Looking at the Sky
Spring’s moving in. Then summer. What I want is to be lying on my back in the long grass, looking at the sky.
It’s a small pleasure that reminds me intensely of my childhood, one of the sum of small, intense pleasures which, looking back, define my childhood. Like climbing trees, or the tang of home-made ginger beer, or cricket in the street, with a lamppost for the wicket. I’d forgotten how much I loved it—and why—until an incident several years ago, during my second summer in Virginia, when Virginia had just begun to feel like home. I was hiking in the Blue Ridge with my parents, who were visiting from London. I’d picked out a quiet woodland trail, without waterfalls or gorgeous views, but with a couple of creeks and an abundance of satisfying dips and climbs. It was not much traveled, generally, and that day we ran into no one else at all. About four miles into the hike, with my mom a few paces farther up the cliff and my dad a few ahead of her, I stepped back to take a photograph and toppled off the edge. My arms windmilled, my camera sailed into the ravine, my shoulders struck the slope. Clawing out for help, I found it: my left hand, amazingly, seized a one-inch stump and held there; my heels hooked onto a ledge just below the path. I could still see my parents, rounding a bend, between to the right higher cliff and an overhang of trees, and to the left a vista of treetops, horizons of hills, blue sky, small, scudding clouds. I called out to my mother, who called to my father, who came charging back to haul me to safety; I was actually so comfortable, felt so strangely at home, that his fearful urgency made me giggle. I may have been hanging upside down over a thirty foot slide, but the earth felt solid under my back, gritty and tufted with grass, and I was looking at the lovely sky…
I grew up at the edge of the Green Belt, on the outskirts of London. The gates to half a dozen parks swung open within a mile’s radius of us, and at the bottom of our street, alongside the highway from the city to the coast, was a strip of wilderness we called the Dump—so named because it was here, back of a clump of oak-apple trees, that the neighborhood wheeled and tipped its barrowloads of mown grass and hedge-clippings. By the time I was eight or nine one corner of it had become a gas station, but the rest stayed wilderness into my teens. It was big enough and unattractive enough to adults for a horde of pre-teenagers to romp half-naked in, hidden from sight by the dip in terrain, the oak-apples and the scrub brush, the immense elm trees. There, stretched out among the blazing poppies—or else wrestling with my red-haired Irish friend in the nearer parks—or climbing at sunset in a more distant park, large and thickly forested, to watch the town lights come on—I lived from one idle summer to another, learning the map of the sky.
As a schoolboy I had a number of quick-tempered friends who liked to wrestle with me, because I was competent, good-natured, and less interested than they in winning. I spent a lot of time on my back, gazing over their shoulders. We’d moved here when I was six, from barefoot South African December into English January. I’d never attended school before, never seen fog or snow, nor lodged in someone else's house, nor felt so lost. When winter relaxed into July I was run over by a tricycle and broke my leg. But by September, which that year was warm and fine, we were settled at last in a house of our own, and I was at a new school, with teachers and schoolmates I liked. Turning right at the bottom of our street (left took you by the dump, right led to the elementary school) I walked in every morning with three brothers, the sons of a professional wrestler. The youngest was my age. When we reached the grass verge beside the highway, he liked to throw me to the ground, and pin me neat as a moth. If ever I managed to turn him, his brothers without fuss corrected me. The earth stuck to my clothes, and I felt the long grass gather up round me like hands. Released, I would lie there still, minutely charting the wheeling sky, tile roofs and the tops of elms.
Compass and dimension of my new sweet home.
One of the two pieces of creative non-fiction I put in Mutt Spirituals. It was originally published as a "back page" piece in STYLE WEEKLY, to whom I also contributed two or three book columns. This month (September 2021), after several decades of service to our community as a free weekly newspaper, STYLE finally went out of business.
Gulls and Crows
for Dorothy Iona Watson Kannemeyer, 12/15/1922 - 11/22/2019
Sometimes I would leave my mother's bedside to stroll the streets of Eastbourne for an hour. Only to move my legs, to browse for books in the charity shops, to snap a few photographs of the local birds. Just gulls and crows, mostly, but such huge fat things, and I liked how they perched anywhere and everywhere; how they flapped and soared about me in great, sudden flights of fancy. My favorite walk down the pedestrian road through the shops to the sea and back seemed to be their favorite haunt also; the air above me buzzed like an airport.
My mother was 96, and dying. I'd come over from America to spend a month with her, and I was uncertain about the wisdom of flying back just because my plane ticket said to. My sister, my mother's principal family caretaker, would be out of the country for another week, and who knew if my mother would last that long? But then again, she might linger for a few months. The bout of pneumonia that landed her in the hospital during the second week of my stay seemed to have eased up, for now, but had it wholly relinquished hold? It was no sure thing. I made her cups of tea, sliced up bits of fruit, cooked some solid food and mostly couldn't get her to eat it. So instead I held her hand. I rubbed lotion on her bony flesh. We talked a lot, tenderly, if in circles; her memory was by now uncertain, and the pathways of her thought hovered and circled and came to pauses; took off again in odd little flurries; much like the flight patterns of the gulls.
She shifted as best she could between three places: her bed, the bathroom, and the den sofa. She thought it best to exercise her legs—I'm a fighter, I must fight, she might say, when she wasn't saying, I'm ready to die, you mustn't be sad, Derek, or even, Why is it taking so long? From the den's picture window she could peer down three stories at the bustle of a road. Cars and bicycles and foot traffic, the predictable, comfortable rhythms of any ordinary day. I'm never bored, she had used to say. There's always something to look at. At eye level, the gulls and the crows wheeled and swooped, sometimes as if right at us, before winging away. Sometimes, a flock of birds might fill the window—but then break off to settle on ledges and roofs and streetlamps, flitting from one to the other without apparent motive. Until the night fell, and they were gone.
I came to a decision. I was worn out. I arranged for extra care for my mother and I caught my plane. My sister had decided to fly home early. My very pregnant niece was figuring out a way to come down from London. At my first layover, I got an email. Having seemed, as I left, to be on the verge of recovery, my mother had now sagged back into a final decline. It took her only two days more to die. Why must it take so long? she asked my sister. My niece held her hand as her breath failed. Some others showed up, to help mourn and manage. As I sagged into my armchair an ocean away, waiting for the funeral arrangements to summon me back. Sorting through these pictures of gulls and crows.
Written November 23, 2019, and published by“Life in 10 Minutes” on December 3,
2019, together with a November 6 photograph of Terminus Road. Eastbourne, UK..