Photo by Diana McGraw. Text by Janet Grace Riehl
If we’re not eyeball to eyeball, my friends ask me “Where are you?” rather than “How are you?” Midst the back-and-forth whirl often I’m not really sure. But this morning my buckwheat pillow under my head crunches the answer. I’m in my bed in the city—in the home I made for myself. My father is in his bed in the country—in the home he’s lived in all his life with time out to almost get killed in World War II. Two generations before him and three generations after him have lived on this land. Soon, later today, I’ll travel across the Mississippi once more to resume my place on the homeplace. But not yet.
I sleep alone with pillows on either side. No matter which way I turn in the night there’ll be a comforting something there. I’ve seen mothers secure their babies this way away from home. Away from the cradle, away from the crib—before high-tech baby carriers—mothers improvised. I take my comfort where I find it.
My digital travel clock says 4:30 a. m. It’s too soon to get up; I’d be wrecked for the day. I will myself back into the softness of sleep. Later a dream comes to visit. It’s one I’ll remember upon waking. These remembered dreams are so few they jerk me to attention. In the dream my father and I stand in line inside a church. The seats fill up on the near side of a balustrade. By the time we get to the front of the line—by the time we must choose and take our seats—there are no seats together any more. My father takes his seat on the other side of the rail. I sit behind, but lean forward. I whisper to his neighbor, “Take good care of him, would you?” I know Pop won’t be alone. But I don’t want to be alone either. When I wake, the dream cradles me between the pillows.
Finally it’s a decent time to get up. I cross the round rug and lean over to set my tea on a basket from Ghana. Upside down it serves as a side table. My writing nest beckons. The gold chair wants me. I yield.
I haven’t written anything of note for a long time. But now I settle in a cozy gold chair surrounded by a circle of art and artifacts. It’s like the pillows. These objects comfort and hold me in a circle of memories. This circle hints of life before me, reminds me where I’ve been, and reassures me there’s a future.
Writing by hand frees me from a computer screen and keyboard. My hand grips a 0.7 zebra roller pen that reminds me of the fountain pens I filled as a young woman. Before ink cartridges for printers, there were plastic ink cartridges for pens. As I refilled the cartridges with a syringe, the ink streamed in like blood or squid ink. When my frugality backfired, the ink leaked onto the knuckle of my writing finger and splattered onto the page. This morning the ink from my fat pen sinks into the soft paper of my Moleskine journal. That better writers than I used these is no mystery to me. They are the world’s most perfect friend to listen to whatever words come.
At 9 o’clock I call my father. Our ritual greeting of “How did you sleep?” echo village exchanges in Botswana that translate: “How have you risen? I have risen well.” My father’s characteristic response is delivered in a gravelly voice tempered with age. “Well, I made it through the night. I’m still breathing. Nothing to brag about. I aim to make it through the day as gracefully as possible.”
Later when I’ve made it to the other side of the river I’ll cook dinner for us and he’ll nap. Then I tiptoe beside his bed to see his chest rise a bit. His fingers twitch. He’s still breathing. Maybe it’s nothing to brag about, but he’s still here, and so am I.