» Tribute Dispatches from the Potomac

Words and Images from Ed Felker

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Seven.

winnieriver

I asked her what she wanted to do this evening for her birthday.
She thought for a second and asked, “Anything? Whatever I want?”
“Of course,” I said. “You only turn seven once.”
Then she told me quietly, what she wanted to do more than anything else, was to wade up to her chest in the river, and stand there until the sun went down.
Who am I to judge? On my seventh birthday I asked for meatloaf.
“Let’s go,” I said. And we did.
I brought a toy to throw in case she got bored, but she didn’t.
After a while she turned to me and said, “In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time.”
“Wow,” I said. “Did you just come up with that?”
“I’m a dog, you idiot,” She said. “da Vinci. Read a book.”
We laughed and laughed.
Then we both turned back to the river, and watched until the sky and the water were the same color. And then we went home.


Here.

The moment the camera shutter closed on this image from the banks of the Rose River might just be when it all started.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My friend Douglas casts for trout as the sun sinks low in the November sky. A warm day. A cold beer. An azure blue sky reflected in water interrupted only by a series of circles reaching out to Douglas from its source: A dog.

It was there, and it was then, that I first observed my friend and his dog Enzo, a lanky young Spinone Italiano. I watched Enzo explore that farm, chasing birds and sniffing trails and running and running and running. I saw the freedom given him by Douglas to roam, and the discipline given him to faithfully return with a simple command. “Here.”

Faithful. This, I thought, is what I want.

Although my wife and I had moved to a rural area, we still lived in a house on a main road with a yard. We were surrounded by country, but not yet immersed in it. So it was just a fantasy, to have a dog that roamed the property, never too far to hear my call. But my next dog, while not a Spinone, did have a beard and bird hunting in her veins like Enzo. Over time, Winnie’s beard grew, but the bird hunting in her veins faded, and that’s alright. We did get that place in the country where dogs can run free, though.

Enzo went on to be a fixture at the farm, and in the life of my friend. They hunted together, fished together and traveled together. I was privileged to take a few long road trips with Douglas and Enzo, to hunt grouse and woodcock in the dense woods of Michigan and Maine. Enzo earned the sleep he soaked in on those return trips.

But the farm is where Enzo was truly at home. When Winnie was a puppy, Enzo showed her how to run off leash for the first time. When I added Finn a couple years later, Enzo showed him how to find a chukar at a nearby preserve. Finn and Enzo were two peas in a pod. Tall, dorky, sweet as molasses and just smelly enough one could convincingly blame the other. They napped in front of that big, hot, stone fireplace after a day of running like there’s no tomorrow.

And once in every life, there really is no tomorrow. And sometimes you never see it coming. It’s almost impossible to believe that Enzo is gone. That he has pointed his last bird, lapped up his last cool drink from the gin clear Rose. And it feels like I owe him something. And it feels like I owe my friend something too. The two of them showed me what that relationship between man and dog could be. My pair roams the property now, never too far they can’t be called in. They explore scent trails, kick up birds, point rabbits and roll in God knows what. And when I’m out mowing or trimming or repairing a fence or walking in the woods or fishing in my home river, they are by my side. And when I say “Here,” there they are. Faithful. Having dogs that have earned the freedom to roam off leash has been, well, I simply can’t overstate the peace and enjoyment it has brought me.

My heart aches for my friend. To me, Enzo has always been a part of Douglas, a part of Rose River Farm. And in a way he always will be. But he will also be a part of me and the life I have built with my dogs. I can’t ever repay a gift like that.

Rest in peace, Enzo. I hope where you are there are countless wild birds, endless cool mornings and open fields that stretch forever. And at the end, a warm fire by which to rest. Hunt hard, sleep deeply. There are no more commands, you’re already here.

enzo edits 1


Blood on the Pages

guynealwilliams

Over the years, my friend Guy Neal Williams has introduced me to many things that remain important parts of my life to this day. He is the one who first put a fly rod in my hand, teaching me the basics of how to cast at a pond near his Winston-Salem home, and triggering in me a lifelong passion. He convinced me that I could create woodcut prints despite having no carving or printmaking experience. He shared books that remain on my shelf today and music that has shaped everything I now listen to. He loved music so much. The fact that he was nearly deaf was such a cruel injustice. But his greatest gift was the first thing I knew and loved about him: Guy was a storyteller.

