Lollygagging

I was no quicksilver child, but a lollygagger, an idler, a poker of anthills, an inspector of the underworlds of rocks, a walk-don’t-run child nosing in bushes and skulking in the woods. The Limberlost girl had nothing on me. Left to myself for hours every day, I loitered in fictional wonderlands and wandered the neighborhood. I liked ordinary things, perhaps because I felt so ordinary myself, and found comfort in the discovery that almost anything was interesting up close. If I had read Henry David Thoreau, I might not have thought myself lazy or a waster of time. “I only met one or two persons in my life,” claimed Thoreau, “…who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering. No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom and independence that are the capital of this profession. It comes by the grace of God alone. It requires a direct dispensation from heaven….”

I learned at an early age the spaciousness of time required by serious artists and writers but thought foolish and unproductive by persons busy laying up more visible treasure. In Murree, hours might pass as I imagined castles on a Himalayan hill, my slight self reclined on a rug of moss torn from rocks and patted into a nest. In Lahore I’d sit on our white-washed front porch steps waiting for a line of gloomy-looking vultures, hunkered on a distant branch, to flap off, soar and spiral down on some distant, mysterious corpse. I’d wander off to sample the strange sharp scent of impossibly perfect lantana, steal a banana from our backyard trees, sniff the musky sweetness of the tea roses my mother loved.

My parents did not attempt to fill my time with a schedule of educational and social activities. I often felt like a small balloon drifting about the edges of things, but I was very much a flesh and blood child hardly immune to the scorpions, centipedes, cobras, tarantulas, mosquitoes, microbes and viruses I might easily encounter. “Don’t talk to college students,” my mother instructed in Lahore where young men would jeer at me as I rode by on my bike. “Don’t go barefoot!” my father warned, describing the horrors of the tiny hookworm that could pierce my heel and creep up through my leg into my abdomen. “Come down this minute!” my mother would chide, spotting me up one of the tall pines edging the cliff we called the cud. “Don’t eat anywhere except at home.” “Don’t drink the water.”

Most of the rules I obeyed—especially the barefoot one (which Dewey says he resented for slowing his soccer prowess and upping the danger of stepping on his friends’ bare toes.)  Some, surreptitiously, I didn’t, experiencing few ill effects beyond the vicious stings of ants no bigger than print in a book. This illusion of safety reached into my twenties when, during a Peace Corps stint in a country that became Biafra while I was there, I thought nothing of hitting the road with a flight bag to hitchhike the five hundred miles from Enugu in Eastern Nigeria to Lagos in the west, sharing the back of lorries with chickens and goats or threatening the wandering hands of Volkswagen drivers with a lit cigarette. I’d wagered that anyone who owned a car would not risk an international incident harming a PCV and I was right—or, some would say, lucky; others that my parents were praying for me, which was an understatement.

I didn’t stop sauntering until I was twenty-six. In college friends had teased that I walked like a basketball player, my slow lope easily identified across campus. When I joined the Peace Corps, I’d stepped smoothly into the High Life, the happy shuffle of the favored Nigerian dance. By my early thirties, however, I had abandoned my sauntering to marry a Vietnam vet, administer a public library system, cook and clean for a commune and have a baby. By thirty-four, after eight years of high gear, I developed an ulcer and vanished into the doorless, windowless womb of a clinical depression. Under the patient ministering of a tiny female Philippino Freudian psychiatrist, I emerged a single mother and a writer, resuming my childhood freedom to do pretty much what, when and where I wished. For forty years I have been honing my lollygagging skills, taking only jobs that gave me joy, assignments in which I could delight. I even became an amateur mycologist, which required a pace so slow that even sauntering resembled the racing hare.

“Magical thinking,” diagnosed a sensible long-time college friend who was working two jobs and socking away a tidy retirement. Meanwhile, I followed my bliss, depending on lucky house sales, fee work for textbooks and, today, Social Security and used book sales to pay the bills. Still, of the many good ways to live, surely mine is one. When I’m feeling unproductive, financially irresponsible, or just plain lonely, I remember that dear man Thoreau, who I’m certain would assure me that the gift of attention is a kind of grace and the truest evidence of love.

