The Gravediggers and the Elephant
Riders on the Earth
SHORTLY BEFORE MY SECOND BIRTHDAY, the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My mother arranged a birthday party for me, pinned a white silk rose in my hair, dressed me up in taffeta and mary janes, festooned the dining room with favors and paper hats. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were filled with Japanese children. My mother took pictures of my face stuffed with cake, the flower dangling down by my ear. Eight two-year-olds sat on the sunlit front step, squinting into the camera.
My mother believed that the United States had to drop atomic bombs on Japan. She believed that breast milk was bad for babies and that the silvery blue DDT bomb under the sink would perfect her flower garden.
I was nurtured by a world unsure of itself. The neighbors constructed fallout shelters. In school there were air raid drills, and we were taught to crouch down in the hallways. What was about to come shrieking through the glass? Who would bomb our school? Would our arms over our heads preserve us?
In 1962, I sat in the college lounge listening to Kennedy’s ultimatum to the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis. It suddenly seemed obvious what the years of squatting on the cold tile in the school hall had been for. Terrified, I telephoned my father in New York. He laughed at my alarm. His nonchalance was comforting.
The fifties were not a time when things were talked about. Menstruation maybe, but not sex and not bombs. The fifties were a time of atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs, strontium-90 in the milk, DDT on the crops, fallout shelters in backyards stocked with a year’s supply of pickles and dried beef.
My neighbor went to college in the mid-fifties, and it took three bedrooms of her house to contain her new wardrobe. I was one of the neighborhood children who toured the rooms, obeisant, dazzled by the strapless net gowns and gloves and plaid pleated skirts and cardigans and matching purses and shoes. But eight years later when I went to college, what was needed was not a trousseau but some blue jeans and a moral vision. It was the time of the Beatles, Vietnam. The toddlers of the forties now wondered more and believed less. Some of the things we had been taught–respect for our elders, obedience to authority–hadn’t been learned.
In 1969, my new husband and I lived in the highest crime area of Manhattan, in two long narrow rooms decorated with paper lanterns from Azuma. There we were mugged by two jittery young druggies carrying knives. Eventually we moved to the country, looking for a purer world. I envisioned brown eggs and strawberries, spring water, an orchard, a farmhouse with a fireplace in every room. We got mice nesting in the springbox, a leaky roof, young fruit trees nibbled by rabbits, deer, and caterpillars, red squirrels living in the attic, a wandering brook that flooded our basement in January. We were happy. Here, for the first time in twenty-seven years, we were introduced to the Earth.
The summer before our first daughter, Mara, was born, I planted a tulip garden for her. She was born in February, and in May the tulips appeared–pink and yellow and red and scarlet, their ruffled tops frayed with color. I walked her in her carriage down the rose-colored road, tucked bunches of wildflowers in beside her face, hoping she’d grow up to love them.
The night our second daughter was born, she was wheeled back to the room with me after the delivery. Erin was less than an hour old, but she looked up at my husband and me and studied us for a long time. Her eyes were wide and alert, huge and blue; it was not a loving look.Who are you? she seemed to be saying. Are you worthy of me?
I nursed and rocked my babies, sang to them, introduced them to the wildflowers that grew around our farm, the moles that ate the tulips, the rabbits that ate the pear trees, the deer that ate the apples. My husband created games for them: Push the Daddy Over, Daddy Elevator. They shrieked with delight. At night we’d often all crawl into our big bed and “chitter-chatter” in the dark. We gardened and ran in the fields; we sat on a rock by the brook and presented each other with pebbles wrapped in maple leaves; we picnicked and ice-skated and lay out beneath the sugar maples.
I read them the story of a bald eagle that was hatched under artificial conditions. They sat in wonderment, their arms hugging their knees, their soft hair blowing in the breeze. Because of the buildup of DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons in the bald eagle, the eggshell has become so fragile that it often breaks when the female eagle sits on it. So, in an early stage, biologists retrieve the delicate egg from the eagle’s nest, perched high in a tree or cliff, and place a plastic facsimile in the nest which the mother eagle continues to sit on. The real egg is transported to a laboratory to incubate and eventually is returned to the nest. The parent eagles accept the exchange and the eaglets hatch and survive. We looked at the photograph of the scrawny new eaglet–a creation of its time.
Stretching out around our yellow farmhouse were fields of wild mustard, buttercups, clover, velvet pouches of yellow trefoil, yarrow, butter-and-eggs, slowly withering into goldenrod and chicory, Queen Anne’s lace and clumps of lavender asters, wild morning glories filmed with frost.
