reminiscence


beans3

My hands remember
what mind does not: just so my
father planted beans.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve long been fascinated by Green Men. I’ve only figured out recently that this may be because my own father was a Green Man.

It’s funny the things that set you to remembering.

The other day when I was in the cafeteria at work, I had a semi-meaningless conversation about pickles. That conversation sparked a memory so keen I had to write it down immediately.

My father planted a vast vegetable garden every year in the immense back yard of our rental property in Venice. He had no tolerance for flowers and, like as not, he’d pull them up if he needed more space for edibles.

Still, the garden he planted was a work of art: lovingly conditioned soil, weeks in churning and amending, row upon neat little row of carrot, onion, parsnip, red radish, bell pepper. Beyond those rows, beautifully rounded little mounds held cucumber, ringed round with carefully dug irrigation channels. The leaves of the cucumbers were hairy and pointy-edged, the stems thick and fuzzy, bobbing green in the summer breeze, yellow in the fall. The tomato plants on the other side of the cucumbers always started in orderly, well-staked rows, but by fall they danced in an entwined frenzy. Along the back fence, wire with a spiky top, banana squash climbed. Sometimes corn grew beside it.

Between the back fence crops and the tomatoes ran an arbor for string beans—a porous frame of wood and chicken wire during the fallow months, ten feet tall and perhaps twenty feet long. In the summer months, though, it became a green tunnel as the beans climbed up the sides and over the top. The sun shone liquid green through the leaves, and even in the hottest summer the earth beneath—near-black with fecundity and never dried completely during the growing season—felt cool to my bare feet. That soil made all things seem possible. I would wander up and down it daydreaming, getting a buzz from the green smell of the beans.

If ever there was a place my soul felt repose, it was there. I suspect my father felt the same way. He preferred spending time in his garden, in the green bean tunnel, to time with my mother and I. Perhaps that wasn’t so, just my perception, but it felt to me as if he couldn’t find a way to bridge the gap between that shining green light and the warmth of the hearth. After the day’s gardening, he seemed empty and at a loss. The demons that tormented him grew thicker in the air.

He’d nearly reached retirement age by the time I was born. When I was small, I adored helping him in the garden, just being with him. When I hit puberty, our worldviews had grown too divergent. At least two generations separated us, and only in the green space had we any hope of reaching across the decades. Even in puberty, the garden and that cool green tunnel seemed like a magic place. When the churning of my brain and growing body got to be too much, I’d return to it and wander up and down. I had this feeling, way down deep, that if I could just make it to the end of that tunnel, the true end, not the one I saw with my eyes, I’d be changed. Or maybe all my wishes would be granted. I never made it that far.

I’d see Dad in the tunnel, slowly walking up and down, lifting the bean pods tenderly in his hands to check their progress, seeing if they were ready for the ritual of the canning process. Mom and I were not allowed near the kitchen when the canning sacrament was underway. Mornings in late summer and early fall, I’d wake to the smell of green beans cooking, ready for the mason jars; or dill, alum, and vinegar boiling to turn fresh-picked cucumbers into the best pickles in the world. An astringent smell, but to me it held the promise of something delicious in the heart of winter.

I still see my father in that garden, and wonder what he found when he took the final walk to the end of that shining green tunnel. I wonder if his wishes came true?

There’s a quote from Vincent Van Gogh that reminds me of my father: “I am a burning hearth. People see the smoke, but no one comes to warm themselves.”

But there’s another quote from Albert Camus I like much better, and hope applies to Dad equally well: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

Green Men are found in many cultures. They are commonly a symbol of rebirth and regeneration, the spring greening that inevitably follows the dying of winter. I’m fascinated with them. I have two of them, one in the back yard garden near the peach tree:

IF

The lovely lady to the left of him is the Roman goddess Flora, and the lady on the right is simply named Ivy. The man himself is cast iron and ages gracefully, rusting in interesting patterns.

