Tag: family

The Launching


The Launching


First of all, let me say, Welcome Home.  There’s something inviting about wind- and sun-grayed shingles and wild roses and small pane windows and wrap around porches. You see how the sand stretches out in low tide ripples beyond the dune grass toward the sea.  This is what Utah Beach looks like now, but gray and menacing then when we landed there so many years ago. This not a place just anyone can come to.  We are privileged to have this old house, which will belong to all of you when I am gone.


I first came here as a boy—that’s a long time ago.  My mother cooked apples—not apple pie, the way you might be thinking right now because of the smell in the air. She baked apples whole with walnuts, nutmeg, cinnamon and brown sugar in the place where the core had been.  My father smoked his pipe and sat in a white wicker chair on this same porch with the same Delft blue two-inch boards newly painted every year.  He sat at a little round wicker table and dipped his pen in black ink and wrote poems that made people’s eyes water when he read them aloud. Which is what he did at funerals, weddings, births or when his friends launched boats they had built.

Once his younger brother—my uncle Flori—built a Seabright skiff.  For beaches like this you needed a skiff with a flat bottom that would keep the boat upright when the tide went out and not tip over and let seaweed, flotsam, and crabs wash in. This was before the time of big highways and plastic boats. Uncle Flori built his skiff out of yellow pumpkin pine planking that seemed to glow in the gloom of the old barn, where he worked and where his chickens watched and commented. He used a special plane to make the bevels for the lapstrakes so they would overlap each other to form the hull. He steamed the strakes in his steam box and ran them hot through the scattering chickens to clamp them to the skiff’s backbone of already placed ribs, supports, stem and stern, all in white oak. Next, he drove the copper rivets through the overlapping laps to hold them all together. Months passed. This is what you did in the winter. There was no television to watch. The cow’s gave off just enough body heat to keep Flori and his chickens from freezing to death.

Eventually, when everything was ready— thwarts, gunnels, weighted rudder, tiller, gudgeons, pintles and cheekpieces, and thole holes sealed with a hot tapered iron, everyone gathered in the marsh grass beside the creek, the same creek you kids swim in out in back. The place where in earlier times many a New England schooner slid sideways down greased skids into a bobbing high tide.

On this occasion, with Uncle Flori’s Seabright Skiff, my father took his pipe out of his mouth, and gave a speech that made most of us see the South Seas, Arctic lights, rare stones, white birds filling the sky and God herself. They were words that made my GreatAunt Bessy Kingman cry and my eyes water. I think for a moment I was thinking, as I always had, of a beautiful Indian girl who was lost in the swamps of the forest primeval whom only I could rescue, although my father’s poem never mentioned anything like that.

“Hold on! I will answer questions in just a moment!”

And then Uncle Flori took a sledge hammer–he didn’t really need something that big–and popped out a wedge, and the skiff slid down its skids and bobbed in a clear high tide, bucking a little like a foal, and my father said, “Congratulations, Flori, you’ve given birth!”  And everyone thought that was funny, and just when they were laughing and had their mouths open and their faces lit up with life, I noticed the face of a girl I hadn’t seen before, with the edge of her big straw hat bent up and letting the sun down on her teeth and lips and the hint of circles under her eyes, and her amber skin.  And she’d been watering her eyes just the way I had, so we were really closer to each other than we might have been at some other moment.  And later we all went walking along the side of the creek all the way to the river to watch Uncle Flori row with his new self-made counter-weighted birch oars. There was a spray of roses on the stern seat and a bunch of sunflowers tied to the bow, and Aunt Laura sat on the bow thwart, showing her white stockings because she had pulled up her skirt so it wouldn’t touch the water that was entering because the pumpkin pine strakes had not yet swelled enough to make the skiff watertight. And then we went back up the creek, through the marsh grass, crossing the muskrat trails, and I ended up walking beside the girl with the amber skin, a little back from the others, and she seemed wonderful to me, smart and more than my match in everything, and two months later we were married, and a year after that you Jonah, were born, then you Roger were next, then finally you, Mark. For a long time, I had worried that all of this was little more than just another ritual of a white privilege, this house and the beach and everything. I told you boys about a few things I had learned. Like be on the lookout for someone where you laughed and could be yourself.  Where love is like the water you swim in like a fish.  You listened and have chosen well. And now I have a delightful brood of beautiful grandchildren, who are half Japanese, half Nigerian, part Mexican and part Native American. I know you’ve heard this all before, but on a day like this when we gather to remember your mother and grandmother, here at this old house with the gray shingles and the rock roses and the beach stretching away, I just wanted to tell the story again. How I met her, what it was like, and why this is a special place, so all of you, your wives and children, so all of you won’t forget.  But as Proust or somebody like that said: “Reality is a state approached only through memory.”

