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Obituary

He died. He wasn’t supposed to do that. I had counted on his being there, a living part of a painful past, a bookmark holding, marking, stopping time at the place where I stopped and everything else went on.

* * * * *

He had become a great man in his backwater town, a veteran, wounded, leg amputated below the knee, his hand mangled when an aircraft tractor’s wheel dipped into an open man-hole and slid off the carrier deck into a quiet harbor mooring. Other than a mighty splash, there were no military heroics involved. At 2AM an officer had wanted a bar of soap and ordered a PFC to go get it. Jim Taylor, the nearest swabbie available, shook off sleep, snapped a crisp salute, and took off across the carrier deck. He might have walked or even run since “the goddam SOB was so hot to hit the shower”, he groused, but the farm-boy in him sent him scrambling onto the nearest tractor, the quickest way to get him back to his bunk where he intended to finish a sexy dream that had been getting right juicy.

He reached for the tractor-light switch, but the moon was near full and mightily pretty, so he didn’t bother with illumination. He and the tractor headed out, taking a short cut to the supply bay. He might have seen and avoided the circular void, plainly outlined in the moonlight, had he been paying attention to the surface ahead, but the moon was full and had a ring around it. Must be gonna’ rain, he mused. The diesel engine was warming to the task and picked up rpms as he tweaked fuel feed.
Then all Hell broke loose. The machine flipped, and he was under it, sliding along the stippled decking. His leg was gone, but that didn’t register yet. Lady Luck hadn’t completely abandoned him though. As the big machine tipped, rolled, hesitated like Wiley Coyote, then hit the water, it left him behind, bleeding, screaming, and yes, howling into the moon-lit night. The watch, mercifully alert, sounded the alarm, and James Charles Taylor began the living of a whole new life.

Fifty-eight years later, the crowds that attended the funeral home viewing came for any number of reasons. Most assumed him to be a war hero, a wounded veteran. Veteran he was, but not actually a hero, more a victim of a soap shortage in naval officers’ quarters. If he could claim fame at all, it would be because of the wound to his hand. His pinky finger disappeared in the mishap, and the entire top of his left hand was scraped away, tendons and all. The surgeons at Portsmouth Naval Hospital saw him as an opportunity to attempt a procedure that was benefiting from much speculation but lacking demonstrated proof. Their theory postulated that specific tissue types could be induced to transmogriphy if placed in operation actually performing the newly assigned task. The doctors harvested strips of skin and connected them to the attachment points from the three remaining knuckle bones to their corresponding wrist bones.

The surgical team exchanged satisfied glances over white masks, breathed, rolled tight shoulders, and resumed. The arrangement looked promising but needed a living lid. So the bare newly created tendon array took up residence under a layer of belly fat and skin, where it was sewn in situ and remained for many months while the covered strips of skin were duped into becoming tendons. In Jim’s words: “It’s a god-damned fucking nuisance walkin’ around with your god-damned fuckin’ hand sewn into your god-damned son-of-a-bitchin’ stomach.” But finally fingers began to twitch, then wiggle. When the hand was at last cut free, taking reallocated fat and skin with it, the fingers slowly began to articulate purposefully. Jim had become a hero, a guinea pig to a select group of US Navy surgeons, and to many other people, military and civilian alike, who benefited from his painful experience.

Discharged from the Navy as officially disabled, he snapped up a plum position as clerk in his home town’s state liquor store, where as a life-long teetotaler, he was an ideal candidate and served capably until retirement. James had no scholarly ambitions, and didn’t inherit his dad’s idyllic dream of tilling the Taylor Family Farm.

Although officially disabled, he continued to be an able deer and squirrel hunter, scrambling up and down rough mountain terrain, his stump patched with moleskin, cushioned in a wool stocking, and seemingly wedded to his prosthesis. Even with the prosthetic leg standing in the bedroom corner, he could get around single-footed with equal agility as many a man with two. Seven live births indeed attest to multiple varieties of prowess.

Jim Taylor was definitely a man’s man. He was born a natural storyteller, but it was in the Navy that he learned to cuss. After his accident, with its ensuing physical and psychological trauma, he patently perfected the art of embellishing his dissemination of oral tradition to near Tourette’s level. His family and friends tried to get him to clean up his speech, but his colorful vocabulary didn’t trouble customers stopping by the liquor store for a pint. He had his faults, but people are forgiving, and he was a man who was easy to like, cut of sturdy simple cloth. Men of Jim Taylor’s ilk seldom ever die alone. He was loved.

Having sired seven children under wedlock, and contributed to rumors of others about whom legitimacy is not discussed, he enjoyed dandling a passel of grand-babies on whichever knee was working best on any given day. His long-suffering second wife, sons and daughters, along with assorted grown grandchildren, themselves working on the next generation of Taylors, showed up to keep the old man company during his last days. During the time before he gave it up, his nursing home room became a temporary happy hospice, while hundreds of family and town-folk meandered in and out, paying their respects and exchanging “dad stories”.

As Jim’s ex-wife, I have plenty of “ex-stories”. I had never thought of Jim Taylor as a great man, veteran or not. To me he was the irascible spouse who seemed determined to spoil my dream of life in a peaceful green West Virginia mountain hollow. It featured a loving extended family, wholesome community, and freedom to create a romantically idealized life. I adored the farm, the people, the animals, the machines, and the march of the seasons. Always the writer, I waxed poetic about autumn color and sprouting crocus.

