Revising an Old Family Story


                                                published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 4/17/2022

                                                                        by Neal Lemery

            “We are collections of stories, we are vast houses in which stories come and go, and if we don’t listen for them, and savor them, and carry them in our pockets, and share them, then we have nothing, for stories are compasses and lodestars… stories are how we live.”

                        –Brian Doyle

            I’m a collector of stories, stories from family, from friends, from my own adventures and experiences in life.  Every day, I experience a story, and probably a lot of stories, if I pause to think about the day, and what has occurred, what I’ve seen and heard and felt.  Stories are all around me.

            Sometimes, I’m aware enough to realize that I am, indeed, experiencing something special.  I need to capture that, before it moves on, and leave me wondering what I experienced, and if it was worth remembering. I often leave the good stories, the gems of the day, on the side of the road of life, thinking that it wasn’t worthy of my time. But if I think about it, those are often the gold in the day, stories that need to be told. They have value in being remembered and shared.  

            Stories sometimes are incomplete and need to be added to in order to reveal their true mystery, their complete wholeness. In that new retelling, with new details and plots, the story truly shines and becomes even richer in our lives.

            When I was a kid, my family would tell the story of my great uncle, who was a dory fisherman on the Oregon coast.  In 1913, he drowned, and his body was never found.  It was a tragic tale that my grandmother would retell every Memorial Day, when we went to the old family cemetery to tidy up the graves and lay some flowers from her garden. 

            She would tell the story as we picnicked at the cemetery, after our work was done.  She’s point to Uncle Guy’s gravestone, and tell us he was a handsome man, a good man, a teller of jokes, and that they never found his body.  His parents put up the headstone, giving him a place among the family members who had died.  That act of placing the headstone gave them some peace, and a place to come to and mourn.  He was only 26.  

            It was a sad story, but also a story of love and family, a story that gave some meaning and peace at our Memorial Day tradition.  

            A month ago, the story took on an added dimension.  Out of the blue, my e-mail box had a message from someone in Indiana, inquiring whether I was the son of my mother, and that the writer had discovered some family letters I might be interested in.  

            We began a vigorous correspondence, and I learned that great uncle Guy did not die alone, but was with his friend from Indiana, and another fisherman, and that the friend had drowned alongside my uncle, that neither body was found.  The survivor made it to shore, reporting that a sneaker wave had capsized them on an otherwise calm February day, near Haystack Rock, by Pacific City, Oregon. The survivor did all he could to save the other two, but they all grew cold and weak, and he had to swim to shore to save himself.

            The letters were written by my great grandfather, telling the Indiana family of my uncle’s friend of his death, of not finding the bodies.  There was mention of his steamer trunk, and that my grandfather was going to send it back to Indiana, so the family could have some solace, some tangible memory of their beloved.  The man had left his wife and children and had traveled to Oregon, and much of the last part of his life had remained a mystery to the family.  

            They were curious about the deaths and the tragedies, and so I told them the stories of my grandmother, and the stories I knew about the perils of being a dory fisherman, the unpredictability of being out in the winter ocean in an open boat, powered only by oars, and not wearing life jackets.

            I found newspaper articles that told the story, briefly mentioning the inconsolable grief of my family.   My new friends in Indiana had scanned the letters of my great grandfather. I recognized his handwriting, from my childhood times of looking at old family books and cards.  I could see how his hand trembled from grief over his son, as he told the stories of how they searched the beaches for weeks on end, how the oars had floated onto the beach, and how they yearned to find the bodies, to no avail. 

            Other family conversations now made sense to me, including my grandmother’s and mother’s avid admonitions to wear life jackets when we went boating.  No one had made it clear to me the connection of Uncle Guy’s drowning and not wearing a life jacket, and the family mandate about boating safety and precautions.   

            In Indiana, that family had talked about their son and husband, the substantial amount of money my grandfather had arranged to send them from Uncle Guy’s friend’s bank account in Oregon, and the arrival of the steamer trunk my grandfather had sent.  The trunk is still in the family, and was a safekeeping for my grandfather’s letters and the studio photo taken of the two men a few weeks before the ill-fated fishing trip. 

            A copy of that photo was on my grandmother’s dresser all the years I knew her. I realize now that her copy was edited, omitting the friend, and only showing the stern face of my great uncle. As was appropriate for the times, he was formally dressed in a vested suit and tie, and not in the canvas pants, wool shirt, and rubber boots of a fisherman. 

            Now, I have more questions for my grandmother, but she passed on many years ago.  Like so many stories, the telling raises more questions to be asked. Many may never be answered, that silence adding to the mystery of life and the need to be the methodical storyteller. 

            Both families now have better stories to tell, with more details, more complete about the loss that devastated so many back in 1913.  I think I know my great uncle a little better, the stories of my grandmother now fleshed out. The family story is richer now, more complete. 