On the last day of March, the peeper frogs started to sing, and they sang all spring, all night. In April, farmers tore up patches of soil with their plows, and I dug with my shovel, easing in frail fruit trees, denuding the few branches then stopping for a moment to touch their spindly trunks and wish them luck. The rising moon, huge and ivory, rested on the rim of the hill. Peachcolored clouds floated by at twilight. A dream was in the air, the dream of continuity: the Earth’s light and shadow, its color and monochrome, its stillness and change, its fragility and concord.
Beyond the lavender mountains, eight thousand nuclear bombs rumpled the wheat fields of the Midwest, encased in huge Minuteman silos. Some days, I could feel them. Trident submarines slipped like sharks through golden forests of kelp. My father would accept their presence without comment, as would my mother. They lived in a gentler time of crisp Hollywood endings. But I live in an age when missiles are labeled Peacekeepers, and when well-intentioned biologists make the precarious journey up into a tree to redress the harm we have done to the thin polluted eggs of our national bird.
In a teepee at the edge of a stream, I camped with my daughters one night in August. The teepee was constructed of a canvas cover stretched over seventeen stripped tree trunks. We lit a fire inside the teepee and roasted corn and potatoes, watching the smoke rise up through the smoke flap, gently blurring out the stars. After dinner we walked. Combed with our flashlight, the dark earth was enchanted. Goldenrod bent to touch us as we passed. Asters, knotted up for warmth, hung like spiders in the damp. In the grass, the cold lights of fireflies gleamed. The children squealed with fear and delight. Returning along the path of larches, we saw the teepee standing before us like a goddess, a huge white firelit cone blown with shadows, swaying with fire breath.
I tucked the girls into their sleeping bags and fit two candles. I tried to read for a while, but the teepee was not a space for words. On the blowing white walls, my shadow wavered. The children’s heads became silhouettes on the firelit canvas, the curl of their eyelashes, stray hairs bent like blowing grass. I ripped up a newspaper for the fire and dropped the headlines into the flames. Potato chunks sizzled in the fire. The last words of newspaper print browned in the fire then crumpled to ash. Like butterflies in chrysalises, the children slept. I kept vigil, watching each firelit strand of hair, pink cheeks pillowed by warm, soft hands.
In the middle of our bedroom floor, my oldest daughter sat one night with a large colored globe of the world in her arms. She studied it, frowning, for a long time, then looked up at me and asked, “Are we trapped on Earth?” The expression on her face told me that she knew we were and that this was not necessarily a good thing. I often think of her in that pose, with her brown-gold curls and her long legs, her blue eyes filled with perspicacity as she sat on the floor with our small round Earth pressed in her arms.
When Mara was eleven, a tall thin girl with curls and pink cheeks, a huge smile, a lively mind, she was rushed off to Boston for brain surgery. Before leaving, she wrote a note and put it on the table: Mara Was Here. Seeing it, I pictured us returning from Boston without her and finding her note on the kitchen table. “What did you do that for?” I snapped, tearing the paper in pieces.
It was the shoot-out at high noon with God. I never felt able to bow to the mighty will that was thrusting itself against mine. I didn’t care if it was God’s will, or destiny’s–I wasn’t about to submit to it if it meant that this child I so loved would be snatched away. I wouldn’t allow it. I refused to sit by passively, a good girl of the fifties.
After two surgeries, radiation treatments, brain infusions, chemotherapy, and nine months back in school, she became very ill. She couldn’t walk. She hallucinated. She was different now: passive, confused, sleepy.
The brain tumor had spread, and the doctors gave up hope for her. The people in my family, trained in the fifties, the age of trust, the age of plenty, the age when you boldly fortified yourself against your enemies, called to say everything would be okay. They recounted miraculous brain tumor stories. But would the prince gallop in to rescue the shining child? I thought of the shining children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My family reassured me; I was the undershadow of their confidence. What I had assimilated from my childhood was not the might, the brave front, the war whoops, but the bluffing, the fear and mistrust, the pretenses.
My husband left his job and learned the nursing skills required to care for our child and, together with our eight-year-old daughter, we kept her in a hospital bed in our living room for the last five months of her life. I staged every form of ritual: prayers, healing masses, baptism. I dabbled in Christian Science. I put her on diets, telephoned experts on healing. Their advice was just to be. Allow my dying child to drift farther and farther out of my reach? Perhaps I could have chosen tranquility, as Ram Dass and Stephen Levine suggested. But I chose instead turmoil, war, anger at the destiny that was sweeping in to snatch her away. I kept her in my lair: sang to her, piled her with blankets, lit fires in the woodstove, tried to create a womb that she, passive though she was, would find a way to stay in.
