Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pied Beauty

By Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Glory be to God for dappled things--
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pierced--fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Frugal Craft

"No, she never threw anything away," my mother said, speaking of Nannie, my grandmother, who had pieced the quilt squares. Mother, who herself never threw anything away before she moved into her small apartment at Heritage Pointe, found the squares in a box which had escaped the general clean-out because nobody knew what to do with them.

Nannie herself probably didn't know what to do with them. They didn't match each other, and each one had a flaw. A piece was frayed or too small or, in one case, nibbled. I looked at them for quite a while before I decided to continue the tradition of frugal craft.

In 1915 or so, when I figure my grandmother made the squares, one did not go out and buy fabric to make a quilt. The whole idea was to use what you had, odd pieces, unworn pieces of worn-out garments, tail-ends and odd bits. Tiny pieces were stitched with tiny stitches into elaborate geometric patterns, and something useful was created from leftovers.

The Bear Claw used a pink fabric so sheer that it needed a backing, and the frayed edges of the blue had to be patched. The clever brown butterfly was missing a corner --do you see the mend?--and had to be darned in two places. There was nothing wrong with the Star of Bethlehem except that it was tiny, or so I thought until I washed it and the color bled.

I thought a lot about my grandmother as I made the squares into pillowcases and quilted them, trying to match her small stitches. Her world was the garden, the kitchen, the family. She raised chickens and a cow and columbines and apple trees. She canned and preserved. When times were hard, she sold milk and eggs. Her recipes for boiled custard, heavenly hash and fried pies have been passed on to a fourth generation.

She had five children. Four of them became teachers and another became a noted researcher. These children had 13 children of their own, four of them adopted. There are 13 great-grandchildren and quite a few great-greats.

"Lady Mary", they called my grandmother, from Demarius, her middle name. I have her side-saddle, her Wedgewood milk pitcher, her camel-back trunk and several of the quilts she actually completed. I also have her emerald ring. She came to my mother in a dream and reminded her to give it to me.

I like to can, to quilt, to putter about in the garden. I am probably more like my grandmother than anyone else.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Boy

She got pregnant. The father was married. She was living with Somebody Else. Partly because she was nursing, her breast cancer went undiagnosed until it was too late. They removed one breast. When they wanted to remove the other, she balked. “I don’t mind dying,” she said, “but I mind being cut up into little pieces.”

She was beautiful, and men always tried to approach her. One of them said “Oh, you’re in the arts? I almost went into the arts.” Her withering response was “Close call for the arts.”

She wanted the baby to be born at home, but after laboring all afternoon and all night (we played a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations over and over), she finally consented to go to a hospital to have a late-stage vacuum procedure. She came right back and limped up the steps, holding the baby. Somebody Else, who hadn’t slept for 24 hours, was right behind her. “Is he all right?” she asked, showing me the little face.

When the baby was a year old, we got three tee shirts. Mine said “I am the boy’s godmother.” Somebody Else’s said “I am the boy’s godfather”. The baby’s shirt said “I am the boy.”

Shortly after that, in June, 1983, She died, leaving the godfather a baby who wailed night and day. Social Services learned that there was an orphan child living with an unrelated adult. Things could not go on as they were.

Her mother, brothers and sister did not want the baby, but they hoped he would be adopted out near them, on the other coast, so they could see how he did. Trying to buy time, our male friends said they could each claim to be father of the boy (which is what we called him, the boy.) Meanwhile, the baby lived in the house where he was nearly born, with the man who had assisted in his delivery.

She had picked a new mother and a new family and had given the new mother a valuable ringas a token of the promise. The family asked for the ring back. They produced a will which would benefit the baby, but only when he turned forty years of age.

Then the baby’s father came forth, scraping together the money to fly from the east coast. “Why weren’t you here before this?” we asked, hugging the baby closer. “How could you let her go through all this without you?”

The baby held out his hands to the father. The father cried. They looked like each other. The father stated his case to each friend who was helping to tend the baby. “I always told her I would take care of him,” the father said. The baby held out his hands to the father again, and the father cried again.

Finally the father said the magic words. “My wife knows about this. We couldn’t afford to fly her out, but she has always wanted a baby boy. She wants the baby.”

Since the father had been named on the birth certificate, there really was nothing preventing him from taking the baby away, but still he wanted our permission. Finally there was nothing to do but grant it. The youngest and most cheerful of us accompanied the father and the baby to the airport. Somebody Else provided an Owners’ Manual.

From a distance, we followed the boy’s progress. He overcame a minor speech impediment. He went to school. His maternal grandmother actually saw him once in a while and tried to give him piano lessons. He learned to slaughter a hog. He played football.

When he graduated from high school, they gave him a plane ticket to come out and see where he was born.