I now have my own copy of that photo, the complete one, of two good friends who were going to go fishing on the ocean in February.  I look at their faces, part of me yearning to sit down with them after their day of fishing, and tell me the stories of their lives.

4/17/2022

Putting Away Summer


 

 

The pile of cushions grows outside of the shop, summer dust and fall leaves swept off, and the heavy dew of this fall morning now drying in the afternoon sun.  The chairs, too, and the lounge under the tree, where I spent some afternoons this summer reading, and looking up through the leaves at all the blue, losing myself in a daydream.

 

The little charcoal barbecue goes inside, too, after I clean out the ashes left over from that last steak and zucchini cooked on the grill, the smoke wafting around, in a fall evening stolen from the summer gods.

 

The umbrella and chairs around the table on the deck go, too.  Its best time this summer was an impromptu dinner with young people, tired and sunburned after an afternoon at the beach.

 

“Can I invite some friends over?” our son asked.  And, the evening was filled with laughter, new stories, and a second helping of corn on the cob, and big slabs of peach pie, vanilla ice cream melting in the evening warmth.  The peaches had come from a roadside stand, along with the corn, yesterday’s trip to the valley, where the wheat threshers kicked up clouds of straw and dust into the August sky.

 

I put away the little red cafe table and chairs in the flower garden outside the bedroom, where we sipped coffee one perfect morning, and then, a bit of wine before dinner, the evening we watched the full moon rise above the mountains, the silence reminding me of my insignificance in the universe ruled by astronomical math formulae, and the laws of physics.

 

In the garden, I reap the first real harvest of the tomatoes I planted back in May, when nights were cold, and I was gambling on the date of the last frost.  The pole beans, too, their pods now shriveled, the seeds destined for a pot of soup on a cold January night, my farmer’s tan long since faded away.

 

Tonight, we will eat the next to last feed of corn on the cob out of the garden, with fresh sliced tomatoes, and talk about the coming storm.

 

The cat surprises me by the onions, coming up for a chat, and a long pet.  Usually, he’s stalking mice in the corn, or napping under the fennel, too busy to pay me any attention.  Here, he is the mighty hunter, the lion on the Serengeti.  But, today, he crouches at my feet, needing his ears scratched, needing a long pet.  He feels the rain coming, too, not willing to say goodbye to summer.

 

Tomorrow, a big storm comes, promising close to a foot of rain, and three days of wet.  I still need to find my serious raincoat, the one with the hood, long enough to reach to my knees.  And, maybe my Alaska pants, the rainproof ones that slide over my jeans, for those treks into town, or maybe the beach, when the wind pushes the sheets of rain sideways, and maybe even up a bit, until that bit of uncovered cloth gets soaked, sodden against bare skin.

 

But, today, the sun is out, warm against my skin, still ripening the tomatoes I’ve found to put in my bucket, still warm for the yellow jackets feasting on an old apple I dropped in the grass a few weeks ago, when I’d found enough apples to make a pie.

 

The chairs in the garden come in, too, no longer needed for me to rest, and let the sweat dry, after digging or hoeing or planting in the garden, my fingers black with ground in dirt, my eye admiring the row of seedlings, or the patch of now weed free salad coming on.

 

And the wind chimes, their pipes making one last horrendous clatter, as they argue against me putting them in the garage for the winter. A vine has snaked its way around the hook, so I tug hard, ending another summer friendship.

 

“One last song,” they beg. “We will make it pretty, just catching the breeze, as you play your guitar in the evening, on the deck, the late evening light lighting up the pink on the roses.”

 

No, it is time to go now.  That storm is moving in fast, and soon everything will be wet, the evenings even now so much earlier.  We are past the Equinox now, moving fast towards Halloween and the first frost.  Summer has lingered, but now its gone.

 

One last slow sunset now, the sky still empty of clouds, the horizon’s blue turning darker by the minute, until I finally realize that it is night.  I can smell the coming rain, a bit of wet, a bit of damp leaf, with a hint of toadstool.

 

In the shop now, the stacks of chairs and cushions, and fun little garden ornaments, and the old dresser mirror we painted red and hung on a tree, sit there in silence, put away.

 

The metal windmill sulks in the corner by the wood stove, its blades still now, no longer catching the wind in the garden, telling me if we might get a summer shower, or that tomorrow, the breeze off the bay will make the corn stalks whisper, as they aim for the sky.

 

I shut the door and head in now, my shoulders aching from the day’s work.  It is time, now, for all of us to rest a bit, even the metal heron that guarded the roses, even the chair by the redwood tree, where I read my books, and played my new summer song on my guitar, not so long ago.

 

 

Neal Lemery, 9/27/13