Author Archives: a little elbow room

About a little elbow room

Kimberly Mayer received a B.A. from Emerson College, Boston, and an M.F.A from Goddard College. Her memoir, "The Making of a Master Gardener" was awarded first place in the Pacific Northwest Writing Association Literary Contest, 2009. She recently completed her first novel, "Black Angels," and is currently at work on a sequel to it. Kimberly lives, writes, and revises in Seattle, Washington. Currently, Kimberly is a Contributing Blogger at "Pyragraph," the online magazine for the arts. http://www.pyragraph.com/?s=Kimberly+Mayer

In Remembrance of Ladies Who Lunch

photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

The year was 2018, and regardless of the fact that every one of these three well- heeled Republican women in their day had passed away, they insisted on another matinee movie date. It isn’t every day Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Book Shop is made into a film. Now they’ve moved into a restaurant to talk about the film.

White linen tablecloths touch the floor and they were led to a table with a view. Barbara is in a wheelchair, my mother, Lois, on a walker, and my Aunt Marcia walked, pushing Barbara. Compared to the others, Marcia was eternally young. A born redhead, she stayed a redhead. Whereas both Barbara and Lois had been brunettes in their day, they were both a light–almost white–silver today. One might say iridescent.

Barbara had climbed out of one of her velvet workout outfits to put on a blue skirt, blouse, and tweed jacket. I don’t need to tell you she wore pearls. Kenneth Jay Lane faux pearls, as she was always proud to say. Lois wore a heathered gray cashmere sweater over black knit pants, a pair of comfortable pumps, and a sterling silver choker. Talbots was the word for her. Marcia, it seemed, was born knowing what to wear. Outfits hung in her closet with their tags still on, waiting for the right occasion. Today she was dressed in heels and a black and white St. John Knits. A trio of Chanel inspired chains draped around her neck, pooling upon her lap. Marcia looked glamorous, much like Violet, the grand dame in the film.

You might say Barbara is a Lincoln, my mother, a Subaru, and Marcia, more of a car than she could ever afford.

Barbara introduced her friends to the waiter as “Mar” and “Lo,” and herself as “Bar.” The waiter raised one of his eyebrows and Barbara put her hand up to stop his thoughts.

“Now don’t go making any comparisons to Mar-a-Lago,” she said disdainfully. “Because there are none. These were our names long before he ever laid his beady little eyes on Merriweather Post’s gaudy place in Palm Beach.” Her friends smiled.

Lo wants to tell her friends that she has asked her daughter—the writer daughter–to take her to the next women’s march in D.C. “… even if you have to push me in a wheelchair,” she had said. But Lo can’t figure out how to say it without hurting Bar’s feelings. She was still wrestling with that when Bar raised the topic of the march herself and blurted out, “I’d be there myself if it wouldn’t cause such a ruckus with the Secret Service.”

The waiter came with appetizers and poured a bottle of Pellegrino into large wine goblets. They were all on mineral waters now, with a twist of lime.

“I want to say something about that line, a town without a book shop is no town at all,” says Mar. Bar, who had lived in more places around the globe, smiled like it had been her line.

But Lo said, “We lived in such a town, not Hardborough, not that quaint, but Suffield, Connecticut. Except for the library, the kids had no resources for books. Now I don’t know how we did it.”

“Well that was one well used library, that’s how,” suggested Mar. “I know, I was forever in and out of mine in Cheshire, checking out and returning on the way to and fro every other errand and event.” Remembering for a moment the busyness of those years, she added, “The remarkable thing is that I got so much read.”

“We were all remarkable,” suggested Bar.

And she told them about the towering wall of books behind their headboard in Kennebunkport, both of them reading into the wee hours of the night and sometimes, until the first sign of light over the water.

“George was always putting it in his prayers every summer that coastal Maine be spared any little earthquakes,” she added.

Her friends love her little stories about George. All three had husbands that anyone would characterize as kind. Republican men. None of them ever thought to demean women, or bully other men for that matter. It was another time.

“To the Landline Ladies,” cried Bar, and they all raised their mineral waters before anyone could get too lost in thought.

“One good life and one good line, and you will live forever!” she proclaimed. “Here’s mine,” she added in case anyone forgot: “I don’t see how any self-respecting woman could vote for Trump”.

No one would ever forget that line. It’s just a shame not every woman listened. Mar would spend the night going over some of her own lines, searching for the best. Lo was sure she must have misplaced hers somehow. But Bar was confident in hers.

“I think I can say, truthfully,” she continued, “that not one person in the Bush family voted for Trump.”

It took a second for that to sink in. A Republican dynasty like that. One had to mull it over.

“I just hope everybody voted,” Bar added, almost under her breath.

