Posted in Storytelling

The Man Who Talked to the Bear and the Bear Who Talked Back

The memories of my father are like dreams. They exist in the ethers and have a floating sense about them.  They come from younger years, when I thought of him as “daddy.”  He wasn’t enough a part of my life to ever become “dad.”  In my time of adolescence and angst, he was missing in action, thousands of miles away from me, never picking up the phone. When I left home, I always thought of him the formal sense of “my father.” 

 Looking back, I try to figure out what his absence wrought and what his presence gave. I cling to the romance of ghostly memories that have formed into stories that light up my imagination.  There is quality of longing to the stories. I can see him, but he’s not there.  I can feel him, but can’t touch.  The stories are what I have left from our fractured life together. They console me; let me know that in spite of distance and circumstance, I really am my father’s daughter.

 One story stands out like a favorite fairytale. I recall it again and again because of the magical qualities it holds. It’s 1958 and I am visiting him in Glacier National Park, Montana.  I’m six-years-old. He has spent a week in the woods.  He was studying something, maybe notating it.  I’m not quite sure what it is that park naturalists do, but I know that my father is brave, because he knows how to talk to animals, and animals talk to him. Those things make me feel proud of him.

He’s fascinated by the natural world. Sometimes his work takes him away for a while and I stay with my brother and sister in the cabin, waiting for his return.

This time, when he came back, he came back with marks. I stared at his face, a little afraid. Both of his cheeks reveal long, red scratches that have scabbed over. “Did you fall on branches?” I asked him, trying to think of what would have caused the injury.

“No,” he replied. “I was making friends with a bear.”

I thought of my Goldilocks book. The three bears in that story were made-up, because I’d seen real bears in Glacier and was pretty sure that they didn’t sleep in real beds or eat porridge.  A real bear pulls the kitchen rug off of the clothes line, taking it up a nearby tree. A real bear wakes you up in the middle of the night trying to break into the  trashcan. And there was one real bear who stole a huckleberry pie off of the kitchen table where it was cooling; reached right in through the open widow. He ran off into the forest with it, leaving my sister in tears because she’d worked all day to gather those berries and then bake them into a pie. Those bears weren’t our friends, so what did my daddy mean? “How do you make friends with a bear?” I asked.

“The fellow came to where I was camped every morning, a small cabin, like this one but just big enough for one person.  I saw the bear through the open window and he saw me. I was excited to see him.”

“Weren’t you scared?” I asked.

“No. Bears don’t like to get too close to people. There was no screen on the window, but I wasn’t worried. I was curious and so was the bear.  So I sat there for a while talking to him. I spoke in a soft voice and I asked him how he was doing.”

I could picture my dad talking to the bear in his calm voice. I’d seen him talk to animals before. Before the divorce, a raccoon that he called Wilbur, used to visit our house.  My dad would sit in his chair on the front porch and talk to her.

“Did the bear answer you?” I asked.

“In a bear sort of way,” he said.  “He stood up on his hind legs and sniffed the air.  He wanted to catch my scent and know whether or not I was a threat.”

I tried to imagine the little cabin, big enough for only one, and my father leaning on the windowsill having a conversation with a bear.  I wanted to talk to a bear sometime. When that one bear took my sister’s huckleberry pie, I stood on the back porch with her while she cried. I yelled, “You’re a stupid bear,” hoping it would comfort her. I don’t think that my daddy would ever call a bear stupid. 

“He looked like a young bear,” he continued, “and I was happy for the company.”

“But didn’t he get mad at you?” I asked, pointing to the scratches on his cheeks.

  He shook his head.  “No, he didn’t get mad. I think he just got brave.”

  I wrinkled my forehead.

“Every morning he came by at the same time.  I was alone up there and appreciative of the morning conversations. I pulled a chair up to the window and rested my arm on the sill.  I drank my coffee while we talked.  He mostly stood on all fours, but sometimes he’d stand up and move his head, as if he were trying to understand me.  After we’d talked for a time, he headed off toward home.”

“Where does he live?”

“Probably in a cave on the mountain.”

My little girl brain pictured the large bear with a bear family living in a cave, but coming out every day to talk with my father, as though the bear were going to work.

“But how did you get the scratches?” I asked again.  “Did the bear do that?”