A strong voice, an easy laugh, an infinite supply of stories and a deep desire to share them made Guy a human campfire. Friends and strangers alike would gather around his warm glow as he weaved truth with fiction, humor with sadness. His spoken words were slow and deliberate. When I first met him I was enthralled. The topics of his stories didn’t even matter. Potato guns. Cave paintings. Fish. He told me once in great detail how to prepare carp on the grill. The process entailed soaking a cedar plank in saltwater, wine and peppercorns, carefully filleting and seasoning the fish just right. He told me exactly how the coals should look and when to know the fish was ready. When it was done, he instructed, “carefully slide the fish into the trashcan and eat the plank.”

His real talent, though, his genius, was in his written word. Here, too, he was a storyteller. Okay liar. He was a liar. I was tempted to say lying was like a game to him, but somehow that doesn’t give it the necessary respect. You wouldn’t go to the Masters in Augusta and tell the greatest golfers in the world they were merely playing a game. No, lying to Guy was a sport. And he was a hall of famer.

He used to like to challenge his friends by writing three essays. Each was skillfully crafted, impeccably detailed and utterly unbelievable. But only one, he warned, was a lie. The other two were true stories. It was impossible to discern fact from fiction in these tests, as his astonishing gift of storytelling was equaled only by his impossibly colorful real life experiences.

My God he loved a story.

He had the ability to paint a scene, to put you in it, to lead you down whatever path he wanted you down, then jump out from behind a bush of his own creation and punch you square in the gut. I had never seen, or even imagined, that someone with world-class writing skills would use so much of that power to simply entertain his friends. We all wanted him to write a book. Not so much because we needed more of his stories, but I think because we felt his stories needed a bigger audience. But a bigger audience isn’t what he was after.

He once told me a story that I cannot repeat here. (Okay he told many stories I cannot repeat here, but that’s not what I meant.) It involves a tattered photograph and a legendary fish. The story is so fantastic it almost certainly can’t be true. Yet it contains enough verifiable details that it just might be. It involves a secret so sacred that it must now remain with me until I die. It’s hard to explain how, or why, he did this. But he told a Perfect Story, a spectacular story, a story he could have easily published anywhere, a story any number of people would declare the best story they had ever heard, but one that could never be shared. I instantly regretted having been told it. If it’s a lie, it’s an epic masterpiece. If it’s true, I wish it had died with him. But he told it to me, an audience of precisely one, and asked that I never tell anyone. Hell, who knows. Maybe he privately told the same story to everyone. But I’ll keep his secret, true or not, and the burden of not telling a soul will be a reminder of his gift to me.

I never thought about writing before I knew Guy. But being exposed to his words made me think for the first time about putting down my own thoughts. I found myself writing for fun, trying to find words to describe a scene or person or feeling. I wrote with more care, more effort. Perhaps most importantly, I didn’t save that care and effort for particularly important topics. I learned through Guy that there is great value in taking the time to describe the smallest observations. My early attempts were just an awkward mimicry of his writing. But I like to think that along the way, I found my own voice, my own passion for spinning a yarn, my own desire to lead someone down that path. Guy Neal Williams taught me that it is a noble pursuit to sweat over choosing the right words, assembling those words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into stories, for the pure joy of it. Just to make someone laugh, or cry, or to simply relate to a shared experience.

“Books are better,” he said once in response to a movies-versus-books discussion. “Books are better because there’s blood on the pages.” Movies, he said, are creative endeavors by committee, and as such were diluted. But books, written in excruciating isolation, were painful pursuits. He wrote of pain. He wrote of burying his beloved dog, Augustine, until you swore you could feel the worn shovel handle in your hands and smell the moist clay through your own tears. There is blood on those pages. He wrote of love. I’ll never forget the first description I ever read of his wife, “a tiny engineer with ice blue eyes.” Jesus, it’s probably been twenty years and I know with certainty those are the seven words exactly as he wrote them. But mostly he wrote of beauty. The beauty of the natural world, or the human spirit, or math, or science or enduring friendship. Of music. Beauty, to Guy, was everywhere. But he wasn’t just an observer of it, he created his own beauty from whole cloth.

He loved art, numbers, music, friends, bullshit and cigarettes with limitless enthusiasm. He was a genius. A spectacularly flawed genius, but a genius. He had his share of demons, and took on a few extras to make it a fair fight. The demons are all silenced now, and I hope to God that silence is forever filled with music, clear and bright and loud.

