Friday, June 04, 2010


There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee

I was seven years old when my mother died and my father tried to make it up to me by taking me to Disney World. We drove three days to get there. On the way Dad passed time by reciting, over and over and over again, "The Cremation of Sam McGee". This gave me a chance to learn vocabulary relevant both to the poem and to my personal situation, such as "crematorium" and "corpse".

My father often drove in reverse on the freeway. Engrossed as he was in poetry, he tended to miss exits. We never went on and circled back. No. We backed right up to where we were supposed to be.

Now it seems that much of my childhood was spent suspended in this odd precarious feeling, like what I felt as my father drove steadily backward, peering past me through the rear window. Is this really such a good idea? I wondered. I never see other people doing this. If we do this all the time and don't die -- does that mean it's all right?

I liked to learn death's vocabulary. For example, I wanted to know all about embalming. I liked the flowers and the sympathy cards. I was seven years old and everything was interesting to me. I had thick bifocals, jug ears and a limp. I felt most at home with things that were strange. I liked the sense that something momentous had happened and no one quite knew what would happen next. I like the way death had of showing up and demanding holidays.

I wasn't sure about my father. I remember Mrs. Haig sitting me on the sofa and announcing that my mother had died. I remember thinking -- this means I only have him. This seemed to me a distinctly bad idea.

I think my father would have done really well in another line of work. For example, Abstract Impressionism. As it was, he had to make do with apple farming. This had mixed results. His perpetual distraction was dotted with sudden rages.

Now he'd lost his wife of twenty-two years and was in the car speeding on the way to Florida. Imagine his astonishment and consternation when he happened to notice, in the backseat, a jug-eared kid with bifocals, his nose stuck in a book.

I was no good at watching for exits. I didn't look up from my book unless physically compelled.
My mother's death taught me to read. Before that I was no good at reading -- me and Mike Buto nearly flunked first grade. I taught myself to read with books of Bible stories in the tiny waiting room at Derry Hospital because children were not allowed inside.

After my mother died I had horrendous nightmares. I believed that Bible stories had the power to protect me and so I read for hours in the middle of the night. I did not turn off my bedside lamp for years.

Our road trip took three weeks. Thus I missed learning cursive in second grade. I never learned. In fact, I viscerally disapproved of cursive. I printed perfectly, endlessly and obsessively, my mother's death embedded in every word I wrote.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror driven.
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: "You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true and it's up to you, to cremate those last remains."

Most of my nightmares were about zombies. I woke to find my bedroom walls luminous with gaping eyes. Unlike Sam McGee, my mother had been buried, not cremated. Somehow I'd gotten the idea that embalming meant that my mother's body would remain intact underground for seven years. I was very concerned about that.

The stories I was exposed to at the time -- "The Cremation of Sam McGee", the New Testament -- suggested that death was a reversible process. On some level I knew that wasn't exactly true. On some level I knew that was absolutely true. One thing was clear: resurrection was accomplished by reading. And so I read all I could.

In Egermeier's Bible Story Book I read, and the angels stirred David's heart with courage, and I imagined the heart was a cast iron soup pot (my mother's had a hole in it) and the angels could come and stir in any necessary ingredient. I read about the angels stirring and my body shivered with sensual excitement: I could become strong.

The angels would come, riding on Tony the Tiger. Or a gypsy would give me a potion. And I would become a strong, heavy-muscled hulk, instead of a gimp-legged kid with a plastic leg brace and elevated shoe who went alone to Remedial Phys. Ed. every Friday afternoon.

I was obsessed with ugliness. I thought about my mother's body decomposing in the grave for seven years, as many years as I was old. I refused to comb my hair because it required a mirror. I remembered the shame I felt when I was fitted with bifocals because of a lazy eye. Now I'm really ugly, I thought. My father tells me I was fitted for glasses shortly before I turned 4.

In my dreams a zombie bogeyman chased me, his greasy gray hair flying out behind. If he caught me he would tickle me. If he tickled me I'd be as ugly as him. This was my most common nightmare. I was forever fleeing ugly.

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared -- such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Everything was interesting to me. It was on this trip that Granma Betty introduced me to the ocean, this space which was both infinite and accessible by car, where it was possible to walk in the same place every day and find something entirely different. The ocean was another book of stories -- the tide turned the page.

About Disney World all I remember is that I vetoed the purchase of a coonskin cap. I was not Davey Crockett. The raccoons and I wished to be left alone.

Two weeks after my mother died, my father brought home a girlfriend. Very interesting. She was a Jewish Vegetarian. She made Spinach Lasagna. My father could cook two things. I was always allowed to choose between them. I could have an omelet with green pepper and onion. Or I could have an omelet with mushrooms.

I was immediately aware that this woman had no interest in me whatsoever, but I didn't mind because 'Jewish Vegetarian' was drastically better than 'omelet'.

Shortly before Christmas (I was allowed to have my own small tree in my room!) my father gave me the last present my mother had bought for me -- and announced that he was getting married.

I was very happy. I had learned it was far better for me if my father was kept busy elsewhere. Periods of neglect were much better suited to life than periods of attention. (There was a secretary and a housekeeper I could ask for food. Also, I made spectacular creations of my own using corn flakes, Worcestershire sauce and Parmesan cheese.) As far as I was concerned I needed no supervision. I knew exactly what I was doing. I had books to read.

I think my father's relationship with the Jewish Vegetarian was already on the rocks by the time we took our road trip. Always only tangentially connected to reality, my father was now in far over his head. Asked for a story, he explained that the bulbous white towers appearing here and there along the highway were actually the eggs of spiders. Sooner or later they would hatch and billions of spiders would pour forth from the towers.

At one point he had me write the word LUNCH on a piece of paper and hold it out the window. The pretty lady in the car behind had lunch with us.

I understood that death was both permanent and reversible. I was a crippled boy and I knew where I was going. In the meantime, I was in the car with my father. We'd passed our exit a mile before. My father was turned, looking past me, through the rear window to the highway. He was backing up the car.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

1 comment:

Grace C said...

OMG is this a true story? Did your mother really die when you were seven? I guess it doesn't really matter how true this is. It reads like it is the truth. It reads like a part of the speaker is still 7 years old. Something about it moved my belly, part curiosity, part empathy, part fear--fear that if I kept reading, it would reveal something about me.

You're amazing.