Excerpt

From Both Sides of the River: A Family Portrait,
by Anne Cutter Mikkelsen, published by Willow Island Press

 

Ten years after I discovered my father’s journal, in December of 1994, while sorting a pile of used books to be donated to the hospital fundraiser, I picked up that tattered black book once again. All those years I spent working and raising my own four children, I had only half, or less, of my life’s story to share with them and through those years, I’d felt a lingering longing for something I could never satisfy or even identify. Maybe now was the time to examine more of my father’s story.

A few old letters addressed to The Secretary of The Coronado Dance Band, Last House on Park Street, floated to the carpet. The return addresses read: Eugene Bird. He was a professional saxophone player and friend of my father’s.

Saving the letters for later, I flipped through the typed, worn pages of my father’s journal, quickly scanning for any references to my mother. The first entry, dated January 4, 1939, begins after his graduation from University of Minnesota law school, as he enters Officer’s Candidate School in Pensacola Florida.

“The first day of flying this year marks the end of a twelve day vacation. The left wing flew in the morning which meant a seven fifteen muster and my cleaning detail had the duty.”

Disappointing again. Nothing personal, nothing revealing, mostly flight school jargon, math problems, radio and weather exam notes, Navy rules and regulations, and all the writing faded and difficult to read. For the second time, I abandoned the journal and returned to the letters from Eugene Bird. He and my father had been friends since boyhood. I learned that they created the Coronado dance band, when they were in high school, as a way to earn money entertaining summer visitors in small resorts along the shores of Lake Nisswai northern Minnesota.

I hadn’t seen Eugene since my father’s funeral. He’d be eighty years old if he was even alive. The years and my resources were passing so quickly. Soon there would be no one left to offer insight. Act quickly. It wasn’t much I needed, just a few answers to fill in pieces of the puzzle.

Simple questions like what was most important to my father? Why, after the war, did he at times seem unreachable and profoundly sad, then erupt in anger? But most important to me now were the suspicions my mother described in her story of Bridget and Peter. Could my father be alive, somewhere on this earth? Would he even have considered leaving his wife and eight children?

The moment had arrived. I summoned courage, telling myself that if I didn’t follow this story, no one else would. On New Year’s Eve, traditionally an evening for bold game-changing decisions, I made some phone calls.

It was 10 degrees below zero New Year’s Day 1995. Trudging through a snow bank toward a tidy Minneapolis bungalow, I saw the kitchen door open, steam escaped, and within seconds there he was, the assistant to the Secretary of The Coronado Dance Band, my father’s best friend.

 

* * *

 

“Charlie,” he called through a frosty cloud. Eugene Bird greeted me with a warm hug. Hearing the name my father gave me, transported me back to our yard in Anoka, under the shade of the oak trees. It was August, 1949, 90 degrees, 100% humidity.

I was five years old, barefoot, wearing blue and white striped seersucker shorts and sitting on my father’s lap. My legs dangled through the arm of the metal lawn chair and with one ear up against his chest, I felt the vibration of my father’s voice through his khaki work shirt. The smell of sweat mingled with oil and gas from his work down on the flat. He’d been repairing the irrigator just moments before his friends drove into the yard and climbed out of Eugene Bird’s red sports car.

Sy, Chalky and Eugene exchanged backslaps and handshakes with my father and then settled into the metal chairs under the ancient oak trees. Those men often stopped by for a Sunday afternoon visit.

Mother came through the porch door, carrying a wicker tray laden with the usual hot summer day men’s refreshments, cold beer in frosty Pilsner glasses along with pickled herring and Nabisco Hi-Ho Crackers. Looking through the bubbles in my father’s glass, I watched the distorted faces of his friends laughing and rocking back and forth in the metal chairs. That moment could have lasted ten years and I would have been content. There I was, in the center, listening to old jokes from familiar, friendly voices. My father told them that I was quite clever for a five-year old.

“Ah hah,” Chalky laughed, puffing his cigar and blowing loopy smoke rings to the tops of the oak trees. “So what is it she can do?” he asked. I wondered too.

My father said, “Oh she’s quite a little monkey. Here,” he said lifting me up. “Show them how you can turn a somersault right on this chair.” I was proud, as I performed, turning completely upside down and back to my father’s lap, but during the turn, my leg got caught in the arm of the chair.

I didn’t feel it, but Sy was alarmed. “Oh my, I think I heard something crack.”

“Yup,” Eugene agreed, coming over to look at my leg. “Yes, indeed I think she’s gone and broken her leg,” he said, cautiously tapping my shin bone. Off we went in a parade to the local hospital on Ferry Street. Eugene parked his red car by the curb, and the men waited, like sentinels, until my father rolled the high-backed, wooden wheelchair out onto the hospital porch. Clever little monkey, his friends wrote on my cast.