While we were still figuring out the mechanics of sex, things went as well as can be expected when neither party understood the concept of distaff orgasm. Indeed, I had borne three healthy babes before accidentally experiencing that ultimate mind/body experience, all by myself. Though remarkably well endowed, Jim had yet to figure out how to utilize his assets. In his defense, I was little help; I was painfully embarrassed about sex in general. I lied to my in-laws, insisting that nothing untoward had happened between Jim and me. It wasn’t until I was six months along that I finally admitted that a little something just might have indeed taken place.

Most problematical, Jim developed a mean streak. If I was winning at a card game, he would turn the table over. Though he never struck me, he routinely strapped Dale, our eldest, with his belt. The end he chose to use depended on the level of his rage. Too often the buckle end won out.
In the early spring he would turn the cattle in to graze in our yard creating a knee deep muddy mire. I bitched and moaned effectively enough that he strung up an electric fence around the house to keep cow tracks and green steamy pies off the porches and walkways to the barn lot. When the children went out to play, they faced electrified barbed wire. When I tried to warn Dale about the hot fence, Jim shut me up and waited for him to grab it. Then he enjoyed a great belly-laugh at the three-year-old’s expense, burned hand and humiliation aside.

Leaving was imperative. Eventually I realized that to leave I must arrange for work and income. The night before I was to go to Parkersburg and be tested for IQ and job aptitudes, Jim stayed awake the entire night. Every time I fell asleep, he kicked me out of bed. The floor was a long way down and hard. Too stubborn to let him win, I took the tests exactly on schedule. Sleepless, but grimly determined, I scored 155 on mechanical. Engineering had been the right place for me, to which forty years in manufacturing automation, aerospace equipment design, and medical device development later attested.

Surprisingly, I didn’t flee the hollow until I had to. Our third child, a son I named Lane Byron, was six weeks old when the casing on our water well gave out. Tap water was tainted with dirt, grass, and no doubt dung from the cattle grazing above the well head. I had our kitchen water tested, and the result came back as “not potable”. I showed Jim the test and begged for bottled water. at least for the baby. His response: “The God damned little fucking son of a bitch can drink it if I can.” The next day I took the children and left__finally. A local garment factory hired me to sew darts in women’s blouses. Lane was only two months old when I started work, and I ran home during lunch every day to nurse him. It’s a marvel that my milk didn’t curdle.

What surprised me, when I got the call that confirmed Jim’s passing, was that I felt no satisfaction in having out-lived him. What came back to me clear as sieved honey was the sweet quiet times we had shared before he was maimed and began his radical disintegration of personality. I had so appreciated his honest persona after a miserable year of putting up with arrogant Carnegie Tech engineering freshmen. Their idea of conversation was to compare the relative merits of each other’s slide rules. “Longest” won every time. I had discovered the advantage of using a round rule, a device that speeds calculation since each step need not be re-set before performing the next one, but they laughed at my silly round rule. It was a phallic issue; I lost. No wonder Jim, a handsome, sweet, down-to-earth farm boy, looked good to me that golden summer of 1955. On a high school vacation, I had been visiting a neighboring farm owned by my step-Aunt Winnie, and had made some nice memories with the farm-boy who lived across the river and through the woods. Halfway through my first year at Carnegie Tech, my father had gone bankrupt, and I completed the year by re-upping for the debt myself. My step-mother filed for divorce, and Daddy was staying in a serial progression of motel rooms, so I had no-where to go. I crawled to Aunt Winnie’s West Virginia farm, to clean house, cook, milk cows, and make commercial butter in the mornings; I learned to drive tractor, cut, tead, rake, bale hay, and work the garden in the afternoons. Evenings were for reading and writing letters to Jim. Ever since that memorable summer vacation, Jim and I had corresponded. When, months after his accident he proposed from Portsmouth Naval Hospital by air mail, I accepted. How could I say no?

We were a matched pair of walking wounded; he with his amputation rage; me with my disappointment at being forced out of engineering school for lack of funds. It’s amazing we put up with each other for as long as we did.
How could I actually grieve a divorced and adversarial husband after fifty-three bitter years apart? I don’t know the answer, but I did. I gave him my share of tears. As soon as I learned that my first love had passed from my world, all I could remember was how one summer I met a boy, and began to learn what love is all about. It was Jim who died, but I too, watched the images of our early gentle friendship flowing past, recollection of happiness long forgotten. After that last agonal breath, I picture Jim striding purposefully on two good legs toward his own tunnel of light, muttering, “Well, I’ll be god damned and go to hell__’er, make that heaven”!

__Dorothy Jeanette Martin 7/27/2013

Beauty

I forgot to put the tarp away, and morning found a dozen or so little brown birds using it as a bird bath. Last night’s rain had pooled in its folds. For me the big blue tarp had been yesterday’s play, a vehicle for dragging leaves from lawn to curb for city pickup. Now sun’s first rays conspired with daylight’s first cup of brew to warm my hands as the whole happy scene warmed my spirit.

One bird’s coloration set it apart from the others. It was light beige, graduating to a blush of peach that warmed the fat round breast; Colors often visually tease senses other than sight. It fluffed its feathers, a fine adjustment to body temperature. The downy softness mimicked the texture of a Zen watercolor.

