The 1949 Ford

In addition to numerous barrels tightly packed with family necessities and as tall as my seven-year-old self, there was shipped to Karachi a gleaming brand new sky blue Ford, a magnificent car for that place and time, boasting a lean look quite unlike the chubby cream green Oldsmobile that once sat at our Chicago curb. My father, whose fix-it genius balked at anything not contained by human skin, flew from Lahore to the port at Karachi, where he met top-class Lahore mechanic Mistri Majid, who’d taken the train. Except for a busted back window, our 1949 Ford sedan arrived intact, surviving even the thief-thick docks, a miracle ascribed to the special attentions of God.

Sharing the driving, Doctor Sahib and Majid urged our Ford across the Sind, a wild and dangerous desert long on snakes and bandits, short on water, gas and definable roads. Dad took a compass and Majid took a psorie, a big clay pot that sweats to keeps the water inside cool. Three hundred miles into the desert, the Ford’s engine boiled over, but together they nursed that car five hundred miles more, a baptism of grit and heat that rendered the new doctor and car nearly as authentic as Lawrence of Arabia and his camel.

Majid kept that car running for the next five years with exceptional ingenuity, scavenging parts probably unintended for a 1949 Ford. Once, when his attentions were insufficient, Majid simply unbuilt the thing, spreading the parts carefully across a weedy field, before putting them back together and teasing our Ford from its coma.

That car was my ticket to the wonders of my world. Honking through masses of legs and wheels—pedestrians, bicycles, horse-drawn tongas, coarse carts pulled by humped oxen, the occasional automobile—we drove to the Shalimar Gardens, where fountains sprang among tended beds and tiled pools. At the bazaar, we wandered among gilded saris, neon volcanos of fragrant spices, rows of curly-toed slippers, silver rings that would turn my fingers green, pyramids of oranges and mangoes, richly knotted blood-red rugs, and, finally, Milky Way and Hersey bars, the only chocolate I ever tasted during the years of my childhood.

Despite the garish hues of fabric and clothing offered for sale, most of the men we saw wore white and most of the women, their dark eyes moving behind a rectangular net, wore I knew not what beneath head-to-toe white or black burkas. On the way home we might stop at a cobbler’s to be measured for sensible leather shoes which my mother assured me would save me from flat feet. Then home the Ford would creep like a big blue cat along the brown canals where small boys pranced across the glossy black backs of water buffalo.

But what I remember most about the blue 1949 Ford is its heroic annual climb up the foothills of the Himalayas to Jhika Gali, a small village outside the town of Murree, to which our family fled the heat that for several months cooked the dusty Plains. Oh how that Ford labored up the mountain, jammed with three or four months’ worth of clothing and household necessities. Up we’d go on pot-holed, clay-slimed, rock-strewn roads, around treacherous hairpin turns, dodging donkeys and rag-clad men bearing on their backs or heads baskets large enough to hold two adults or staggering under heavy rolls of Oriental rugs.

We drove in the cool of night, starting out after all our bedtimes, we children pressed into a mattress in the back seat, but it was never cool enough. The Ford would overheat and we’d pull over to the dangerous edge and all climb out while my father, who seemed in all circumstances confident, intelligently spectacled, pressed and clean, poured water he’d brought for the purpose into the raging radiator. When at last the steam clouds diminished and hissed more softly, we’d pile back in and the Ford would huff and puff further up the hill, perhaps stopping once again before and we’d tumble out of the mud-caked vehicle into cool, pine-scented air.

The blue Ford soon became well-known in Murree. Without telephones or other usual means of communication to explain the phenomenon, as we neared the end of our journey, we’d start passing sick and wounded persons headed on foot toward our final destination: the first year a corrugated metal building called Strawberry Bank, then a more secure apartment at an old British soldier’s retirement quarters. My father, exhausted from months of work and hours of driving, would be greeted by a crowd of possibly legless, eyeless, or pus-filled ragged persons who had mysteriously anticipated our arrival, shouting for his attention. “Doctor Sahib aya hai. Gelte gelte!” (The Doctor Sahib is here! Hurry hurry!”) He was their worker of miracles, the only hope they had or might ever have again.

