UNMOORED, a novel
Carving from memory the ground she will stand on, Rennie England returns to the family home in Idaho and begins her journey to find out what happened to her father. It will take her to his bedroom, to a candle in the room and a key in the lock, to other rooms where people fell in love, where people died. As she asks who was locked in and who was locked out, she hears in a new way the voices of her life— the father who hangs his twins, but not by the neck; the grandmother, whose light comes with cinnamon and salt; the lover, who is the one right thing and out of reach even before he is assassinated; the deaf boy who teaches her to hear; Thelma Myzeld, confidante, who knows Montana needs more smokers.
Rennie finds healing when she revisits her grandparents’ sawmill cabin in the Centennial Mountains, its paths strewn with the light of morning, the shadow of dusk, the scent of alpine daisies and Douglas fir, of grass and mint and brook. She is learning what we get to keep and what we don’t get to keep, what we want to know and what we can’t let ourselves know, what we love and what we unwittingly betray.
We compose ourselves in no small part from the landscape we choose as home. For me it was the Douglas fir and lodge pole pines in a meadow of wildflower in Idaho’s Targhee National Forest. My grandparents had had a sawmill here when I was a girl. I came back when I was thirty-one and discovered my huckleberry patch was for sale. That first night I pitched a tent where their cabin had stood and began drawing floor plans under a sky full of a hundred thousand lights.
Over the next ten summers I did build the place I call home in the mountains, one board at a time. I was a young and vigorous woman when I pounded stakes into the forest floor, trying not to kill even a blade of grass. I used only what was at hand and imported friends when I needed more brawn that I could bring to bear. I’d hike through the forest every day, usually bring back something I could deploy. I had to go get my old Scout for one find—the top of a Monarch wood-burning stove that became my first kitchen cabinet—the oven warmer, with its little doors that opened to allow for a pot, a pan.
My endeavor defined my place in this community of locals and tourists. People who heard there was a woman on a hill building her own cabin showed up with whatever might help. One fellow who owned a ranch nearby came with a box of ring nails. “They’ll baffle the wind,” it told me. ”You’ll never have your roof down in the ravine.”
I would be someone else, completely if I hadn’t had this tie to this place in the Centennials, almost on the Continental Divide. As I learn my place in it, I discover my own variety and independence and resourcefulness and toughness. And what Robert Frost was talking about when he said, “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”
My exquisite friend Howard Ringwood has died. He wore his many gifts lightly and he blessed all around him with them. The two of us found somewhere along the way that we had attended the same university in the same years. He had played football with the man my twin sister married. They were captain and co-captain of the team and I remembered his name.
We became acquainted on Sundays on my street. He would stop if I was outside, he looking regal in a dark blue suit on his way home from church. He would say hello to me and ask in one way or another if I was all right. I would usually be fooling around on a motorcycle or trying to fix a lawnmower and my “I’m fine” at first meant “Don’t pray for me, Provo, Utah.” I soon saw what an elegant and gentle man he was, not espousing a party line, not laboring under the heavy hand of duty. His light was from within. The line that most comes to mind is the mysterious “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
He lightened many burdens for me. He shoveled my sidewalks at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning. They were just done when I looked out on a snowy morning; I didn’t even know who’d done them for a long time. He told me when I suffered an acute injury doctors said I would not recover from, it will be okay. And it was. I came to understand having faith in faith and to count on his advice, always farsighted, longsuffering, ecumenical. If he began as a shepherd of balls across courts—any ball, any court—and he took home all the trophies—he went on to shepherd men and women in his wise, unassuming way. The last thing he asked me, in great suffering now and under a very heavy mandate himself, was “Are you all right?” The thought of him lights up my heart.
That heart goes out to his courageous and wonderful wife. I had the opportunity to work under her leadership providing services to residents of a nursing home some years back. Like him, she led by love, and I learned to see that love comes in many stripes and sometimes, yes, it is organized.
I extend my deepest condolences to her and to the seven heartbroken children these two had. They altered my, if not reckless, than perhaps heedless life.
Someone who continually inspires me is Dr. Judy Gooch. She doesn’t expect you to call her Dr. Gooch; she’s Judy to me. She heals with her friendship as well as with her medical skills. I have been the recipient of both. Her current endeavor is one that I have a particular tenderness for–the disabled. My brother taught me how marvelous it is to be in their company.
Judy left her position in Rehab at the University of Utah Medical Center to begin her own medical endeavor: Utah Neuro Rehabilitation. She and her assistant work with disabled kids. Here they are. Look at their faces. The face of God.