Forty-five years later that clever little monkey was stomping snow off her boots in Eugene’s kitchen doorway and following him into his warm living room.

Eugene, at nearly 80, was handsome, cute even, energetic and crisp in a white dress shirt, black pressed pants and canary yellow cardigan. As I followed him into the living room, I noticed that he looked almost the same as the last time I’d seen him, thirty-five years ago, though maybe a little sadder. Or was it melancholy? Don’t let it be confusion.

Settled into matching chairs, on either side of a coffee table, I told him about finding my father’s journal. “There were letters in that journal from you to Dad,” I said, “planning gigs for the Irish dance band. That sounded like fun. Was it? Did my dad like it?” Trying not to sound too desperate, but I was. Desperate to extract some tidbit, any little nugget about my father’s life. At that moment, I believed Eugene Bird was my only chance.

There was a long pause before Eugene spoke again.

“Your father played the piccolo, the flute and the fiddle too,” Gene said, smiling, looking down at the floor. Well, that was something, wasn’t it? I waited through another quiet space while Eugene seemed to be thinking of what to say next.

I’d never heard my father play the music of any of those instruments, but I was embarrassed to admit it. Maybe I hadn’t been paying attention.Eugene explained that The Coronado Dance Band was named for a Minnesota dance hall, frequented by Eugene and my dad and having no connection to the North Island Naval Base in Coronado,California where my father was first assigned as a Navy officer. What an odd coincidence.

Eugene poured coffee into china cups, as he told me how much he admired my grandparents, how he’d spent his childhood playing in the yard, dancing in the living room and playing tennis on the court at my grandparents’ house at the end of Park Street.

“We were friends, your father and I,” he said. “All our lives. . . roommates at the University.”Eugene began to warm up. “Very close,” he continued. “Studied together, took our meals together at Mrs. Bryan’s Tea Shop, five dollars a month. Imagine that, Charlie. And . . . in those days roommates even shared a bed! We went home to Anoka together for all our breaks. Very close… yes.” His eyes filled with tears and focused softly distant—miles beyond Minneapolis and years from this moment.

I watched Eugene’s face and imagined his worry-free rides home with my father, the laughter and stimulating conversations they must have had about college classes, football games, girls and summer band gigs.

“You must have known him really well,” I said, hoping to prod more memories. I’d settle for anything because I knew precious little about my father’s childhood.Eugene stared at a spot on the rug between his sharply polished black shoes. He seemed to be weighing his memories. Then he glanced sideways at me, trying to anticipate my reaction, as if he was about to divulge a long-held secret.

“Did you know, Charlie?” he began, looking me straight in the eye. “Your father never wanted to be a lawyer?”

Maybe Gene had dementia. My ears throbbed, then hummed, my face warmed.

What could be sadder than my father spending his whole, short life working at something he didn’t like, wearing deep dents in his shoes where his big toe pressed down while he walked to court, to the bank, and post office and paced the courthouse hallway waiting for a verdict? I could have cried, if I’d let myself. That was my temptation, but then it might have been the end of this conversation.

My father was a frugal man. He had two pairs of work shoes. I knew about the worn impressions inside his size 12 shoes because I polished those shoes every Sunday night. Plain Oxfords—one pair, dark brown, the other maroon. I held those shoes tight for the buffing by putting two fingers into the cups where his big toes worked.

He must have hated the daily routine. Shaving and putting on a starched collar, suit and tie, working till dark and on weekends, taking phone calls and appointments at home, trading legal fees for potatoes and rutabagas, parsnips and carrots all thrown into the cellar by poor dirt farmers in the middle of the night. All that for something he never wanted to do?

How could I not have noticed? Why would he do it? That is not the way we were raised—not one of his eight children. We learned early on to dream big, because he taught us that anything was possible with hard work and, of course, proper purpose.

As far as I knew, my father never participated in anything he had not carefully orchestrated for his total amusement and enjoyment, all outcomes unfolding exactly as he intended. I wish I’d known such an important fact (if it was a fact), it might have helped solve a few puzzles of my own.

Gene leaned closer to me and patted my arm.

“He wanted to be an engineer, Charlie,” he explained, trying to soften the effects of his disclosure. “He dreamed of inventions and exploration. But that first year of university, his father had been elected Judge and your grandparents felt strongly that Darrah should take over the family law firm. I think it was very difficult for him. In fact, it was. He changed that year.”

“How, how did he change?” I asked.

“Well, after the Christmas break, he was more serious, less music, more library. I don’t have to tell you how important flying became. . .after that. Did he ever tell you the story of how he started flying?”

With a smile, Gene spoke happily, recalling his childhood.