Much too soon the blue Ford would chug back down the mountain, leaving mother and children to enjoy the spectacular scenery, lush woods and cool weather, while my father returned to Lahore and the wounds that festered there in the monstrous, unrelenting heat.

The Recitations of Doctor B

Dr. Ralph Blocksma became the first plastic surgeon to work full-time in the Third World, arriving in Lahore just after the bloody Partition between India and Pakistan, Hindu and Muslim. We children rarely saw him. Having to choose between working a miracle in somebody’s life and taking time with his kids must have been hard on his fun-loving heart, for my father was a playful man, affectionate and generous with hugs. Of medium height, handsome, his dark hair and square hands always carefully groomed, he appears in my childhood memory mostly in his medical whites, leaning over my pillow to kiss me good night.

But once in a while, late in the evening when we should have been in bed, we children were allowed to listen to my father exhibit his phenomenal memory, theatrical gifts and passionate love of verse. Inspired by a hearth fire on a chilly night during the rainy season, my father would take off his horn rim glasses and gather us round like so many campers on the Isle Royale canoe trips he led years before as a counselor at Camp Hayo-Went-Ha, and recite without so much as a pause— except, of course, for dramatic effect—The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Robert Service.

Oh, how we’d shiver while our dad would be almost possessed by the horrors that plagued that poor man. He spoke with conviction, as one who had been there, who believed every word of this awful tale, until we believed every word too. We could practically smell the burning flesh, the acrid singeing hair. “Ralph, you’re going to give them bad dreams,” my mother might chide, but she never made him stop. Who could resist my father’s smooth voice as it poured out the terrible tale?

       “There are strange things done in the midnight sun

       By the men who moil for gold;

       The Arctic trails have their secret tales

       That would make your blood run cold;

       The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

       But the queerest they ever did see

       Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

       I cremated Sam McGee.

       Now Sam McGee was from Tennesee, where the cotton blooms and blows.

       Why he left his home in the south to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.

       He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;

       Though he’d often say in his homely way that he’d “sooner live in hell.”

       On a Christmas Day  we were mushing our way over the Dawson Trail.

       Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.

       If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;

       It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

[Please click HERE https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45081 to read the entire tale. Don’t skip it!]

What a time a we had, and we’d beg our dad to tell us another, do. He’d tilt in his chair, and as if on as dare, he’d start in on Dan McGrew:

       “A bunch of the boys were shooting it up in the Malamute saloon;

       The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;

       Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,

       And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.”

He’d tell the us the worst, as bad as the first, but he only once got done. He’d gone too far, taking us to a bar. In the end, my mother won. “Ralph, that’s enough, this is much to rough for children this young,” she’d say. But she was mistaken, for we are all taken with Dan McGrew to this day.

It’s hard to miss a cadence like this, and I can’t seem to get myself loose. Each sentence I write is wound up tight in its sinuous velvet noose. I fell in with rhyme and the cultural crime of unacceptable verse, and like my dad, gave it all I had, and by God, I could have done worse.

One Writer’s Beginnings, by Eudora Welty

MEMOIR WORKSHOP:  My “Better Read Than Real” chapter stirred up a lot of memories! One of my readers, my long-time friend Marylee MacDonald, who offers the most useful writer information blog I’ve ever seen, responded with this wonderful piece from Eudora Welty: http://writing.laccdssi.org/files/2014/10/Welty.pdf. Eudora’s writing is so beautiful and impossible to live up to that I almost hesitate to include it, my own efforts paling beside it. But we dance on. If you have joined the dance, or have entertained intentions to, waste not a second (after first reading Eudora) signing up for Marylee’s essential writing blog: https://maryleemacdonald.org/writing-blog.

The Story Spinner

My mother wasn’t the only adult in our cool, safe house who could who could charm us with stories. Frieda Enss, another of my mother’s older sisters, had accompanied us to Pakistan to administrate the new United Christian Hospital in Lahore, but I suspect she also may have come to keep an eye on my mother—the Enss sisters brooked no threats to one another.