“Yes, he did.  Every day for a week,” my father said, leaning forward toward me, “the bear and I talked. I noticed that he kept coming a little bit closer to the cabin each day. On the very last morning that I was there, I’d packed up my gear and was sitting in the chair by the window. I was waiting for him while I drank my coffee.  Along came the bear at his usual time. I said good morning and he studied me.  He was closer to the window than ever before.  The sun was shining. The air felt warm and I felt comfortable with this beautiful bear.  As I was telling him goodbye, telling him that I’d be going back home to be with my family, it was as if he understood.  He stood up on two legs and moved very close to the window. He was just inches from me.  It was breathtaking to see him that close.  I smiled at him and that’s when it happened.  It was so fast.  The bear raised both of his arms and moved forward, placing a paw on either side of my face. It startled me and I pulled back quickly. That’s how I got the scratches.”

 “Was the bear was trying to hurt you?”

 “No. I think that the bear was as curious about me as I was about him. I was alone and I got too comfortable with something wild and I forgot how unpredictable the relationship with wild things are, so I got hurt.  But I don’t think the bear meant harm.”

 “What did the bear do when you got scared?” I wanted to know.

“He got scared too.  We both remembered who we were.”

I didn’t understand that answer for a long time.  How could you forget who you were?

 “Did the bear go back home?” I asked him.

“He probably went back to his den. Or maybe he roamed the mountain looking for food.”

“Do you think he’d remember you if he saw you again?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

And that was the end of the story.  The bear. The scratches on my father’s cheeks. It was the thing I remembered most about that summer.  My father was not afraid of the animals. He knew how to talk to them. 

In late August, he put me on a bus with my sister.  She’d return to Glacier, but I would stay with my mom.  That’s the way things were now, my siblings lived with my father and I lived with my mother.  My mother and I lived next to a city park, but there were no special animals there.  I told the bear story to a little boy at school and he called me a liar. After that, I only let the story belong to me.

When I was a young woman, I dreamt about my father and the bear, but I was the bear in the dream. I reached to my father’s face and put my hands on his cheeks, but he pulled back in fear, and my hands left deep scratches. 

Looking back, I see that my father felt a kind belonging in the wild that he didn’t get anywhere else. He dedicated his life to studying the natural world and preserving natural environments.

 When I think of him now, I think that in some ways he was afraid of getting too close to me.  Maybe he saw that after a few years, we would stop being a regular part of each other’s lives.  Maybe he thought his heart would be broken.  I never got to ask him why we drifted so far apart and why it was at such an early age in my life. 

When I saw the movie, The Horse Whisperer, it reminded me of how my father could talk to animals. I wish that I could tell him now that I’m proud to be the daughter of an animal whisperer and that I know how to whisper to animals too. Then maybe we’d both remember who we were to each other.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

All In A Day’s Hike

Well-worn hiking resting in sunshine on rocky trail
A pair of well-worn hiking boots sit on a rock somewhere on a trail on a sunny summer’s day.

When I went down, I went down hard, the left side of my body taking the brunt of the fall.  Grateful for the pair of sunglasses, now scratched beyond repair, that protected my eye, I still hit hard enough that I will have a colorful shiner for about a week, not to mention the lump on my forehead.

I didn’t see the root that snaked its way across the trail, didn’t see that it was calling my name and just waiting for me. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t on the trail at all, but just jumped out in front of me at the last minute snatching my hiking boot in it’s nasty little teeth, causing me to fall. You think tree roots don’t have teeth? HA!

The long walk back to the car with Dean’s arm wrapped around my waist guiding me past other ill-intended roots and rocks helped me get back into my body, so I no longer felt like I was going to puke or pass out. Taking his husbandly advice to breathe, I’ll never underestimate the power of deep breathing again.

So, we made it home and I stood in the shower, soaping myself down, trying to get rid of the dirt and pebbles stuck in and to my skin.  Swollen face. Swollen shoulder. Swollen elbow and an awesome amount of road rash. Spray on Hydrogen Peroxide was no picnic, but hours later, the swelling started to subside. The road rash still burned like hell, and that shiner started turning a deep shade of purple.

What a blessing it is, to be active in my life. “I’m down, you stupid tree root, but I’m not out. I’ll see you again, on my terms!” I have no broken bones, and even though I’m sore all over, this morning the swelling has gone way down. I know that with a day or two of rest and I’ll be back to my old tricks again, though I think I should watch where I’m going.

In the meantime, I have a great excuse to curl up on the couch for the day, watching Home and Garden Television, in between naps. A little later I’ll soak in an Epson salts bath and begin plotting my revenge against that tree root!

