Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Quilted Irene Harmon

When my friend Rod Kiracofe participated in a show at the Berkeley Art Center, called "Paper Quilts," it made me think of a portrait I had done of Mrs. Irene Harmon many years before.  I realized that if I added some stitches, this portrait of Irene Harmon might qualify as a paper quilt; so far, it remains a collage.  At the time of my mother's death in Indiana, Paul Harmon's mother had a stroke, also in Indiana,  and came to live with him, when his flat included the home office of his business ventures.  I had a chance to talk to Irene, and, frankly, transferred my feelings for a lost mother to Irene,  who was not at all like my blood mother, and that was curative.
I was at Paul's house in Inverness, expecting his family to arrive, when we got the call that Irene was terribly ill, probably dying, or dead.  I sat at a metal shack down hill from the house, in front of me a tree that had been topped, near me, lay slices of parts of the upper part of that tree.   (And wouldn't you know, I find, looking through old photos, a picture of that tree.)
I wrote out my own sadness, as one exiled from family latches on to someone else's family -- well, no, I truly liked Irene -- so much the opposite of my Zazu Pitts mother, "big as a horse," my mother  would say of herself, but mentally fragile and seeming to be ever suffering in a way that exhausted everyone around her.  Irene had been a basketball star in high school, and was lean, tough, independent, not sentimental.  I looked at the tree that refused to die, and wrote out my sadness:

For Irene Harmon

Saturday, September 3, 1988, Inverness, California

I am sitting on my rolled-up sleeping bag in the metal
Sears and Roebuck shed.  I am facing the window
where a moss-robed tree, trunk topped at about eight feet,
is not dead, has begun to grow a crown of young branches.
At my left, I see its former limbs and branches through
the open door, still sheathed in moss green; their ends,
still fresh and blond, reveal circular photographs of time –
the saw has left zigzag lightning across the peace of 
concentric rings that no-one would see but for these slices.
We wait to hear the news.  Is Irene dead or alive? 

As I wait, I read an Updike story, “Journey to the Dead,”
about late middle age.  Young Geoffrey in the house up
the hill is assigned to write a précis of the story, and I
have accepted that I will look it over for him.  Geoff’s
stepgrandmother, Irene, had a stroke yesterday.
She is in a coma in the City.  Or has she died?
Her sons, Paul and Bob, are with her there in the city,
while we here in Inverness stand between place and
place, time and time, holding memories of love that
might cry in our faces the moment we touch them –
moments with Irene in them.  We know we must let go
of this woman who has made it clear that this is where
she wants her life to end.  Each of us, like elephants
who nudge their fallen one, are kind enough to question
her decision one more time; and if she says the body
has won its right to return to matter, to be sent on,
then its always illusory spirit, too, will become
invisible, dropping down through the circles
in the trees still uncut:  I want to visit Irene in
San Francisco, yet I am afraid she might mistake
it as a call to return.  I might unkindly cause her
to forget her firm decision; she might respond
to a wrong voice, to someone appearing to carry
a lantern along a dark passage back to earth. 

Had Eurydice not looked back?  Had she rejoined
Orpheus in the lie of the everyday and a normal
lifespan, someday she would have returned down
the path to where her other lover, Hades, lived
sadly without her.  If one lover – Life or Death –
is happy, the other one is weeping.  Did Irene turn
to console her Hades, her dead husband?
If Orpheus went for Eurydice a second time, back
toward the light behind him, she might have been
condemned to a life she no longer cared to live.

The cut wood nearby seems projected toward me
like a slain dragon that stumbled to a halt and fell
into sections, preferring to turn up with thick cards
of its old invisible life, not tumble into life’s mayhem.

2.  Sunday, September 4, 1988, Inverness

Last night, above dark pine boughs, the mass
of stars trembled; today, it is a constellation of gnats
that whirls between mossy trees.  Late afternoon,
at Abbott’s Beach, under fog, the ocean is the first
choppy carvings on a jade sculpture.   To look
at the sea is to feel the sky as cranial light,
sun softly penetrating a skin of fog, illuminating
a world under one great skull, immense and alone.

Standing behind me by the surf, James flies
his invisible kite, holding a string that disappears
into mist.  “You have the Great White Rabbit
on a leash,” I say and turn away for just a moment
to look at seaweed’s wild hair rising and falling
in slow motion, and I turn back again, and James
and his rising white string are gone.  Irene – you
trickster!  I see her laughing on the beach. 
Set that boy down again! 
                                             He’s found again
beyond a dune where Panayotis has fallen asleep.

Good-bye, Irene.

May the Great White Rabbit roll over us all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was fascinated to come across this "paper quilt." If this is the same woman, Irene Harmon (nee Blumenauer) is part of my family tree. She would be my first cousin, twice removed. Her mother, Jessie Mae Teese married Alexander Otto Blumenaue, moving rom New Jersey to Hancock, Indiana. Irene apparently married a Paul Harmon and had two children. My research points to their living in Indianapolis. And she passed away in San Francisco. I would greatly appreciate any informaiton you could share, or ways to contact her son(s) ?
Thank you.

James B. Teese