Something like that.  I don’t remember, and you’re not supposed to at my age.  Anyway, I think it smells like the apples are ready, and I say why don’t we go in and eat them, the walnuts, the cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar, all cooked together like this family­–How very lucky we are! And how very lucky I am to still be here with all of you. Some of you little ones had questions and I will answer them when we are eating our apples.

Sunken Children

A friend heard I wrote stories for children. I told her I had only written one—for my granddaughter when she was five years old. My friend asked if the story was in English. I said it was in English, Spanish, French, and Dutch. She asked me whether I would read the Spanish version at a Catholic shelter here in Guanajuato for children who were victims of various kinds of violence and lived temporarily under the protection of the Church. The reading hour was called the Beatrix Potter Sala de la Lectura, Hogar del Buen Pastor, Guanajuato.

The appointed day arrived. I printed out the Spanish translation of “Biff and the Sinking Coal Freighter.” Its title in Spanish is “Biff y el barco carbonero que se hundía,” translated by Lirio Garduño, a fine local poet.

With barely enough time, I practiced reading it through, repeating the technical words so I would say them correctly. I had never read the Spanish translation very closely—only to see if it had reached a good equivalency. My friend wanted my biography, too. I estimated the age level might be about eight. This is what I wrote:


Sterling Bennett, con apodo “Plata,” vive en Guanajuato capital desde hace 9 años.

Sterling Bennett, nickname Plata, has been living in Guanajuato for nine years.

Tiene una gatita negra que se llama Lilus Kikus que sabe más que él.

He has a female cat named Lilus Kikus, who knows more than he does.

Vivió por muchos años en California, en Los Estados Unidos, con su esposa D, que también sabe más que él.

He lived for many years in California, in the United States, with his wife D, who also knows more than he does.

Tiene una nieta de siete años que se llama L. Escribió este cuento para ella. L. también sabe más que él.

He has a seven-year old granddaughter named E, who also knows more than he does.

Tiene dos hijos, M y D, quienes siempre le ganan en ajedrez. Ellos también saben más que él.

He has two son, M and D, who always beat him at chess. They also know more than he does.

Ha estudiado en la más famosa universidad en Los Estados Unidos, que se llama Harvard, donde los estudiantes también sabían más que él.

He studied at the most famous university in the United States, called Harvard—where the students also know more than him.

Le encanta mucho tener esta oportunidad de leer este cuento a ustedes—quienes probablemente saben más que él.

He is delighted to have this opportunity to read this story to (all of) you, who probably know more than he does.

El cuento se trata de dos osos capitanes marineros….que probablemente……(???)

The story has to do with two bear tugboat captains…that probably…..(??)

Then I read the story to them, stopping frequently while my friend made sure they understood what I was describing.

There were four large round tables, at which were seated about thirty girls between the ages of four and thirteen. Most of them were on the younger end of the scale. One whole table of eight very young children almost immediately lay their heads on their table and appeared to be sound asleep—so quickly and so uniformly that it seemed to me that their action was about something else—an invoked escape stupor, a largely psychological exhaustion because of family crisis, an agreed upon behavior in unison to deal with overwhelming anxiety—a block against information they did not know or understand: a man, a gringo, too old to being doing anything, who was doing something they did not understand—storytelling, talking a little funny in their language, using words they had never heard and didn’t understand. What did these things mean: tugboat, captain, cable, sinking ship, Great Lakes, Erie Canal, locks, steam whistles, with each great wave pushing the coal freighter up onto the beach so it would not sink?

