the matrix in my environment, the tads of camel hair, particles of diamond dust and some creepy minuscule monsters that drank my juice as I did, entranced me. DJ’s chuckle drew me out the book.
He’d been bending in front of me, reading the title. “You’re reading about dust?”
“Yeah, it’s amazing. Some of these particles,” I pointed to a ray of low-November sun illuminating a concentration of specks in the air, “are flakes of skin supporting a village of microscopic life.”
He took the book from my hand and returned it to the shelf. “Someone needs to stop you, Mom.”
I could have held onto the book, picked it back up, or argued the point. Instead I found myself mired in DJ’s judgment of me. Reading a book about dust sounded so nerdy, I had to consider just how big of a geek I’d become.
Before we arrived at the Audubon Center, DJ joked about adding Holmes’ book about dust to my Christmas wish list. While we drove past the wooded lots and symmetrically landscaped front entrances of the immense colonial homes of Bayside, DJ fired off his list of playful ammunition.
“You’ll probably want your star calendar again so you can be sure to make us stand outside in the freezing night when the rings of Saturn and moons of Jupiter are visible in your telescope. Dad heard you telling Aunt Julie about the Walt Whitman poetry recording from the library that made you cry, so that CD might be on Dad’s list for you. You want a mushroom identification book, and now probably a book on dust.”
Would you rather I asked for a leather miniskirt and Cuban cigars?” I didn’t give him time to answer before I stepped out into the nearly miraculous warm November sun. With snow in the forecast for next week, this clear fifty-degree day felt like an unexpected last reprieve before the winter tide would cover much of our landscape in a chilling sea of white.
Most of Wisconsin’s undeveloped land teems with hunters in November, so we planned to walk in this protected sanctuary. DJ brought a camera. Oaks, birches, sumac and more had dropped their autumn cover weeks ago and now rested in the spent leaves of summer. DJ looked up the tower of a wide elm and studied the view in his camera frame. I imagined he envisioned the passage of time and recycled life that had been elevated to the open sky above the forest. When I asked him what he saw, he told me the two knots at the middle of tree looked like a lady’s chest. When I looked up, I had to agree.
Between the arbor pillars, the blues of Lake Michigan blended into sky, obscuring the horizon. Ahead of us, stood the observation tower. As we approached the structure, a family with a quintet of vociferous kids scooted around us and ascended the stairs. We followed.
Waiting one level below, while DJ climbed to the highest platform with the others, I looked out to the lake which had formed my sense of direction since I was a child. One hundred and eighteen miles across the lake to Michigan and three hundred miles from north to south, it fills the eye’s view as fully as any ocean. I always thought I was blessed with an innate internal compass, because I could access an inner awareness of my orientation to the lake. The wind on the tower carried a brisk current of lake air, fresh but with a hint of fish odor. This was a smell from my childhood. When we lived in a flat on Milwaukee’s east side, my dad would drive me to Bradford Beach with a six or twelve pack of beer in a cooler and one grape or orange soda for me cooling among his Pabst Blue Ribbon’s. And always in my memory, I see one amber bottle open and wedged between his thighs as he drove. He’d girl-watch while I played in the waves, not really swimming in the cold and strong undercurrent, but teasing the lake by running just to the white hem at the water’s edge as it came to greet me.
Dad’s slicked back black hair, side burns, and crooked sneer gave him an Elvis-type persona. Girls smiled and talked about how cute I was as they flirted with him. He might pat my blonde curls as I sat with my legs in a circle and buried my sole to sole feet with little shovelfuls of sand. A cooler full of empty bottles would clink and thud as Dad and I walked back to the car so he could get ready for his second-shift job.
