• Gretel Enck

100-Word Memoirs

I watched my mother out the bathroom window. She was pulling weeds around the goldfish pond and paid me no attention. I climbed up and found the cough syrup in the cabinet. I sneaked a sip. In my memory, it tastes of grape. Then I drank the whole bottle. She talked to me later, but I don’t remember what she said. The next time—a few years later when I picked the nutty topping off a cake—she was angrier: “What if I wanted to serve this to company?” I denied involvement and turned mute, unable to explain my compulsion.

Wasn’t long after I turned five that my normally serious father had a rather genius moment of fun—certainly genius to my young mind. We moved into a ranch-style house next to a soybean field outside Franklin, Indiana. Its two-car garage surely signaled our 70s “arrival.” We’d run an errand in our VW bug named Clemmie after her color, Clementine Orange, and Dad decided to park it sideways in the empty garage. I sat in the passenger’s seat—delighted by the departure from normalcy—as he maneuvered the car back and forth, inch by inch, to absurd perfection.

My horse was named September as was the season. When she spooked from something in the woods, I fell. The woman in the nearby house offered to call my parents, and I wish she’d insisted. The smell of hot vinegar from her canning accompanied the ice on the back of my head as the kitchen clock wound out of my grasp. I only made it partway home and sent my friend to get my dad while I collapsed in autumn leaves. I was roused by a paramedic whose ambulance braved the forest road. I hadn’t meant to cause a fuss.

Film school was about learning a new language of visual storytelling. With one professor screaming Cassavetes and my boyfriend screaming Brakhage/Deren, my eyes were opened to diverse ways of viewing the world and my options in documenting and exploring it. To counter the imperative to create, I took solace in destruction through chopping off my hair and scoffing at conformity. Where is the line between truth and fact? Can truth be expressed in narrative structure? Cassavetes may not have taught me how to make a film, but for better or worse he taught me how to live a life.

We fell in love over coffee in an attic apartment on Grove Street. On gray March mornings we sat in the narrow kitchen next to a window overlooking the courtyard. We explored the experience of existence as if we’d never spoken of such things and never would again, as if words could save us. His honesty astonished me until I realized he was only as honest with me as he was with himself. Later I chanced down that block and caught a group touring the neighborhood historic sites. “Witnesses to the scene of an crime,” I thought, and turned away.

“Shave it,” she said. “With a razor.” I guess no age is a good age to get cancer, but C.’s diagnosis at age 23 took my breath away. Months of chemo sessions at the NYU Center on 1st Avenue took their toll and took her hair. She got a Marlo Thomas That Girl wig but it felt wrong. With her roommate as witness, first I clippered her head. The fuzz was uncomfortable, so she gave me permission to go all the way. If resumes listed the acts that really make a life, this small one might be at the top.

So many calls you never want to get. Early 90s New York, one of those was still, “I’m positive. You should get tested.” I waited four excruciating weeks to get the results, wondering if anyone would ever want to touch me again. Helmets, seatbelts, condoms—living to fight another day. Funny thing: as horrible and scary as it was, it wasn’t a surprise. I’d been preparing for years. As a teenager I read The Plague Years in Rolling Stone and somehow knew it applied to me. Instead of denial, I embraced self-preservation. Blessedly the tests have always been negative.

An unemployed winter day found us at Coney Island putting quarters in the arcade games and wandering in the wan, gray light—the Cyclone and Freak Show shuttered for the season. Mostly, though, we drank cheap beer at the boardwalk bar, playing Sam Cooke on the jukebox: You Send Me. At a book stand outside we found an Army manual on killing someone barehanded. One of us pocketed it for a dollar. The last time—January 1, 2000—we arrived early for millennial sunrise. A thick layer of fog prohibited sunrise so we went for breakfast in our party clothes.

I worked on a lot of crap movies, but the Solitude Point script really touched me. In the end, egos reduced it to at best ordinary. Or maybe the egos reduced me. My three months in Baton Rouge were redeemed by crawfish boils, southern magic fairy dust biscuits, cane harvest debris in dusty towns, drum pounding thunderstorms, and an exploration of appetites. The lingering self-degradation of racism was redeemed by joyous and creative locals and the beginning of deep friendships. And the moment Colonel Blendus T. Nudd strapped spurs on my booted feet pretty much redeemed my whole existence.

An astrologer once told me I have no air in my chart. As a result flying an airplane was very unnatural and difficult for me—but fascinating and necessary. Inspired by the words of St. Exupery and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, I couldn’t NOT seek out this experience. The facts: Republic Airport, Farmingdale; 1976 Cessna 172 seven-six-zero-niner-one; Sunday mornings 1998-1999; over 100 hours; kindred spirit flight instructor Paul; solo flights; every last penny. The legacy: a lifetime’s worth of hard-won knowledge; perspective on life’s challenges; street cred with the ravens—no small gift.

