Friday, December 26, 2014

Michael Rockefeller, Cannibals, and a Christmas Surprise

Tibor Sekelj in Brazil.
On Christmas morning, my husband asked me—in all innocence—what I was reading. An article, I told him, about a new documentary that sheds light on the mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in Papua New Guinea in 1961. The son of governor Nelson Rockefeller was 23, I explained, and on an art-collecting expedition when he jumped over the side of a broken-down boat, began swimming to shore to get help, and was never seen again.
    "He was eaten by cannibals," Patrick replied. Thus began one of the more surprising conversations of our married life.
    "How do you know?" I asked.
    "A friend of my parents who had been in Papua New Guinea said he thought that was probably what happened."
    Here, some sixth sense told me to continue this line of questioning. "What friend?"
   "A guy from Yugoslavia. He used to come to dinner once in a while."
   "What was his name?"
   "His name was Tibor Sekelj."
   Here is what Wikipedia says Tibor Sekelj—an ethnologist, linguist, anthropologist, mountaineer, and explorer with a long and fascinating resume—was doing nine years after Rockefeller's disappearance:
"In 1970, Yugoslav television sent Sekelj to Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea. During his six-month stay he climbed Mount Kosciuszko. In New Guinea he met with natives whose lack of previous contact with the civilized world led to tense situations. But among Sekelj's many skills—and perhaps luck was just another one—was an uncanny ability to escape imminent danger time and again. Certainly he adapted easily to odd customs (including bizarre food), but if there was a single thing in particular that helped in this regard, it was his communication skills, which transcended even his facility with language."
Now, bear in mind that I have spent countless hours trying to figure out what my husband was thinking when he, as a young man, improvised a solo trek through the Brazilian rain forest (where Sekelj and his wife, Mary Reznik, first encountered cannibalism) and in short acted very much like his parents' Yugoslav dinner guest—one of the great travelers of the twentieth century. I tried to write about this trek in some detail in Our House in Arusha. The episode included a mutiny, several murders, and a number of very lucky encounters with rain-forest people who, despite certain meat-eating tendencies, saw to it that this particular white visitor survived his Brazilian jungle experience.
    "Do you suppose this guy Sekelj might have influenced you in one way or another?" I asked.
    "Oh, definitely."
    "So . . . how come you never mentioned him before?"
    "I forgot."
     Maybe the Brazil trek will make it into a book someday. When I set it aside, I thought, "No one is going to believe this." Just like nobody believed that the son of one of America's most influential families might have been killed and eaten by forest people when he ran into misfortune on an art expedition.
   My husband's Christmas revelation ended with this tidbit: "Indira Ghandi came to dinner once."
   "I found her very cute."

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas Letter

Idora's bench (rear view) by John Parker and Jasper Tomkins.
As 2014 draws to an end, I have much to brag about be grateful for. I made enough money to pay my bills, and I didn't get fired from any jobs. Plus, although I myself accomplished little, I was a bit player in a number of success stories starring talented friends. For example:

Ava Chin published a memoir about urban foraging that got tons of great reviews and was picked as a Library Journal "best book." But if I hadn't liberated Ava's broken-down Honda in 2001, she might never have made it to UCLA and gotten her PhD. Not that you need a PhD to write a book about urban foraging, but I'm sure it helps.

One of the best new travel websites of 2014 would not exist if Wendy Perrin had not quit her job at Condé Nast Traveler in pursuit of greater things—following my own trend-setting exit seven years earlier. As TripAdvisor's first ever Travel Advocate, Wendy also advises 280 million travelers PER MONTH. I, too, advise travelers, albeit in smaller numbers. Mostly I advise them not to drive after two or more beers.

The judge "let him go because he had to gut his deer" is just one of the observations that made a certain Rumblestrip interview with my friend and neighbor Kelly Green so memorable. Kelly is a defense lawyer in Vermont. Someday I will base a fictional heroine on this girl and make us both rich. Meanwhile, I would like to point out that I am the one responsible for the giant sheet cake that mostly ended up in Kelly's freezer after a Bennington Battle Day picnic and was later distributed to her friends and neighbors—and that without these friends and neighbors, who love her so dearly, Kelly might have decided long ago to move to someplace warm and sunny. (It's a tenuous thread, I admit.)

