Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Growing Up In Heaven

When my daughter disappeared 36 years ago, her kindergarten class was traumatized. They refused to accept their teacher's statement that nobody knew what had happened to Anna.

"But where is she?" they asked. "Is she dead?"

"We don't know," the teacher answered. This teacher, fair-haired, dimpled, brilliant, was one of Anna's favorite people in all the world.

"I don't want to disappear," one student said. "I want to grow up."

"Anna will grow up," the teacher said. "If she doesn't grow up on earth, she will grow up in heaven."

For years, I would look at children the age Anna would have been and wonder what she would look like at that time. Once in a while I would see one of her kindergarten classmates and notice that they had lost their baby teeth, that they were getting taller.

Then about 18 years ago, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children began its program of producing age-progressed pictures of missing children. They would write and ask for family pictures. Using kindergarten pictures along with pictures of family members at various ages, they would come up with their idea of what Anna would look like at age 23, 27, 31.

I found it difficult to look at these pictures, though as forensic software became more sophisticated, the pictures began to look more like a real person. Once I gathered up courage and made pencil changes to one of the portraits to see how she might look with glasses or short hair.

Then Steve Loftin, a retired police officer and forensic artist at the National Center, produced a picture of Anna at the age of 38 and sent it to me, asking what I thought. The face thinner, I said; the forehead higher. When the picture was finished, I knew that if she had grown up in this world, that was what she would look like.

Steve also did an age-regressed picture, one which might have appeared in a high school annual, and I thought "Yes, that's what she might have looked like."

We may never know what happened to Anna, even though her case is still open and is officially considered a "probable non-family abduction". But because of an incredibly vigorous search, my idea of my daughter is no longer stuck in kindergarten. A Google search on her name brings up thousands of hits. She has a Facebook page and at least two MySpace pages which play her favorite song. She is a featured case on Websleuths, a community of 17,000 amateur detectives. The International Center for Missing and Exploited Children runs a video about her. She has a website, www.searchingforanna.com, and a book by the same name which is distributed on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

It's not exactly growing up in heaven, but at least thousands of people have become acquainted with this happy child.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Harry Lauder's Walking Stick

This is the strangest thing in my garden. It's Harry Lauder's Walking Stick (Corylus avellana contorta), which has just made its male catkins. When the leaves come out, even they are twisted and contorted. It is a variety of hazelnut which occasionally will produce an empty shell. Does it need a mate? I don't know. It came from the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco and had four dates written on its marker, the last one being 7-15-88, perhaps the last time it was transplanted. Harry Lauder was an entertainer in the early 20th century. He often gave shows for soldiers in World War I and in character as a Scotsman leaned on a twisted hazelwood cane from the shrub which later was named for him.

Fire of Eden

Nursery catalogs can be very romantic, and I have never seen Montbretia called Fire of Eden anywhere except in a catalog. My small town is ablaze with these bright orange flowers, Crocosmia masonorum or Tritonia crocosmiiflora, which originally came from Africa and now have wandered as far as Hawaii. A Scottish collector brought the corms to Europe in the late 1700s. The name comes from the Greek, meaning "saffron-scented", though to my nose the flowers have no aroma. I might try drying some this year and see if that brings up the scent.

I love a plant which isn't finicky and which just grows on its own without too much fuss. The corms create their own mulch, so that even if you dig them up, the soil is improved for whatever follows. Since there are hundreds, maybe thousands, in the yard, I sometimes just pull them up after they have bloomed and fling them in the the general direction of the fence, where they came up this year in  neat, lush rows.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Daddy (P.S.)

From my brother Les: "The insoluble math problem you mentioned involved trisecting an angle, which, as I learned in school, is impossible to do mathematically and prove you've done it. Dad invented a relatively simple device which worked, and the result of which could be proved algebraically. I have the blueprints he made up, and actually sent a copy to a friend who is a copyright attorney and has a doctorate in physics and one in law. Dad said he never tried to patent his device because he thought there was no practical use for it, but my attorney friend said he was pretty sure it was patentable. I think every mathematician in the world would be interested in such a device, if only for classroom demonstrations, but never followed through on pursuing a patent."

(Photograph is Dukie with Daddy, April, 1914, Sturgis, Kentucky)


On the first of April, 1914, my father was born at his grandfather's house in Sturgis, Kentucky. The grandfather, Eddie Jones, had a physician attend the birth of his daughter Dukie's third child, who was named Edward Lindle for the grandfather and the doctor.

Just why Grandfather Jones was not on speaking terms with the baby's father, Charley Benedict, is not clear. The family has various versions of the men's first meetings in April. Either Charley and his sister appeared at the door in a horse-drawn carriage or met Eddie Jones's carriage on the road. At any rate, the birth was announced; the aunt was invited to see the baby, but the father was told he was not welcome.

Great-aunt Eulah replied that "If Charley is not invited, I'll not come either."

Our family's oral history edits out sad things, preserving heroic deeds, evidence of merit, and the overcoming of hardship, so I know that at some point Dukie, on her own, shot sparrows to feed her children, and that she made ice cream for Daddy's birthday by hand-swishing a bucket of cream inside a bucket of ice. How and why she killed herself is not so clear. Grandfather Benedict may have been a soldier by then, in World War I.

The orphan children were parceled out to relatives. Some of them treated Daddy harshly (he was gored by a cow while doing farm chores) and he ran away from home at least once. The last time he ran away from home, he was fifteen, living with his grandfather again. He rode his bicycle from Sturgis, Kentucky, to Evansville, Indiana, and got a job delivering prescriptions. Charley somehow found Daddy sleeping in an alley and took him to his own home, where he was looked after by Charley's new young wife.