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Waiting for the Snow

iStock_000004021694XSmallGrey clouds graze the mountaintops as they slowly creep into the valley, fingers extended toward the east with dark and ominous reach, the promise of a storm. There is stillness to the air, a smell of snow, marked by gusts of stinging wind that redden the cheeks. Hands tucked into my warm gloves tell me with an ache in my finger joints, that snow and freeze are coming. I wanted to get out early today, before the cold wrapped its icy cloak around my world.

A special kind of foolishness has compelled me in the past to make the drive to my favorite trail when the roads are slick from a freezing snow–New snow, beautiful snow, beckoning like a siren’s song and speaking to the wild of my heart that feels the need to pay homage to the pristine blanket of white.

This morning I am alone on the trail, with a faithful Labrador that runs circles around me and searches with unrelenting fervor for the great treasure of abandon tennis balls. My boots beat against a trail still recovering from the floods in the fall. It is scarred by deep rivulets in places where the water is not supposed to go. Weeks of constant hiking boots and dogs have hardened the ground and worn away some of the more damaged places. I wonder if the large cracks will fill with snow and harden with ice, somehow healing the trail for spring.

I am a hardy woman, giving myself to winter’s descent, in a walking dance to Persephone. Anticipating the ice of winter with its lacy beauty that will web and string its way through the now dried grasses, and adorn the sage with Snow Queen crowns. I try to commit to memory the trees that stand in silhouette, their gnarled hands against infinity and palms toward the heavens, waiting for the snow. All the seasons in this place are my church, allowing for long conversations of the heart, adoring and worshiping the mountains and the stillness of a lake that reflects the rocky giants in its mirror.

Strong legs carry me around the lake and back to the farmer’s ditch, which is mostly empty now, save for the small pools of water that provide a moment’s reprieve for a couple of  geese. As I age, I find myself rushing toward these images; drinking in their splendor  with an unquenchable thirst, while simultaneously feeling myself receded from the vitality of such moments. I am an older woman now, standing at the edge of my winter, punctuated by morning reverie in this temple of impending snow.

http://somanyblogssolittletime.com/2013/12/03/waiting-for-the-snow/

 

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Spring Hopes Eternal

iStock_000008098203XSmallI felt especially bad for Mr. Partee. He stood in the back yard with his face tilted toward the sun, cup of coffee cradled in his hands, eyes shut in absolute bliss as his face drank in the warm sunshine.

“Great morning, isn’t it?” I called out. He smiled without turning. “I believe I can finally put the snow boots away,” he said. We were both in t-shirts and pajama bottoms. My neighbors have gotten used to seeing me that way. My yard backs to a strip of open space that has no fence as do the other yards. It’s not allowed a fence because of some odd HOA rule, so when I am outside, I am outside for all to see–those who are walking their dogs or jogging by, and Mr. Partee, who doesn’t seem to care because he wears a similar uniform– plaid pajama bottoms and a t-shirt. While Mr. Partee reveled in the sunshine, I went about my backyard business of exercising the “super duper pooper scooper” whose immense jaws save me from bending down with plastic bags in hand to pick up the dog poo.

My husband and I had just returned from a vacation where we worked on our tans while Colorado got hit with one of the snowiest April’s ever. We came home to 72 degrees on a Saturday and all of our neighbors raking mulch, planting pots and like Mr. Partee, lifting their faces in worship of the sun.

As hubby and I ran our errands and came and went, we noticed that Mr. Partee had set up camp in his back yard. He had taken all of the patio furniture off of the deck and hosed it down. His wife and children were wiping down the chairs and rearranging them on the deck in anticipation of spring’s warmth. The day wore on and the sun lingered into the evening light of 7:00pm, and still Mr. Partee sat on his deck, talking on his phone, feet propped up on chair and a Corona now in hand.

Sunday was even better, warmer, lighter, tulips opening and welcoming and I couldn’t wait to go to work on Monday in a cotton skirt,  sandals on my feet. Oh this is going to be a wonderful spring. And then it happened. As I said at the beginning of the story, I felt especially bad for Mr. Partee. It is the Rocky Mountains, but who would have imagined, or dreamed of a foot a wet snow on May 1st?  The snow did not stop to take a breath all day while it blanketed the town with its low, grey skies and stinging white flakes, that although beautiful, buzz killed the mulching, the deck cleaning and the tulip blooming that had happened two days earlier.

Today the skies have turned blue again. In spite of nature making a mockery of our spring dance, there is a hopeful excitement that the warm weather is coming. And though there is too much snow for either Mr. Partee or I to stand in our back yards in our pajamas and tilt our faces toward the sun, I am guessing that he was putting his snow boots in the very back of the closet this morning believing this time, it’s for real.