He’d strut so casually, smiling and relaxed. He might break into song and hug me, or yell for me to “quit lagging behind and walk faster.” Sometimes he called me useless; sometimes he called me peanut. I didn’t know at four or five years old that he was drunk. I only knew that if I didn’t fuss, I could go to the beach. Dad always drove sporty cars, Thunderbird, Mustang convertible, and GTO. I felt cool, because he was cool. In winter or even on a sunny autumn day, like the day at Audubon, he’d sometimes take me to bars or to the local garage to “suck a few beers” with his buddies. They’d spend the early afternoon with their heads under the hood of some hot rod at Scotty’s garage. Dad let me turn the handle on the red metal vending box and crank out a handful of salty peanuts. Garage patrons would walk by me and tell me I was a good girl for sitting so still. I knew the secrets to impressing adults. Don’t ask for anything; don’t touch anything; don’t complain; don’t spill. Any violation could lead to a spanking and certainly to being yelled at. Sitting and watching became my job, but I preferred my outdoor duties, when birds, bugs and plants kept me company. My quiet creed usually worked for me. My parents exacerbated the outrages in each other and their fights could terminate in the emergency room or with dents kicked into the car or with one of them gone for a few days or weeks.
DJ appeared beside me from the upper level of the tower. “Why are you staying down here?”
“I prefer the calm. We’ll have to be quiet and wait for a while to see if any of the birds show up again.”
Is that family bugging you?”
“I know five young kids have to be noisy, but I didn’t come here to listen to people. I’ll just be patient and when they move on, we’ll watch and listen for the birds.”
A scramble of footsteps bounded behind us. DJ elbowed my arm and nodded his head toward the upper platform. He led the way up the stairs, and I remembered being about twelve and coming out of the bathroom to see my dad, pulling down the folding stairs to the attic and climbing them in his underwear and dress shirt. He’d been replacing an overhead light fixture in the front room, and I guessed he had some quick chore to finish in the attic. When the doorbell rang, I walked around the stairs to see my mom open the door to their friends, the two couples they were going out with to hear Jerry Lee Lewis, who was playing at The Annex nightclub. Mom wore high heels and a bright striped mini-dress. Her blond hair was short on her neck but ratted high and smoothed over. She served gimlets and rumacki that perfumed the house with the aroma of broiled bacon. When they asked about Dad, Mom said he was cleaning up. He’d been installing a new light. She pointed to the ceiling. From a hole in the middle of the ceiling, Dad’s head emerged clenching a light bulb in his teeth. They were all so jovial and quick to laugh. Just as they lamented that the fixture didn’t work, the light in his mouth illuminated. Dad had screwed the bulb into an electrical socket with a switched cord that ran up the left side of his face, and mom had seated everyone to the right side of his head. He held the switch in one hand and waited for his cue to electrify the little crowd. By the second round of gimlets, my dad got his pants (I never knew why he didn’t wear his pants to the attic) and quickly caught up with the cocktail count. The drinks seemed to make the story’s retelling even more fun than the actual event. The lady friend explained her shock at seeing the human light, and she reached forward and pinched the rumacki, which I was forbidden to have unless there were leftovers. She held it in front of her face and finished laughing before she delicately nibbled and crossed the ankles of her white stiletto boots.
From the hall, I imagined myself drinking highballs, wearing boots with mini-skirts, and kissing all my men-friends on the mouth like my pretty mom did. I’d grow to have beauty-parlor hair, eat rumacki, throw my head back, and laugh very loudly. I still have a square snapshot that shows Dad’s smile and clenched teeth around the lighted bulb. Most of the family pictures ended up at my home when my parents divorced. DJ has seen all the pictures of my dad as light fixture and the stack of photos of his cars. Our Saturn and minivan don’t have the same appeal as my dad’s fifty-seven T-bird with the port-hole top. He loved to take that T-bird out on sunny days without the hardtop. He said he had to “clean out the engine” and drove pedal-to-the-metal. The wind made whips of my curls, erratically beating my cheeks and eyes. My fear squelched forever in me the enjoyment of speed that others find in motorcycles and downhill skiing. But I always went for a drive with Dad when he asked. I wanted to be cool, even if it killed me. Because I loved him, and because he wanted to be with me.
On the top of the tower DJ and I faced the wind coming from the east and my hair blew straight back behind my head. From this vantage the landscape expanded and blue filled the immense dome of sky.