I Become a Democrat

Thanks to Marty, I became a Democrat before the age of ten and possibly her first real convert. Even at eight or nine, Marty held firm opinions about things I’d never thought about, which she expressed with bold oratory, passionate, sometimes dangerous gestures and a convincing absence of doubt. Until Marty discovered that I was a Republican, she never aimed her arguments at me—our different approaches to life simply made us an interesting team as we locked forces against Evil and defended Good. I applauded her frequent outrages—at a horse being whipped in the street, the capricious response of a Greek god to some personal slight, or a child thrown in the river because she was born deformed. Marty’s family shared with her more reality than my parents felt appropriate for my tender age. Through her I learned a great deal about the brutalities of Pakistani life.

I doubt I knew I was a Republican—or that my parents were—until Marty clued me in. Our family did not discuss politics at dinner, or even religion, for that matter, except for readings from the Bible. We children usually ate long before our parents did, so we were usually excluded from adult concerns, except during Sunday dinners after church, when conversation was almost uniformly civil, revolving around personal and family plans and activities. Only my father’s graphic descriptions of, say, yesterday’s rhinoplasty, cleft lip repair, or the removal of a melon-sized goiter from a patient’s neck carried a whiff of unsuitability.

Until I was nine or ten, I was a good girl, better behaved than most, but Marty thrived on challenges. When she was through with me, I was convinced that Republicans were mostly wealthy people who knew little and cared less about the sufferings of common folk and that Democrats were working citizens who championed the poor and made sure the national wealth was shared. A Republican, like the rich man in the parable, would have a harder time squeezing through heaven’s gates than a camel—a very large beast with which I was more familiar than most Republicans—could pass through the eye of a needle. Democrats were the underdogs, fighting injustice and championing heroic causes.

Still, although all that made sense to me, I don’t think I’d have been won over if it weren’t for the fact that Marty’s parents were Democrats. The Vroons had become my extended family and if Uncle John and Aunt Theresa, who were of course Christians, were also Democrats, perhaps it would not be a sin if I became one, too. I had never heard my parents speak ill of the Vroons, except for my mother’s opinion of their style of dining: a noisy forum during which politics, ideas and principles were argued with a disturbing inattention to table manners.

Although I felt ill-prepared to participate in such aggressive debates, I loved eating with the Vroons. They relished Pakistani food, introducing me to exciting curries and spices I’d smelled rising from our servants’ quarters but never tasted. Uncle John loved playing Devil’s advocate, goading his children into arguments the likes of which I had never heard in my life. Unlike my father, who preferred practical, physical problems he could fix right now, Uncle John had a philosophical bent and an intellectual honesty I found reassuring. When it came to matters of the mind, I decided, Uncle John was a man I could trust.

I became a secret Democrat, telling no one, not even Marty, of my political infidelity, until I grew to an age when I waved rebellion like a flag. Meanwhile I had made an startling discovery—that no coercion could ever capture the secrets of my heart. My political affiliation was the first of many independent convictions that have enhanced my sense of identity. I never regretted that early rebellion and remain a Democrat to this day, finding little quarrel with the childlike contentions made sixty-five years ago.

My First Chum

I was born shy, resisting for thirty-six hours my 1942 Chicago hospital debut, so the loneliness I knew in Pakistan, especially in later years, did not altogether result from circumstance. Indeed, my sister Julie, whom we now call Julia, although five years younger, thrived, charming our parents’ guests with sparkling eyes below blond, Dutch-boy bangs, while I shrank from the bright sari-ed ladies who reached out to pinch my cheeks. I’d watch my sister from behind the furniture, envying her easy charm.

Left to my family, I might have fallen into my navel, but when my mother agreed to teach Andy and Marty, the two oldest of John and Theresa  Vroon’s children, along with Dewey and myself, Marty leapt into my life like an exuberant puppy, becoming my first true chum. We had much in common: our hair was thick and brown; our fathers were Christian doctors building a new hospital; our ages were only two months apart and our names the same but for one letter. Each of us was the eldest of four and enjoyed a nearly two-year jump on our next-born brothers. We loved books, woods, mischief and fantasy.