I also have a Green Man inside:

greenmancloseup-sm-1

He’s smaller, also made of metal, but I doubt he’s copper as the green of him suggests. I believe the “aging” on this one is artificial—but I still think he’s rather cool. I’d have more Green Men if I had the space and money (so it’s probably a good thing I don’t). I like the ones with serious and slightly sinister expressions, and I like them to be made of serious natural materials like metal, not these comical cast resin ones that you see here and there and everywhere (though I admit, Flora and Ivy are cast resin). Why am I so fascinated with these Green Man images?

I’m a city girl, born and raised. If I want to get in touch with Serious Nature, I have to drive quite a ways out of town, and when I was a kid we never left town, unless it was to drive to Pomona for the county fair or to Disneyland in Anaheim. There wasn’t enough money for anything else, nor any time and inclination with my parents working hard. It just wasn’t in the program. As a consequence, I was 18 before I ever went on a real vacation, and as for nature spots? Mom didn’t see much sense in going places where you had to sleep on the ground and cook over campfires. She’d had enough of that “nonsense” in her roughing-it country girl days and found no romance in the experience. Why would any sensible human being want to give up modern conveniences?

So I grew up having to take nature where I found it. Fortunately, back in the olden days of Los Angeles, there still existed patches of it here and there. An immense vacant lot existed on my block on Fourth Avenue in Venice, for one. (It is now a public storage facility.) For another, my father planted a magical garden every year, a place of communion and nourishment. (I’ll discuss that another time, in The Green Man, Part II.) Occasionally, I got to visit my older brother in the Santa Monica mountains, where my nieces and nephews (all mostly older than me) would lead me on fantastical trips over the hill and through the woods following streams…until we popped out of the rough onto the manicured lawns of the Bel Air Country Club golf course. Then we’d hightail it back into the woods. These things were extremely important to me, as were long walks on the beach, about five blocks west of where we lived.

I loved the beach best when it was cold and rainy, partly because the things that drifted up on shore—the glass, the driftwood, the truly odd and puzzling things, were more interesting and less picked over by other beach walkers. Mostly, though, it was because I could walk there on cold days without much interference from other people, thinking my thoughts, communing with the vast rolling heart of the sea, feeling the chill pierce me to the bones. That chill always felt purifying rather than cold. I could not return from those walks with any black spots in my spirit. The wind off the sea blew them all away and gave me bliss in return.

That garden and that vacant lot saved my sanity during childhood; those walks along the sea saved my adolescence. Nature, my small neighborhood version of it, never failed to renew me. That, I think, is part of why I am so fascinated with the symbolic representation of nature: I want to recapture, to remind myself, of that need for renewal, that need to physically get out and get in touch with something green and greater than the mere mortal.

In my twenties I went on long hikes in the Angeles Crest. It’s a great, sprawling wilderness within easy driving distance of Los Angeles. Some of it, like Dart Canyon, is at a low enough elevation that on smoggy L.A. days the bad air penetrates them. You have to hike higher up if you want to avoid the city pollution. But on lovely, clear days Dart Canyon is a enchanted place, with maple and sycamore trees, waterfalls, the ruins of cabins and of a lodge destroyed in a great destructive flood in the 1930s. Higher up, there’s pine forest, ski summits, abandoned mines, and scrambling over big boulders to cross streams.

Those hikes were literally peak experiences for me: cleansing, renewing, exhilarating.

My favorite parts of any vacation, whether in this country or another, have been those times when I get into the countryside, touch the green, listen to the birds, feel the wind sweep through my spirit and blow away the black clouds. Nature is my touchstone.

These days—and in the long years of caregiving—that touchstone is mostly limited to the back yard. There wasn’t much time for anything else when Mom was alive; these days I still seem to be decompressing from that experience, trying to recoup my energy and my creativity. I’m far enough away from the beach that I’d have to drive, find parking, and my legs…no.