The Block Island roads went up and down the small hills, and my bicycle followed them. I ate lobster three meals a day—lobster benedict, lobster rolls, boiled lobster. Children played in the muck on the sun-struck rocky beach. The tempo of the village rose and fell with the schedule of the mainland ferry. I biked out to the lighthouse and climbed to the top. I biked out to the airport on the hill and faced the wind with my arms outstretched. But I was as earthbound as a dodo, and the love that once lived there was going extinct.

My exhibit in the Museum of Failures would be the stack of unproduced screenplays I wrote in my twenties. A couple of them led to interesting places with people of note. But my disinterest in traditional plot structure doomed them. I gave up fiction and my film career. Such failure at a young age, I learned, has great value: fear is no longer an obstacle. Today I can’t recall what all those screenplays were about, but as I embark on novel-writing I’m grateful for that young woman’s diligence. She didn’t get the payoff; she just had to walk away.

Evenings I drove my F250 out the road north of Bryce Canyon. It was open range, and one day a big ol’ Hereford cow was hit and nobody picked her up. As summer went by she bloated up and then deflated down to skin and bones. Finally I took the Pulaski from the fire pit out back and harvested the skull. I mounted it on my truck grill as only an Easterner steeped in Western mythology would do. Two years later I happened down that road and found the carcass little changed, waiting. I unwired the skull and repatriated it.

He said he liked me because I was so much who I was. I said I liked him because he was a magical vagabond, a modern-day Everett Ruess. We hiked off trail in the Kolob out of adventure, hubris, boredom. A scramble up red rock and silver manzanita bought us a rocky aerie above the world. When I woke from a nap I watched him standing on the edge, a silhouette on blue: together but separated by an impassable chasm. I wondered when he would disappear into the maze. A true companion halves the misery and doubles the joy.

I once changed the starter of my old F250 in the parking lot of a Motel6 in Moriarty, New Mexico. I was westbound on I-40 to a job at Death Valley. The truck proved to be an effective mechanics classroom and my brother-in-law a good teacher. He provided lessons on keeping her running and gifted me a nice set of tools. The grinding started in Nashville and became unbearable by Amarillo. The motel folks pointed me to the nearby NAPA. In the fading light of a blustery January evening I passed the final exam of my automotive training.

The photographer I met hiking Mt. Jumbo pointed out Mt. Fairweather in the distance. He was off from his hospital job to take pictures on this last beautiful day of autumn. The weather stood in contrast to the layer of fog and rain that normally hung on the mountains around Juneau like a protective shawl. I napped in the mountain-top sunshine on a bed of golden deer cabbage. Another man had his kids out of school to enjoy the exceptional day. We understood and celebrated our fortune. The next morning—September 11, 2001—a skim of ice covered the lake.

Blade Danger was in an untenable living situation and Holly and I were stable in Hurricane, so we undertook an intervention to Bisbee. After securing our cargo, we visited the copper pit and grabbed coffee. We drove the length of Arizona in my Jeep with Blade howling in his carrier and Tucki the Mountain Dog harassing him. Reuniting Holly and Blade justified the chaos. Blade and Tucki became good friends as Blade was adept at laying down rules of friendship. Holly and I became good friends as I understood when you need a cat intervention, you need a cat intervention.

I chose our Mt. Whitney date to coincide with the full moon, knowing I would need more time than daylight offered. We met the Odessa Steps with enthusiasm, lunched with a marmot at Trail Camp, shared gorp bars with a toothless man at Trail Crest, and counted out a hundred steps between stops on the homestretch. I wouldn’t have believed it happened but for the giddy video I watched over and over of me reading from the summit logbook. My entry: We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy. Sarah’s: One day, one life, one love.

Being named after a mountain, Tucki needed to be buried there when he died. I just didn’t think it would be so soon. He grew a tumor on his nose that I first thought was parasites or an abscessed tooth. It took him quickly. The cats sat Shiva with him in the open Jeep the night before burial. B. accompanied me on the hot August day to the backside of the Death Valley mountain and dug a hole on the rocky slope, blessed kindness. I sang, “Oh to live on Tucki Mountain, with the barkers and the cactus in bloom.”

I carried Grandma’s 1938 Sears-Roebuck Supertone guitar around for years before I learned to play it enough to accommodate my need to sing. Singing is outlet, interpretation, meditation. I can’t write a song; my attempts at lyrics are nostalgic and maudlin. But I love to inhabit the words of others. I mostly sing sad songs because they let me hold space in my heart for the suffering of the world while remaining happy in my life. Maybe the songs I sing bring the peace of shared experience, of connection, to someone else. Singing frees my soul, and it’s my birthright.