There was a strong family resemblance: Aunt Fritzi was tall and large-boned like my mother, but her hair was black and straight, not chestnut and wavy, and her eyes, unlike my mother’s cool blue, were the color of my mother’s hair. Like her sister, Aunt Fritzi got what she wanted, usually on her terms. Hardworking, righteous, fair to a fault, she frightened people with her stem insistence on working harder than anybody else. She never married and if she ever had a beau, she kept him a secret from me. And although she was not thought beautiful, as Mother was, she seemed to be regarded with as much respect as a man, important as an authority in a culture where most women, publicly shrouded under voluminous black or white burkas, moved through the bazaar at least in pairs and as if—I’d speculate when failing to glimpse their feet—on wheels.

However, Aunt Fritzi had a silly side one had to see to believe. Although her apartment was close to the hospital, she often dined at our house. On lucky nights, when the adults’ dinner had not yet been served and we children had retired, she would appear at our bedroom door and wave her hand, like a queen flinging coins to her subjects, filling the room with what she referred to as “fairy dust”. “What do you want to hear about tonight?” she’d ask, always letting us choose our story and perching on a bed.

“The Keyhole Fairy!” or “the Swiss Cheese Fairy!” we’d shout, making it as hard for her as we could.

Nothing, however, could stump Aunt Fritzi. Hooting with laughter at her own nonsense, she’d tell as wild a tale as ever we’d read in a book. When she got stuck, she’d fish: “And what do you think happened THEN?” Aunt Fritzi would ask, dramatically, leaning forward, playing for time. Perhaps the problem was to extricate the Dragonfly Fairy who’d been caught in the beak of a parrot.

“She got SWALLOWED!” I’d cry, “like Jonah and the whale.”

“NO!” Aunt Fritzi’d say smugly. “That’s not what happened.”

“The parrot bonked himself on a tree and dropped her!” Dewey might suggest.

“NO again!” Aunt Fritzi would declare, grinning dangerously.

We always guessed wrong, but something would save the fairy. Something always did—Aunt Fritzi made bold and unapologetic use of deux ex machina. While we exhausted ourselves with endings, Aunt Fritzi was thinking. Suddenly her eyes would brighten and she’d interrupt: “NO, children, you haven’t guessed it, but you’re close! Listen carefully! A storm cloud blew up just in time! ‘Ka-SMACK! Ka-CRASH! KA-BOOM!’ went the cloud and startled three green feathers right out of the parrot’s tail!”

“’Yike!’ yelled the parrot as the feathers blew away, and when the parrot yelled, its big red beak opened and the Dragonfly Fairy flew free.” We’d cheer, at the end, vastly relieved at the rescue of the protagonist who in short order had become beloved. Aunt Fritzi was relieved, too, for having thought of an ending just in the nick of time. She’d fall back on the bed, gasping with laughter at her own chutzpah.

“So how come the parrot didn’t catch her again?” I might have demanded, not wanting the evening to end.

“Oh, well that’s easy. Anybody ought to know THAT!” Aunt Fritzi would say in a superior tone, pausing again for apparent effect as she frantically wracked her brain. “Dragonflies can fly backward and parrots can’t!” I doubt I’d have pushed that farther. You could push Aunt Fritzi just so far before she’d fold her arms and drill you with her brown-black eyes.

The only other times I heard Aunt Fritzi laugh like that, shriek, actually, uncontrollably, was with my mother, and the only time I ever heard my mother laugh from her gut, actually giggle and hoot, was with Aunt Fritzi, or, later, on rare occasions, with one or more of her other sisters. Three Enss sisters in the same room could charge admission. I never understood this instant rapport between these eccentric, long-separated siblings, and I don’t remember my mother seeming particularly depressed or unhappy when I was young. However, the only times I’ve observed her “letting down her hair,” as she and Aunt Fritzi called these occasions, was in her sisters’ company.

When Aunt Fritzi was eighty-two and reluctantly retired from her administrative career, I urged her to write down her fairy tales, or at least let me record them, but she said she couldn’t remember those stories any more. I have inherited part of her whimsy: With time and solitude, I can rhyme a yarn silly enough to regale any four-year-old, and I have read my children’s books to hundreds of school kids with all-out Fritzi panache. But her gift of spinning a story from fairy dust continues to elude me.