About a half-mile south, five children and two adults appeared to vibrate slowly, lots of movement and little forward advancement, like colorfully dressed ants on a winding trail. A pair of cardinals low in bushes attracted DJ’s attention. The coming winter had already sent most of our colorful birds adrift, the orioles, tanagers, towhees, iridescent indigo buntings, and ruby throated hummingbirds all took their exotic plumage back to the tropics. The stunning red of the cardinal offered a comforting reminder that all that is bright and beautiful had not abandoned those of us who dwell in northern winters. Wind muffled most of the bird calls, but a loud churrr call with rolling R’s turned our heads to a male red-bellied woodpecker. Over nine inches long, it’s the largest woodpecker generally seen in Milwaukee County.
Standing in the corner of the tower, DJ leaned against me so that even though we were alone on the tower, we took up very little space. He rolled around me, semi-circling from a bit behind me to a bit in front of me, all the while keeping in shoulder to shoulder contact as if we were conjoined.
Startled by a flurry of winged activity, our eyes flitted from trees to ground to bushes. At least fifty birds? what were they? I made my eyes focus on just one, and then the Wordsworth lines came with recognition, “Art thou the bird whom Man loves best, The pious bird with the scarlet breast?” They must be migrating in a flock. Our state bird, yet I’d never seen a flock this large. Busy and bossy, the robins chased each other, establishing dominance for prime resting and eating areas. Most settled in an open area behind the tower, so we turned our backs to the lake and watched them forage and compete for choice limbs on a crabapple tree. These thrushes migrate together and disperse once they reach their destination. Our last robins of the season, we didn’t expect to see more until early spring, when they return to feed on the shriveled rose hips of all the bushes that are not tended by overzealous pruners.
DJ asked, “What’s the big deal about robins? Everybody makes a fuss when they come back in spring.”
“I think it’s the songs, DJ. Robins sing our spring songs for us. Their territorial tunes are loud, recurrent and happy. They sound like spring.”
“You mean they sing for you?”
“Well, I’m truly grateful for robins, if they sing instead of you.”
We left the tower with DJ spitting over the railing at each turn of the stairs as he tested the wind. He wasn’t afraid to spit into the wind, and this time the wind didn’t return his fire.
I wanted to find the blooming witch-hazel tree and bittersweet vine which both flaunt their vivid blooms into December, so we pushed on to the woods, prairies and ponds away from the lake. DJ kept his camera out and pointed it in all directions in a combination of adolescent energy and curiosity. I tended to look where he pointed the camera.
At first glance the woods looked brown and monochromatic, but when we looked closer the colors transformed to more intense and varied shades. At the base of a dead stump, turkey tail fungus grew loud seasonal decorations. Looking close at the six-inch fans of striped color, we saw shades a kindergartener might choose to decorate his gobbler picture. Arches of tan, brown, orange and purple layered and repeated themselves in beautiful redundancy. The word fungus bears the stigma of something slimy, but these beauties felt like fine worn leather.
Tall red cedars hugged our trail and perfumed the air with a richness that fell just short of sweet. At the prairie, tall stalks of thistle dotted the grasses with deep black seed heads. Forty-foot wide stands of red dogwood posed in flashy clusters before a wide ridge of tanned and dried miscanthus grass that waved and rustled in the cooling afternoon wind. Our trail wandered near ponds of ducks and geese. They seemed to be settling in for the winter as they sauntered in the still water with an occasional push of their webbed feet toward the slowly moving shadow-line that separated day from evening and shrunk the sunshine of their afternoon.
Woodlands and prairie fields alternated dominance and after a few miles DJ put away his camera and started to play with my arm. Whacking the back of my elbow, he’d send the arm swinging forward, then bat it back and slap it forward again in a soft rhythm that didn’t really hurt. He didn’t have to say the words; I knew what he was thinking, How much further?
“It’s less than two miles back.” There was a shorter route back, but I still wanted to see the blooms of the witch hazel and bittersweet, and I felt no need to bring up the option of the quarter mile path to the parking lot.