But there similarities stopped. Our friendship carried the special appeal of one between different species: I was the cat, lithe and aloof; Marty was the terrier: stocky, fearless and friendly. I was sensitive and cautious; she charged in where felines fear to tread. I needed luring; she invited challenge. She took me over, bubbling with ideas, sharing books, singing boisterously all the words to all the verses of every song and hymn I’d ever heard. She taught me Greek mythology, knocking off polysyllabic gods and goddesses with Zeus-like zest. She never got bored, never ran out of things to do.

For our first two years, until her family moved up north and she was sent to a boarding school in India, Marty and I rode our bikes from my house at one end of the compound to her house at the other. At her house, we made up plays, dressed in her mother’s saris and salwar chemises, draped ourselves in gauzy, embroidered scarves. At mine we piloted oriental rugs, rubbed genies out of teapots, rode knick knack camels through the Arabian Nights. We competed fiercely in everything: school work, art and especially piano lessons, which we took from Mrs. Smithson, a tiny American married to a gentle giant. We raced through our glossy red Thompson piano books, Marty’s short fingers faithful to her phenomenal memory.

During the rainy season our families’ apartments adjoined at Strawberry Bank, and later, shared the sprawling old soldiers’ retreat. In Murree, lessons lightened. Marty and I headed for the woods, where we enacted fairy tales, chased monkeys (ignoring warnings that a herd might turn on us)  and, with homemade daggers and swords and dodging sharp, curved horns, we chased and “fought” the cattle that grazed the hillside woods. We dared each other up trees and down cliffs, laughing, screaming, then, escape accomplished, lolling on damp, earth-scented moss, or stringing daisy-chain crowns in the sunny meadow below our mothers’ windows.

Articulate, bright, brassy, ready to take on anyone, win any argument, beat up anyone of any age or sex who challenged her, Marty was the dominant one, and, she insisted, the oldest. But I embodied a lyric awareness Marty may have missed in her dash to put the world right. I looked for the cadence in things, fingered the pulse in a butterfly, found music in a stone. I seemed to be missing an invisible layer that appeared to protect other people, and often chose retreat. But when I felt safe, as I did with Marty, I could play with abandon, imagine wildly, and would miss her irrevocably when she was gone.

When Marty moved to Sialkot with her family, I could not follow, and the loss of her was more than I could bear. I began fading away. I lost interest in eating, seemed even to lose the will to grow. At eleven, my age was often guessed at eight. My father, fearing I was ill, took me to the hospital for the first of a series of a gamma globulin shots administered by a sturdy woman doctor. The five-inch needle that stabbed my small behind provoked an ear-piercing outrage worthy of a doused cat and my father spared himself—and me—another.

I knew I wasn’t sick; I was heartbroken, angry and lonely. Clearly, it wasn’t Marty’s fault that she had left, but I couldn’t forgive her for loving her new school, for her gleeful tales of dormitory life and wonderful new friends when we met during summers in Murree. I had been replaced, but she had not, an injustice of which I alone seemed to be aware. When our families moved back to Grand Rapids and Marty and I met again as teenagers, we had grown apart.

Not until we were in our fifties did we actively re-engage, and since then we have grown to know and value each other as women still very different, still very much alike. Soon it will have been seventy years since we met, making Marty my oldest enduring friend. During that time, the Reverend Marchiene Vroon Rienstra married a doctor, had four children, became the first woman to graduate from Calvin Seminary, the first woman to be ordained in the Reformed Church, survived breast cancer, became a grandmother, espoused Jungian feminism and continues to see the extraordinary in the world. In the nearly seventy years since we met, I’ve been gifted with two beloved chums. All three friendships have spanned decades and continue to lend meaning to my life.