As a baby, the boy had what I have to call winning ways. He had a disarming smile; he was charming. We were glad, because we knew he would need to be charming in his new life. We all wanted to see what kind of person he had become. He still had winning ways, but he was very different from the person he probably would have become if his mother had lived to raise him. He would have been sophisticated and well-educated and articulate. “I am really a simple person,” his mother used to say. But she wasn’t, not at all.

The boy had grown into a beautiful sweet graceful youth, but he hadn’t gotten very good grades at school, didn’t want to go to college, had no particular career in mind. We took him to the museum, but after a short time, he said “That’s about enough art for me.” All he really wanted to do was to marry his high school sweetheart, and so he did, almost as soon as he got home.

Yesterday we received invitations to a baby shower for the boy and his wife. They waited several years. They were in a hurry to get married, but they didn’t want to start a family right away. I wondered what his mother would think if she could look down and see how the boy turned out. I think she would have said that he was just fine. I wished she could have lived to see her grandchild.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Nora Ephron

People who are trying to write should not read Nora Ephron, because they will love the way she writes so much that they want to write like that. I'm serious.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Bow Fever

It may have been a mistake to show Nicodemus the cello bows on eBay. But bows of pernambuco, a rain forest wood, are getting hard to come by, even if you make your own. A blank piece of wood can cost several hundred dollars. Only pernambuco or Brazil wood can endure the necessary bending and then resume its shape. A good wood bow can run more than fifteen hundred dollars, with old bows by famous makers running into the high thousands. Which is why some string players are resorting to carbon fiber bows these days.

Victor Fetique a Paris, the eBay ad said. Starting at one dollar. A strange light came into Nicodemus' eyes, and before it was all over, he had won the Victor Fetique for $76, plus handling, shipping and insurance. "The fittings alone are worth more than that," he said.

When the bow arrived in the mail, we held our breath for a moment. It didn't really look like much, but there were no obvious cracks or flaws. "Here is a repair," N said. "This part is original." He weighed the bow and checked its balance point, still reserving judgment. "I think it might be a useful bow," he said.

We researched it a bit after the fact and found that the archetier or bowmaker Victor Fetique was known during his lifetime more for quantity than quality, that his bows were stamped Vtor, not Victor, that there were German copies around, that the real thing was going for $10,000 or more. (Our bow was stamped "Victor".)

N took the bow apart and looked at its innards. All was well. Better than well, in fact. "This bow was used in a pit orchestra," he said. "They would put the bow behind the strings, and you could see the marks of the strings on the frog (the black part where you hold the bow)."

"When a bow has been used to applaud someone by banging it on the music stand, you can see the little nicks in the wood."

So finally he began playing the cello with the new bow. "This is pretty good," he said. And he played some more, and then some more. After an hour or so, he said "This is fantastic. This bow is too good to be a fake."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


The Chilean blueberry tree, Luma apiculata, was a beautiful ten-year-old tree, but it had some kind of slow-moving disease which killed it off a little bit at a time. Despite extra water and fertilizer and quite a bit of regret, it languished, dropped its few remaining leaves, grew moss and fungus, and gave up the ghost. We took it down and used it for compost and firewood.

Then, lo! The dead stump began putting up hopeful little shoots.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Stop the Presses!

We actually stopped the presses three times when I was working at the News-Sentinel: Once when Pope Pius died, once when President Kennedy was assassinated, and once when a banner headline contained a spelling error. This would have been a firing offense except that the headline written by a young copy editor had been read and passed by both the copy chief and the news editor (the original typed headline mysteriously disappeared.)

It was a matter of "I" before "E". The headline contained the words "Seize" and "Siege" ("I" before "E", and I still look both those words up in the dictionary before I write them.)

Stopping the presses in those days was expensive. The front page (it was usually the front page and the final edition which went for street sales) had to be recomposed, lead type and zinc photoplates changed or adjusted, then made once again into a cardboard mat into which metal curved to fit the presses would be poured to form a plate. Copies of the newspaper which were being replaced were discarded and printing began again, often with all the union printers on overtime.

I actually shouted "Stop the presses" myself at the Spokane Spokesman-Review when I was the only person left in the editorial room one Saturday afternoon and the first copy of the Sunday Women's Section hit my desk...with an engagement announcement for the publisher's daughter in which her name contained a typo.

The pressroom chief and I decided to blur the typo with a red-hot iron rod instead of trying to remake the page. Nothing was ever said about the tiny smear which appeared in the newspaper.

This morning's San Francisco Chronicle is the first edition to be jobbed out for printing instead of being printed at the Chronicle's own presses. The paper is five columns wide, about a half-inch narrower, with puzzles and comics now so small it is difficult to read some of the type. There are no wrinkles in the paper and the color pictures are perfectly registered.

Two hundred pressmen at the Chronicle have lost their jobs. "Well, where are they printing it?" Nicodemus asked. "Fremont?"

He thought he was kidding. The San Francisco Chronicle is now printed in Fremont.

(Engraving, Johannes Gutenberg, 1398-1468, inventor of the mechanical printing press.)