Wonderful breakfast at Wildflowers with Cill’s nephew Troy and his son Rex. They drove all night from California, helped us all morning, all the while chattering about Someday. Remember the poem? Troy says. Someday I’ll take my boy fishing. Turns out Someday is already taken. How about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Any day but Someday.
They left from Idaho late in the afternoon in time to arrive in Lemhi, Idaho in the evening where they’ll gather up their wounded warriors for an outdoor adventure.
It’s a very fine world that holds within it Troy and Rex. And Cill.
A seagull was in my bedroom last night, sobbing away. He was there about 40 minutes, the length of time I talked on the phone to my splendid friend Ann. The painful thing to acknowledge is that I thought he was in her room, or maybe out on her street. “No,” she said. “I don’t think so.”
We kept talking above his cries—caw caw—as though it were normal. Or at least I thought it was normal. Ann never stooped to saying something like, “Are you okay?” We were talking about her fine article on the artist Earl Jones in 15 Bytes and Earl’s range of conversation—everything from Josef Albers to relativity, Karl Marx, LeConte Stewart, back to Albers and tomato seeds and Earl’s show at Phillips Gallery and on to the 1933 Chevy truck Earl is restoring and how much I miss Lurch, my 1959 GMC pickup and how I cried when I sold it and the guy from Wyoming almost couldn’t make himself take it. All the time the bleeping seagull is crying.
“Maybe I’ll step out on the street and see if that bird is okay,” I say. “I’ll hold on,” Ann’s says. She has a calming voice. I step out into the quiet night, a full moon hanging improbably in the sky. Then I’m back on the phone discussing the Doerr interview in 15 Bytes. The g–damned bird is back. I will say to my credit that at no time did I think of murdering the little squawker.
We talk about the Four Sisters photograph series that was in the New York Times Magazine this week. “The concept,” I say. “To photograph those same four sisters standing in the same order over forty years. As you turn the pages, you see the hand of time fall across their faces, their shoulders. And you stand there thinking that is what 75 looks like.
I’ll be 75 in a few days. Another splendid friend, Alice, used the word intrepid once in describing me. Still another friend who is older than me by a decade said, “The word triumph will come to mind one of these days.”
I said to Ann, “Wait a minute, I think . . . the bird is in this room.” I reach up and hit the off button on my Brookstone radio—you know the one. You can pick a little sound mix of seagull or ocean surf or songbird.
The sun seems to rise behind my eyes. When I open them, the windows just beyond are already oyster grey, cut with the dark outlines of trees. I lie there in my daybed under the high gabled roof and watch light remake itself, sorting through shades of blue until it arrives at its lightest version. You’d think it would be the opposite.
The whole cabin smells like the sourdoughs I replenished last night. I can make sourdough pancakes blindfolded and I do make them, laughing at the nutcases in the city who believe you have to have the original deal from San Francisco. I eat mine at the old oak table I bought from a woman who said, “That old thing, it sat out all winter,” and felt bad to take $25 for it.
I must leave camp and get water—the animals have been on bottled water along with me for days. And go to the landfill and get the overripe melon out of here before I have another bear come in. Speed limit when I get there: 8 MPH.
And then to the river, the Coffeepot stretch of the North Fork, and my friend Pat. We’ll walk its banks and pick the first huckleberries of the season. People used to say to me when I came back up here in the summers, “Is there anyone to talk to?” You know the implication. “My closest neighbor taught at Columbia where she was involved in research,” I tell them. How much more there is to say about this gentle woman who spots a Great Grey Heron across the river. She is an extension of its peace. We talk about what we’re reading. She’s interested in the progressive John Shelby Spong’s Eternal Life. She knew my mother, and I tell her about waiting for her to call. “Something goes on,” she says. The big change, but something is not extinguished.
About fifty trout are leaping and jumping, feeding on the Pale Morning Duns. It’s a frolic. I’m glad I don’t have my Fenwick with me. Our fingers take on the dark purple of the berries as we chat on the mountainside. “I wonder how many bears have seen us,” I say and tell her about a story I started years ago in which a woman goes out into the forest to get her waterline up and working. A bear watches for her every year but she never sees him.
We make a plan to meet again and go to our separate cabins where we’ll eat huckleberries and cream in the evening, step out onto our decks. There will be a million stars in an endless sky.
“Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smoldering lack of focus. And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return.”
From Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes.” (If you haven’t found a little object to hold in your hand and keep in your pocket, try finding a netsuke, the Japanese carved ivory and wood carved objects that are the subject of this intriguing and thoughtful book—with a title I wish were mine.
Outside my window this morning, a fawn gazing at me.
For those who have eyes to see . . .