But the funny thing is, it doesn’t really take Grand Nature for me to get that sense of renewal. The Green Man is alive, curling in every leaf and bud; his skin is easy beneath my palm in the smooth trunk of my peach tree; he dances in the swaying branches of the white willow that volunteered to grow in my yard. All I have to do is sit for a few minutes, enclosed by walls and trees and wildish overgrown patches, listening to the birds, smelling peach blossoms, feeling the earth and grass under my bare feet…and the magic still happens. I am there. He is there. I am lifted up, I am renewed. Maybe the Green Man is watching over me, I don’t know. All I know is that I am grateful.

Mar 12
I love this man: http://ontd-political.livejournal.com/10981269.html 

Mar 13
Some days I miss hanging out with my characters so much it hurts. Some of them were running though my mind a lot today. Maybe I’ll be able to use all this to write a really profound book one day. Either that, or croak early.

Mar 16
Always glad to see Jenny McCarthy slammed for her unscientific and harmful beliefs on vaccines. Can we start on Gwyneth Paltrow now? Oh wait, she’s just criminally elitist and stupid, not a murderer.

Mar 23
I feel bad that you feel badly. Perhaps your doctor should examine your hands.

Mar 24
The dream factory isn’t dead: it keeps supplying me with good ideas I haven’t got time to write.

Mar 25
I like the idea (from The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah) that the Jinns decide whether or not we’re going to believe in them.

Mar 28
A working mom’s open letter to Gwyneth http://nyp.st/1eVO22J 

Could this woman be any more blinkered and entitled? Yeah. I don’t think she’s bottomed out yet.

Mar 28
My cat is sad because she wanted to seek enlightenment but all the other cats cared for was tuna.

pic.twitter.com/fQMG2efc5w

Mar 29
Louis CK: “I got a white noise machine. You know what that is? It’s a machine that allows white people to sleep.”

Apr 3
Pro-tip: Don’t ask an animal activist the old joke question, “Do you know how to get down off a duck?” You’ll never get to the punchline.

Pro-tip2: Use a ladder.

Apr 3
Duty vs. personal aspirations, that’s my conflict. Most days sublimated, some days excruciating.

ETA: Love is also in the mix, making things more confused.

Apr 4
Walmart’s false argument: RT If Walmart Paid Employees a Living Wage, How Much Would Prices Go Up? http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2014/04/walmart_living_wage_if_the_company_paid_its_employees_more_how_much_would.html …

Apr 4
I believe in science and I believe in spirit. This doesn’t have to be a dichotomy or a contradiction. It just is.

Apr 4
While eating chips I read, “Every bite of food you eat alters your daily metabolism, electrolyte balance, and proportion of fat to muscle.”

Apr 7
And my mother turned 93 today. Happy birthday, Mam!

Apr 8
Dear Nekkid Girl Posing In An Abandoned Warehouse: it isn’t arty. You’re still just a nekkid girl.

Apr 10
Penn & Teller decimating the anti-vaccination brigade in under two minutes. http://youtu.be/lhk7-5eBCrs 

Apr 10
When did “alone” become synonymous with “lonely”? The two are quite distinct.

Apr 11
The transport company that takes Mom to dialysis two days a week just called to say that in May they’ll charge $70 a ride not $30. I don’t know what we’re going to do. We can’t afford that, and the alternative is me missing a lot more work.

Apr 13
Potentially hopeful news from the social worker yesterday about transportation for Mom to dialysis. Don’t want to say much for fear of jinxing.

No, I never engage in magical thinking, why do you ask?

Apr 14
Let go and let the Universe. I now have three possible solutions to my mother’s dialysis transportation problems.

Apr 15
I’m so old I remember having to get up and walk over to the TV to change channels.

Apr 18
Me at the cafeteria: This morning I need a whisky muffin. Hold the muffin.

