The Grass Covers All

“I am the grass; I cover all….Let me work.”  Carl Sandburg

It is our family’s custom on Memorial Day weekend to meet my two siblings and their families for lunch before going to decorate the graves of our parents and my father’s family at a cemetery an hour from our home.    This is a pleasant tradition for the living to gather together over a meal and spend a few hours catching up, reminiscing and sharing a laugh or two, before making our journey to honor the dead.

The actual decorating of the graves is rather an anticlimax.  Once at the cemetery, it is not seemly to be laughing and carrying on.  It is usually quite busy with people coming and going, placing flags, hauling planted pots and large bouquets, scouring off the moss and lichens from the gravestones and trimming the long grass missed by the mowers.  Despite the hubbub and activity, there is a silent solemnity in the people carrying out their duty to their kin.  Only the soft sound of the breeze moving the leaves in the trees interrupts the profound stillness of the dead and departed, lying blanketed under a coverlet of grass.

Our father’s family lie together in the older part of the cemetery, which is poised high on a hill overlooking Puget Sound, with the Olympic Mountains to the west, the Canadian Rockies to the north and the Cascade range to the east.   It must have been quite the wilderness cemetery in 1910 when my great great grandfather Herman was buried there as the first of the clan to be placed in the ground west of the Mississippi.   I don’t know any family lore about Herman, so his secrets remain safe and undisturbed under the grass.  Not so with the rest of the family buried there.  They are exposed by their known personality traits, their mistakes and their accomplishments, but most remarkably by their relationships with each other, now sharing the same blanket as they lie within feet of each other for eternity.

Lying next to Herman is my great-grandfather Henry, a steam boat captain first on the Mississippi River, and later in life, on the Yukon River during the Gold Rush.  He was gone from home for months at a time, living his own life of adventure on the frontier while his meek wife Margaret tried to raise their two children alone.   Her influence couldn’t tame their son, Leslie, my grandfather, who got fed up with school and left home at age sixteen to work in the remote logging camps of northwest Washington.  There he learned to cuss hard and drink heavily, coming to town on occasion to carouse and visit his horrified mother and sister Marion.  Marion, a proper and somber girl,  finished school and went on to a teachers’ college now transformed to the regional university where I now work.   She became a dedicated school teacher, living with her mother long after her father’s death, and remaining unmarried all her life.  (See Great Aunt Marion )

Leslie eventually married my grandmother Kittie, a much younger woman, just a teenager,  much to the chagrin and disapproval of his parents and sister.     Their first child, my Aunt Betty,  later died of lymphoma at age seven, leaving Kittie bereft.

Betty lies between her parents now,  with Leslie to her left (see Repentance)  and Kittie to her right (See Drops of Sun).  Next to Kittie lies Marion in a proximity that never was possible in life as they could not tolerate the sight of each other so avoided ever being in the same room together.   Somehow, each year I expect to see the ground between them in upheaval, but in fact the grass has done its work, smoothing and settling the turmoil that once existed, but does no longer.  They peacefully share the grass coverlet.

My parents lie together in the same urn garden plot a few hundred yards away, sharing a marker that at one point in their married, then unmarried, then married again lives would not have seemed possible.

The old conflicts become less compelling from the darkness of the grave.  Why was so much energy spent on them while treading on top of the grass when they become meaningless to those sleeping under it?

Shovel them under and let me work”

Praying the Inexplicable Prayer

“Praise Jesus!”  the mother cried out as she bore down one last time, her husband gripping her hands, as she pushed their fourth child in five years, their first girl, into my lap.  As I laid her new baby up on her breasts, she sobbed and repeated over and over, “Thank you, Jesus, thank you, thank you…”

It was this prayer that marked as memorable an otherwise unremarkable labor, this prayer which transcended the usual flood of blood and amnion pooling at my feet, this prayer that somehow sealed this family’s destiny.

