Sunday, May 13, 2012

To Mom

Happy Mother's Day to mine, to yours, and to those the world over.

I penned the following in 2008 as a gift for my mom. A bouquet of flowers or a box of Sees chocolates would have done the trick (lord knows she does love her chocolate), but as I searched the web for ideas and delivery options I realized I wanted something more unique. Something a bit more special and lasting. The title and gist of the piece had been lolling about in my mind for a while, and I had tried several times to get the damn thing started. Never could, tho, until the approaching holiday gave me the inspiration and motivation to begin.

The following, of course, is a little story about my mom, but in a way it's also meant to be a paean to mothers everywhere. For their love and patience and support, for their guidance and discipline, their creativity and resourcefulness. Hell, for carrying our asses around for nine months inside the womb and many more outside, even after we all learned how to walk. I can think of no greater job - no role more important to the future, to the happiness and success of mankind - than motherhood.

So let's get to it. Along the way well have some flowers, because what would the holiday be without flowers (Right, FTD?).

*  *  *

My Mother’s House

On the West Side of Cleveland, Ohio, about twenty minutes by car from the Terminal Tower, Jacob’s Field and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is the quiet, small, upper-middle class city of Rocky River. Traveling Interstate 90 from the downtown area - over the sluggish Cuyahoga River, over the Flats, past Ohio City, Lakewood and West Lake - exit the freeway at Clague Road and immediately turn left. Drive south to Detroit Road and turn left again, then a few minutes later hang one more. There on the corner of an unremarkable street named Orchard Park Drive is a handsome yet unremarkable, typical looking suburban house with a red door.

The house might be found in almost any city in almost any part America. The light gray paint on the exterior is not peeling or in disrepair. The windows are washed, the lawn is neat and trimmed and the sidewalk is kept clean. A concrete birdbath stands in the front yard, right next to a stately spruce tree almost twenty-five years old. Several birdfeeders stocked full of store-bought seed hang by the kitchen widow; beneath them a well-fed tabby sometimes stalks the bushes. In the side yard a wooden glider sits beneath an old maple tree, and a Weber barbecue hides by the back porch, out of sight from the street. Once a week the garbage cans are rolled to the curb, then wheeled back toward the garage. It could be anywhere, any place, and any town, USA.

But linger for a while. Wait a moment and watch.

Sooner or later a car will zip around the corner and pull into the driveway. It won’t stay long. There’s too much to do, you see: too many errands and lunches and movies and dinners and meetings; too many schools and appointments and soccer games and swim teams; too many piano recitals and art shows. So many First Communions; so many birthdays and anniversaries; so many children and grandchildren to love.

Watch as the car door swings open and a woman climbs out. She is small framed, late 70’s now, with intelligent, handsome features reflecting her Greek heritage. Her thick head of hair, usually cropped close, might be silvery-white or it might be dyed copper-red. Then again her hair might be an interesting, experimental shade of violet. She is probably wearing a pair of small flower-shaped, green stone and gold earrings given to her many years ago by one of her sons, and may still have a button pinned to her jacket: “Hillary for President”. Beneath the jacket, attached to whatever shirt she has on, is a tiny, symbolic red ribbon. Next to the ribbon is another pin: a small, hand-sewn square of colorful beads, strung together and sold by a collective of South African women struggling with HIV a world away.

Walking toward the house she no doubt has a handful of packages in her arms or one of her children’s children in tow. If not - and this is a somewhat rare occurrence - then she is already thinking of slipping into her pajamas and relaxing on the couch with a book or at the kitchen table with the crossword puzzle. She is a voracious reader, both fiction and non-, devouring tome after tome in lightning speed. With a schedule usually chock full of duties it’s an all too brief respite from the cacophony of the outside world.

Notice the back end of the car: the peace sign probably plastered to the trunk, the “Impeach Bush” bumper sticker, the license plate stamped with the letters “CCX”. Listen as the cell phone rings from inside her purse, a non-stop influx from friends and business partners, from family in Ohio, New York, Maryland, California and beyond, as she walks up the short path. Listen as she calls to Olympia the spoiled-rotten cat, who is already meowing eagerly from inside, anxiously awaiting the woman’s return. Wait until she unlocks the red door, the door we all think should be painted purple.

Then open the door and enter my mother’s house.