MEMOIR WORKSHOP:  I’m on a roll, people! Apparently I write best when my plate runneth over. I have suddenly found myself working on three books at once: my memoir, a new edition of Great Lakes Nature for Indiana University Press, plus major work on my mother’s memoir that I thought was finished. For some reason I don’t understand, the pressure appears to have oiled the word works. I also thank you for your kind and interesting responses and your own memories that mine have inspired.

Better Read Than Real

We Blocksma children were frequently treated to stories and poems spun for our young ears by any one of our family grown-ups. Mother’s voice was the most frequently heard, reading books to us aloud. Mother did not hesitate to take on whole novels—the longer the better—a chapter at a time. Dewey, Andy, Marty and I sat wide-eyed at her feet, hanging on every word as our narrator’s voice lifted the characters from the page and set them on the stage of our imaginations. We lived those stories and adored our heroes who came so swiftly and safely to life. Despite our pleas for more, Mother always stopped much too soon, leaving our imaginary friends firmly fixed within volume’s covers, until the next release.

We loved all the books my mother read to us: Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, Little Women, Brer Rabbit, Black Beauty, The Wind in the Willows, the Greek myths, The White Buffalo, to name a few. I never felt too old to be read to, even when, early on, I could have sped through any of the books by myself. Our almost daily readings felt unusually intimate. I don’t remember sitting in my mother’s lap, but II felt as if I were, her voice holding me like arms as I drifted into the story of the day.

Reading books aloud may have been the best gift my mother ever gave me. At age ten I wrote my first poem: It was about snow, which I could not remember ever having seen, inspired by Hans Brinker’s icy play. I began reading to my son Dylan before he was born. He got used to the sound of my voice, I think, for I gained a patient listener when I gained a son. When he was about two and developing imaginative bedtime postponements, I began ending each day with the promise of a story as soon as he was in his pajamas. Bedtimes became a cozy half an hour we could always count on. I read him mountains of books we at first took turns choosing from the rich collection at Laramie’s public library of which I happened to be the director. My becoming a librarian was one of the thirty-six ways that books, since childhood, have plotted my life.

I know no more painless, intimate, irresistible way to prepare a child for a life of learning and independence than an early and diverse menu of books. Dylan never became the bookworm I was as a child—at the age of nine he sold his dirt bike to buy a computer and has been under its spell ever since. Still, he imagines wildly, ventures courageously, reads with pleasure and writes with grace, inherited in part from a thousand and one tellers of tales who first showered their words on me.

Living Outside the Lines

I was not always alone, especially during our first year in Pakistan. It seems amazing to me now that not only were the three oldest Vroon children—Marty (Marchiene), Andy and Judy—almost exactly the same ages as we three young Blocksmas, but we were matched in gender as well. When our family arrived in Lahore, each of us children immediately acquired a built-in playmate. It was synchronicity at its most fortuitous!

Unpacking Mrs. Bozwinkle’s curriculum, Mother set up a little school for the four older children: Marty, Andy, Dewey and me. Being fully equipped with textbooks, however, was not enough—how should she teach them? As was her habit, my mother consulted the best authority she knew—Justina Enss, an art teacher in the Detroit public schools and one of her seven sisters. I can’t remember if I had even yet met Aunt Tini (as we children called her), but I knew her from the unusual abstract paintings which hung on our walls. I still thought of Mrs. Bozwinkle as my fairy godmother, but Aunt Tini soon occupied the highest pedestal in my personal pantheon: Goddess of Creativity and Art.

Although my mother denies that Aunt Tini suggested anything more than how (or how not) to teach art, my mother’s educational approach seems to me perfectly described on a current (2017) Montessori website:

Montessori is a method of education that is based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play. In Montessori classrooms children make creative choices in their learning, while the classroom and the teacher offer age-appropriate activities to guide the process. Children work in groups and individually to discover and explore knowledge of the world and to develop their maximum potential.  Above all, Montessori classrooms at all levels nurture each child’s individual strengths and interests. Montessori education encourages children to explore their world, and to understand and respect the life forms, systems and forces of which it consists.        https://montessori-nw.org/what-is-montessori-education/

Maria Montessori’s controversial teaching methods came to United States in 1931, but they were not well-known until the Sixties. Was Aunt Tini so avante garde that she had already adopted them in 1949?  Mother, now 97, says no, but I still wonder.