As a witness to this birth in 1982, I was only aware of the blessing I felt being part of the beginning moments of a new life.  I could not have known the vague and unremitting symptoms of fatigue and muscles aches this woman experienced before and during her pregnancy were not just those of a weary mother of young children.  In addition, her husband, a hemophiliac, along with his chronic joint arthritis from recurrent bleeding episodes, had troubling chronic fatigue and weight loss as well as frequent respiratory infections.  Two of their children seemed to always be sick with something.  No diagnostic test, nothing I nor my colleagues could think of, explained this family’s struggles.

As believers in the power of prayer and alternative approaches to healing rather than traditional medications or vaccinations, these parents were certain it was too much yeast in their diet causing the problem.   They tried elimination diets, tried antifungal medications, tried homeopathy.  Nothing made a difference.

This new baby girl seemed a hopeful sign that everything might be restored.   Instead, her birth marked the beginning of the end.

Sitting at my desk some time later, buried in stacks of medical charts, her father’s chart was placed strategically on top, marked with a note from my nurse: “Call the Blood Bank ASAP.”   When I called, I was transferred to the Director, who, in a carefully rehearsed and unemotional voice informed me my patient had tested positive for a new viral test that had become available.   He had tested positive for a virus transfused into him from contaminated blood products, and the Blood Bank was recommending all his family members be tested for this new virus called HIV—Human Immunodefiency Virus.  Could I call the family and make those arrangements please?

I sat stunned, knowing only too well what this meant.  I had already taken care of several dying patients, previously healthy young adult men, who had the symptoms described initially as Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disorder (GRID), and now, with new reports of hemophiliac patients showing similar symptoms, the name of the syndrome had been changed to  “Acquired Immunodeficiency Disorder (AIDS)” .  It wasn’t just sexually transmitted, not just a “gay disease” as originally thought, it was blood borne as well.

The rest of the family was tested.  All were positive except the oldest son.  Untested blood products transfused into the father had infected him, then sexually transmitted to the mother, and passed during pregnancy or breast feeding to the youngest three children.

There was no known treatment and no hope for cure.  All that was left, all they ever had,  was prayer.

Their church community rallied to care for them as the disease took them, one by one.  Their oldest son, spared by an inexplicable grace, was entrusted to extended family.

Remarkably, despite their desperate circumstances, this mother and father continued to pray aloud, as they had at their childrens’ births,  through those same childrens’ illnesses and deaths, then later during their own descent into the hell of this disease.  Until the very end, they continued to pray an inexplicable prayer:

“Thank you, Jesus, may your gracious name be praised.”

After the Storm

photo by Josh Scholten

This was a wild weather week on the outside: heavy winds, snowfall in the mountains, sweaty sunny middays, torrential unpredictable showers–and inside my cranium: words that flew out too quickly, smothering anxiety, searing frustration, overflowing tears.

The month of May needs no explanation for acting like October, December and August within a span of a few hours.  I am not so unburdened.  I end up lying awake at night with regrets, making apologies, and wanting to hide under a rock until the storm is over.

But in the midst of extremes, while the storm is raging, a miracle takes place.  It can only happen when brilliant light exposes weeping from heavy laid clouds, like the rainbow that dropped from heaven last night to touch the earth right in our backyard, only a few feet from our barn.

God’s cries, His wept tears, have lit up the sky in a promise of forgiveness.   This storm too will pass.

Spitting Image


As a child I liked to go out far into our hay field and find the tallest patch of grass.  There, like a dog turning circles before a nap,  I’d trample down the tall waving stems that stretched up almost to my eyes, and create a grass nest, just cozy enough for me.  I’d sit or lie down in this green fortress, gazing up at the blue sky, and watch the clouds drift lazily by.  I’d suck on a hollow stem or two, to savor the bitter grass juice.  Scattered around my grassy cage, looking out of place attached to the broad grass stems, would be innumerable clumps of white foam.  I’d tease out the hidden green spit bugs with their little black eyes from their white frothy bubble encasement.   I hoped to watch them spit, to actually see them in action, but they would leap away.

The grassy nest was a time of retreat from the world by being buried within the world.  I felt protected, surrounded, encompassed and free –at least until I heard my mother calling for me from the house, or a rain shower started, driving me to run for cover, or my dog found me by following my green path.