It is not the house in which the seven Palmer kids, my siblings and me, were born and raised as Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts. It is not the home of my youth; not the one she often had to rule with a wooden spoon stashed in a kitchen drawer. I can still hear the noise as it was yanked open in frustration or anger, rattling the other utensils crammed inside while we all made a beeline for cover. That house, alarmingly tiny when we see it now, still stands on the East Side of Cleveland, near what used to be Euclid Beach Amusement Park and the dilapidated Commodore Theater on Macauley Avenue. On a street full of kick ball memories and dungeon tag and ducks as childhood pets. On the other end of town, a lifetime away.

Nor is this one a very tidy house. Clean, yes, but marvelously cluttered from end to end, from upstairs to downstairs; bursting at the seams with a fantastic family smorgasbord of paintings and photographs and ceramics, of school projects and letters and books and knickknacks both new and saved throughout the years. Old kindergarten finger paintings; calendars; grade school, high school, and college portraits of the grandchildren; snippets from the newspaper; snapshots, phrases and sayings; An Irish Blessing: they cling with pushpins and Scotch Tape to the backs of doors and to the refrigerator, to any available flat surface. The living room, of course, is painted a deep, dark shade of amethyst. The walls are covered in, well…wall-to-wall artwork, most of it made by people she knows. In one corner an artificial tree is decked out year-round with hand-made ornaments and Christmas lights, and in another corner there’s a life size, papier-mâché Santa Claus.

Inside, sitting at the kitchen table, reading the Cleveland Plain Dealer or working on his taxes, might be my father George, her husband of over 50 years. Then again it could be a neighbor, a lifelong friend or a new acquaintance; or one of the eighteen kids who fondly call her yia yia, cramming in some homework while they wait to be transported somewhere else. It might, however, be someone we’ve never seen before: an exhibitor from Cleveland’s Christmas Connection, the huge holiday arts and crafts fair she and a friend organize yearly. Maybe a foursome for Poker Night, or the young couple from England she met on the street and immediately invited to stay at the house for a couple of days. My father came home that afternoon, encountered two strange people relaxing on the sofa, and had to wait for her to return from the grocery store and corroborate their story.

But no matter who’s at home sooner or later a game - Backgammon or cards or Scrabble or Scattergories or the new family favorite, Quiddler - will emerge from its temporary resting place while a fresh pot of coffee brews, while a bowl of Reese’s Pieces is set out. Sooner or later the kitchen table will be crammed with people talking and laughing, calmly debating or not so calmly arguing, snacking on potato chips or her favorite chocolat-du-jour, and reveling in the energy and warmth and kindness and somewhat zany zest for life she exudes.

Her name is Ginger, born Georgene Bozell in 1933 Cleveland to immigrants from Greece, and she is a mother, wife, sister, daughter and grandmother; our friend, artist, cook, chauffeur and confidante; our dictionary, encyclopedia, nurse, critic and number one fan. She is the young 1960’s newlywed who raised us in that cramped three-bedroom, one-bathroom house full of diapers and drama and diplomas and purple living room walls. The animal lover that would gently wake us in the middle of the night to witness the miracle of a cat giving birth in the closet, and hold us later when another one died. The Galloping Gourmet who showed us how to eat an artichoke in springtime and taught my siblings to bake the traditional Greek treats that accompany holidays, who supplied us with buttered popcorn for Marlin Perkins’ Wild Kingdom or The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday night. The exasperated mother of seven who would, in the wisdom of the times, tie us to a chair and make us stay up if we didn’t want to go to bed on time, tend to our colds and fevers and chicken pox and measles and somehow never get sick. The seamstress, the Den Mother, the Tooth Fairy, the trickster who once a year would secretly take bites from the carrot we left out for the Easter Bunny. The artist who plastered the walls leading to the basement with mysterious National Geographic covers; who with my father instilled in us all a healthy appetite for the gift of learning and for the wonders of the natural world.

She has always found pleasure in a simple piece of buttered toast, excitement in a brand new novel, and, although she denies it and lays the onus solely on dad, sometimes peace in the fact that she helped guide us on the bumpy path to adulthood. Along the way she somehow, somewhere, found the strength to comfort others during the passing of way too many: her beloved father Pete, her mother Diane, her brother Jim, her wacky Aunt Theda, her own youngest son, our brother Stephen, and recently her own daughter, our amazing sister and mother in her own right, Susan. The spruce tree planted in the front yard the year of Stephen’s death now stands tall and healthy and proud, ringed with Christmas lights that blink on every night. The immense void left in his absence, and Susan’s, can never be replaced, but is perhaps, and with time, deflected just a bit with things not taken for granted. With a large, loving and complicated family, with a lifetime of fond memories, with the unbridled promise of the future, or maybe with settling into her favorite chair to watch My Cousin Vinny for the umpteenth time.