“Well you can say that about our clan too,” Mar added, although she wondered, can any of us ever really know about our husbands?

When heads turned to Lo, wanting so to join in, she began to choke. Lightly, slightly, on a cracker. There’s some in every family, she told herself.

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Earth’s Second Chance

photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

“A culture is no better than its woods.” W.H. Auden

 

Even in fiction, trees seem to be leading characters in every book my friend, Diana, and I are reading lately. One book runs into another, no, it grows into another and gets passed back and forth. I see no end to it. We are on a tear, Diana and I.

The Golden Spruce, by John Vaillant

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren

The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

The Living, by Annie Dillard

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

 

You have to remember: one third of the earth’s land was once forested.

Many of us have a tree we remember from childhood, when trees really were main characters in our lives. It was an apple tree for me in Connecticut. Its branches were as familiar as the fingers on my hands. Being up in the tree was nothing less than Swiss Family Robinson in my mind, until I was called down for dinner.

Two trees in particular captured Diana’s imagination growing up in Pittsburgh. One was a neighbor’s large mulberry tree with branches reaching into her yard. She and her friends constructed tents, “sort of girl clubhouses,” by hanging sheets from the branches. “Late in the summertime, there would be blue/black mulberries all over both yards, and we’d always have stained feet and shoes from running around back there.”

“The other personal tree was a tall fir in front of my grandparents’ summer cottage in Slippery Rock. As a young girl, I used to climb high into that tree, and just perch up there. It smelled like Christmas, and I loved being up in that tree. Nobody knew where I was, nobody could see me up there… my own private getaway.”

Decades later, Diana is once again fortunate to have a certain tree in her life, known as Grandfather Tree. “What can I say about him?” she asks. “Well, it starts with thinking about how long he’s been here, keeping watch over everything… It’s weathered storms and heat, it once held a treehouse where kids played, it survived the awful chainsaw “trimming” of limbs, it’s a favorite perch for bald eagles when they are in the neighborhood, it’s got families of ants running up and down its trunk all day, and it just feels sacred to me.”

In white hands, most of our trees were cut down east to west and on both sides of the US/Canadian border. With a few old-growth exceptions such as Grandfather Tree on island, most of our woods today are second-growth. Today we respect our forests as we do our gardens, but the early twentieth century woods witnessed unbridled logging much like whaling at sea.

“When a colonist looked at a pine tree he saw a ship’s mast; in an oak he saw barrel staves.” (Michael Pollen, Second Nature)

Native Americans knew how to look at trees, how to live with trees, and love them. “The Indian landscape was animated by all manner of spirits, and trees were thought to possess venerable souls one was careful not to offend. In the shade of certain trees one found insight. Trees had feeling, eyes, and ears… and you did not cut one down unless absolutely necessary. Even then,” continues Michael Pollen, “you took the trouble to explain your reasons to the tree and beg its forgiveness.”

Second-growth forests are earth’s second chance, so to speak. And another opportunity for us to recapture, as my friend has, what we knew when we were young.

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The Story of a Rug

photo by Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

When I moved west and married and had children, my parents figured I might not be coming back to New England afterall. Thus, when my grandparents died and their estate was divided, my parents shipped a beloved piece of furniture to me, a Philadelphia Highboy, in solid mahogany. It arrived in one piece. In my thank you note I enclosed a photograph that prompted my father to say, “You remind me of the old pioneers posing with their eastern possessions. The ones that made it out there.”

I would have had my arm around it if I could, but it’s a monstrous piece.

Since then we moved countless times, and in every house hunt one of my first considerations was always: where will we place the highboy? In dining rooms it held linens, tablecloths and such, ironed and folded. In a master bedroom or two it served admirably as my husband’s dresser—as he’s the only one tall enough to reach the highboy’s top drawers. Currently parked in our guest room, it’s my “wrap station” holding reams of grosgrain ribbon and rolls & rolls of gift wrap—its drawers are that broad.

This year a large silk rug from the same estate in Connecticut came to join us in the islands. What a tale this rug could tell, from Gram’s front parlor in Connecticut to its place today in a cedar shingle house in an old growth forest on the waterfront in the islands of the Puget Sound.

Threadbare and full of holes, I didn’t have to climb over any sisters to inherit this rug. But I treasure its vintage qualities. Indeed I have been known to flip over rugs that weren’t old enough, preferring their backsides. This one truly is, old enough.

I called my dad. I needed to tap his memory at 95 years of age as he grew up with this rug. It’s a little sketchy whether the rug had been in the dining room or the parlor, but dad and I decided to place it in the parlor. Either way, each room tells a different story, delectable or funereal.

Naturally we chose funereal.

