Thursday, October 02, 2014


The stone ruin on the Macleay Park trail

This is a powerful idea that was never been put into words until my mother was dying.  Even then the idea was mostly hints until I realized that they explained phantom feelings.  In her last year or so, in an effort to understand her life, I asked her why our street in Portland, NE 15th between Alberta and Killingsworth, had such a coherent group of women, mostly housewives, who kept close track of each other and sometimes partied together.   (They played "Cootie" and "Bunko" for cheap prizes and had dessert.  No drinking.) They called each other by their last names: White, Onslow, Gross, Hartwig, and McClain.  My mother seemed somehow to be a leader.  Later she was active in the PTA and her church, but this was different.

Now she said it was because in the late Forties McClain’s son had hung himself in Macleay Park.  She and other women thought that McClain, who was older, Catholic and had more children than usual, needed support through her grief.  They organized to go to her house to have coffee every day.  Suddenly I remembered that when we were about that age my mother insisted one day that she and we kids go to hike the trail through the Park.  I had thought that it was because in those years my father worked at Montgomery Wards, which was close to the beginning of the trail.  But it was unusual, both because my father was not on the hike and because there was some kind of urgency.

My mother’s motto was, “I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”  I inherited it.  Sometimes it was intense enough to be labeled “counterphobic,” which is to say, driven to go straight at danger and disarm it by knowing it.  Not a comfortable trait, but a useful one -- so long as one took precautions.

Macleay Park had the usual features of Oregon forest trails.  It followed a stream and was a “soft” trail, not paved.  But some stone work had been done as WPA projects, so there were occasional built structures along the trail, very much like the stone work along the Columbia Gorge highway.  One of them was a 1929 stone building equipped as a restroom.  I remember how tense and alert my mother became when we approached this building.  My brothers wanted to go in and use the facilities, but she was reluctant to let them and stood right by the door, making sure no one else was in there.  She and I did not use the female side so I don't know what the facilities were like.  

In those days, especially during the week, the trail was deserted.  I don’t remember ever meeting anyone.  Now I realize that the bathroom was probably a meeting place for clandestine purposes, like gay interaction.  Now I connect this ruin to the boy who hung himself.   The building was not just allowed to rot but also at one point was filled with dirt.  I had wondered why the boy chose that trail for his demise.  The trees are mostly doug fir with no branches low enough to be convenient for a rope.

The McClain siblings were in their teens.  They were often our babysitters, laissez faire, both boys and girls, but with their parents just down the street one block for backup.  At one point, “valorized” (Eliade’s word) in my memory as important, my younger brother -- still in a crib -- went into a crying storm and could not be comforted.  Whoever was the sitter finally called his or her parents, who came as a couple and were also baffled about how to stop the raging.  My parents were finally recalled from wherever they were.  Then the baby settled down.  Unaccountable storms in children at about that stage happen, evidently the result of some kind of brain growth that connects panic to behavior in a neuron misfire.  But the adults were worried and would not talk about it later.

I was a little girl much impressed that I was responsible, that I should protect, intervene, but without much instruction how to do that.  Both brothers objected to me acting as an assistant mother, which didn’t stop me from trying.  I never did understand what I ought to have done about my brother’s baby storm.  Now I’m wondering whether the boy who hung himself had something to do with it.

For decades, until I was safely sleeping with a lover, I would very occasionally wake up to see a ghostly brother and sister, adolescent, standing side-by-side at the foot of the bed.  They never said anything and as I woke up a little more, they disappeared.  Such figures are well-described in the literature as a phenomenon of half-sleep, but they are not neurologically explained except for a suggestion that they are memories never resolved.  Now I think they may have been our baby sitters.  But the essay appended at the end of this post suggests something more spooky.

I have no memories of ever being molested by anyone, but various counselors over the years have quizzed me about it.  We were trying to understand how I mixed obedient compliance with defiant opposition.  Even my seminary professors complained that I was such a supportive and enthusiastic student at first, but then at some point would switch over and find them seriously lacking, worth attacking.  It hurt their feelings. 

I recognized the behavior but couldn’t really account for it.  I thought it was just that I idealized them until I knew them well enough for their faults to be apparent.  It felt to them like defiance and criticism, esp. since at that point I was the same age as the professors, who had much less experience with authority.  I’d just come from being an animal control officer, an emergency responder.

The word was betrayal.  I think long ago I felt that my parents betrayed us by leaving us for the evening, that the babysitter betrayed us by somehow triggering my little brother’s outrage, and that I betrayed my little brother by not understanding and fixing things.  I think my mother felt that we had all somehow betrayed that hanged boy and was determined not to betray his mother.  She also wanted to understand what Macleay Park was about.  We were visiting a “crime scene,” a clue to lethal betrayal.  Eventually, at seminary I felt that my professors were betrayers because they knew so little.  But it was a pattern from my past, not their doing.

I can remember standing on the stairs inside the McClain house, looking at the simple 2X4 bannister.  I was overhearing something through the half-open bedroom door but not knowing what it was or what it meant.  Probably if I were hypnotized in an effort to bring back the words, my subconscious would produce something literary.  Like this blog post.  How much is memory and how much is invention?

5xx5 NE 15th

That block of the street, between Sumner and Emerson, had been built up with simpler, poorer houses than our block.  The families there were low-income, working class.  They were impressed by our house, not because it was so grand but because it was full of books and had a piano.  My father played classical 78 records loud enough for everyone to hear.  Across the street was Captain Reeder, who ran a tugboat on the river and whose son was a cop, but also a jazz saxophonist.  He played late into the late summer nights, all alone but somehow lamentingly sexy.  We never talked about it.  We felt it.  

"Amor Vincit Omnia" by Caravaggio

Arts are as close as humans can come to wordless felt meaning.  As a family we went to a Forties or early Fifties Portland Art Museum show of masterpieces that included Caravaggio’s  “Amor Vincit Omnia”.   It's quite a large painting; we were hustled right along when we came to it.  I felt this had something to do with the puzzle of the hanged boy, but couldn’t understand how.  For all the parental progressiveness and the stacks of sex education books, none of them resolved it.  I couldn't make the connections from naked to sex to transgression to shame.

Indeed, love and betrayal, secrecy and the ultimate secret of death, can’t really be understood.  It’s not possible to get to the bottom.  This is the real betrayal of any faith-based religion or seminary -- the idea that they are the only ones who know the truth or that it is even possible.  Anyway, I don't think they really believed what they professed.

Here's someone else's take on Macleay Park, even deeper, with historical references.  (Jaime Dunkle has a namesake website.

1 comment:

northern nick said...

. . . good story.