MEMOIR WORKSHOP: I once lost over a year and $10,000 of savings to support myself living with, caring for, interviewing and writing, at her request, the “autobiography” of a medicine woman, who in the end refused to approve my manuscript despite an excellent contract with a New York publisher and I lost my agent over it. One of the best bits of advice I’d ever received as an author was this: Never write about living persons! But I was blinded by bliss—literally enchanted—and I chose to trust my heart. I can report this story only because about a decade ago she—the medicine woman, not my agent—was buried sitting up in her rocking chair on a remote Lake Michigan island. It’s almost impossible to write a memoir without writing about living people, especially as I am older than most of the persons it in—except for my mother who is now 97 and Marty who is, of course, two months older—unless I’ve outlived them. I try to be kind. (Perhaps it is time to dig my medicine woman bins out of my abandoned-work closet. Yes, I have a closetful of rejected and unfinished work. Where do think I found this memoir?)

The End is in Sight!

WORKSHOP NOTE:  I am nearing the end of my Pakistan memoir—only a few chapters to go—and I want to ask some of you, especially those who shared my experience or were involved in some way—if you have anything to add. My memories really are quite vague. My brother Dewey has shared some stories from a boy’s perspective which I hope to add. My cousin Jim Boelkins has written of the experience from the Grand Rapids family perspective as they supported us with goods, letters and much more. My sister Julia, five years my junior, doesn’t remember much and seems to enjoy seeing those years through my eyes—she was almost the same age when we left as I was when we arrived. Others of you may have your own stories, questions or corrections—Marty, the next two chapters are about you! When I’m finished I am hoping to add a few photos and submit my story to an agent or publisher. If I don’t succeed in that, I’ll publish it myself, the advantage of which is speed: I can have it out in under six months, whereas a commercial publisher will take two years.

Your thoughts?

The Collector

Chapter Twelve: Sands Home

The next summer and those that followed were spent in a more comfortable apartment at Sands Home, a sprawling two-story building that had been occupied by retired British soldiers and now housed the families of missionaries. Our family grew unusually intimate, living and sleeping in one big square room, parents on a double rope-woven charpai, we children in bunks. A fireplace with a mantel where caught moths and tarantulas died slow deaths in killing jars heated the room with wood bought from wood wallahs or pine cones collected by us children for five annas a bag. An enclosed porch served as a living and dining room, its many windows allowing Mother to keep an eye on us children playing ring toss or badminton in the adjoining courtyard. I don’t remember the kitchen but the bathroom with its pull-chain toilet, wash basin and oval tin tub filled with water heated on the kitchen stove inspired apocryphal stories probably cooked up by my dad, including the one about the python entering through the drain hole in the outside wall, sliding around the tub containing my astonished mother, and, with a wink, slipping back out. Except for the wink, which I suspected Dad added for effect, I believed this story into my seventies, until mother assured me it was fiction.

“The Hills” gave me time with my Dad I never got in Lahore. Although sometimes called upon to deliver someone’s baby on a kitchen table, attend the sad “clinic” that each morning appeared at a respectful remove from our door, or even sew up his own hand when he cut it opening a tin of powdered milk, nevertheless had time to kill when he came to see us in Murree. A restless man, he soon was cheering his family along woodsy trails, taking pictures, pointing out plants and wildlife, or teaching us silly camp songs he learned during his youthful summers in Michigan.

But what he loved most was butterflies. My father shared his lifelong love of lepidoptera with the joy of a boy skipping school, and I took to it with a consuming passion that proved me my father’s daughter. What enthralled me, after the precious time I spent with my dad, wasn’t so much the butterflies as the process of their collection: the preparation, stalking, catching, preserving and displaying. I fell in love with the hunt: the lurch my body took when my eyes flicked onto a rare pair of wings, the focus of a chase more compelling than fiction, the shouts of triumph after so many misses, the sorting, arranging and identifying, the small distinctions, the tiny but significant details.

My father lavished the particular care to butterflies he was reputed to take with his patients. The whole family made our equipment. My mother hemmed white net bags that we children slipped onto coat hangers Dad forced from triangles to loops and fastened with medical adhesive tape to the severed ends of broomsticks. Dad covered granules of potassium cyanide with cotton, then plaster of Paris (later cast around my brother’s broken arm), pouring inches into our lethal glass “killing jars”.