Apr 23
A hornet’s nest found in an abandoned shed. The head is a part of a wooden statue it fused with.

pic.twitter.com/rL1xLzXLLB [Warning: may cause the wiggins.]

Nature abhors a vacuum.

Apr 24
3 judges sided with Verizon and decided to let ISPs censor the internet. Tell the FCC to restore net neutrality! http://cms.fightforthefuture.org/tellfcc/ 

Apr 24
Maybe I should do as my spam suggests and get myself a Russian Bride. Of course, I might not be able to fulfill all her expectations. Too bad they don’t have a green card program for “domestic assistants.”

Apr 25
What Hitchens got wrong: Abolishing religion won’t fix anything http://www.salon.com/2013/12/07/what_hitchens_got_wrong_abolishing_religion_wont_fix_anything/ …

Apr 29
Avoidance seems to be the chief management style of many organizations.

Apr 30
I’m thinking of starting a company called Clusterf*cks R Us. Probably wouldn’t get much business, though.

Apr 30
Okay, maybe I’m a little panicky over how much I have to do before my surgery in two weeks. And maybe the surgery, too. And the recovery.

A little.

Verging on a lot.

May 1
My spam keeps sending me a “Notice to Appear.” I think I’ll send my Russian Bride instead.

May 1
The night air is full of jasmine crushed into luscious fragrance by the first heatwave of the year.

May 2
Even the most shining hero is a human being with feet of clay. If we’d just remember this, there would be less anger in this society.

May 3
The same government agency which made us prove my mom was married to my dad and that he had died needs us to prove it all over again 20 years later. Different department, you see. Apparently they’re unable to communicate with one another. Dealing with government agencies is a big component of caregiver fatigue. It wouldn’t be so bad except my dad’s death certificate has gone missing and L.A. County takes 4 weeks to get a new one.

May 3
Or maybe I won’t have surgery in 2 weeks. If I put it off this time, it will be 2 times.

May 4
Mom is home from the hospital. She’s doing okay.

May 6
I wonder if the superbuff guy on the cover of so many romance novels who’s face disappears past the top of the cover has a really ugly mug?

Or if, yanno, it’s supposed to be some artistic sh*t.

Or if, yanno, it’s so women can fantasize any man they want?

May 6
Abandoned mill from 1866 in Sorrento, Italy: Oh, the stories this conjures up!

pic.twitter.com/kHgXAnyRVV

May 6
I think “narcissistic loony toon” sums M. Lewinsky up quite nicely. She has wedged her way back into the public eye just like that string was wedged between her cheeks.

[Fortunately, it was a brief appearance and quickly faded from the public’s notice.

May 7
The Red Queen still rages. “The trick is not becoming a writer. The trick is staying a writer.” —Harlan Ellison

pic.twitter.com/C0YNAXzclI

May 9
My surgery has been officially postponed. Mom had some minor setbacks that were major enough to warrant postponement.

I’m deeply ambivalent. I don’t fancy being a cripple for the rest of my life, however.

I think I’ll change my middle name to Ambivala.

May 11
THIS. Roz Chast on people wanting to live to be 120: “I feel like these are people who don’t really know anybody over 95.” http://n.pr/1nCUcrx 

“The reality of old age,” she says, is that “people are not in good shape, and everything is falling apart.”

Everyone says, “It’ll be different for me. I’ve taken good care of myself.” But you NEVER know what life will throw at you.

That’s life’s sweet and cursed mystery.

“When you’re young you look at old people & just think they’re old people. It’s only later that you properly realise they’re ex-young people.” —Tom Cox, Twitterfeed 5/10/14

Everyone thinks they will be 30 until they’re 75. Until they hit 40, I guess.

May 15
RIP Lady Mary Stewart. You filled my Young Adulthood with many happy hours.

May 15
Ironic Twitter Juxtaposition: http://twitpic.com/e3vvhy 

May 17
Ironic or psychosomatic? I wrenched my knee on the very day my surgery would have taken place. Not the one that would have been operated on, either. My other knee which has as many problems and will need its own surgery someday.

