Sunday, April 10, 2011

Thumb print ... ?

This is one of the key images governing my life, I think.  And I can recall precisely when it became so.  Though there's something about time with me that defies logic.  I only became aware of it late in life at a moment while watching my father -- who spent the last ten years of his life totally blind -- quietly going about making simple household repairs in the usual way -- by meticulously measuring with his thumb.  At some point during his long life he had determined that from the last crease to the tip was exactly one inch.  By so doing he made of himself a physical tool of mathematics. 

I remember that somewhere before my tenth birthday (which places this incident in 1931 -- mid-Depression), Dad and I were building a (dry) fish pond in the side garden on a summer afternoon.  There was no money for running water into the pond from the house, but nonetheless, we were working diligently on this project that would feature an island and miniature wooden bridge, and that -- as we worked -- there were always "the lessons," delivered as though gospels from on high.  I remember the sand, gravel, and bag of cement next to the galvanized water buckets; the scraping sounds of mixing with the hand trowel as we stacked the rocks in place, and then filled in with the wet mixture with Dad keeping up a patter of conversation all the while.

A nice reminder that beauty is its own reason for being, and that even a dry fish pond is justifiable if viewed as art (but this is an assessment of a mature woman -- remembering).  I have no idea what sacrifices were necessary for us to have that little pond surrounded as it was by iris, tulips, and daffodils each spring throughout my childhood.  It was sitting beside that little pond in the shade of an almond tree that I discovered Edna St. Vincent Millay in a book that arrived in a box from the nearby Salvation Army store that mother haunted at least weekly for bargains.

At that time our proud father was working for the Southern Pacific railroad as a lunch car attendant, and would be gone for days at a time with 2 or 3 days layover between runs.  With two sisters and Mom to compete with, time with him was precious, and to have it, alone, a privilege, indeed.

But this was late in life, and this always productive man was now in his early nineties, blind, and partially bedridden -- but was still going about his days being the "man of the house." As I watched, he was installing a new door knob and lock.  I stood fascinated watching the familiar "thumbing" that I now remembered as one of the lessons of the fish pond, and can still hear his voice as he said:

"My father taught me to measure carefully, and to never repeat the process.  If you can't trust yourself to cut it means that you didn't do it right the first time.  Never re-trace your steps."  

His father was the final authority.  Back in New Orleans, Louis Charbonnet was a celebrated engineer, ornamental iron worker, and millwright, and Dad had apprenticed under him since his early teens.

I'm reminded that -- when invited to write an article for the California Historian (something I'd never done for publication) - it was a complete disaster.  I could not edit my work.  Once written, all efforts to alter a single word met with failure.  I remember how -- when I tried to re-arrange sentences or paragraphs, delete for reasons of redundancy, -- the words would take me in some new direction and I could never re-connect the new text with the old.  Frustration caused me to finally submit the (far too long!) article to the editors with permission to "edit to fit," just to make the deadline.  To my total surprise, in a few weeks the editor called to say that they were not only not going to edit the piece, but were planning to run it as the cover article in its entirety, so could she stop by to select some photos?  Could it be that I'd "measured right the first time," and that it was not the lack of editing ability?  I recognize now that I'd chalked it up to a deficit when it should have been credited as an asset.  How often have I done that, and am I doing so now?

Also, not only have my music and lyrics always arrived fully formed and never change, but I remember that once written, they remain an accurate measure of the frame of mind in which they were created, and that I know that were they written even a few hours later, they would have been different songs.  They have always captured accurately for me the moment of their creation.

I've rarely retraced my steps; driven past the places where I've formerly lived -- even to the East Oakland home where I grew up and where that pond we built was created; nor have I shadowed my son, David, as he has taken over Reid's Records; or ever tried to revive my "artist" self from former lives (my guitar sits silently in its case -- as it has for several decades) until son, Bob, visits and wants to share something he's written); or, rarely read back through this blog, except to add a photo or two, and never to edit.

"Once measured,  cut and move on."

Wisdom of the Thumb Print, and a hint at just how early in life values are formed, and that children really are the sum total of all that has gone before.  One day someone will determine through proper study and peer review that we are, indeed, the product of genetic coding  --  that there well may be some esoteric forms of accumulated wisdom or gifts (yes, even the ability to bend time) that span generations -- and that -- at some point we will learn to use such knowledge wisely for the benefit of humankind, and move into the future less fearful. 

But I'm not quite there yet ... .