It’s exquisite, I thought, so perfectly beautiful! A small tiara of charcoal brown topped the bird’s head, the high chroma flowing down its face, capitulating as a sharp, perfectly sculpted beak. The contrast of textures, colors and shapes spoke to whatever it is in humans that transmogrifies perception of beauty into awe. My exhale breathed a thank you, for an incarnate world so ready to express spirit as joy.

Birdie hopped and pecked, playing with the shards of ice filming the puddles. It approached my window, and in one bold flutter, lit on my windowsill, luminous eyes meeting my gaze. Then, with a cock of its head and a flurry of feathers, it was gone. Is it possible that even such a small creature might recognize and appreciate admiration? The delight of this experience was all over me, a prickling shimmer of gooseflesh. Life often serves up feasts of beauty and then, in fits of bliss and blessing, gives us vision to see and honor them.

I once witnessed such a gift at the Ohio State Fair – a botanical exhibit. It was simply a single perfect white orchid, at the apogee of its bloom, displayed against black velvet. A halogen spot coaxed the flower’s natural luminescence into a glow impossible to summon from any but a living thing. I listened: that flower enunciated purity to me with an unvoiced clarity. This beauty was too great for the sense of sight alone to perceive. I needed to hear, smell and touch it as well. This manifestation I named, “The Beauty that Teaches Love.” It was welcome to my tears – my gift.

Once I witnessed another kind of beauty through the glass wall of a hospital maternity ward. Naked under a yellow lamp, prophylactic against jaundice, the new baby boy lay sleeping on his back, confident of his place in the world, arms thrown back, legs akimbo. My son stood staring at this, his first son, his promise of forever come for a meet and greet. A big red-haired man, tall and well-muscled, with a growing-up history as a star running back, he commanded the scene. His maturation dwarfed what was actually a big newborn. The nurses had hastily draped a hospital gown over Dad’s clothing so he might enter the ward. His shoulders sloped, arms hung flaccid with awe and acceptance that such grace had touched him. He watched a long while, prayers of pride and love unspoken but written on his face. Then he turned and grinned at me through the glass, his eyes a-twinkle but liquid with unshed tears. He mouthed, “Look Mom!” I did indeed look and delighted in what I saw. I loved them both, father and son, completely.

Grief, like love, must be learned. I was getting acquainted with loss when as a five year old, enchanted with the possibilities of drama, I made a casket for my very dead pet turtle and held a reptilian funeral. Mother and I buried him under the willow sapling in our yard so he could live again someday in the life of a great weeping tree. Perhaps we are given small gifts of loss so we can learn to give way to the Great Death, when what is taken from us is what we cannot bear to lose.

Perhaps the only true measure of faith is the grace with which we accept loss, in celebration that we have lived and loved and experienced beauty. In the energy-matter push-pull that creates metaphor from the mystery of the universe, how grand that we are players in this dance of the cosmos! Occasionally we glimpse how incredibly beautiful we are! The far-flung nebulae, that make of the night sky a field of diamonds, are mirrored in infinite microcosm of ever smaller worlds that inhabit the universes of infinite diminution. “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of Glory, Lord of Love!” Beethoven heard, not with his ears full of silence, but with the music of his mind and heart. As a gift to the ages, he captured a stray string of notes and shaped it into the enchantment of his Ninth Symphony. Perhaps the silence was necessary so he could sense the music of the spirit.

With sensing ears, but lacking the deaf master’s musical facility, I heard a melody so lovely that it made all of Heaven’s angels weep. She was my daughter, God’s gifts of life, of love, and then all too soon, of death. Her small life was only a breath in, and a breath out, a single blossom buoyed on the inscrutable tides of Wisdom, which gives and takes but never fails to cherish and fulfill.

Remembering and celebrating
Melanie Ray Taylor
Born October 2, 1960
Died April 11, 1963

Buried Treasure

The two ancient cedar trees have grown together, meeting over the front porch steps of the old house. I part them just enough to climb through. The porch floor is iffy, many of the boards rotting, some even having crumbled and fallen through tangles of spider webs into the dark abyss. Who knows what waits there? Copperheads? Black-widows? It’s safer keeping to the periphery where weight is supported by the much overbuilt footings Grandpa had fashioned out of his collection of fossils and geological finds appropriated on his travels.

The front door stands ajar. Local rowdies have long ago broken in and helped themselves to all the old furniture. Even Grandma’s rocking chair, worth nothing on the local “We buy junk; We sell antiques” market, has been carted off to who knows what oblivion. It would have at best been good for kindling, but I would love to have it just to remember her sitting and rocking, rubbing swollen knuckles on her old hurting hands, and murmuring “I wish I had every-thin’ done”. One arm of the rocker broken beyond aesthetic repair had been salvaged with a bolt, a quarter-twenty flat washer, and a length of baling wire.

The ancient bed, where several generations of Reynolds and then Martins had been conceived and ultimately delivered, is gone, leaving a large unworn rectangle in the corner. Even the old wood stove is conspicuous in its absence, leaving only a gaping maw of blackened stovepipe protruding from the wall. Nothing holds my interest in the stripped front bedroom but memories, so I head for the door that leads to the parlor.