We took to the woods and meadows, waving our nets like flags, sneaking up on bushes like tigers, tensing, swooping, then breathlessly checking to see if we “Got it!” Softly, from the outside of the net, pinching with my left hand the slim, trembling thorax and shutting the beating wings, I caught the halved creature between the forefinger and thumb of my right hand, carefully, so not to smudge the black-and-turquoise iridescence of a swallowtail or the scarlet freckles of a tangerine skipper no bigger than a bee. My delicate catch did not die in a crow’s black beak or wrapped in a chameleon’s sticky tongue. A small girl, not to be found a sissy, reluctantly but firmly pressed out its little life, dropping it in the killing jar, screwing on the lid, leaving it there until she was sure it was dead.

With butterflies, that time was mercifully short—five minutes, perhaps, or ten. Moths, too fat to be pinched unconscious, died slower deaths—hours, sometimes days. I did not like the moths, their bulging bodies, hairy as rodents, too big to be bugs, their wardrobe unappealing and drab. Dad seemed to love them though, as if they proved the dark miraculous. He caught the moths at night, as they beat like hands against our screens, or he painted molasses on the trunks of trees, where lunas, sphinxes, huge brown cecropias and suede-like polyphemus moths got stuck in his sweet lures.

Quickly, before our butterflies stiffened, we took them indoors and closed the windows, lest a stray breeze blow the feathery wings off the table. We laid each specimen “belly-up” on a cork board and “stretched” it into a show-off pose, anchoring the wings with thin black pins and half-inch strips cut from index cards. After a few days, we arranged our prizes, now thoroughly dried, on milkweed fluff we’d gathered ourselves, or surgical batting from the hospital, then enclosed them under black-framed glass. A dozen of these cases, big as trays, inhabitants intact and only slightly paled, into my fifties filled a wall over my bed.

I couldn’t kill a butterfly now, but the collection bug bit hard. I learned to spot leaflike chrysalises camouflaged in boughs of trees and shrubs, and monarchs’ translucent jade cups hanging behind the leathery milkweed leaves. I gathered these like fruit and brought them home, along with silken moth cocoons, arranging them on the window sill and checking each morning to see what might have emerged: a yellow swallowtail, perhaps, or a black and orange monarch, a spotted wood nymph, or the narrow gray wings of a hawk moth. I gathered caterpillars in shoeboxes, lady bugs in jars, fireflies in the sphere of my cupped hands, pinecones in burlap bags recently emptied of walnuts. When I turned nine, my father, recognizing in me a clear inheritance, gave me his boyhood stamp collection, to which throughout my youth I made many colorful additions soaked from the remains of his voluminous international and Pakistani mail, or ordered from the tiny ads in the backs of magazines.

In the decades since childhood I have been on the prowl, eyes peeled for it didn’t matter much what—wildflowers, striped fabrics, egg cups, unusual fruits.  I discovered early that nothing is what it seems, nor will I really see it—whether butterfly, lake, button, or book—until I have arranged it out of context with others of its kind. The proximity of similar objects, ideas, even memories, lifted from their comfortable habitats never fails to reveal to me distinctions too subtle for me before. Patterns emerge as I re-sort a collection again and again, like playing cards: by size, color, shape, degree of beauty.
Now, writing of my life, I treasure hunt within, spy on myself, like a surgeon who knows the shape and color of what we carry but which most of us have never actually seen. I, who thought I knew myself after years of Freudian, Gestalt and Jungian therapies, explore the body of my life and find I have much to learn. Memories merge into specialized museums: lovers, fruits, books written, books read, risks taken, loved and hated shoes, entomological encounters, hairdos, bedrooms, fears, wounds, flowers, havens, trees, meals, scents. Patterns emerge, shaping my several careers, two marriages, motherhood and, despite frequent unwelcome outcomes, my irascible susceptibility to enchantment.