I might have made a mistake; he seemed to have met his nature quota for the day. He kept swinging my arm and started to sing: “Lucy met the train. The train met Lucy. The tracks were juicy. The juice was Lucy.” He finished that number and went into long rendition about a pirate mutilation. “Being a pirate is all fun and games, ‘Til somebody loses an eye. It spurts and it squirts and it jolly well hurts; you can’t let your mates see you cry.…”
And before long, I sang with him. “Being a pirate is all fun and games, ‘Til somebody loses an ear. It drips down your neck, and it falls on the deck….”
We probably walked right past the witch hazel, chugging our arms and marching in rhythm. We never did find the spidery yellow blooms on a small under-story tree that I’d heard bloomed in the area. As we crossed a paved service road, I saw a couple standing still in a meadow in front of us. I grabbed DJ’s arm and pulled on his wrist like you’d pull on a light chain to turn it off, and he was quiet. I pointed ahead. “Those people are very still, they must see something.”
We walked softly into the meadow and the man, still thirty-feet ahead of us, hyper-extended his wrist and showed us his palm. We stopped. He pointed into some brush on our right. A huge doe ate, chomping and sliding her lower jaw laterally and twitching her ears. She saw us, and we stood as statues. The man pointed again to the brush. We followed his direction an immense buck turned his head to us displaying a shiny twelve-point rack. This buck had rubbed off every bit of velvet cover to polish his antlers. Autumn is the season of love for deer; they pair up and mate when the male is most impressive. His brown shiny eyes watched over his seasonal sweetheart while she continued to eat. They were only about ten feet away but stayed as if they knew this was a no-hunting area. It’s a rare treat to see a couple in love like this. After coupling, the male stays around only a few days to make sure no other male mates with his dear, then, he leaves. Either of those deer could have bounded off at thirty miles an hour, but the female just moseyed away when she’d had her fill of dogwood, and the buck followed, always watchful and never lowering his head to eat.
DJ’s words tenderly entered the quiet space. “He looked like he loved her.”
“Yes, but doesn’t it seem harsh that he leaves her so quickly?”
“Um, you want to talk harsh. What about the poor guy who’s a black widow or praying mantis.”
We both recalled a television show about the Mantis religiosa who, the narrator assured us, was the only mantis consistently cannibalistic during mating. After dancing around each other and turning their thoraxes into graceful undulating S’s the male hopped up onto her back. While he continued his dance of love in rhythmic thrusts, the larger female turned her head toward the camera as if she were an exhibitionist and wanted to be sure we were watching. The mantis is the only insect that has an elongated thorax that looks like a neck and turns its head from side to side like a human. She continued turning her face upward to meet the trancelike gaze of her mate. We knew what was coming, but couldn’t look away while she took three bites of his head. And while she chomped off his entire face and chewed, his abdomen continued to thrust. The voice-over told us, in the religiosa species, head removal is necessary for ejaculation.
We reclaimed our feelings of tenderness for the short-lived romance of the deer and continued our walk. DJ drifted ahead of me. Dried compass plants, whose leaves looked like over-cooked potato chips, bent erratically as a band of purple finches poked at the black seed heads of a plant that had once been a favorite of the buffalo. The reeds of the dry grasses played their wind music as we finished our walk, an audience to the symphony. DJ swung his arms dramatically and walked ahead of me as we each found our own thoughts.
I had learned to be taciturn in my childhood home for reasons that no longer existed. As I little girl, I waited for the time I could be noisy and wild and fun whenever I wanted, and by the time I was a young teenager I joined in at my parent’s parties. Older men noticed me, offered me drinks, and danced with me, and many of them started kissing me hello and good-bye as they did to my mother. My parents were non-reactive to these events. Dad never taught me to dance, but a friend of his did, with his tub of scotch on the rocks gripped in his hand and clinking behind my back as we turned. Once I was attractive to these men, I was included in the parties. I soon discovered I didn’t care to be around these adults as their sophistication dissolved and their vowels slurred. As a small child I did want to be part of my parent’s fun, but by my late teens I found reasons to avoid the parties that had started to feel creepy. As an adult, I realized more specifically that the danger of sexual abuse hovered around me at these parties, but at the time I don’t think I was cognizant of the danger. The drunks who didn’t get loud got boring, and trapped me in my respect-your-elders attention while offering me their incoherent and unwelcome philosophies. I took a lot of walks so as to spend as much time away from the sloshy tumult in our home as possible. My adult interests in astronomy, gardening, reading, birding, and nature were enhanced by the gift my parents gave me as a small child. They taught me to sit upon my throne of silence and learn the comfort and wonders found in stillness.