I never knew Eva, who died giving birth to her sixth child, known only as "Little Babe". I have only the vaguest memory of Charley, whom we called Poppa. His first family, Mildred, Lillian and Daddy, was grown and he was looking after his and Eva's four girls, Audrey, Elsie Janis, Rosemary and Jo Anne, by himself. He played the violin for the children and paid close attention to their diet. He invented an immersion heater which is still used in household appliances. He built a radio. He sold the patents for a good price. He gave me a Blue Willow tea set.

Daddy was known as Benny at college, Tennessee Polytechnic Institute (now Tennessee Technological University). He studied physics, played tenor guitar in a band, painted in tempera and water color, and solved a supposedly insoluble math problem having to do with divisions of an angle. He dated the two older Ensor girls and married the youngest, my mother, when she was 17 and he was 21. She was his only sweetheart, and they were married util he died in the fiftieth year of their marriage.

Daddy often fell asleep in class, and when the professors would call on him, he would awake with a start and ask "Who? Me?" A French professor once shouted "Benedict! Translate 'Qui? Moi?" Daddy, jolted conscious, said "Who? Me?" and the French teacher said "Correct!" Daddy found French comical for some reason and would inform us that "Le diner est servi" and that we were having choux or chou-fleur or petits choux, if that was the case.

My father had a series of teaching jobs after college, but we moved every June because teachers were not paid in the summer. He would repair radios and do handyman jobs to keep us going until school started again in September. When my brother Lindle was born, the baby slept in a dresser drawer for a while because we had no crib. One summer we had to go live with Aunt Annie, who objected to Daddy's Big Band records. I locked her in the outhouse and informed Daddy that now he could play his records all he wanted to.

When I was in second grade, Daddy and I would have lunch together, since he taught Shop in my school. One day I missed him at lunch, and when I came home, he was lying on the couch with his arm over his eyes. He had cut off the tip of his index finger on a power saw at school. They said he didn't yell or swear but just whistled when he saw the blood. I never heard him swear except when he was singing a song from H.M.S. Pinafore which contained the line "Why, damme, it's too bad."

Our favorite thing, after I got too sophisticated to go fishing, was to sing that Gilbert and Sullivan operetta together. Daddy had played Captain Corcoran, a baritone, in a college production, but at home he would also sing  the parts of Ralph Rackstraw, tenor, Sir Joseph Porter, and the evil Dick Deadeye: "They are right. It was the cat." I sang Buttercup, the sisters and cousins and aunts, and I squeaked my way through Josephine's soprano aria, "Sorry Her Lot Who Loves Too Well."

After my little brother died, we moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Daddy worked on what he learned much later was the Manhattan Project. He was on the Town Council, joined the Lions Club and directed the Methodist Choir. One of his last jobs at the plant before he retired involved teaching matrix algebra. He had always loved teaching, and he was so happy at getting to teach again that he gave me copies of his textbooks and three handwritten pages of personalized lesson plans. He thought I could do anything and did not believe that as a grown woman I still counted on my fingers.  "The fun part begins after Lesson Five," he wrote.

Daddy was delighted by the elegance of mathematics, by the truth of physics, by a bon mot, by anything his children did, by a low note ("Rocked in the cradle of the deep"), the Poet and Peasant Overture, a big band, an afternoon on the lake, any new technology, a circuit board, angel food cake.

He died October 30, 1984, on the one night the nurses persuaded my mother to go home from the hospital and get some sleep. At the funeral, I played Wagner's "To the Evening Star" from Tannhauser and the minister read Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar".

"Sunset and evening star
And one clear all for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home."

There was a double rainbow over the lake when we went back to the house. My mother said "I guess everything is going to be all right."

Daddy had cast his absentee ballot before he died, probably voting for all non-incumbents, which he always threatened to do. So after the funeral, we all went back to our respective homes, miles away, to follow his example and vote.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Doom, Gloom and the Weather

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."--Bob Dylan

The hole in the ozone layer is closing. I learned this coincidentally from a BBC report on a recent Antarctic expedition.

I know that climate change is real, that we must act, that the world is at risk and that California is still in a drought, despite nonstop rain which has warped my front door, made the ground too soggy to walk on without boots, and left me with something short of sunny spirits.

A couple of weeks ago, I met a man who looked me right in the eye and said "I always thought 'Pollyanna in Hell' would be a good theme for an opera." (Pollyanna, of course, was the perpetual optimist in the books of Eleanor Hodgman Porter, 1868-1920.)

Be that as it may, I wonder why weather reports can't emphasize the positive (such as letting us know the hole in the ozone layer is closing). Instead of headlining CONTINUING DROUGHT (or whatever fear-mongering weather report pertains in your part of the world), couldn't they point out that the hills are green, that new little trees are coming up in the places raked by wildfires last summer?

The late lamented Christian Science Monitor, now available only on line and no longer as a broadsheet newspaper, had an editorial policy of emphasizing the positive. The word "death", for instance, was not used. Journalism school had a standing joke about a Christian Science Monitor headline, "Passed-On Pigs". But what's wrong with this? Does refusing to buy into a doom-and-gloom perception indicate denial or ignorance?

"A tree crushed three cars when high winds and rain-soaked earth caused the two-ton tree to topple onto Highway 17 today." That's one way to say it, frightening the east-west commuters, making everyone suspicious of trees and presenting one (dark) perception of an event. Another way would be to point out that not a single driver was injured, that other drivers passed the word down the road, that work crews cleared the tree in record time, that the tree was diseased and could easily have caused trouble had it fallen during commute hours, that the firewood would be distributed to state parks.

Nicodemus' father was a weather man, long before the development of satellites and whatever other sophisticated technological devices weather forecasters use. He would hitch up his suspenders, sniff the air, and say "Looks like moderate rainfall today."

So what's the weather like where you live?