Strawberry Bank

Strawberry Bank is my first memory of woods and wild things. Perched atop a steep hill above dense green rain-fed forest, the rickety corrugated metal shack which was to house five families that summer commanded a million-dollar view of snow-topped Himalayas. Strawberry Bank sat up so high that we could observe an approaching storm from above, clouds roiling up the mountain, fog-fingers curling closer and closer, until we were caught in a fist of rain that would pour down, Dad said, “like pitchforks.” We might have stayed there longer than that season if we hadn’t had to boil all the chapais to get the bedbugs out, or if there had been electricity or running water, or if the roof hadn’t served so poorly that David had to cook under an umbrella. Rain came down like giants dumping dishwater, plinking and plopping into our buckets and pans.

In her recent memoir, Thirty-three Year & Twenty-one Homes: Across the World to Michigan (Beaver Island Arts, 2014), my mother describes our arrival and first days in this Murree home in such horrifying detail that I wonder why I can’t remember any of that, or even what the inside looked like. I only remember the woods. Could this place and our snug Chicago home or the concrete sidewalks I had so recently tread to my brick Chicago school exist on the same planet? Strawberry Bank didn’t even resemble our new Lahore home.

We’d left Lahore for Murree soon after our arrival in Pakistan and only days after Dad and Majid delivered the Ford from Karachi. I hadn’t had time yet to fall in love with our well-kept Lahore home, its tall trimmed hedges wrapping securely around the large yard, its mali-tended gardens lavish with pink and yellow lantana, papery fuchsia bougainvillea, velvety purple pansies. The carrots I would steal from our kitchen garden had not yet been planted and the wars between the black and red ants at the end of the packed dirt driveway were yet undiscovered.

What did I care about bedbugs, leaks and lice? I must have been afraid—or at least my mother must have—but apparently, I never got bit by spiders or snakes, never suffered malaria like my brother and aunt, or amoebic dysentery like my mother, never had a stray dog break my nose like my sister. I like to think I was made immune by enchantment.

Strawberry Bank

I spent a summer at Strawberry Bank
where the old roof leaked and the walls smelled dank,
where thread-legged spiders spun traps in the door
and in through the drain of the bathroom floor
snuck snakes as long as your leg, or more!
But there weren’t any strawberries.

All summer long I made my search
from the rain-wet weeds to the sky-high perch
I found in a ladder-limbed long-needled pine
where everything I saw was mine
from the mountain view to not one sign
of berries at Strawberry Bank.

But the time flew by as soft as the fawn-
winged moth I caught one day at dawn.
It was stuck in the sap of an injured tree
next to a luna moth pale as the tea
I brewed from the sharp green peppermint leaves
that grew instead of strawberries.

The air was thick with slick-winged birds
and leafy parrots and hairy herds
of moneys screaming jokes and lies
at mango-colored butterflies
and other unexpected spies
like me, looking for strawberries.

I fingered toadstools damp as skin
and snails with trails of gelatin
and deep rich pelts of moss, and toads
that hiccupped in the mucky roads
where I walked home with lumpy loads
of everything but strawberries.

And then one day, late in July
near some violets brushed with dye
and under leaves pitched up like tents,
I found them—thick and wild and dense,
strawberries, sweet as an audience
and a summer’s promise kept.

Postscript to The 1949 Ford

My brother Dewey Blocksma, younger than me by a year-and-a-half, notes that Dad did not fly to Karachi but took the train along with Majid. He spent a frustrating week trying to get a pile of paperwork approved to allow the Ford through customs. When Dad noticed that one particularly stubborn official suffered from a nasty skin problem, he gave the man a tube of penicillin that he kept in his pocket. A few days later, the man’s condition cleared and the Ford cleared as well. In the late 1940s, antibiotics were relatively rare. Dad always carried a tube or two, sent to him by my Uncle Dick in Grand Rapids, Michigan—Dad’s brother-in-law Dr. Richard Boelkins. Those antibiotics may have saved not only our 1949 Ford and countless patients, but the lives of Dewey and our younger sister Julia as well.