I first visited Teakettle Junction with Ranger Dan on patrol. It's miles and miles down a bad Death Valley dirt road. He culled some of the overabundant decorated kettles left behind by pilgrims. "For the curator?" I asked. Nope, the dump. So when B. and I visited for a day of petroglyph and fossil spotting in nearby canyons, I had no compunction liberating some for porch decor. Heading home later toward Hunter Mountain, we chatted with another ranger I knew. I tried to hide the kettles under a blanket in the back, but if he noticed them he was probably grateful.

In Utah, friend Lori biked around town and foraged us pomegranates, pears, and walnuts. Independence produced bumper crops of apricots in the years a late freeze didn’t get them. In one memory, a fig tree grew in the back yard. Peaches, almonds, plums, cherries: the bounty of my irrigated desert life. Then there was the blackberry June when sunrise picking and coffee was the preferred social event. Judy led us to the best patches. I harvested the upper branches while Tule picked off ripe ones at ground level. We took full advantage so when it ended we had no regrets.

I have realized through Buddhist practice the destructive energy of identity. I became by experience a strong, independent woman who needed help from no one. The consequence was that I never learned interdependence, never accomplished anything that couldn’t be done alone. I clung to this identity despite the attendant suffering, thinking the alternative was to be weak and dependent. Then I found help; I started letting go—the critical work of a lifetime. I still carry that identity, but it is a sweater I can put on. I don’t have to BE any label. Maybe I can just be light.

Off the windward side of Oahu is the Kaneohe Bay sandbar that appears as an island at low tide like Brigadoon. We kayaked out on a Saturday with a poke picnic. Low humidity allowed surprising visibility of the rugged green mountains and the infinite sea and sky. I lolled in the foot-deep water connecting with the joyful energy of our spontaneous sandbar community. In an enlightened flash I connected to the whole universe, telling myself to hold on to this moment when the world is beautiful, the world is beauty, and I don’t need to know what that means.

A common thread to the chapters in my life is storytelling. During a three-month detail to the USS Arizona, I attended a survivors’ reunion in Fredericksburg, Texas. Official oral histories have been documented, but I heard other stories. One man was a park ranger at Pinnacles after the war until his daughter became school aged. Another man didn’t serve in the war because he was needed at home to raise his younger siblings. Instead he trained new pilots at the local airport. In both cases family members pulled them away, stories unfinished, sure they were boring the ranger. Alas.

Almost heaven, Sfantu Gheorghe. After a year in Tulcea, Romania, I went on seaside holiday to where the Danube meets the Black Sea. We shared the beach with pelicans and local cows. We went for fried cheese and live music at the German resort campground and enjoyed a Romanian folk musician. He was pretty good, playing his guitar and singing. But he made me cry when he broke into John Denver's Country Roads. I was halfway through my Peace Corps service and determined to stick it out, but I appreciated the sentiment like never before: to the place I belong.

I paraphrased Stegner’s geography of hope when I wrote in the logbook at Dick Proenneke’s cabin on Twin Lakes. Sitting at the desk of one of us humans who figured out how to live an authentic life free from fear, I considered how the power of wilderness, of wildness, breaks our shells; how going out is coming in; how perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away; how we need these wild places even if all we do is drive to the edge and look in; how words can share the singularity, the universality, of this life.

It’s a bit disconcerting when what I thought was the end of the world turns out to be the center of it. The stars fell on Big Bend and I sucked the ancient light into my lungs. Days of small explorations led me into new worlds of Chihuahuan Desert wonders and peaceful alleys of my mind. Pieces of past lives—places, music, ravens, stories—became mosaic. My iftar, my breaking of the fast, after nine days of camp food and quiet stillness: black-eyed peas served with chorizo tacos and a warm welcome to a new year, a new home.

To attend a wedding is to share joy. To perform the wedding of one of my dearest friends was to facilitate joy as well. In a year of long-awaited and diverse joys of my friends and my own miraculous return to writing and discovery of place, the wedding was a concrete affirmation of patience, of age, of knowing the value of something earned. Long enough for me to pay attention, the universe hung like a carnival ride, suspended against gravity, shining into my open eyes. And in that split-second, all we knew was love. And it sustains us.

Friend. Adventurer. Stargazer. Writer. Bodhisattva. Knew how to have a good time. Founded the annual Internationally Acclaimed Trans-Pecos Homegrown Tomato and Jugband Jamboree. Told stories that gave people the courage to accept themselves and to love and support others. Liked to climb things: trees, mountains, minarets, courthouse cupolas. Passionate about learning how the world works. Dedicated to civic engagement and the power of community. Learned from her many mistakes, grateful for the humility. Struck a balance between the melancholy and the magic. Loved without limits. Made a difference. She did not know she could not fly, so she did.

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