Even the fact that the two heroes were bear tugboat captains seemed unable stir them from their curious slumber. Nor the dramatic moment that all seemed lost in the story—until the second tugboat captain came out into the storm at night and helped push the sinking coal freighter up onto the beach. And he was a she—and a second courageous tugboat captain.

We got through it. The story ended. I tried to say something about the elephant in the room (bears?) and mentioned how almost half my listeners were like my black cat Lilus Kikus, who slept ninety-five percent of the time…and knew more than I did.
They wrote me letters—the little ones were roused for that exercise by the two attending women, impressive professionals and volunteers from the outside—drawing flowers and bears, inquiring now and then who I was and even how to write my name—Plata, as in silver, as in Sterling.

Pictures were taken and sent me. I will not show you their faces, because some of the children are in deep protection from various kinds of targeted abuse. I was going to show one child whose face was hidden, propped on her arms—but I have decided not to.

When I got home, I told my love that it was the least successful public reading I had ever done—and the most meaningful one. Since I, in the end, was another audience—overwhelmed by a story told by sunken children.

Heie Boles’s Puppet Show

Last night, at the Teatro Cervantes, in Guanajuato, Gto., Mexico, I had the extraordinary experience of watching three generations of puppeteers from one family–el Teatro de pájaros–present the “La flauta mágica (Magic Flute)” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder.

Heie Boles’s puppet story begins many years after the Second World War when, in her fifties, she mounted props and equipment on her old bicycle and puppet-staged Grimm’s fairy tales in the pedestrian areas of German cities. For children, it was often new material; for adults, a chance to re-live an important part of their childhood.

Last night, I caught a glimpse of her and Dan, sitting in the audience. She had already done her work (Concept, Text, and Direction) and now watched her daughter Ester Boles and two grandchildren, Antar Trejo and Danae Trejo– along with their colleague Artemio Rovinski–make the puppets moves in ways I could not begin to explain. The figures swooped and dipped and matched their gestures in the subtlest ways with the speech spoken through them. I know Ester, Antar, and Danae, but their spoken parts were so delightfully professional and animated that I did not think to try to recognize their individual voices. Heie sprinkled German exclamations here and there throughout Mozart’s perfect Spanish, to the laughter of German speakers in the audience.

Mozart’s music was live and played by the Capella Guanajuantensis, which included Djamilia Rovinskaia (Barock violin and viola), José Suárez (clavichord), and Antar and Danae’s father Cuauhtémoc Trejo (Barock transverse flute. Cuauhtémoc enjoys the distinction of being entrusted to play Emperor Maximilian’s surviving Claude Laurent glass flute)—three gentle and gifted musicians, who seemed to enjoy the puppets just as much as I did.

For me, it was all a play within a play, something like Russian dolls, with so much cross-cultural history, so much family history, so many layers of talent and dedication—the extraordinary thing that is a family, in all its parts and pieces, creating a work of art together, for the enjoyment of the larger community.

Again—and for this I thank the whole family—I began asking the old question: What is it about puppets? I thought again of Heinrich von Kleist’s essay “Über das Marionettentheater” (Regarding Puppet Theater, 1810) and the theory that human actors and dancers cannot achieve the grace of the puppet that responds to its center of gravity, or Schwerpunkt, in this case the central pole’s movements (managed by Ester, Danae, Antar, and Artemio)–to which the limbs respond.  And, behind them all, Heie Boles.

To my mind, the whole performance had to do with Grace, a concept we don’t talk very much about anymore. I’m not even sure how to define this word, except that it has to do with a moment full of giving, modesty, great and understated talent, and gentleness, where the heart sighs as a child’s might and our lips form a smile.