Burl's Girls

“Iris Lee, you need a dulcimer,” my friend Jack declared out of nowhere.
Well, Jack’s a gentleman, not prone to delusion. I’ve listened to his wise words more than a decade in our writing group. His poems and stories make good sense. Often they’re profound. Always humorous and to his point.
So, not to appear ignorant and rude, my mind conjured up the only dulcimer I had ever seen and heard played. “The hammered dulcimer?”
Jack blinked in surprise. “No, I’m talking Appalachian dulcimer.”
“There is such a thing?”
He nodded.
My heart raced. “You don’t understand. I’m a bit dyslexic. My right and left hand don’t get along.”
What ensued was a brief pep talk and history lesson about this four-string lap instrument originating in the Appalachian Mountains. Within a week, Jack brought his hourglass-shaped dulcimer to my house.
We sat in the dining room, our chairs facing another. Before I knew what happened, he swept his fingers in a gentle splay over its four strings. One strum that opened the floodgates of Heaven and my heart.
Jack smiled knowingly. “Fifteen minutes a day, four times a day. That’s all it takes, Iris Lee, for your hands to learn where to go.”
Ah, the practice principle, like finding the right word and putting it in the right place in poetry. Or, as Mom said, “You have to throw out some dough before you make a delicious, flaky pie crust.”
                  Dear Reader, I purchased a dulcimer like Jack’s with hearts for sound holes. I’m learning to relax my strumming hand, pretend it’s a wet dishrag, as my teacher says. He began my lessons with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Boil ‘em Cabbage.”
                  On two different occasions, my Michigan daughter and son-in-law sat with my dulcimer on their laps, childlike smiles on their faces, and strummed away. I knew instantly they needed a dulcimer. My California daughter needed one, too.

                  Later, my Kentucky sister called. “What’s Iris doing?” she asked my husband.
                  He broke the news. “She’s practicing her dulcimer.”
                  “Do you know Burl makes dulcimers?” she asked when I came to the phone.
                  I knew her landlord was a woodworker, but I didn’t know he made dulcimers. Glory be! Thanks to my sister, Heaven opened up and provided the ideal gift for my children.
                  After I inspected and strummed Burl’s three different shapes of handmade dulcimers, I called to thank him.
                  “You’re welcome,” he drawled. “I rather make ‘em than play ‘em. They’re almost like my children.”
                  It’s probably a good thing Burl doesn’t play them, for you get attached to an instrument when you do. I’m already fond of Sweetheart, my dulcimer. Jack’s wife plays a banjo named Júly. She displays it as a centerpiece in their home.
                  Yes, Jack knew my southern soul needed this playful connection to my roots. He took the risk and declared it from that understanding.
As you read this, Burl’s Girls have found their new homes. Their playfulness spreads to Royal Oak and San Bruno, California.

The Quality of Dreams

Our Christmas tree is an icon of my dreams. My parents, in their different ways, made it so by the love of their unspoken desires and work of their hands.
 In Dad’s first reels of home movies from 1955, there’s Mom, round with their fourth child, reaching from a ladder over her middle, hanging bulbs at the top our tree. Dad throws tinsel on branches before the three-minute roll runs out.
My two sisters and I squint into the rack of bright lights, our smiles in various stages of dental development. We kiss Mom and Dad goodnight, parade off to bed in our pajamas and sponge rollers. T’was the magical night before Christmas.
Three years later, my earliest Christmas memory rooted without the aid of Dad’s omnipresent camera. My father insisted he saw Santa and his sleigh flying over the Rivard’s house across the street. “Look! There’s Rudolf’s red nose!” he said.
I strained with all my nine-year-old might to see Rudolf’s red glow in the sky, but our tree blocked the view in the picture window.
Santa was history by 1960, although I pretended to believe for my younger sisters’ sake. Moody and eleven-years-old, I tore into my presents one after another and displayed the contents for Dad to film according to his directions. Would I have behaved differently had I known my father’s troubles were crumbling the foundation of our family?
Dear Reader, his home movies ceased in 1966, the year before he left. All I remember about Christmas is my mother leaving the house in the dark to work a second job. Ours was a broken home. We were broken people. She did her best to mend us. Confused and angry, I hid hope for my parents’ reunion someday.
Over fifty years later, I’ve decorated more Christmas trees without my children than with them. There’ve been years I’ve forced myself to hold the gold glittered walnut my departed daughter decorated in Sunday school. The orphaned ornament means I release again the dreams I held for her.
I now understand my parents, in all their faults and brokenness, possessed similar dreams and visions, and sacrificed to make them reality. “What do you have if you don’t have your dreams?” Mom often asked.  
 On these holy advent nights, I settle on the sofa for some serious tree gazing. In darkness and silence, I consider Christ’s Nativity; offer the desires of my heart to the lights as if it was the Star of Bethlehem. “Comfort ye, my people,” I recall from Handel’s “Messiah.”
I name those who went before us this year, the loved ones and legacies they left behind. “His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.” Yes, their lives and deaths testify this for our benefit and God’s glory.
What does this sacred season promise my family and me? What is my dream for my children and country?
God with us. Peace on Earth, good will toward men.
“Behold the Lamb of God.”
Such is the quality of dreams fulfilled.