Dark and overly wallpapered, high windows overly draped, it wasn’t that Gram’s front parlor was off limits to us. Not at all. It’s just that nothing seemed to happen in it. A grand piano displayed large silver framed photographs. Sadly, no one in the family played the piano. Victorian furniture lined the walls, upright and stiff with tufted upholstery and I can’t say I recall anyone ever sitting on any of  it.

If this silk rug had been in that parlor, in my grandmother’s day and in her mother’s day, no one could have possibly appreciated its colors—a brilliant fuchsia field with a border of bright French Blue—as the parlor always seemed dark to me. No wonder. According to my dad, the room had once been used for lying in wakes, a common occurrence in an era when deaths were all the more common too.

On its last leg perhaps, the rug has come to light. Northwest light. It is safe with me. No one is going to trip on its holes—as this rug will never know heels. Moccasins have become me, and all our friends wear comfortable shoes. One day we may have to worry about babies learning to walk in our living room, but then I can cut it into massive vintage pillows, and upholster a bench or two. I will see that this rug lives forever.

A woman on island, Mary Walley Kalbert, recently wrote a novel around kilim rugs. In Stone the Goat, women’s strength and resilience is reveled through the dyeing and weaving and the stories their rugs tell. I figured if she could do that, I could write a simple blog post about a rug. While Mary Kalbert’s tale takes you on a journey with a nomadic tribe to the yayla, a high plateau in the Taurus Mountains of Turkey, I only brought you into a Colonial front parlor.

And what could possibly come of it? In Mary Kalbert’s case, a beautiful novel. In my case, after peering into the parlor with my dad, revisiting the home of his childhood, he declared yesterday, “I’d like to learn to play the piano.”

Turns out, it’s always been on his to do list.

 

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Seven Days in Toronto

View from Mt DallasMt. Dallas, San Juan Island, photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

Sometimes you have to get away, and there it is. Waiting as always with open arms: O Canada!

We went to Toronto to attend the Rotary International Convention (6/21-27), as well as the Rotary Peacebuilding Summit that preceded it. First Nation blessings were bestowed on Rotarians from around the world as we gathered on ancestral land. Red Sky performances filled the stage with feathers and color, hoop dancing and drumming.

Toronto, we were told, translates to “where the trees are standing in water.”

Full disclosure: I went as an outsider. I am not a Rotary member, but I am married to one. When growing up, my father was also a Rotarian. He didn’t get up early and slip out to breakfast meetings, nor did he come home late at night after dinner meetings. Rotary met for lunch in the city in which he worked, and the meetings were folded into his day each week. We were not a part of that world.

Times have changed.

If I were to sum up the subject matter of both the summit and convention, I’d say it was an emphasis on educating and empowering women in the world, the global immigrant and refugee crisis, and an overarching concern for the environment. All this on the plate of the organization that has nearly rid the world of the poliovirus—only 11 cases remaining–a mission that practically consumed Rotary in my father’s day.

Regarding the environment, you might say Rotary is returning to its roots in that Paul Harris, the founder of Rotary, was a naturalist. Traveling extensively with Rotary International, by the end of his life Harris could say he had planted trees “… on all continents of the earth and on islands of the seas.” Indeed Harris thought the planting of trees the finest symbol for the idea of Rotary.

Last year Rotary International President Ian Risley proposed that every Rotary Club in the world plant one tree for each member. That’s 1.2 million trees. Living lungs in the face of deforestation and development.

Islands have the greatest stake in sustainability; as islanders we understand this. On San Juan Island, fifty-four more trees will stand for fifty-four Rotarians. A living legacy as well as a commitment to the future. Here too, Rotary can make a difference.

We all can, by planting a tree. I’m going to make mine a Madrone tree.

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Bonanza

photo by Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

After her divorce, my youngest sister moved closer to the center of town. Her street is a cul de sac primarily of duplexes, inhabited by highly educated, multi-ethnic, mixed-aged residents, both married and divorced. This is where she now rents and where she has found a real neighborhood.

A small creek runs behind my sister’s house, visible from the window over the kitchen sink. And just beyond the homes at the end of the cul-de-sac: train tracks. Where a commuter train frequently comes whistling through, connecting ‘burbs such as hers to downtown Boston.

The sound of the train gives me comfort when I visit. Day and night it’s a type of clockwork. As in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, everything seems to be running on time, as it should. But I know I derive more pleasure from this than my sister, for train trips had filled our family’s earliest vacations. By the time she was born, our family was flying.

After my divorce, I flung myself out to California. The seed for that, I believe, was planted long ago on those family train trips west to explore the national parks and reach The Pacific. I will always credit the railroad for opening my world. Whether the seed was planted in me, or I left a part of myself there, I don’t know. But I came to live out west and have given it the greater part of my life.

A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known to only that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance—to take its one and only chance to grow. 

Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited. Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

The west calls to me with its wide open spaces and quietude—even in the cities, where drivers don’t lean on their horns and honk. I applaud that. When I fly back to Seattle from Boston, even the freeways feel like meditation. After all that honking and yelling and road rage.

One girl’s Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood; the other girl’s Bonanza. In one scenario a track runs round n round an idyllic village on a model train table. In the other, the tracks go the distance and seem to disappear, only to start a whole new life somewhere.

What calls people west? What makes some New Englanders stay and others go? Come to think of it, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was not only what my sister needed at the time, but what she has always wanted. Whereas I was always pushing out.

We are each given one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable.

My husband must be the same sort of soul. We recently recounted to a friend all the places we had lived since marrying, and how long now in The Pacific Northwest. “You are like the pioneers,” he smiled and said, “who settled here because this is where the wagon wheels fell off.”

I think that’s it. We age and we slow down or find ourselves at last.

Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.

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Train of Thought

Union Pacific Railroad City of Los Angeles Astra Dome dining car

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

It was first thing in the morning and if I was looking for a writing prompt, I didn’t know it yet. But one came in with a “ping” by the head of my bed. My sister was riding a train between Boston and New York and texting me.

Our father gave us our love of railroads when we were very young. On trips out West and to and fro Florida, what I recall most is my sister and I being all over that train. The giant sucking sound as we pressed the button to open the sliding doors between cars and the rollicking floor underfoot as we crossed between luxury Pullman, coach, dining, cargo, and caboose. We couldn’t believe children were permitted to do all this while steaming across thousands of miles.

The train was our world. The porters our friends. It was as simple as that.

I have but one vivid memory of my parents on these trips. One evening, on a return trip from Florida, we had all gone to the dining car for dinner—how I loved the starched white linens and shiney silverware. While there, at a stop, cars were rearranged. Walking back, we found our sleeping car missing. Gone with all our luggage. It isn’t often you see your father befuddled like that.

As advised we disembarked and waited by the tracks for another train—to connect us with our car on yet another train. In the dark of night, deep in Georgia, at a deserted station. The real South. This was beyond thrilling for a couple of Connecticut girls in patent leather shoes and white ankle socks.

Did my sister and I ever wonder, ever ask, why all the porters were black? How did that not capture our imagination? Did it occur to any of us that we were traveling in a frozen moment of time? Although we’d been texting back and forth—my sister was the one who remembered riding on the tail end platform of a caboose—I hadn’t time to ask her this question. Her train pulled into Penn Station and I lost her to New York.

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Letters from Yellowstone, Blog Posts from the Salish Sea

photo by Paul Mayer

 

By KIMBERLY MAYER

It was as simple as this: I set down the novel I was reading, Letters from Yellowstone, for a walk in the woods. And there I came upon Calypso Bulbosa, one of the wildflowers that Alex, the main character, had discovered.

“It was rapture. Pure rapture,” Alex cried.

And naturally, upon the mossy bank in the old growth forest in which I live on San Juan Island, where I too spotted the diminutive orchid, I shared her unbridled joy.

And then I did a terrible thing. I bent over, and with two fingers pulled it out of the ground. A genus of orchid found in undisturbed sheltered, northern and montane conifer forests across Canada from Alaska to Newfoundland, as well as northeastern and western U.S., the petite and delicate Calyso Bulbosa, sometimes known as “calypso orchid” or “fairyslipper,” makes but a brief appearance each spring.

I must have been thinking of Alex who meticulously noted, sketched, and collected Rocky Mountain plantlife for field study from camps high in the backcountry. I may even have been thinking I was Alex.

In Letters from Yellowstone by Diane Smith, a writer of the New West, the year is 1898 and the setting, Yellowstone, the Nation’s Park. Alex is a naturalist on a Smithsonian-endorsed expedition with fellow botanists and entomologists, finding “…more wildlife than I know what to do with.”

“I am in the Nation’s Park, and oh what a wondrous place it is!” wrote Alex. “It is as though I have traveled back in time, to the very edge of the universe where the earth, still in its primordial stage, sputters and bubbles and spews out the very origins of life.”

Yet already, in 1898, the newly created Nation’s Park was up against developers and railroad barons petitioning for right of way through the park. It was the naturalists who fought to save it.

There are people who like their places wild—and we can count ourselves among them. Just as Yellowstone National Park comprises an impressive 3,468 square miles of canyons, mountain ranges, rivers, and lakes, the archipelago of the San Juan Islands comprises over 400 islands at high tide, only 128 of which are named.

Defined by mountains to the east, and sea to the west, and between the U.S. mainland and Vancouver Island, B.C. Canada, we might as well have been declared a National Park. In any case, as stewards of the environment we are intent on keeping it that way.

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