It has been years since I hid in a grass fort or tried to defoam spit bugs.   I am overdue, I’m sure.

On a recent spring morning, when the grass was particularly tall, I was driving into work on one of our county’s rural two lane roads, going the speed limit of 50 mph, in a grumbly mood and wishing I was heading somewhere else.  My mind was busy with the anticipation of my workday when I noticed a slight shift to the right by the driver in the car ahead of me.  It inexplicably moved over the fog line and then suddenly I realized why, in a moment of stark clarity.  A huge empty gravel truck and trailer rig was heading north, moving at the speed limit, the driver seemingly oblivious to the fact his trailer was starting to whip back and forth.  As he approached me much too quickly, his trailer was whipping back to the center line, approaching me full force at a ninety degree angle from the truck, filling up the entire lane in front of me.  I had no choice but to run my car off the road into a grassy field to avoid being hit head on by the still attached but runaway trailer.  Only by chance were there no deep ditches at that particular point in the road.  My car dove right into tall grass, which enfolded me, like a shroud of green,  shielding me from a tangle of metal and certain death.  It was a near miss, but a miss nonetheless.

I sat still for a moment, gathering my wits and picking up my frayed nerves from where they been scattered.   All I could see in front and around me was grass, just like my little childhood fortresses.   It was very tempting to stay right there,  buried in the safety of the grass and hidden away, just as if I had been a spit bug wrapped in my foam cocoon, feeling my heart race from the relief of still being alive.

Instead I drove to work to do what I initially planned to do that day, suddenly aware of the privilege of having a life to live,  a job to go to, and a grassy field ready to swallow me.

It was only later, after I called my husband about what had taken place, that I cried.  Until then, I couldn’t stop smiling.  I had felt encased in liquid bubble wrap, spit-protected by something bigger and stronger, in whose image I had been made.

May 19, 1975

photo by Larry Goldman

In recognition of this day 35 years ago, I’m reprinting this part of my Gombe saga, working as a student research assistant for Jane Goodall in western Tanzania in 1975.

At first glance,  Gombe National Park in Tanzania felt like paradise—a serene piece of the earth filled with exotic and fascinating wildlife, an abundance of fish and fruit to eat, and the rich unfamiliar sounds and smells of the tropical jungle.  It was a façade.  It was surrounded by the turmoil and upheaval of political rebellion and insurgencies in its neighboring countries, inflamed even more by the fall of Saigon in Vietnam a month previously due to the earlier pull out of the Americans from that long and tragic war.

Only a few miles north of our research station in Gombe National Park in western Tanzania, there had been years of civil war in the small land locked country of Burundi.  When the wind was just right, we could hear gunfire and explosions echoing over the valleys that separated us.  Escaping refugees would sometimes stop for food on their way to villages in Tanzania to the south, seeking safe haven in one of the poorest countries in the world, only a decade into its own experiment with socialism, Ujamaa.

There was also word of ongoing military rebellion against the dictatorship of President Mobutu in the mountainous country of Zaire twelve miles west across Lake Tanganyika.

Morning comes early for field studies of wildlife, as the research day must start before the chimpanzee and baboon subjects wake up and begin to stir. Before midnight, while we slept soundly in our metal huts scattered up the mountainside, a group of armed soldiers arrived by boats to the shore of Gombe National Park.

Storming the beach huts housing two unarmed Gombe park rangers and their families, the soldiers seized one and demanded to be told where the researchers were. The ranger refused to provide information and was severely beaten about the head and face by the butts of the rifles carried by the invaders.  The armed soldiers then divided into smaller groups and headed up the trails leading to the huts, coming upon four sleeping student researchers, tying them up, taking them hostage, forcing them into boats and taking them across the lake back to Zaire.

Asleep farther up the mountain, we were wakened by some students who were fleeing, hearing the commotion.  No one really understood what was happening down lower on the mountain. There were shouts and screams, and gun shots had been heard.  Had someone been injured or killed?   There was no choice but to run and hide deep in the bush at a predetermined gathering spot until an “all clear” signal was given by the rangers.