In Search of Serenity

Not all those who wander are lost. J.R.R. Tolkien

I had no idea what to expect when I first volunteered at the Detroit Institute of Arts. All I knew is I needed art. High and wide galleries of it. After eight years of grooming gardens and lavender fields, I longed to lose myself within marble halls hung with painted landscapes.
Carol, my Art Buddy, provoked this desire whenever she spoke of her solitary strolls through the museum during her shift in Gallery Service. Heaven was in her voice.
After required training, I met Carol at the DIA in March 2013 for my first volunteer experience. I draped the DIA lanyard over my neck and descended the stairs into one of the most remarkable art collections in our country.
Where else in America may we escape into the innocent eyes of William Bouguereau’s “Nut Gatherers” painted in 1882? Where else may we find Evangeline’s folded hands as Samuel Richards imagined them in “Evangeline Discovering Her Affianced in the Hospital”?
I have never been disappointed when leaving that beautiful house of humanity. Even though driving I75 isn’t my ideal pastime, I’m more aware of my likeness to life portrayed throughout the ages in stone and on canvas. The reward of wandering the galleries overwhelms the cost.
True, not everyone finds tranquility in art museums. Many find peace in their workbench, sailboat or guitar. As Richardson Wright says in my beloved Gardener’s Bed-Book, “There is no one highroad to this blissful state. The ways thither cut across the rude and ugly heart of the world, through its turmoil and its noise and its bewildering complications.”
No, dear reader, two years ago I did not foresee the impact of serenity within the walls of the DIA. I breathed its air nonetheless, witnessed the steady stream of seekers climb the stairs into the Great Hall, eyes full of wonder.
Then last weekend, in the stillness of my volunteer post at the Wisteria Gates, a middle-aged man and a teenaged boy ambled the length of the Great Hall in sunlight. Tall and lanky, the boy’s autistic body and vocal language were unmistakable.
As if on a quest, the escort guided the boy through the Wisteria Gates and stood before Rivera’s murals. The teen clung to the man’s shoulder, sought his eyes. They behaved like father and son.
Later, while I relaxed in Kresge Court during my shift break, I observed the two lounging on a sofa. Head to head, the father and son drifted into sleep, the art of living perfected in their imperfection.
I felt Heaven in their quietude, a similar rest I find when standing before Evangeline’s hands clasping joy and sorrow. Joy for the sight of her long lost betrothed; sorrow for his sickness onto death.
Time and again, we wander through “turmoil and its noise and its bewildering complications” to find relief from our afflictions. Praise our Heavenly Muse! We find our cure in places, objects and people we least expect. 

A Thanksgiving Story

There comes a day I must be brave hearted, enter the dark, primeval bowels of my husband’s Man Cave. I admit, pitching his threadbare jackets matted with cat hair never fails to fire up my adrenaline. It’s a gift inherited from my granny and mother.
                  The task began with a furnace cleaning November 3rd. Mind, the same expert warned us three years ago that our geriatric Carrier was dangerous. So, we decided to replace it with a trim, energy efficient Amana for the safety of our household belongings and inhabitants, especially Mo, our necessary mouser.
                  Thus began our first purge and argument while transferring hand-me-down furniture and luggage from under the basement stairs to Salvation Army.
My premise: our house is too small to harbor all our parents’ orphans. They must find someone else’s man cave. My husband’s premise: what if we need them someday?
Following his trip to Salvation Army, our Michigan daughter invited her dad to her home to watch football. (We didn’t have a working television since digital took control, and I didn’t miss it a minute.)  She said I was welcome to tag along for her delicious Chicken Tortilla Soup.
Snug before her TV, our sympathetic offspring asked, “Why don’t you and Dad host Thanksgiving this year for the Underwoods?”
I knew what she meant. Now that Gramma Rosie was gone, Thanksgiving was up for grabs. “I’ve been thinking about that,” I replied.
My husband nodded, eyes on Michigan’s quarterback. The shift from Thanksgiving in Grand Rapids to our house in Addison Township clicked into place that instant.
The two technicians didn’t have to deal with our junk when they installed our new furnace and hot water heater. Then came the perfect, first snowfall of the season. All day Saturday as we vacuumed dust, cobwebs and cat hair from rafters, floor and furniture, snowflakes fell in windless atmosphere outdoors.
I observed Nature’s serene handiwork as she built snow cakes on patio tables and fluffy cushions on my swing under the maple tree. The hankering to bundle up, slide open the door-wall and play in this purity tempted me. But we had company coming. My heart’s desire.
Dear reader, you know holiday celebrations bear a more powerful pull after we’ve lost loved ones. Letting go is painful, a constant process. We long to gather with family for comfort and familiarity to fill the emptiness around our table.
On the other hand, we also know devoted Lions fans must have their football on Thanksgiving Day. So, our sensitive daughter drove north to our house and installed a smart television in her dad’s clean and organized Man Cave.
After the Lions won, the Underwood clan expanded with fiancés, gathered around my mother’s white tablecloth for the blessing. We passed Desert Rose serving bowls and platters my mother-in-law gifted me for many Christmases. 
                  We spoke our thankfulness for family and work, remembered those who have gone before us, all richer with experience of letting go, and holding on.