Wherever she got her ideas, Mother taught Dewey, Marty, Andy and me with the verve of a devoted educator free to do as she pleased: No syllabus to follow, no MEAP tests to prepare for, no principal watching, no school board oversight. Mother’s approach to education was possibly as wild and creative as she would ever allow herself to get, second only to agreeing to bring the family to that war-torn country in the first place! After dutifully filling out our notebooks or reading our texts, her students played arithmetic in the yard, banged on drums and triangles and sang. The living room was cleared of furniture so we could dance. We filled two large hallway walls, along which we were allowed to roller skate, with murals so tall we had to stand on chairs to put heads on the Eskimos. Marty and I, both better with words than paint, confined ourselves to snowfields, penguins and igloos, while Andy and Dewey jammed their wall with elephants, lions and tigers, monkeys leaping through a tangle of jungle botany. Children’s drawings were art, insisted our teacher; coloring books were trash. Culture and creativity ruled our school, our house and our lives. And although friendly competition thrived, Mother never gave us tests or grades, careful that no one of her students should think herself smarter than another.

Many years later, during a 1990 trip around the Great Lakes for my Fourth Coast book, I came upon a young woman sitting by a scarlet kayak on a southern shore of Lake Superior. She had paddled alone around the north side that large lake, Kim said, and it was not the first Great Lake she had conquered. As we sat in the sand next to her boat watching the sun set, she told me that she was a Montessori kid, and that while Montessori kids knew how to learn and explore their potential, they never seemed to fit very well in the world. 

I knew exactly what she meant—my elementary school education has had a similar effect. Montessori! That’s how Mother had been teaching us, whether she knew it or not! I’d never made that connection before. Later, back in The States, we all tested above our grade levels, but there were also unintended consequences: Although Mother appreciated and facilitated art, not making art herself, she didn’t understand that to do original work, you have to see in an original way, which often means living apart from even the family status quo. All four of her children have become artists, writers, and/or musicians. And all of us have colored wildly—sometimes, heartbreakingly—outside her social and religious lines.

MEMOIR WORKSHOP: My writing rhythm is becoming apparent—I hyper-focus, writing intensely for a week or two, ignoring dishes, piles of books, art projects and editing requests, until I have to shift to catch-up mode before my listing life falls in a heap. Now and then I even allow myself what I think of as a Retirement Day, during which I may do little more than read a good book and walk the dog. Presently, I am writing again. What fun! So be not concerned if I vanish for a few weeks—I’ll be back!

Worthy Companions

I learned early that paradise has a down side, for I led a solitary life for a child. Girls were not allowed to play but were put to work at an early age, often collecting cowpies to mix with straw for fuel, slapping them to dry against the mud walls of their homes. I was often left to spy from behind the kitchen garden hedge on my brother Dewey, a year-and-a-half younger than myself, who had become skilled at marbles. Dewey and two of Annie’s and David’s sons, Edwin and Patrick, would gouge a small hole in the hard-packed road and whack each other’s marbles, not by scooting them over the ground, but by drawing one back against a third finger and letting it fly like a bullet. (The tendon in Dewey‘s shooting finger became so stressed that twenty years later it required a surgical repair.) They’d play marbles for hours, chattering so fast in Urdu, I couldn’t tell who was talking,

I wished I could speak Urdu like that, but I was not included in my brother’s games or in the arduous semi-weekly lessons both my parents endured from the severe, graying man in the maroon fez and white chemise and pants. Their text was a worn fat book with blue fabric covers and pages as thin as a Bible’s, across which black ink splattered in strange arcs and dots, backwards. That much I knew: Urdu read from right to left, the book from back to front. My father, whose pronunciation sounded bad even to me, took to Urdu like a duck in a bathtub, speaking with ludicrous enthusiasm. The Pakistanis loved it and his willingness to risk making the most out of whatever little he actually knew often saved him the nuisance of translators and freed him to be his fast-paced, extroverted self.