Jessamyn West, might never have written her wonderful essay "Buy Nothing Day" if I had not said something on Facebook which I now can't remember saying but which Jessamyn claims inspired her, whatever it was.

Dian Parker published "Sustaining Ecstasy," a passionate love story written in gorgeous language—minus the typos that I found and eliminated while reading her final draft.

Artist Laurie Sverdlove showed her work at Big Town gallery and a whole bunch of other swanky places—immediately following her art tour of Paris with me as her guide. Coincidence? I think not.

And the beautiful bench that graces Kimball Library's children's section? The one made by Vermont woodworker John Parker and artist Jasper Tomkins? I was the one who arm-twisted them into making it. It is dedicated to Idora Cooley Tucker and she would love it.

Perhaps you, too, have accomplished something in 2014 for which you would like to give me credit?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Aunt Ruth and Aunt Lois

Northfield Falls Store
Aunt Lois at the general store in Northfield, Vermont, in September 2014. My mother crocheted her poncho.

My last good visit with my aunt, Lois Cooley, was in September 2014, a few days after her birthday, when I took her on a foliage drive that began in Northfield, Vermont, where she lived. On the way, we stopped for lunch at the Northfield Falls General Store. What follows is an excerpt from my book An Irruption of Owls, which chronicles my return to Vermont after 30-plus years as a nomad. It records a scene that took place in the fall of 2012, a couple of months after my mother died:

I am with my two aunts. Aunt Ruth and I have just been to the audiologist to have her hearing aids turned up. This is the third trip in a month. On our way home, we stop in Northfield for a cup of coffee with my aunt Lois. This is the routine. I am eager and not eager to have the hearing aids properly tuned—once that happens, I’m afraid we’ll let the visits lapse.
   Aunt Lois’s kitchen smells of cinnamon, coffee, and the cigarettes that she smokes when nobody’s looking. “Coffee, tea, or ginger ale?” she asks. She pours two cups, one for Aunt Ruth and one for me, and joins us at the table. “I forgot my ginger ale,” she says, and rises, goes to the fridge.
   The phone rings. Aunt Lois squints at the handset, then hands it to Aunt Ruth. “What does that say?” Aunt Ruth takes the handset and squints. “I can’t see,” she says over the ringing of the phone. She adjusts her glasses. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Ruth!” The phone stops ringing.
   “Who was it?” says Ruth.
   “How do I know? That’s what you were supposed to tell me.”
   “They’ll call back,” says Ruth.
   Aunt Lois hands me a can of ginger ale. “Here,” she says, “can you open this?”
   The tab is up and twisted, mangled, about to break off. “This is a goner,” I say.
   “Wait, I’ll get a screwdriver.”
   I pull on the tab. The tab breaks off in my hand. “See, I told you. Aunt Lois, don’t you have a church key?”
   “A what?”
   “A church key; what you open beer cans with.”
   Aunt Lois rummages in a drawer for a long time. “Where’s that screwdriver?” she says at last. She stabs at the can. “There.”
   We discuss somebody named Alice (not her real name), who married a drunk seventy years ago.   “But he sobered up ten years before he died,” says Aunt Ruth.
   The two aunts try to figure out how long Alice’s husband was drunk before the ten years of sobriety. This involves a very complicated equation that factors in the birthdays of several children, including my cousin Charles. Aunt Lois jots down figures on an envelope. “I’m not sure where this is leading,” she says.
   I have spent many hours like this with my mother and her sisters and friends during the past five years. One on one, I carry my end of the conversation, but when I’m outnumbered, as I am today, I often lapse into studied amusement. Either way, I am filled with a sense of well-being, a sense that they will always be there, just like this, funny and wise, taking care of me by whatever means necessary. Today, it is by entertaining me. They are playing a role, I know this. They do it for me and for each other. Laugh therapy.
   Aunt Lois stands in the driveway and motions as I back the car around, careful not to run over her flowerpots. I wave to her in the rear-view mirror. “I just love Lois,” says Ruth.
   “I do, too.”
   I turn left onto Main Street and point the Subaru south.
   “What do you suppose Idora would think of my wearing her hearing aids?” This is Aunt Ruth’s way of making sure I’m okay with it.
   “I think she’d be happy.”
   “I think she would, too.”