May 21
Ironic Twitter Juxtaposition: http://twitpic.com/e4drq1 

May 21
I’m at the bargaining with the Universe stage. That can’t be good.

May 22
My friend and I were just saying that the next Survivor should feature an all-geriatric group of contestants.

“If your team all successfully completes your challenge, you will be given your meds as usual. If not…”

And complaint marathons to see who lasts the longest. That competition is expected to go on for days.

May 22
I can hear a train whistle every once in awhile late at night. It’s always wonderful. I don’t know where it comes from. There are no trains closer than five miles, but I guess that sound carries. Either that, or it’s the ghost of a train which once ran just down the hill from where I live.

When I was a kid I used to follow those tracks from Venice, once all the way into Culver City. The trains only ran once a month late at night to keep the access rights. Eventually, they gave those up but the rails remained for years afterwards, partially covered in blacktop in some places. They’re all gone now, alas.

There is so much that is gone. Venice is a highly urban place now but once was full of open fields, trains, horse stables. I’ve seen them all go in such a short span of time. A lifetime. Palimpsests. They’re everywhere I look, all over Venice.

Here’s one of my palimpsests: http://tinyurl.com/oa4z3mh 

May 28
“It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.”

Maya Angelou seemed immortal, but it was her glowing humanity that made her seem that way. Alas, if only. RIP.

May 30
pic.twitter.com/OX9CqMctxV This picture reminded me to send a b-day card to a friend. I may inhabit this skull but I don’t always understand it.

Jun 3
Sexism kills (maybe): http://tinyurl.com/p5rkuta 

Jun 3
It’s such a pain reading academic books on the Kindle that I’m going to order a paper copy and be done with it.

So I told my mother that I had written a remembrance of Dr. Raymond La Scola. We discussed in general what I’d said. Mom never reads my stuff. I think it embarrasses her in some obscure way, like she doesn’t know what to say to me about it, so I’ve long since stopped offering it to her. But she was pleased with what I’d said about Dr. Ray.

“He used to tell you stories,” she said.

And just like that, I remembered that he had, when he wanted to distract me from some part of the exam. I’d forgotten that he was another dedicated storyteller in my life, like my father. I was surrounded by storytellers back then. No wonder I knew so early in life that I wanted to be a writer. Second grade, in fact, when Mrs. Cooper played a moody bit of music and asked us to let our imaginations go. It was the first time in my life I experienced flow, and I was addicted to it from then on. Another pantser born to the universe of writing! God save us all.

I must have told Dr. La Scola about that. Mom says that I was his patient until I was about nine, so it is possible I told him. I don’t remember doing that, but so much is lost to the haze of years. The reason I think I must have mentioned something about being a writer is because soon after I told Mom about my reminiscence, she dug that old novel of his out of the obscurity of storage and presented it to me. Man, it is somewhat the worse for wear. Not dog-eared or anything, but the tip top of the pages where it’s been closed and gathering dust for decades are real dirty, and there’s a freckling of brown spots on the pages.

And there on the back, a picture of Ray La Scola, smiling, effervescent, like he’d just finished laughing from a joke, or was just about to start in. That’s the sweet, kind smile I remember, those are the sparkling eyes. Except, dear me, they are clearly not brown.

“I remember him with brown eyes,” I told Mom.

“I think they were gray,” she said.

Yes, clearly light eyes. Though I think he had a certain brown-eyed soul.

But back to the book. He autographed the fly leaf for me, and this is what it said:

For Pamela, my favorite red-head, whose future I look forward to writing with, Best Wishes, Ray La Scola.

When I read that again after so much time, I experienced such a moment of wonderment, such an upwelling of “Ah ha!” and “So that’s where I got it from.”

“I must have told him I wanted to be a writer,” I said.

“You must have,” agreed Mom.