My mother became a reluctant user of Urdu, although she didn’t seem to need it. A born administrator, she had only to exude what she wanted and magically, it seemed to me, it was done. Her complex household projected a cool, hushed calm nothing short of a miracle and provided a safe oasis from which I could adventure into the rich world of our own back yard, and, from there, on my bicycle, beyond. Not until her sixties, when she taught music to children in the British Virgin Islands, later developing an ambitious musical program and choir for her retirement community, would my mother apply her ample abilities in so many satisfying directions.  The apparent detour from what I imagine might have been her ambitions may well have become their fulfillment.

I found my companions in books. In my mother’s house I fell under the spell of words: first those I learned to read, then words read aloud, spun on the spot and recited. The alphabet became the DNA from which I could invent a new world faster than God.   Although my mother was not herself verbally facile—she seemed to me to use words like bricks, examining each choice before its cautious alignment with its predecessor—she valued culture, education and, above all else, creativity. With a little help from my Aunt Frieda and my dad, I was presented with a verbal carnival.

Back in Chicago, before we had left for Pakistan, my mother had set about solving the problem of how she would educate three children for five years in a place without an English-speaking school. None of the usual solutions met her approval: She dismissed the Calvert home study program as dull; Woodstock, the boarding school in India where the other “Europeans” (as we often were called) sent their kids, was too distant and dangerous. In the end, she chose to teach us herself, despite the fact that, having majored in choir directing and lacking a college degree, she must have felt ill-prepared..

Never flumoxed for long, my mother did as she has often done when presented with a worrisome problem: She sought out an authority. She consulted the head of curriculum for the Chicago public schools, a woman named Mrs. Bozwinkle. I doubt I ever met Mrs. Bozwinkle, but I was sure I knew what she looked like: an imposing, large-bosomed woman with a preference for unfashionably bright garments and chunky jewelry, professionally assured, personally wise, who, unlike Jehovah, saw me and approved.  As though reading my heart, Mrs. Bozwinkle saw to it that our missionary barrels contained, in addition to readers and texts, picture books and novels that cradled my sanity through five frequently lonely years.

Our school room, located at the opposite end of the house from my parents’ bedroom, was crammed with books. They occupied an entire wall, ceiling to floor and I read them all, several times. I raided neighbors’ bookshelves for Greek myths and fairy tales. I can’t remember ever not knowing how to read. Dick and Jane, Spot and Puff number among the hundreds of characters who, in my own good time and only at my say-so, entered the magic circle of my secret inner life. Heidi, Brer Rabbit, Mowgli, Jo, Diana, and Persephone, may never have set foot on this earth, but they rarely failed to enchant me, loyal friends who lured me into their landscapes, accepted my projections, granted my wishes and sometimes broke my heart. But they never abandoned me, lied, or broke their promises. They loved me like the cat or dog I wasn’t allowed to have, demanding nothing more than my attention.

For the rest of my life, a book would be splayed within reach—by my bed, desk, or toilet; on a chair, sofa, or the passenger seat of my car; or tucked in my purse, the place marked by whatever was handy so that, at the least excuse, I could re-enter its safe, unpredictable world. A Carnegie-size library could barely house the books I have absorbed in my seventy-year reading career, but I carry them all, and, should there be a life after this one, will take every one of them with me.

MEMOIR WORKSHOP NOTE:  I apologize for having abandoned my memoir for so many weeks—I seem to have lost my once-impressive ability to multitask. While not writing, I completed a set of 24 watercolor pencil nature drawings for my new line of note cards. (Check them out in my Etsy store: beaverislandarts.etsy.com. Please!) I even finished editing my 97-year-old mother’s just-completed second memoir (Read my above chapter if you don’t believe she’s still writing!) I have to say, it’s pretty embarrassing to have my procrastinations witnessed by so many of you. But no more excuses! I’ll be back!