In the living room where she lay, there were six uncurtained windows. The leaves fell and stuck to the window, lilacs on the high bushes changed from chartreuse to black, snow fell and melted and fell again. Intuitively, I tried to exclude nature from the room, going in there to measure the windows for curtains. One day in October when I had been measuring the windows again, Mara said, “What do you think, Mom, the windows are growing?” I never did get curtains. They could pretend, they could lie; they could flutter prettily in the chill autumn breezes, but they couldn’t hide the conspiracy of nature that colluded with greater force each day just beyond the windows. I refused not to look. I would sit. I would sneer. I would never submit. I would be like Winston Churchill who said during the Second World War, We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
In spite of the immensity of my will and the length of our vigil, one sunny January day our beautiful Mara died.
For two years after that, I tried to carve a home out of the ruins. But the land itself had been altered for me. Nature could not retain its innocence. It was nature that had dragged her away from me–the trees and the grass and the clouds as much as the trickster disease or the bony arms of the undertaker.
As I watched her die, this land, once beautiful, and all the contiguous land, rearranged itself according to its witness. It absorbed the cruel scenes it observed. Cast upon the high, rocking lilacs is the image of her lying, vomiting, writhing in pain, in the summer grass, yellow coreopsis bending down and bobbing against her hair. Frozen into the landscape is the cold January night sparkling with frost when Mara left home for the last time. Nature appeared to be indifferent but in fact was not. The stars absorbed the sight of her being carried away; into their glitter the scene is woven tight.
One summer day I went up to her grave and planted a chrysanthemum plant. It had many bright pink flowers with yellow centers. Afterward I lay in the grass in the sun for a long time, beside the plant. When I opened my eyes, I noticed–in my green pants and bright pink shirt–how well I blended in with her grave. It was time to look for a new home.
I would turn my back on the awful mountain keeping her, on her schoolbus and her peers and the drugstore where I rented her wheelchair and all the places where she should have been but wasn’t. She lay inside a mountain, struck dumb by a cancer the doctors described as idiopathic. We had many friends, but friendship, love, warmth, however strong and comforting, could not negate this realignment of the very earth.
Vermont called to us, its chant of the pure North. Scarlet apples hung from the trees. The cornfields were bleached gold. Alfalfa curled over the bony hills. The mountains were hazy mounds rising and falling over the blue lake. I moved with my family into a rented house on Lake Champlain, facing the purple Adirondacks. The house was made of brick and reminded me of the hefty structure of the three pigs, the one the wolf couldn’t blow down. It was comforting, living in this house, with its accoutrements I would never choose: wall-to-wall carpeting, microwave oven, basketball hoop, brocade chairs, linen dresser cloths. Somehow, it felt like home.
In a dark mahogany bed that has history in its bones, I lay and thought of the people who had slept in that bed over the decades, their joys, their worries. Probably they would never think to wonder where home was. Home was where your bed was, and the thing was too heavy to move.
I wonder what makes a home, what destroys it. It seems to have something to do with what’s kept out and what intrudes, In the case of my daughter, the wolf broke down the door and wrecked the place.
In Vermont, I visited a young man, Martin Holladay, who had been imprisoned for breaking into a nuclear facility in Missouri, hammering the silo cap and painting the message No! on the cement. Martin was raised in Lebanon and, after some time at Yale, had become a farmer. He lived without electricity in a cabin he built in the mountains of northern Vermont. One day, following the ways of his mother, Jean Holladay Grosbach, he sold off his animals, closed up his little farm, and hitchhiked across America to climb the fence of a nuclear installation.
Martin writes of his experience: “Part of the reason of our profound failure to deal with these nuclear weapons on a moral level is that it takes an act of the imagination to understand the reality of our huge arsenal. The traveler sees only a fenced level area marked with a ‘No Trespassing’ sign. But the reality of that site is a Minuteman II missile with a range of eight thousand miles, armed with a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead, one hundred times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. The missile site represents an explosion beyond imagining, a rain of fire and poison such as the world has never known, a nightmare of melting cities and burning flesh. It is my awareness of a rising tide of violence that brought me here: the violence which has now covered Lebanon; the violence of nuclearism which now indicts all Americans, even rural Vermonters; and the violence here in the farmland of Missouri … For each silo the earth has been excavated and replaced with concrete, steel and plutonium. The missile is in the cornfield: our separation from the fields is now triumphant… The insertion of a forty-foot nuclear missile into a buried silo is a graphic image of rape. We are sowing a different crop now, and none can imagine the harvest.”
I think of this courageous young man, and of my courageous daughters as I read Archibald MacLeish’s words,
To see the earth as it truly is, small
and blue and beautiful in that eternal
silence where it floats, is to see
ourselves as riders on the earth together,
brothers and sisters on that bright
loveliness in the eternal cold.
Gallery of Rivers
Poetry Feature: Penelope Austin
Featuring the poems:
- Moon Above the Twenties
- Club HTRC Presents Bobby Benton, Jan. 24, 1942: My Mother Sells Tickets
- Bringing in the Child
- Azaleas, 1989