“I’ll never forget,” he said, “it was a typical Minnesota August day, you know, humid, calm. Sweet, sweet air though, like it always was just after the second mowing of alfalfa. He and I were nine years old, playing marbles on the dirt road, there on Park Street, between your grandparent’s house and the field. A little yellow bi-plane landed in a cloud of alfalfa dust right in the center of the field, seemed it came out of nowhere. Pilot climbed out and hollered at us, ‘Anyone wanna learn to fly?’ Imagine that. Your dad yelled, ‘I do.’ He left his marbles in the road, ran across the field and jumped in the plane, just like that. I stood at the edge of the field, watched him go. . . up over the phone lines. His first flying lesson and he was hooked, thrilled, addicted. That was the beginning, oh dear, yes that was the beginning.”

Gene’s eyes watered and his chin quivered. I couldn’t believe the clarity of his memories. He’s had a long life, a career with his music, a fifty-year marriage. Strange how some memories attach—maybe fiercely tethered to neurons, either by frequent reflection or the constant flow of love. In Eugene’s case, it might be both.

“You know Mary Helen,” he said, calling me by my mother’s name, “I could have said ‘I do,’ and gone instead, but I didn’t and that was the beginning.” In that instant, I think Eugene believed he was apologizing to my mother. She would have known exactly what to say. The china cup in his lap rattled in its saucer. Placing it gently on the table, he dropped his face in his hands, and seemed to fall completely into the memories of all that was ignited on that August day in the alfalfa field, when those two boys, so young and innocent, left their game of marbles on the dirt road and one went flying, setting his course. The other observed.

Seldom did my father talk to me in the car as he drove slowly down Main Street over the Rum River Bridge to Park Street and home, contemplating what? That’s what I could never figure out. I studied his profile and wanted to cry at his sadness. He was quiet—staring through the windshield, thinking about work, maybe; or was he bracing for all that awaited him at home. The year Mother was pregnant with our eighth baby, my two-year old sister, Oscar, was always screaming her head off because she bumped into the corner of the coffee table again and again. The little kids fighting and climbing on top of the bookcase.

From the driveway, even before we’d get to the rose garden, you could hear my nine-year old brother yelling at everyone because someone knocked his erector set over, again. You couldn’t count all the mosquito bites, fat wood ticks and cases of poison ivy in the summer. Every year the Christmas tree tipped over, bubble lights shattered and oozed on the carpet. Every single year. Two times Dad had to come home from work because of a howling chimney fire when someone put too much wrapping paper in the fireplace all at once.

I think my father was puzzled by the big kids gradually growing out of his control, stretching outside his visions for them. Acey aspired to be a car hop, and Leedsie suddenly preferred the public skating rink with a warming house that reeked of creosote and rocked with hockey-playing, leather-jacketed “thugs.”

Hard for my father to understand why his children would enjoy those things more than working for him at the office or skating with him on the river next to a bonfire he’d built especially for them on Willow Island. His life must have felt increasingly more complicated, as his brood matured.

And now Eugene, his best friend, is telling me, your father never wanted to be a lawyer. He wanted to be an engineer. All of which, flooded my head with even more questions. Did my father want to live by the river in his parents’ house? Did he want to have eight children? Or was he doing what he really loved when he died, as the well-intentioned folks assured us at his funeral?

“There’s not a day in my life I don’t miss your father,”Eugene mumbled tearfully. “If he had never learned to fly, his life would have been so different,” he said, wiping the tears from his face. “I take responsibility for everything that happened. Full responsibility. He took chances with that flying,”Eugene’s voice trailed off, “sometimes he had to, I guess.” Eugene had spent all these years with regret, and actually believing he might have had some control over my father’s decisions, or his fate.

I walked across the room and gave him a hug.

“Oh, it wasn’t your fault,” I told him. “He did what he wanted to do. Didn’t he?”

“I don’t know. . .I really don’t.” Gene lifted his face. “He could have done anything in the world. He was brilliant and resourceful. But . . . I think once he was up in the air, he just wanted to fly. You know? Intent on that. He used to say that he felt more connected to the earth when he was in the air.”

Of course I could imagine that was true. Especially since my father required all of his children get their pilot’s license before they could drive a car. From a distance of ten thousand feet up, in a small plane, big things appear miniature and even junkyards are well-organized, everything seems peaceful and manageable. From the air, the big picture is an intentional, well-planned tapestry.

“If I were you, Charlie,” Eugene said, wiping his nose with a white hankie. “I’d take a close look at that journal you found. Really close. Read all the letters and study every entry. Every detail. Make sense of it. Might just help you understand a few things. You hear?”

On my one-hour drive home from Minneapolis to Northfield, I began to appreciate the value of the two artifacts from the past, the messages from my parents over space and time.

Before long, I would learn the truth and beauty of the profound Buddhist saying: If you tug on anything at all, you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.