It resists my pressure, hip shoves, and even a hard kick, but finally I’m in. Stacked up beyond are crates and boxes of electronics journals, as well as piles of individual issues that have been dumped out by the scalawags in their joyous creation of this monumental mess. My Dad, who never discarded an electronics reference source, had long before he died, stored his precious stash in the old parlor. Now his once neatly packed and stacked boxes are a metaphor for chaos. My stomach sinks. I am glad, so very glad, that he didn’t have to witness this desecration of what he had so valued.

I want to find something of personal meaning to keep and treasure. But how? Where? I’ll never be able to sort through it all. Discouraged, I pick my way across the room to the fireplace and sit on the raised hearth. I close my eyes and retreat to a place of no thought, just being__ breathing. Suddenly I’m up, slip-sliding through slick magazine covers and staggering to a spot that seems to be calling to me. I kneel and begin to dig, tossing aside volume after volume of out-of-date material that had once represented state-of-the-art. I dig all the way down to linoleum, uncovering a small red box. It’s a standard package for top-tear bank checks. I reach for it with both hands and yank off the lid. It’s mine, left from years ago when my Dad and I had collaborated on a new concept wound suction pump, and I had invented an improved mammary implant using silicone gel and Emerson & Cuming Eco-Spheres. Sweet memories come flooding back. Inside the box is a Polaroid snapshot of one of my engineering drawings speckled with red sticky dots. Each dot had called attention to a small change that was needed before the drawing could be declared finalized, ready to publish. Under the photo is a head of matured wheat that my sister, Leslie, had tucked behind my favorite piece of wall art. The painting had given me the pleasure of beauty while working at my desk, creating side by side with Daddy, thinking up wild and wacky widgets, a lifetime dream on its way to fulfillment. The wheat reminds me of a future harvest, wished for and hoped for, a gift from Leslie, the little sister I loved but hadn’t really tried yet to know, the one who was very much afraid of spiders. I wonder if she still is afraid of them.

There is no need to look further. I slip out the back door clutching my box and wondering how it was that I could have been drawn almost magically through a roomful of detritus to that small buried box of memories and dreams. There is surely more to living in a physical world than can be elucidated by rational thought alone.

__Dorothy Jeanette Martin 10/9/2012

Perversion

My cat is an essay in perversion. It’s not all my fault. I had help raising him. It was my Collie, Maggie, who nursed and nurtured him in everything maternal but milk. Maggie and I share a tendency toward bountiful hair. She, born to romp the icy plain of Prince Edward Island, rolling in the many names of snow that define that bleak coastal expanse, and I, who thanks to some wild wooly gene, grow hair fast as a naughty weed. She and her siblings brought life to that frozen Canadian shore as sure as she brought life to me a good bit farther south.  When she arrived in her air transport crate at the relatively tropical latitude of Roanoke, Virginia, her undercoat was so thick it couldn’t be parted to reveal skin. She looked like the promise of some arctic sled puppy waiting to grow into her harness and head for Nome.

Soon the intelligence of her physiology arranged a molt, and she dropped an amazing excess of that glorious load. Even in the most challenging of Roanoke Valley winters, she never regained her puppy coat grandeur. But it was more than enough to satisfy the psychic longings of the five week old rescue kitten I acquired one spring, having spent a long dark winter needing someone, something, some living anything soft and cuddly to love.

I named him Espresso after his rich black glossy full-bodied coat and his whole-bodied, whole-psyche willingness to give himself up to his yearnings. Maggie sniffed and goosed his little round exit sphincter with her cold intelligent nose and straightaway recognized a baby in need of mothering, while Espresso, recognizing a good thing when he found it, dug in and began a long frustrating search for milk and Mom. Finding instead a delicious warmth amid a lush jungle of dog hair, he accepted a warm, full belly, compliments of a plain old standard cat bowl, and settled for the love of a Collie-dog nanny.

Of course with all that canine mothering he thought he was a dog. He went for walks with the family, the two humans, the Collie and the Bichon Frize. We presented a strange assortment of animalia to the natural fauna of the Roanoke countryside. Maggie, ever mother, stood patiently while Espresso wound in and out about her legs, spinning a happy abstraction of good will.

In the course of things, Maggie went away, her absence mourned by cat and human alike. Espresso and I, truly an odd couple, grew even closer, making of an old friendship, a newly awakened need, a raging mutual desire for comfort and solace. Dog gone, now it was the cat that usurped that “doggone” cold place in the bed, making of it a warm island of happiness, small but mighty.

Snuggling the feline body against the isolation of a cold winter night, clever mechanical thermostat adjusted down to stretch resources  in favor of eggs and peanut butter, milk and bread, gasoline and medicine, a new feeling makes an entrance on little cat feet. A living creature pressed against tautness of breast and body speaks of givingness as need. Memory of milk, long dry, lets down as virtual hormonal angst, wanting__wanting to be given. Glands activate. Oxitocin pours into streams of coursing blood. Brain tastes and translates primal need. Memory wakens, recalling nights of hard young bodies twined in silent satisfaction, floating islands of fulfillment on an ocean of animal intent. Now I know why spinsters and little old ladies keep cats.