From the outside my mother’s house may look like many others, but inside her home - no matter where that happens to be - the sound of laughter drowns out life’s inevitable, sometimes immobilizing hardship. Inside her home a woman’s heart and intelligence and immense courage is on display, as is the unique style of her trip-down-memory-lane-pound-another-nail-in-the-wall decorating aesthetic. The color purple has always figured prominently, and it still does.

Like sons, daughters and husbands the world over we cherish our mother. We love her deeply, beyond what words can ever, ever convey. She has traveled far and wide but no place on Earth makes her happier than Cleveland, Ohio, surrounded by her children and theirs. I think I echo the sentiments of my father and of my brothers and sisters, of all those who know this remarkable woman: If I have inherited any of her beauty and strength, both inside and out, or if her passion and vitality has somehow rubbed off from simply being in her presence, then my own home is a much richer, much more wonderful place.

*  *  *

Peter Joseph Palmer
Originally written for Mother’s Day 2008
Edited for Mother's Day 2012

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Sight to Behold

Heads up, fine followers of The Headlands Report, because one of my favorite seasonal rites of passage is now underway.

Pretty much homely, awkward and gangly on land; surprisingly elegant and acrobatic in flight; always improbable-looking and unquestionably prehistoric: the California brown pelican is returning to the Bay Area. They're back!

Isolated individuals of Pelecanus occidentals californicus stay local for the winter months, but most head south to the Channel Islands, Mexico and South America, and the lagoons of Baja California to court, breed, hang out with the California gray whale and do whatever else pelicans do down there. Now is the time to watch as they glide north by the hundreds into their summertime digs: the productive waters of the Gulf of the Farallones.

I was at Marshall's Beach the other day, looked up and saw my first V-shaped brigade of the year. It was two or three brigades, actually, 10 or 12 birds a piece, still decked out in their gaudy winter plumage. Together they soared on outstretched wings, motionless, using the updraft near the cliffs to swoop northward. It brought a smile to my face.

Before long a few were dive-bombing the ocean, as there seemed to be some sort of food just below the surface. That sight made me remember the time I sat with a handful of friends on the bluffs at Steep Ravine and watched as, oh, I don't know, maybe 200 pelicans had themselves a bonafide feeding frenzy extra-oridnaire! If you've never seen a feeding frenzy it's a sight to behold: a crazy flurry of big-ass birds flapping, rising, wheeling, careening, swooping, soaring, eyeing, veering, rocketing, plunging, diving, fishing, disappearing, surfacing, bobbing, eating or coming up empty, then doing it all over again. The spectacle lasted for twenty minutes, yet how there were no mid-air collision I'll never know. We were awestruck; to this day it's still one of the coolest things I've ever seen.

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week,
But I'm damned if I see how the helican!

- Dixon Lanier Merritt, 1910

So look skyward, people, and notice the magnificent pelican. The return of the pelican to our clime. Lots of them. And remember, like a naturalist for the Oceanic Society told me one day at the Farallon Islands: "Whenever you see a pelican you are seeing a modern day miracle. By the 1970's they were on the verge of extinction, almost annihilated by DDT and other pesticides. But they're back. With us again."

I can't remember, but this may have been the same naturalist that stumbled excitedly about the rocking boat while three blue whales surfaced right next to us, over and over, so close I could have jumped on them. It was freaking awesome. We had an intimate encounter with the largest animal to ever roam the earth, but her excitement wasn't over the whales. It was over a teeny-tiny bird also within sight: "Oh my god, look at that," she yelled, "a rhinoceros auklet...two of them!"

Birders are, well, obsessed.

Until the next time.
Peter J. Palmer

*  *  *

Brown Pelican Facts

Genus/Species: Pelecanus occidentalis

There are 5 subspecies:
P. o. californicus (California)
P. o. carolinensis (Eastern)
P. o. occidentalis (Carribean)
P. o. murphy (Pacific)
P. o. urinator (Galápagos)

East coast: Nova Scotia to Venezuela and the mouth of the Amazon River.
West coast: British Columbia to central Chile and the Galápagos Islands.

The brown is the smallest species of pelican but is still a big bird, with a wingspan of almost 8 feet. It is the only pelican known to hunt for food by dramatically plunging headfirst into the ocean from above.

It is a coastal bird, preferring warmer, shallower seas and estuaries, rarely venturing far inland or more than 25 miles out to sea.

The brown pelican is the national bird of Barbados and the Turks and Caicos Islands, and is the state bird of Louisiana.