We hurried along barely familiar  trails in the black of the jungle night, using no flashlights, our hearts beating hard, knowing we had no defense available to us other than the cover of darkness.

That was the longest wait for morning of my life, sitting alongside Jane holding her son Grub.  A hand full of other students had also made their way to the hiding spot, none of us knowing what to think, say or do.  We could only barely see each other’s faces in the darkness and were too frightened to make any sounds.  We carried no weapons, and there was no way to communicate with the outside world.   We had no idea how many of us may be missing, or possibly dead.

Jane held Grub in her arms, trying to keep him quiet, but his eight year old imagination was ignited by the events that had just unfolded.

“Will they kidnap me, Jane?  Will they come for me?  Where will they take us?  Will they shoot us dead?”

Jane, her face hidden by her blonde hair loose about her shoulders,  sat rocking him, cradling him. “Shhh, shhh, we don’t want them to find us.  We’re safe staying right here.  Everything will be fine in the morning.  No one will take you from me.”

She concluded: “They would have to shoot me first…”  and at that, Grub began to sob silently into her shoulder.  He knew that was how baby chimpanzees were captured by bounty hunters, by shooting the mother dead and snatching the infant from her protective embrace.

When the morning of May 20 dawned, the park rangers located us, and pieced together the events as best they could–the soldiers were Zairean rebels living in remote mountains, fighting  an insurgency against the Zaire government. Seeking funds for their cause, they saw a kidnapping of Americans and Europeans as a way to raise quick funds and world publicity and sympathy.  Four of our friends/coworkers were missing, the camp was ransacked and the rangers hurt but with no life threatening injuries.   There was no way to remain safe at the Park, and our colleagues needed whatever help we could offer for their rescue.

We were able to send a messenger to a nearby fishing village, and a radio call was sent out to the small town of Kigoma, then relayed to Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi.  Help arrived within a few hours, when a United Nations boat monitoring the civil war activities in Burundi pulled off shore near our camp.  We were told we needed to evacuate Gombe that day, and would be taken to Kigoma, and then flown by bush pilot to Nairobi, Kenya to cooperate in the investigation of the kidnapping.

In Nairobi, at the US Embassy, I met CIA agents who viewed our wild primate studies with some suspicion.  Each of us were grilled individually as to our political beliefs, our activities at the camp and whether we may be somehow involved in subversive actions against the Zaire or Tanzanian governments.  We were dumbfounded that our own countrymen would be so skeptical about our motives for being in Africa.  It became clear our own government would be no help in resolving the kidnapping and bringing our friends home to safety.  The agents did not shed any light on whether our friends were alive or dead.

We were then hustled into a press conference where we were interviewed for television and print media by the worldwide news agencies, and my parents saw me on the CBS evening news before they actually heard my voice over the phone.

It took over three months, private negotiations and ransom money to free all four of our friends back to safety.

Fenced In

Calypso Bulbosa photo by Kate Steensma

My grandmother’s house had been torn down after she sold her property on Similk Bay near Anacortes, Washington to a lumber company.  This was the house where her four babies were born, where she and my grandfather loved and fought and separated and loved again, and where we spent chaotic and memorable Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.  After Grandpa died suddenly, she took on boarders, trying to afford to remain there on the wooded acreage fronted by meadows where her Scottish Highland cattle grazed.   She reached an age when it was no longer possible to make it work.   A deal was struck with the lumber company and she had moved to a small apartment, bruised by the move from her farm.

My father realized what her selling to a lumber company meant and it was a crushing thought.  The old growth woods would soon be stumps on the rocky hill above the bay, opening a view to Mt. Baker to the east, to the San Juan Islands to the north, and presenting an opportunity for development into a subdivision.   He woke my brother and me early one Saturday in May and told us we were driving the 120 miles to Anacortes.  He was on a mission.

As a boy growing up on that land, he had wandered the woods, explored the hill, and helped his dad farm the rocky soil.  There was only one thing he felt he needed from that farm and he had decided to take us with him, to trespass where he had been born and raised to bring home a most prized treasure–his beloved lady slippers from the woods.