All this is unremarkable until Espresso equates my thick messy head of hair with his memories of Maggie. He buries his happy nose into the graying blonde tangle and kneads bread lustily while his thoughts drift back to being a kitten at Maggie’s hairy teat. He becomes relentless in his expression of adoration and need. It demonstrates how strange and wonderful is this world of living, loving creatures. My cat is most assuredly a pervert, but he loves me. I might as well relax and enjoy it.

2012 Glee

2012 Glee

I can thank my mother, Mary Opal, for teaching me to love music. She demonstrated for me the possibility of spirit as a vehicle of expression. I saw her as a living goddess of music, of beauty, of art, of everything filled with light and life.

When I was still a toddler, she began directing a community chorus called the Glad Girls Glee Club.  It was a gaggle of neighborhood urchins who agreed to meet at our house, learn to sing as a harmonious group, and perform at public venues throughout the Ft. Worth, Texas area. The girls experienced the excitement of choral art, doing the hard work of learning, practicing, and disciplining their little-girl selves into a veritable choir.

They learned the fun of authentic formal dress-up, wearing “little ladies” white gloves and pearls to set off their long gowns. The whole endeavor was a celebration of spirit, and Mary’s personality breathed it into life. It was an authentic example of 1940’s post depression glee. At that time, I had passed birthday number two and was full of myself as I headed for number three. Mother installed me as Official Mascot for the group. I was handed from lap to lap, soaking up more than my fair share of the happiness. Every group photo shows me in matching dress and hair-ribbons, situated in one of the many singer’s arms.

That was the start of my career as amateur musician, and it continued without pause until 2005 when the last curtain fell, ending a lifetime of song; A cervical fusion, accessed from the front, stopped the melody. Suddenly when I opened my mouth, all I could do was croak.  For sixty-plus years I had sung for the pure joy of it, confident that God created me for song in praise of creation. At five I had been plunked onto a Sunday school platform and told to “sing it like you feel it”. I did, loving the attention earned by belting out a solo that told the world how happy I was to be a cool kid, all dressed up with bows and pigtails and a voice to match.

I joined every school chorus, every church choir, even New York All-State High School Choir. In high school, I cleaned houses to pay for voice lessons.  I was a high lyric soprano with big plans for playing at coloratura and someday singing the “Queen of the Night’s Aria”, but  as an adult, I had to get real.  The anxiety of a pubescent perfectionistic streak kept me from being solo material, and I settled instead into the steady pull of a workhorse chorister. I reveled in community light opera, civic choruses, university choral groups, and then in Virginia for nine wonderful years, with the Roanoke Choral Society, St. Andrews Cathedral Chancel Choir, and Roanoke Symphony Chorus. Truthfully, one big reason that I left Virginia was because after the surgery I couldn’t bear to live there and not sing with the Symphony. I kept running into choir buddies in Kroger and making up excuses for not showing up at rehearsal.

Two auditions with directors familiar with my previous work were pitiful attempts, netting me only referrals to remedial vocal coaches whom I couldn’t afford. Finally it was Cincinnati’s Dr. Catherine Roma who let me sing in her St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church Choir as a provisional Alto hoping I might progress from sounding like a frog. Her face said that I must be a very strange person to not know when to give up, but bless her, she let me try. Singing Alto made my throat hurt, but it got the vocal apparratus moving again. Soon I progressed to 2nd Soprano where my squawks were gracefully endured by other better singers. Finally the top notes began to come, first as a pianissimo whisper, then full-throated, as I practiced under Bishop Todd O’Neil with the Martin Luther King Chorale at College Hill’s House of Joy. The free and open style of their Black women singers were role models for my attempt to free up my larynx and vocal cords. Soon I was singing 1st Soprano with a vengeance, getting occasional quizzical looks from my sister singers, but insisting on not giving up.

Well, I’m back to singing, not well, but valiantly. Dr. Roma, who is dedicated to excellence in vocal production, will forever be my hero for putting up with my seemingly weird antics in the choir room, as I bounced from seat to seat trying to make peace with my surgically traumatized and aging voice. I had to make the most of my assets, an ability to sight sing and a near-insane willingness to pay attention. While other less motivated singers chattered and lollygagged, my attention never wavered, following Dr. Roma’s every gesture, tuned to her every word and grimace.

I really do have faith that when God closes a door He opens a window. For me that window has been Catherine Roma, her welcoming St. John’s Choir, and Cincinnati’s Martin Luther King Coalition Chorale. This week MLK is competing in the Cincinnati 2012 Choir Games, and I am singing 1st Soprano, not perfectly, but gamely and gleefully. When in your life a door closes, think of me and remember the glorious possibility of windows.

                     __Dorothy Jeanette Martin, July 7, 2012
                  

Note: The MLK Chorale took gold twice in the 2012 Choir Games and was invited to sing as a demonstration choir in the 2014 Games in Latvia!

A recent much advertized experiment answered the ancient question, “What is beautiful”?  A statistically significant number of women’s faces were superimposed, thanks to the cleverness of computer graphics, and mathematically averaged to a single image.  The result?  The image was identical to the ideal female face.  Human brains naturally and subliminally average the many perceptions of real women into the goddess-like proportions of the feminine ideal.  Lots of luck gals.  None of us will ever satisfy that delusional lust for perfection.  We are our own unique separate selves__nobody’s ideal.

