A Beacon in the Mists of Time

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“We all make stupid, critical mistakes – some of them real corkers.  But none of us ever thinks there’s an end to our personal journey until it’s too late.  We survive as best we can, and everyone – you and I included – always thinks there is time enough to make amends for all the bad stuff we’ve ever done or ever will do.  And none of us, not one stinking one of us, ever hears our last call until it’s much too late.  But at least some people try to make amends as they go along, and a few of those – a very select few – choose to celebrate mankind’s creativity as well: singing into the teeth of the wind as bravely and as often as they can, never caring where their words are carried, only trusting that they might be heard and be of some benefit to someone, somewhere.”  Her words pounded out like fists demanding immediate entry through a barred oak door. “You’re one of them.  Never, never regret the choice to be one of them; it’s the essence of whatever distinction humanity might enjoy whenever the bones are finally tallied.”

Stephen C Ellis, The Leaves Are Full of Children

There were four of us, the children of Don and Betty Ellis, all born on the western side of the Cascade Mountains. All but me were children of the coast, interlopers in the sere and dun hills of eastern Washington. I was the odd one, the youngest by 6 years who came, at age 2, to the isolated valley in which I grew up.  The valley, therefore, was my only known universe. Not so for the other three.  They were transfers from the coast. While that fact affected each of them differently given different ages and temperaments, each of them must have wondered how they had arrived in a land that definitely wasn’t Oz.

Barbara was 12 at the time of the move to the desert, the oldest of us. Therefore, she had the most memory of our coastal past as well as having the distinction of being dispossessed of the most vigorous external support network. She could have been bitter about her transition from green to brown, but bitterness was not in her nature. Instead, she soon had a new coterie of friends, making connections easily and without conscious effort.  For she was filled with joie de vivre and laughter, always making the best of any new circumstance in which she found herself.

Occasionally, I find myself looking backward at those formative years, trying to discern the truth of them. For I have strongly fixed impressions of them that have long fueled the arc of my existence.  I am certain that I am beyond the apogee of that arc, but my impressions of that time still guide me in descent. On the other hand, I am fully aware that memory is fallible. I am convinced that everyone’s personal life story, as told to friends and family, is either a lie, an ineptly abridged version of the truth, or some form of fantastic alternate reality.

Barbara MacLean passed away this week, the second of the four of us to do so. Mike left us first.  From now on I must rely upon memory to see and hear her, to laugh with her, but I will have no trouble doing so. I have vivid recent and ancient memories to guide me. For example. the last time I saw her at her hospice. I told her that she was the best older sister I’d ever had.  That sally earned me a big sister glare, the assertion that she was my only big sister, and a laugh from somewhere within the pain in which she was then cocooned.  I’ll remember that last laugh together the longest. We always teased one another unmercifully, thereby demonstrating our mutual love.  She heard my underlying message that day, despite her pain.

Despite my misgivings about memory, I will have no trouble whatsoever seeing Barbara through the mists of time. For she remains a beacon; her internal fire was much too strong for a mere quibble like death to quench.  Her strength and love continue to burn in both story and memory; in ancient stories of requested contracts folded into paper airplanes and flown over the wall of her boss’s office cubicle to land on his desk blotter, of a pinwheel of fireworks tacked onto a back pew of a holy roller church sparking a moment of great congregational ecstasy, of blind fishing through a hole cut in the floor of her sorority room’s closet for tins of food locked in the chef’s larder just underneath, of her joy in each of her children’s birth, growth, and maturity, of game nights in both the Ellis and MacLean households distinguished solely by decades and the identity of the participants, the MacLean versions persisting into her nursing home room even after her Parkinson’s disease became too much for in home care, of her singular, magical, lifelong love for her husband, Bob, that never wavered in the slightest even when she was annoyed at him for some small thing; and in myriad memories of her laugh – a laugh somewhere between a full-throated cackle and a girlish giggle, a laugh that persisted throughout her life and sustained her until the end.

Bon voyage, Barb.  I know you are on a voyage to somewhere new. I will follow as best I can, so keep the light on.

About Gavin Stevens

Humptulips County is the wholly fictional on-line residence of Stephen Ellis, a would-be writer, an avid fan of William Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, and a retired lawyer.
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