Hill House writer in residence Beth Nelson, read from her essay “Family Tree” during a luncheon at the Bellaire Senior Center Tuesday, July 20. Born in St. Louis, Beth has been a writer for 35 years. Raised in Minnesota and wandering the Ozarks of Missouri, travel and life experiences have always contributed to Beth’s mantra of “writing is living life aware.” During her life she has worked at Yellowstone, fostered an emotionally ill child, lost a niece to leukemia, lived as an expatriate in Saudi Arabia and owned and curated her own art gallery. She has been published in the American Literary Review and Camera Arts Magazine and has worked at the Arts and Humanities Council in Tulsa. Most recently in her work she has put a microscope against life’s daily routines, connecting readers to her stories in personal ways. She currently resides in Centennial, CO with her husband and their four dogs, one of which traveled with her to Michigan. Following is an excerpt from “Family Tree.”
Papa was Serbian. He stood six feet six inches tall, but when he was released from the prison camp after the Second World War, he weighed only ninety-eight pounds. Papa had served on the allied side as an underground guerrilla. He rarely spoke of those days. To ease the pain from nights on cold, wet soil, Papa constructed a wooden box and filled it with sand. My grandfather’s sandbox was too much like a casket, built to fit his size. Most mornings, he’d prop open the lid, and allow sun to heat the sand. He’d walk from the house, a lemon slice balanced on the edge of his glass, the day’s Globe Democrat tucked under one arm. He’d slowly lower his body onto hot sand then tilt an umbrella to soften the glare. This is how he healed, nearly naked in the sun.
Papa used to say to my grandmother, “Jena, sing that song for me. Sing the one I like.”
And my grandmother would say, “Oh, Alex, it’s just a silly commercial.” But she would sing it anyway. She would sing:
Halo, everybody, Halo.
Halo is the shampoo that glorifies your hair,
Well, Halo, everybody, Halo,
Halo Shampoo, Halo!
Then Papa would grin and clap and tell my grandmother how pretty she was. “Jena, my Jena,” he would say, and he’d cup her face in his large hands and kiss her mouth.
Papa taught me to play chess when I was seven. With few words of English but many nods, grins, frowns and some head shaking, Papa guided me through the game. Sometimes he would let me win. The days my family visited my grandparents, Papa and I usually managed to fit in a game before dinner.
Once the meal was laid out on the table, Nana would stand in the dining room doorway and announce the meal by yodeling. She was famous for her yodel. I would get up and help Papa to his feet and we would walk to the table together. Everybody would wait quietly until all the family was standing, heads bowed, hands folded. Then Papa would recite a prayer nobody understood, and cross himself. The rest of us were Baptists, but we followed Papa’s lead. My mother’s fist would ball up in a knot, but she did it for Nana.
In the summer, Papa and I took long walks after dinner. We must’ve been a sight, he and I, walking down the street past all the brownstones. I was skinny and small for my age, brown-skinned from the sun. I had to half-run to keep up with Papa’s long gait. Even in the heat, he wore a beret he’d picked up in France after the war. Papa spoke more French than English, and that day he was trying to teach me a little French folk song:
Sur le pont, D’Avignon,
L’on y danse, L’on y danse.
He lifted his walking cane and used it like a baton. It made me laugh to watch this giant directing music in the city streets. We sang loud, in off-key harmony, wanting to be heard over the traffic and pigeons.
The heat and humidity brought an unexpected thunderstorm. When we heard the first clap of thunder, we were walking across the highway overpass about a quarter-mile from the house. Papa pulled me against him and began to push the pace. My half-run became a gallop, and Papa used his stick to push off from the sidewalk like a ski pole. My left leg and the stick collided, and the two of us tumbled to the ground. Rain started to fall, first in gentle pellets, then like a curtain around us. The walking stick, a keepsake from Papa’s visits to Switzerland when he was a young man, lay broken in the street. I stood up. “Jena, Jena,” Papa said, confused. He sat up and replaced the beret on his head. It was soaked and hung down over his eyes like a bad hairpiece.