If our brains are so adept at averaging concepts of visual beauty, why should we not take on other even more complex algorithms?  I assert that we do.  We are purposefully acculturated from our first breath to become the average ideal.  We are compared to long dead progenitors, to high-performing or misbehaving parents, to every which-way acting-out siblings, to Hollywood Stars, to comic-book heroes, to saints, to villains, even to the Devil Incarnate.  In between being told that “our tongue will stick to it” and that “our eyes will freeze that way”, we are evaluated vis-à-vis all manner of others, with the intent of titrating our expression of humanness toward an innocuous golden
mean.

But, most of us are imperfect.  We are the offspring of imperfect parents and parenting.  Some of us suffer a growing up in the south, where fodder for anguished prosody hangs dripping from the trees.

Only a favored few grow up whole and hearty, with nothing to prove to self or others, no chip firmly attached to shoulder already twisted to the weighted shape of culture gone a-skew, no guilt gripped gonads clutched in incestuous embrace, no memories of Medusa mothering, snakes coiled and crazed with

(Head by rickveitch.com)

fright, too horrified to petrify as stone.  Ever compliant, we comply.  We would do anything to be loved by the mother who bore us, by the father who inspired us to Self.  We become what we must, given what we see in others comparing and accusing eyes.

And what of the rest of us who do achieve average perfection?  Boring average eyes set in the skulls of boring average parents, see some of us as average, well-balanced, boring children.  We become average, steadfast, and predictable.  How could we be driven to the passion necessary to produce art?  Where would we mine the rage, disembowel the lust?  What merely intelligent words could soar to poetic heights without riding the wide wings of feeling?

We imperfect persons know our betters.  We do our best to get along.  We limp.  We overachieve.  We embellish our triumphs just trying to keep up.  So far from being perfect, being average is an impossible ambition.  No-drama Obama has made a name for himself as devoid of emotion.  A lie.

The rage of passion’s embers smolders in his gut.  It must.  A displaced person, exceptional, neither black nor white, he loved and lived with a mother dying of cancer, knowing that a more compassionate system would have saved her.  His tormented genius father walked away, leaving a heritage of not good enough for a son to internalize and embody.  A more prosaic childhood would have made a different child, more smug, more perfect, and to be sure, more average.

As living beings of the human variety, I suggest we would do well to circumvent statistical concepts when trying to embody the who we are and the whom we may become.  If we are to fully inhabit our divine potential, we must feel what we feel, hate what we hate, and love what we love.  That’s a recipe for a lived life and fodder for true expression of  art and of joy.

Leon Theremin performing a trio for theremin, ...

Leon Theremin performing a trio for theremin, voice and piano, c. 1924. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My senior high school science project was a big deal.  If I could do well in the competition, there was every chance it would help me get into a good engineering school, so there was a lot riding on choice of projects.  It had to be something that really captured my imagination, something that could combine both, not just one, of my life’s passions.  How could I choose between science and music?  Ever since sophomore year, I had been fascinated by  the mysteries of wave propagation of energy.  I had an intuitive understanding that the secrets of the universe would be discovered by learning about the interplay of wave and particulate energy.

I wanted the project to challenge me__ be something I could learn from, something that would be unique enough to capture the attention of the judges, some amazement that could demonstrate capability of intellect but also express the musical fluidity of a distinctly woman’s soul.   Given all of that, only one project would do: I must build and demonstrate a Theremin.

Knowing how to play such an abstruse instrument at fifteen was an odd attainment.  It was something that I simply fell into, a bit of serendipity.  My Dad was trying extra hard during my sophomore year, when I went to live with him and his second family, after his having been “in hiding” since I was nine.  Fathers do that sometimes.  They just vanish, leaving little girls to wonder why.  I wished I had been a boy; then he might have stayed.  But suddenly he was back in my life, albeit with step-children and a step-mother right out of Cinderella.  I anticipated the worst, but Betty turned out to be a better mother than my real one, who had been a disappointment of multiple dimensions.  Betty had been willing to split the family for a short time so I could get a good start for sophomore year in my new school inConnecticut.  Our home was in East Northport on Long Island, but Daddy was building us a new house in Wilton, located in affluent Fairfield County.  Too cool!  I was delirious with happiness.  After having been essentially an orphan, living on the beneficence of my mother’s sister Judy, being reunited with my father was almost too wonderful to believe.  Surely something would happen to ruin everything.

Daddy and I were to go on ahead and stay with a benefactor of his who lived in a Boston Post Road mansion close to my new school.  She had two daughters close to my age, and offered to put us up for spring semester of my sophomore year, while the new house in Wiltonwas completed.  My favorite room at the Widow Shaw’s was the living room.  It spread across the entire width of the structure, a beautiful reconstruction of an ancient barn.  The room was windowed first floor to second floor ceiling on three sides with a balcony overlook opening to the second floor bedrooms.  A sweeping staircase connected the upper level with the living room, its wood burning fireplace, and music area, graced by two black Steinway grand pianos.  You don’t like a room like that; you love it, and you love the princely father who made it possible for a shy, gangly, near-orphaned girl-child to feel at home in such a place.  I spent more time in that room than the true children who belonged there by right of ownership.  I practiced my piano lessons on my favorite of the two pianos; my voice teacher giving me my weekly lesson accompanied by the same magnificent instrument.  This girl-child had surely arrived.