The cooling air inched winter closer with every step in our walk. Perhaps we would return in the season of snow, when the witch-hazel seed-pods burst and crack like a gun, a trait that changes the name of this tree in winter to snapping-hazel. I tried not to lament the passing season and the expected bitterness of winter weather. Robert Frost loved his Vermont winters, yet he understood the melancholy I felt, as he expressed in the last lines of “Reluctance”:
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
I will probably spend some winter evenings reading about dust, history, nature, and fictional lives, but I won’t wear a miniskirt or white stiletto boots. Rather than watch me from the hall, DJ will lie on the sofa near my chair and read his new favorite author, Kristin Frankline. Occasionally, we’ll interrupt each other to share a well-crafted line, fascinating fact, or a joke. I could make rumacki. Paul and I can share the moniker of geek, if that means we are quiet more than riotous. DJ can be the cool one in our home and keep us somewhat current on the new song releases from Black-eyed Peas and Outcast. We will host or attend a few parties, and we will laugh and be silly and occasionally a bit loud, but we won’t live the drama that I experienced as a child. I’d forgotten that I’d made that choice decades ago and again sixteen years ago, when I chose to be with my contemplative Paul. This life was the only one I could share with my son.
DJ, still twenty yards in front of me, turned around to face me. “Parking lot’s just ahead.” I nodded and watched his lanky limbs and broad strides carry him away. Only this spring, he’d been in grade school when his voice sounded more like mine than his father’s. His shoulders have grown broader than his hips, and his little love handles just above his belt melted away during his first football season. His growth during the year has been relentless in its message: There is so little of his childhood left.
The grassy path smoothed and widened just before the parking lot and DJ performed a sloppy cartwheel ending with a distinctive thud on the blacktop. He never turned around to see if I was watching; he knew.
DJ and I stood at each side of the car, the doors open, drinking water and lingering in the day’s final rays of sunshine. We’d walked quickly that last mile and our bodies were warmed from the inside. We threw our sweatshirts in the backseat of the car to enjoy the brisk air. A pick-up truck pulled in next to us, and DJ turned to close his car door to make more room in the adjacent parking spot. When he faced the woman in the truck, she smiled and gave him the OK sign. DJ pointed to his shirt that said, “Stop Reading My T-shirt” and nodded back to the good-natured driver who was quickly off for her walk before the sanctuary closed.
Just before I lifted a foot to enter the car and end our autumn, I saw a burst of color ahead. Right in front of our parking space a bittersweet vine glowed in colors of fuchsia and orange. Tiny beacons of seed pods, hundreds of them, blazed bright in front of us. DJ followed me to the vine, and we studied the red arils, little fleshy fruits, and the orange capsules that fold back like petals, so bright they’re almost garish in their celebration of themselves.
We stood silently, each inspecting the beautiful intricacy of the pods– smaller than a pea, but so sumptuous in their beauty it took us several minutes to ingest the diminutive wonders. They seemed almost too fancy for bird food, but then they were also the ripe fruit of sexual reproduction. I watched DJ silently inspecting the capsules and wondered if when he’s grown he’ll remember this day, the blue of the lake, the flurry of robins we watched from the tower, the hike, the deer, the silly songs, the very end of a season. And I wondered if when he recognizes this seed pod in autumns of his future he will remember the quiet moment with me when he first met the bittersweet vine.
Amy L Jenkins holds a MFA in Literature and Creative Writing from Bennington College. She teaches writing at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI and serves as editor for www.anthologiesonline.com . Her work has appeared in multiple magazines, newspapers, and anthologies including Wisconsin Academy Review, Flint Hills Review, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Florida Review, Earth Island Journal, Generations, Rosebud, Women on Writing, and the recent Seal Press release The Maternal is Political.