This morning, the first of my days on an earth without Guy Neal Williams, I plugged my phone into the car stereo. The first random song that played was a Patty Griffin song I thought a lot about yesterday. I have a thousand songs on my phone and this played first. Thank you Guy for your friendship, I am different and better for it. And thank you for your words. All of mine have you in them.

The song is Goodbye.

Today my heart is big and sore,
It’s tryin’ to push right through my skin.
I won’t see you anymore,
I guess that’s finally sinkin’ in.


Flying: A Mother’s Day Tribute

This is my favorite photograph of my Mother. In it, she is not looking at the camera. She is not even aware of the camera. Her face is almost entirely hidden, in fact. But those who knew her well would be able to see the smile in her cheek. I’ve given this some thought, the photographing of people not as they look toward me, toward the interruption of a moment that is my camera, my attention. But how much more meaningful it can be to capture a person as they look out into their world. In this image, we are lucky enough to see the source of the smile: my father.

It’s easy for me to imagine the moment captured here. A couple of friends in the back, open road ahead, his car freshly tuned and purring (of this I am certain), driving to a picnic and toward a bright but unknown future. Sure, I know how the story ends, and I know it ends far sooner than they could have imagined. But it seems a worthwhile exercise to look through their eyes and just enjoy this moment with them. Young people in love on a warm day with the top down. This was a good moment. Who knows, maybe in difficult times ahead this instant came to mind and brought a smile.

But it’s this smile in the picture that intrigues me. It’s not for the camera, or at a family gathering, or amid small talk at the office water cooler. It’s a smile, pure as can be, at the man she’s about to marry, at the man with whom she will soon have children, at the man who is now watching the road. The smile isn’t even for him. It just is. And I almost feel guilty for spying on it.

My mother, who outlived my father by nearly thirty years, died five years ago today. A few years earlier, I had written something for her as a Mother’s Day gift. She called me, crying, and said it was the best gift I had ever given her. By the next time I visited, she had gotten it framed and it was hanging in her bedroom. So it meant a lot to both of us, and with Mother’s Day nearly upon us, I want to share it with you. What started as a gift, is now a tribute. I call it, “Flying.”

I recently held a hummingbird in my hand. He had accidentally flown into a window and fallen, unconscious, on the ground in front of a busy doorway. He looked like nothing, upside down, his white belly close to the color of the concrete beneath. But something made me look closer, and when I picked him up he moved a bit.

I moved him away from the human traffic, and sat on a nearby bench. Alive. Stunned, but with no visible injuries. His eyes opened, and I gave him the opportunity to fly from my open hand. He politely declined, and with an invisible gesture asked for a little more time to gather his wits. I assured him – by holding my hands in a way that he was protected and secure, but could leave if he chose to – that this was now the most important thing in my day, and if he needed all day he could have it.

So we sat there. Him clearing cobwebs and me just thinking, how lucky for me to have the opportunity to hold a hummingbird in my hands. How lucky for him that I came along.

My thoughts drifted back many, many years. Back to the house I grew up in, back to an injured bird in the gutter in front of that house, and back to my Mother. A shoebox, some paper towels, a lamp. It was exciting, I thought, to have part of the natural world sitting here in a box on the dining room table. I asked her how long before the bird would be better. She was a nurse, after all. Clearly she knew how to fix a bird.

I wanted to name it.

When she told me that she wasn’t confident the bird would get better (it wouldn’t), I remember instantly distancing myself emotionally. I felt like I had dodged a bullet by being moments away from deciding on a name.

My Mother, of course, saw instantly what I was doing and we had what stands now as my Earliest Remembered Meaningful Conversation. She asked, as a nurse, what would happen if she stopped caring about patients who were not getting better? Patients who were going to die? They needed her more than ever during those times.

I was young, I don’t recall how young. And I don’t recall the words she used to express and make me understand compassion. And Lord only knows how she made it be a part of me. But that’s how it is with these things. You can’t identify how your Mother makes you who you are, exactly. But you know that she did.

And so now, on Mother’s Day, I think about how at many other moments in my life my Mother taught me. Showed me. Shaped me. Held me, protected me, and gave me room to fly away. And I hope she knows that I noticed. That I remember. That the only thing I really forget is to thank her, and for that I am sorry.

With a big smile and a full heart, I watched my hummingbird finally gather himself, walk with his little feet to the edge of my palm, and fly away.


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