But there was something even more amazing, more mysterious, more accommodating to my imaginative fascination than even the twin pianofortes.   In between them, stood a podium with Chippendale feet, black as the two keyed instruments it matched.  It supported a rectangular electronic box that sprouted two radio-antennae, one vertical, one horizontal.  I learned to stand facing the three instruments, addressing the Theremin with upraised hands.  The right hand produced melody, making texture and richness with its sensual vibration.  The left was less difficult; it merely controlled the volume of the sonorous output from the right frequency-controlling vertical antenna.  The only limitation to artistic expression was the ability of my mind to imagine and my hands to create and control the flow of the musical output.  The Theremin could sound like just about anything analog.  It could howl like a wolf, shriek like a banshee, or mimic a ghost.  It could even convincingly imitate a passionate violin, viola, or cello.

When the spring semester was over, and our entire family made the big move to our finally completed house, the glorious instruments had to be left behind.  I saved baby-sitting money to buy an old upright to use in my room for voice and piano practice, but  Betty couldn’t bear to listen to me sing opera, and she drove me out of the house to practice at a nearby reservoir.  There all my annoying vocalises and operatic arpeggios would only disturb the fishes and seagulls making inland sorties.

When the time came for my Senior Physics Project, my choice was a no-brainer.  I would build a Theremin.  Daddy had long ago explained to me how it worked; now I wanted to know how it was made.  His lessons were easy to understand, just like they had always been ever since I could remember.  He never told me anything I couldn’t fathom, given his uncanny knack for explaining things at precisely the capability level of his questioner.  If he could explain it to a sixteen-year-old, I could build it.  It never occurred to me to doubt the satisfactory outcome of the endeavor.

He sketched an electrical diagram that made sense.  No problem.  I had worked the previous summer at Automatic Signal Company, a division of Eastern Industries, soldering electronic assemblies.  Since I had pestered my dad to teach me to solder long before, the assembly line was a piece of cake.  I would finish my station, then finish the women’s ahead of me, then finish the woman’s ahead of her.  It was when I tried to complete the second station ahead of her that all Hell broke loose.  I had thought all those nice ladies would be so happy that I was helping them with their work.  It didn’t turn out that way though.  One day the head lady lost her composure and started yelling at me.  There was some problem about the bosses finding out that the work could be done a lot faster.  The women knew about that, but the bosses weren’t supposed to find out.  That brought to mind a comment my step-grandmother once made to me: “How can a girl as smart as you be so God-damn dumb?”  I didn’t know how to answer, part of being dumb I guess.

I made a formal drawing of the electrical schematic.  I had watched daddy do that so many times, it was part of me.  Then we made a parts list.  There was an aluminum enclosure in the basement just the right size, and I placed a mail order for the four electron tubes we needed.  It took a while for the tubes, sockets, and speakers to arrive.  In the mean time, Daddy showed me how to pierce the enclosure with the right size holes for the tube sockets.  When the parts arrived, it was easy to mount the sockets in the enclosure.  We drilled the holes for the on/off switch, lights, and the antennae.  I installed the switch and the power cord, making beautiful solder connections to assure solid power continuity.  We bent antenna wire into the correct shapes for the volume and pitch antennae.  The movement of the right hand with respect to the vertical antenna would change the capacitance of a tuned circuit that would adjust the pitch of the output.  “Near” was high; “away” was low.  The same system would work on the left to control output volume.

It was time to run the fine wire that tied everything together.  We didn’t have the option of using printed circuit boards.  The circuitry for each tube was available to consult in the catalogue I had used to order the parts, but it was getting complicated.  I didn’t understand how to combine the schematic we had made with the individual tube circuits, and Daddy was away on business.  The time for turning in the finished project was fast approaching.  I had chosen a song of beautiful sensitivity and poignancy to demonstrate cooperation between instrument and artist to good advantage.  I set up my phonograph and played the piece over and over again, using my hands pretend-playing my remembered Theremin in Mrs. Shaw’s living room.  Still Daddy didn’t come.  I begged Betty to call him.  I needed him.  Finally, the day before the deadline, he appeared.  I was hysterical.  “Whatever will I do?” I griped.  “There’s not enough time now for me to learn enough to finish it myself.”

“It’s easy”, Daddy assured me. “We’ll do it tonight after dinner.”  I was not mollified.  It looked to me like just too big a job, even with both of us working together.

Dinner was served, and snappily dispatched.  Daddy sauntered downstairs, picking his teeth.  I was still worried, but if Daddy wasn’t, maybe I shouldn’t be either.  I helped him dig out all the colors of wire we would need.  He explained how the amount of electrical current that must flow through each wire determined how large, or gauge, of wire it required.  Certain colors of wire were used for different parts of the circuit depending on what they were supposed to do.  There was so much to learn. Too much.  I felt like I should just start in and begin attaching wires, but which wires, where?  Daddy seemed to be waiting for me.  Then he must have realized I wasn’t sure what to do next.  I had done everything I knew to do, given my understanding of the job.  Daddy picked up the pliers and wire-strippers.  He took a reel of black wire, snipped off a length, stripped and twisted both ends and attached one end to the on/off switch.  That made sense.  I looked it up on the schematic.  Now where to put the other end?  OK.  It went to T1-4, the first tube, fourth contact.  I followed along, learning as we went.  I wished he would tell me where the next wire was to go and then let me solder it, but he seemed to be in a hurry all of a sudden, perhaps realizing that this was a bigger job than he had counted on.  The work went smoothly with him cutting, stripping, and soldering, and me looking on and passing tools to him as necessary.

