Sunday, May 21, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 306: Biomythography - Note 55, Riva Road

Biomythography 55

Riva Road

When I was two, I got to fly in a commercial passenger airplane. At least, I think I was on a commercial flight. The seats were mostly empty. Industrial carpet lined the corridors. The seats were made of a light grey fabric. My mother and I had a row to ourselves. 

After takeoff, which is when my memory fragments begin, an older woman saw me in the aisle and offered to take me from my mother. At the time, I thought she was someone's grandmother. Maybe she had reached an age where she didn't have grandchildren but wanted them. In any case, my mother was eager to have a break from me. The older woman had games with her, or maybe she bugged the airline staff to provide a coloring book, and she encouraged me to talk and draw for a while. At some point, I started feeling tired. Scribbling colors felt exhausting. The woman noticed. She stood up and called for my mother take me back. 

Logically, that would have been a flight between school years, when my mother left me with her mother in Annapolis.

My recollections of early times in Annapolis on my grandmother's porch are spotty. Images sometimes come to me of people sitting in chairs to catch the breeze. Often, I can't see the people but I know they are there, resting in chairs at the far corner of my memory's vision.

One of my strongest memories of the Annapolis home is the smell. My grandmother's cushioned furniture and her linens carried a distinctive scent that, later in life, I learned was lilacs. There was a mustiness underlying everything, too, and that was due to the home not having air conditioning. Not many places did. Porches and pools played central roles in daily summer life in Maryland. I don't think that house on Riva Road ever got central air installed, not even late in my childhood. One or two rooms got window units.

Fortunately, the front porch had been carefully made, large and covered on three sides by screens to keep out mosquitoes. There, family members could relax with an iced tea at the end of the workday. People would sit in their various spots, me on a footstool or wherever my grandmother said to use, and we would break the sharp ends off green beans, pop open pea pods, peel onions, cut tomatoes, or if we were lucky, shuck corn. In my early years there, I wasn't allowed to use a knife. I wasn't encouraged to take part in adult conversations. But breaking bean shells, gathering peas, or shucking corn were real options, and they were often requirements. My grandfather, who commonly enough seemed angry or impatient, showed a great deal of care about whether my hands were strong enough to shuck.

"I think that's the best you can do," he said as he reviewed my early work with corn. He plucked a few threads of silk out of the cob, nodded in approval, and put it in the pot.

Elsewhere around the property, my grandfather farmed an acre of unused land. It wasn't his to farm, technically, but it provided his family with seemingly a lot of food. The house fence and trellis provided grapes, which I ate from the vine. My grandmother scolded me to leave her some. Earlier in the year, I'd stuffed myself with their raspberries. I'd pulled up onions and eaten them from the ground. My uncles and I had spent an hour plucking and slurping honeysuckle flowers. In late summer, we harvested peas, beans, potatoes, rhubarb, cabbage, and lettuce.

"Save some for canning," my grandmother said about everything. 

I tried. Well, except for raspberries. Grandmother said she didn't like raspberry preserves. She didn't want to deal with the seeds. In contrast, I liked eating her grape jelly and yearned to see it made. It didn't happen often. Usually, I witnessed the creation of mason jars filled with mundane ingredients like green beans. Even the beans, though, became pale and mysterious during her canning process. They came out softer and easier to eat. 


When I was five or six, old enough to understand carpentry in theory, if not practice, I asked my grandfather about a screen on the porch. He had complained about it coming loose. 

"Can you fix it?" I asked.

"I built this whole dang house. Of course I can fix it. I can fix anything here."

Although I had been in the house for weeks or months at a time, he gave me a tour of the place. He showed me toilets and pipes he had taken from junkyards, cleaned, and installed himself. He demonstrated a hand drill, his hammer, his screwdrivers, and a hand saw. With those, a pair of snips, and a penknife, he had run scrap wires from room to room to provide power and lights. He had created joists and beams from previously used lumber or mis-cut unused pieces. We walked up a steep staircase, sized to fit the dimensions he could accommodate for the attic. He pointed from pipe to pipe down to the ground floor and into the septic tank, where he had set his own plumbing to drain. 

In the cellar, he showed me a fuse box, as ancient as his revived wiring. He licked his finger and stuck it in an empty socket above a nearby outlet. There was a pop and a spark.

"See? It's hot," he said. Then with a stern glance he added, "Don't you do that."

From these points of view - those of a child, of a man who had achieved enough to build a house, of the man's family members who grew up having enough food - the home had its part in a rural, middle-class existence. As I grew older, though, and became more aware of the family circumstances relative to other families, I began to feel differently. 

When I visited, seven people were living on one man's disability paycheck. It could grow to nine, ten, or more with other long-term guests. We slept two or three to a bedroom. My grandfather had squatted on someone else's property. He had built his house without permission, without permits, and without the required parts or tools. He fished and sometimes hunted nearby. He farmed the surrounding lands. No one stopped him. 

My mother's family doesn't like this point of view. My parents gave me shocked looks when I first expressed my thoughts about the wobbly foundations of my grandfather's rural lifestyle.

The Stockett family had considered themselves well-off. They had looked down on my father, who was penniless, without a father of his own, and often homeless during his childhood. From a certain point of view, though, they didn't have much more. My grandfather had squatted on his uncle's land because it was the forgotten holding of a violent relative who had killed his own son by knocking him from a roof during an argument. Living on the property was a risk. But my grandfather, nearly unemployable with epilepsy and fond of taking risks to prove himself, felt he had no choice. He volunteered for hard duty with the phone company, hanging wires where no one else would, taking risks in thunderstorms to meet deadlines.

After the fourth time he was hit by lightning on the pole, he was knocked to the ground and crippled long enough for the company to decide it was easiest to put him on disability. That gave him more time to build his house.

His was the self-made house in which I spent significant time during my childhood. 

To the Stocketts, my father was low born and poor, both true, but his poverty was worse than theirs mostly due to his homelessness and his lack of extended family. Their family was rich because it was connected to others, supported on its wobbly foundation by a community, and it formed part of a network of well-known people in their town.

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