And this is what the back jacket says:

Ray La Scola was born in New Orleans, in an old house on Bourbon Street. Early in life, he became interested in the piano and organ, later studying at the New Orleans Conservatory of Music. His interest in writing began his sophomore year at Louisiana State University when he studied under Robert Penn Warren.

After graduating from college, the author entered medical school and while there continued the professional music career he had started at the age of twelve. Advanced medical study took him to the Chicago Medical Center and Cook County Hospital. He now practices in Santa Monica, California.

It doesn’t say anything about him being a lawyer first, so perhaps Mom misremembered that, or perhaps in the creative form of Author Bio it just didn’t fit the current narrative. I’ll never know.

And what of the book itself? Dear Reader, I haven’t had the courage to read it yet. What if I don’t like it? Mom pronounced it a “cute story,” but I mean…what if I don’t like it? Dr. Ray is probably beyond caring, so I’ll probably read it some day, but…

This mystery isn’t completely unsolved like the cases I usually feature in these posts. It does contain the strange and puzzling elements I favor, juicy bits to make the eyes tingle as they read. Ultimately, though, this story is about the grandest mystery of them all: the twisting, turning, tangled terrain of the human heart.

I’ll get to the strange and mysterious part, but first I have to introduce the main character.

When I was a tiny girl, I actually loved going to my pediatrician. Oh yeah, I dreaded shots as much as any kid, but I loved Dr. Raymond La Scola. The gentlest of men, he had shining eyes that I remember as being dark, but it was a long time ago and I was little, so God only knows. The important part was that those eyes broadcast joy at being around children. Kids can tell that stuff, when a grownup really likes being around them and when they’re just going through the motions. Dr. Ray loved kids. He had a melodious voice, so soothing and comforting, and when he talked to me, he talked to me and listened attentively to what I said. Pretty heady stuff for a little kid.

My mom loved him, too. He was the most compassionate of doctors. We were desperately poor, my father working only now and then, my mom struggling to make ends meet by babysitting and sewing and whatever else she could think up. We lived in a ramshackle old house back then in one of the poorest neighborhoods in L.A. When my mother was especially hard up and I needed care, or my shots, Dr. La Scola often waived his fees. Once when I was so sick I could hardly get out of bed, he came to the house—a momentous, archetypal event in my young life. I remember his dark fedora and stylish overcoat, the leather doctor’s bag he carried, his shining stethoscope hovering over my chest, his sweet-sad smile. I remember his comforting voice, telling me it was going to be all right, that I was going to be all right. I remember the quiet ebb and flow of his words talking to my mother, telling her it would be all right, too.

He didn’t charge for that visit, either. I confirmed this with my mother when I was an adult.

Dr. Ray was also something of a Renaissance man. He published a novel, The Creole, and gave my mother an autographed copy which I still have. He was a concert pianist and before becoming a doctor, he tried his hand at being a lawyer. He had a restless spirit, always looking for something to fill his soul. He looked for love, too, but rarely found it. In the bad old days, being gay meant always hiding an essential part of yourself. He had a crush on a policeman friend of my mother’s. J. wasn’t insulted or jeopardized by this. He was secure in his manhood and let Dr. La Scola down easy. J. appreciated what a good man he was because he treated J.’s kids, too.

After I’d moved on to a grownup doctor, my mother one day found herself in the medical building where Dr. La Scola practiced. Since it had been a few years since she’d seen him, she thought to drop in and say hello. “You wouldn’t believe the strange people in that waiting room,” she later told me. “No kids. It looked like he’d gone down to Venice Beach and found the roughest, skunkiest people around.” Venice Beach was where the hippies and druggies hung out back then. It still is, in parts, but it’s also become a tourist mecca and quite upscale in parts. Mom left the office without saying anything to the receptionist or Dr. Ray.

On August 25, 1980, Dr. Raymond La Scola was charged with murder.

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