Finally it was finished.  All the lines on the drawing were represented by wires in place  inside the enclosure.  “Can I plug it in?” I asked.  He told me to wait a bit.  He found his Volt-Ohm Meter (VOM) and began to test the continuity of sections of the completed circuit.  He shook his head and reaching in, cut one of the wires.  The soldering iron melted the connections of that wire, and he replaced it with a longer wire that went to a different termination.  More VOM checks.  Another wire had to be replaced.  Haste obviously had made waste.  Oh my!  Finally he told me to plug in the power cord, which I did.  No sparks flew.  He poked in and around the innards of our finished instrument and pursed his lips.  In his basement shop there were hundreds of different electronic components.  He began opening tiny drawers and selecting resistors, capacitors, and diodes of varying values, each identified by the bands of color encircling each tiny body.  I wanted to help, but it was way, way beyond me now.  As I watched him flounder about even in his electronic genius, I began to doubt him, and as it follows, to doubt myself.  I should never have tried to do such a demanding project.

The clock ticked.  The hours went by, and I finally began to nod, my forehead thumping to the table, only to awaken and try again to stay alert and at least keep him company.  Finally he told me to go upstairs and get some sleep.  I protested, but he insisted.  As I turned away, I glimpsed the upturned instrument.  The wiring had become a tangle of components streaming out of the box, soldered into a dizzying network, each minutely adjusting the overall balance and intelligence of the circuit.  It was then that I understood something basic at gut level: he knew more than I dared ever hope to know.  He had so carefully kept that secret by adjusting his answers to my questions so precisely to my level of understanding.  I finally headed for bed, grateful for what now was more important even than finishing my project.  I was still a kid and I had to sleep, even if it meant doing it standing up.

Daddy woke me early, even before my alarm.  “Come look,” he said.  I followed him down to the basement, and there it was.  It was upright, tubes plugged in and glowing.  The “on” light shone red.  I turned on the phonograph, already set up to play Ravel’s, “Pavane Pour Un Enfant Mourir”.  I raised my hands and began to play.  The haunting melody poured a blessing over my scene of doubt and disappointment, triumph and hope.

Suddenly everything was possible.  Daddy had come through for me.  Sure enough, It was important enough for him to stay awake all night to finish what I could not.  I was all smiles and hugs, and took off for school in Betty’s car.  No bus today.  I needed a ride into school with all my project paraphernalia.

*  *  *

The Theremin was a big hit at school and won the local Science Fair with me playing Ravel.  Then it was time to go to Regional in Hartford.  It was the Geeks turn, only in 1956 there wasn’t a name for Geek. We just didn’t get to go on dates or frequent football games, but that didn’t bother me.  I never knew what the rest of them saw in following that silly pigskin around the hockey practice field.  I had tried out for cheer-leading in the 8th grade, but soon learned that my arms and my legs didn’t seem to connect to the same brain.

Our group loaded our gear and took off to Regional in Hartford,  When we arrived we set up as instructed.  The next day we hovered over our projects showing off for parents and teachers and other students who happened by.  One of our guys whispered in my ear that the head judge was moving our way.  I switched on Ravel and began playing the lovely melody.  The coterie of judges approached and waited for me to finish the song before they began to ask questions.  It was no problem answering.  I knew my stuff, even if it had taken Daddy to save the day.

Later that afternoon, all of us were tired and out of sorts after the tension of the competition and standing up the whole day except for noon break, when we paused to eat our sack lunches.   Suddenly my High School Physics teacher came trotting up grinning.  He told us that the judges had finished their meeting and that it looked like I would take the grand prize.

“No!” I gasped.  It hadn’t occurred to me that I might actually win Regional.  I felt suddenly light-headed and must have visibly paled.  “Where are they”, I asked.  I took off  down the hall where he pointed.  The judges were coming out of the meeting room in a very good mood.   There were smiles all around, back-slaps, and handshakes.  Whatever it was, they were in agreement.

I didn’t even hesitate, but planted myself right in front of the head judge.  “I can’t win”,  I told him.  When he demanded to know why, I explained that my father had helped me, doing the final wiring and fine tuning of the circuitry and that I didn’t deserve to win against anyone who had been able to complete their entire project alone.  It would have been unconscionable to have taken that prize, and I would have carried that shame  forever.   He explained that it was common for students to get help from parents or teachers when making things new to their understanding.  I wasn’t to be deterred, however, and felt compelled to reject any prize at such a competitive level.  He said that he was sorry I felt that way, since I had a good chance to win, even at National.  I shook my head and walked away.

We had started too late.  I was used to Daddy letting me down, but even so, I couldn’t bear to disappoint him, which I would have done had I taken credit for his work.  He promised to attend my high school graduation, where I won several science awards and scholarships, but he didn’t show up.   I forgave him; we were used to disappointing each other__the tenor of our relationship.

Even fifty-six years later, I am so very glad that I came clean with that judge.  Knowing and accepting the truth of ourselves is all we really have.  Each of us will die, but what we are of Truth will live forever.                                                                            

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