Now, being almost 75 years old, I have one page from the October 1988 issue of Minnesota Monthly. I starred whole paragraphs with red ink, and now, re-reading it after almost 30 years, it resonates in my head and heart no less than apparently before. But who is the author? It would seem to be from a father written to a newborn baby girl. Can you help me?
–Beverly Stadum, Øyer in Oppland, Norway
Here is the essay that Beverly requested, from October 1988, by former Minnesota Monthly staff writer Kathleen McLean:
Thirty-some years separate me from my niece, Kaitlin. Closer to 40 than 30. She’s seven months old. By the time her sweet little monkeyface has been stretched and pulled into young adulthood, I may be sitting on a porch somewhere, shouting at people to “Recycle those cans!” and muttering that they should try acting like human beings for a change. That’s one of my goals, anyway.
I might say to her, when she comes to see me—if she comes to see me—“Kaitlin, Kaitlin, why is life like this? Why are people such pinheads!”
Well, how the hell will she know? She’ll be a budding young thing, in college if she knows what’s good for her. She’ll have been raised by fiercely responsible parents and grandparents and godparents who will have done their best to shelter her from the vagaries of life.
What might she ask about life, while we sit on that porch? Will anything I know be of any interest to her? Will we share anything besides our blood? She’ll think I’m an old bag. I’ll think I’m an old bag. It might be the only thing we’ll agree on. I’ll look at her and think, “I was her age once. How did I get to be this old?” She’ll look at her watch. I’ll think I should be able to say something profound to this beautiful girl about all the slow and painful things there are to learn, and about all the things she might fail to learn. She’ll ask for whatever kids of the future want to eat or drink, and I probably won’t have it. She’ll turn on her Walkperson, and I’ll wonder what’s happened to rock ’n’ roll. I’ll think maybe I should just write it all down for her, so she might avoid some of the stupid periods of life, and so she’ll understand that, though young, she’s not immortal—that time is speeding her along, that she’s already playing out the real thing, and that if she plans to wait around for her life to turn into something, it could turn on her instead.
If I keep that up, she’ll dread our little chats. We’ll both look at our watches.
When she leaves, I’ll be remembering her as a baby, just as any old bag might do. She is the only baby in our late-bloomer family. I saw her beginnings as an infant who did nothing but sleep and cry and eat. I saw her trying to find her feet after a remarkably short time. I hope to help see her through all the stages that will have produced the young woman who sits on my porch. Her parents were generous about sharing her; looking at her and holding her was an endless pleasure. It was lucky for the adults in the family that she was a social creature, because we passed her around constantly, from one to another, like the bowl of gravy at Thanksgiving dinner. At five months she developed a Camille-like cough to remind us, during those rare moments when we talked to each other, that she was the center of attention. And she made me laugh. Little potato-head. Bright flying fish skimming the waters of our still pond. I think we were all right without her, but we were better after she arrived.
I learned from her, and from watching her parents (though I had known it to be true of my parents), that people don’t have children just because they feel themselves to be pale images of what they once were and have simply given way for the next generation. Giving life is important, and it only just begins at birth—it goes on and on, and it includes handing down the memories and visions that all add up to who we are. It takes a child years to see that. Thirty-some years, maybe.
What will I think I should have told her, after she’s driven off and the dust settles? The things and people that mattered to her mother and her uncle and me when we were growing up will be so much ancient history to Kaitlin.
You can’t tell someone that when you were a child, you went to the farm, and that the farm was always the farm. It reached out for you and formed circles and patterns in your imagination, pools of comfort and happiness that you would dip into forever after as a source of the things that made sense. You can’t tell someone that, as you got older, you could see how wind and time had laid bare the boards and the heart of the place, how all of its corners and cracks and secret pockets were crumbling and in ruins; or that, at a certain age, you began to walk more softly and your shouts echoed more loudly, because you knew your happy days there were numbered. And you can’t tell someone that one day your sister, hellbent on mastering a college photography course, was trying to frame a good picture by asking your uncle to stop for a moment, and that, as you saw him then, and later in the photograph, standing there in those ancient overalls, holding a freshly picked bunch of carrots with clods of earth still clinging to them, and heard him asking if he shouldn’t wash the dirt off first, you knew that he was simply what he was. A farmer. He was attached to the earth and its cycles of life and death, and so were you. A rock-solid particle of your safety had just shattered and dissolved. He had always been there. The farm was always the farm. But you knew then that neither would stay the same, and one day both were gone. Nothing stays the same; nothing lasts forever. You’d heard it, you’d resisted it, you finally understood it, you couldn’t change it.
How do you tell someone that people you love are bound to die, and leave huge empty places inside you, wounds that will stab at you for the longest time? Or that things both mundane and magnificent will stab at you as well, and somehow bind those wounds?
How do you tell someone about the importance of storms in summer, when the sky changes colors and darkens, and the wind pulls your hair from your sticky forehead and raises the hairs on your arms; when the very air seems to rush at you like a live thing, and sing to you and beckon you toward something so much bigger than you are that it frightens you, because all the smells of the rain-wet sidewalks and the sodden gardens and the slow-moving worms and the secret life from up the street and around the corner and across the universe carry themselves to you and sort themselves out for an instant and join you to them?
And how do you tell someone about the fall, and how during all the years of your life you waited for it and feared it, because the explosion of color and the brightness of scent push in at all those empty places you patch up during the other seasons, and hollow them out again, and make you feel restless and small and alone, as if the people and things in the world around you are solid, and you’re just floating, as if you’re slipping away from your post and being drawn into some great race, only to run aimlessly beside the dried, crackling leaves that gallop and stumble like dark horses along the sidewalks and gutters, out of sight?
The things is, Kaitlin, life is like all this, but it’s also filled with little pieces of glory and light, and those things warm you, and fend off the stabs of your little failures and pains. You may feel small, but you still give light. It’s hard to tell someone. You’ll see. Your parents, like hosts of parents before them, will look at you and say, “Not for you, not any of this. We’ll keep you safe.” Well, you won’t be safe, and you may never be a large enough presence to light the world, but there it is, waiting for you.
You can’t tell someone what’s precious, and you can’t tell someone the colors and shapes that memory weaves, and you can’t always sort the lessons of life from the trivialities. They’re all bound together so tightly.
Sometime when you visit me, I’ll read you my favorite passage from Out of Africa. I may even have it memorized by then.
Karen Blixen lit the world. But still she wondered, “If I know a song of Africa—of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I had had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or would the eagles of Ngong look out for me?”
I know a song of you, Kaitlin, and you will know a song of me. Perhaps nothing so grand as eagles will look out for us. Perhaps only the people with whom we weave our stories.
So let us sing our songs.
For yourself, and for me, and for the things worth saving, that’s all we can do. It might be enough.