These dainty flowers enjoy a spring display known for its brevity–a week or two at the most–and they tend to bloom in small little clusters in the leafy duff mulch of the deep woods, preferring only a little indirect sunlight part of the day.  They are not easy to find unless you know where to look.  My father remembered exactly where to look.

We hauled buckets up the hill along with spades, looking as if we were about to dig for clams at the ocean.  Dad led us up a trail into the thickening foliage, until we had to bushwhack our way into the taller trees where the ground was less brush and more hospitable ground cover.  He would stop occasionally to get his bearings as things were overgrown.   We reached a small clearing and he knew we were near.  He went straight to a copse of fir trees standing guard over a garden of lady slippers.

There were almost thirty of them blooming, scattered about in an area the size of my small bedroom.  Each orchid-like pink and lavender blossom had a straight backed stem that held it with sturdy confidence.  To me, they looked like they could be little shoes for fairies who may have hung them up while they danced about barefoot.    To my father, they represented the last redeeming vestiges of his often traumatic childhood, and were about to be trammeled by bulldozers.  We set to work gently digging them out of their soft bedding, carefully keeping their bulb-like corms from losing a protective covering of soil and leafy mulch.  Carrying them in the buckets back to the car, we felt some vindication that even if the trees were to be lost to the saws, these precious flowers would survive.

When we got home, Dad set to work creating a spot where he felt they could thrive in our own woods.  He found a place with the ideal amount of shade and light, with the protection of towering trees and the right depth of undisturbed leaf mulch.  We carefully placed the lady slippers in their new home, scattered in a pattern similar to how we found them.  Then Dad built a four foot split rail fence in an octagon around them, as a protection from our cattle and a horse who wandered the woods, and as a way to demarcate that something special was contained inside.

The next spring only six lady slippers bloomed from the original thirty.  Dad was disappointed but hoped another year might bring a resurgence as the flowers established themselves in their new home.  The following year there were only three.  Two years later my father left us, not looking back.

Sometime after, when my mother had to sell our farm after the divorce, I visited our lady slipper sanctuary in the woods for the last time in the middle of May.  The split rail fence was still there, guarding nothing but memories.  No lady slippers bloomed.  There was not a trace they had ever been there.  They had simply given up and had disappeared.

The new owners of our farm surely puzzled over the significance of the small fenced-in area in the middle of our woods.  They probably thought it surrounded a graveyard of some sort.

And it did.

A Tree on Exhibition

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Chestnut Tree Blooming

Each spring the horse chestnut tree in our lower front yard transforms for a week into a Renoir painting.   It explodes into hundreds of bright clusters of delicate orchid-like blossoms, forming cone shaped floral candles illuminating the spreading branches.  However, its setting is more peasant than romantic, as the tree stands in common company between a pine tree and a poplar lining the rural driveway into our barnyard.  This is an exceedingly humble spot for a tree bedecked with such majestic lighting, its tender broad leafed branches brushed and broken by passing hay wagons and shavings trucks.

Although its graceful beauty seems more appropriate along the Seine River,  during the summer it fits perfectly in its spot near our haybarn.  Its verdant foliage provides deep cooling shade during hot sweaty days.    The branches that were once lit up with scores of pink and white blossoms become leafy respite for a dusty hay crew gulping lemonade in between loads.   Horses snooze in the paddocks under its shadow.   Birds nest well hidden.   The tree becomes sanctuary within and below.

By fall, the tree forms its fruit within unpretentious capsules covered with spines and prickles, visually spiked yet actually soft and pliable.  There are few natural things  so plain and homely as the buckeye horse chestnut husk.   These are shed by the hundreds  in autumn wind and rainstorms, and they shower down, cobbling the driveway, eventually to break apart underfoot.

Only by leaving the tree can the deep brown nut be revealed from its hiding place, its richness exposed.    From exquisite bloom to shady haven to prickly husk to mahogany harvest,  this chestnut tree’s changing palette needs no canvas, no frame, no museum gallery showcase.  Instead its year round exhibition is for free,  right in our front yard.