Eldest Child

It isn’t easy being the eldest child. You tend to be expected to carry the world on your shoulders for any kids that come after you. My older sister certainly had her hands (and shoulders) full when it came to the other three of us. Following her lead was the logical thing I expected to do from Day One, and she undoubtedly knew that her every word and act would be scrutinized and grasped as tightly as any life’s-mystery-solving clue could be.
Photo: The World on Her Shoulders

Unlike many, my elder sibling was neither empty-headed nor empty-handed when leading or hauling me through the years, however. I must assume that she was generally more conscious of what she led me toward or away from than I ever was, and whether there was a particular purpose regarding its effect on me or it was simply what she needed to do in her own life was as irrelevant as if I’d been a duckling following a duck, since after all, our parents didn’t go to school with me, play in the yard with me, or otherwise have anything like the minute-to-minute impact a sibling could have. I apologize, here and now, for whatever time and energy I stole away from my big sister that she ought to have been spending on herself alone! Strangely, she still likes me, though, so I take the liberty at the same time of assuming her forgiveness on that front.
Photo: Show Me the World

I certainly didn’t quit the hero-worshiping dependence when we were young, either. It was my sister who gave me the world. Our parents saw to it that we learned to read, and that is an enormous gift that can only be repaid in kind by handing it on to younger people as they come along, but it was and continues to be my older sister who blazes the path down every library aisle on earth (and a few in the ether, too) and inspired me to try to better my reading and writing. She always had astonishing verbal skills and a voracious appetite for all sorts of books, so she set the benchmark in reading and writing that I will always lag behind but continue to pursue.

If that cracking open of the world in the pages of books weren’t enough, there was always the lure of the tangible world as well. There, too, our parents paved the way for our ventures beyond home borders, both financially and with the encouragement to broaden our horizons beyond anything they were privileged to experience at our young ages. But again, it was at big sister’s beckoning that I took up the challenge given by Mom and Dad to take a semester off from my university studies, spending both the time and the money I’d have devoted to those on traveling Europe, instead, with my sibling. It was more education than I could possibly have crammed into the other three-and-a-half years of my undergraduate studies altogether, utterly worth all of the angst and expense it terrified my twenty-something soul to expend, and all happened under the tutelage of my sister, my intimidatingly fearless guide and hilarious friend.
Photo: I Wish You Ten Candy Stores

There’s nothing a sister can say or do to make up for all of the times I was a pain in the neck—or anatomical regions south thereof—to my older sister. Despite her admiration for all things chocolate, no amount of truffles and cakes and French Silk Pies will do. But I am grateful, and I do thank her, and I certainly wish her a wonderful birthday today and many more of them to come. I’ll just have to watch and see what she does in times ahead, so as to get inspired for how to handle the next such conundrum as they always do come along in life. That’s what elder siblings are for, it seems.

FutuRetro

One of the things I so love about travel and touring is getting a much more powerful sense of history; standing in and on the places where events and lives long past have happened, whether grand or insignificant, utterly changes my understanding of those people and occurrences. My first trip overseas, that Grand Tour I was so privileged to take in college with my older sister, was an awakening I never expected. I hoped the trip would be a cure for my sophomore blues, and indeed it was, beyond anything I could have planned or dreamt before, but more than that I was startled by how connected I felt to history.

The drizzly and cold autumn day when we visited Canterbury Cathedral was atmospheric enough in its way, but I remember standing on stone steps worn into a soft bowl by the thousands of footsteps that had passed over them in the centuries of its existence, looking up into a palely gold ray from a lamp, seeing the motes of dust whirling in it, and feeling that time itself was floating down around me in delicate pieces, that the spirit of every person who had ever set foot on that same smooth hollow in the stone was present there with me in that very moment. It was almost as though I could hear their voices and see the scenes of the past play out in the faint gloom around me, all overlapping and yet perfectly present. I felt my own place in the whole of the human timeline in an entirely different way than I ever expected, tinier than ever, yet surprisingly more concrete and tangible.

This was reinforced later in the same journey many times, as we passed through or visited (not necessarily in this order) England, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland and stood in the very footprints of many a person, going down the winding passages and cobbled side-streets that had seen multitudes of significant moments long since fled. As this was the first time I visited Norway, the rooting ground of my ancestors from every branch of my family tree, it is no surprise in retrospect that many of those potent realizations came to me in that place—but as usual, hindsight is ever so much clearer than was my youthful wisdom in those days. It was moving, more meaningful than I can express, to get to know the relatives in Norway with whom my family had maintained contact: my maternal grandfather’s sisters and brother-in-law, nieces and nephew. These were days before cheap telephonic long distance, let alone email and internet communiqués, so we had only briefly even met most of these people when they visited America once in my younger years, yet they not only took us in as visitors, Tante Anna and Onkel Alf kept my sister and me with them for a full month and took us to see the family’s two longtime farms, the graves where many of our ancestors were sleeping underfoot. This was incredibly touching, a genealogical history lesson, but the more so because it was taught by the eldest of our remaining family there.

What moved me the most, in fact, was when on arriving in Oslo at our mother’s cousin’s home before we even came down south to be with his parents, we explored the great city a little on our own during the days, while he was at work and his wife and children off having their own day of adventures. It was all so humbling and so magical to feel for the first time that I understood a tiny bit more of my own family lineage and how our people fit into the larger world. We did visit many of the obligatory and famous tourist sites, knowing that there was no direct link to our ancestors, only cultural ones. So I was quite stunned when we visited the Viking Ship Museum and, standing before these ancient vessels, I was absolutely electrified with a sense of shared history coursing through my veins. My forebears were undoubtedly humble subsistence farmers, not the bold and violent and adventurous Viking strain we know through film and television, never mind through the great Sagas—but I felt for the first time something connecting me to those long-gone people all the same.
Photo: Enter the Time Machine

By now I have traveled a fair amount more. I have been on this planet more than twice as long, and I think I might even be a little bit wiser through my experiences in that life than I was back then. But I approach every narrow stone passageway, every weathered door, every window with its rippling antique panes presenting everything that’s beyond them like a warped post-impressionist fiction of itself, I expect to learn something not only about what is there in front of me and around me, but what is inside me. And I know that I will learn something, too, about how I fit into that larger, and ever so mysterious, world if I am wise and patient and alert enough to notice it. So much has gone by. So much remains ahead, yet unknown.

Ever Heard of Foodie Thursday?

Well, now you have.

It’s been a busy autumn chez Sparks. No excuses: in the flurry, I flat-out forgot to put up my food post on Tuesday. Sigh. I didn’t stop being food-obsessed, just being on schedule. So here we go, better late than never. I would give you a big silly grin, but yeah, my mouth is full again. Photo: Blue Bouquet

What I meant to say on that long-ago-seeming-day-which-was-Tuesday, was that I do like this time of year in particular for its masses of officially sanctioned excuses for partying. There are of course the big national and international celebrations of things spanning from Halloween/All Saints/Dia de los Muertos to Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, and the various New Years; in my family, five out of the six of us have winter birthdays as well. It’s not that my family and I are in any way averse to celebrating with a good meal, a party, or any other excuse for eating and drinking good stuff at the drop of a hat, but it’s extra nice when nobody else questions the need for such an occasion either.

My parents upped the ante this winter by both entering the glorious ranks of octogenarian excellence, so since my three sisters and I don’t all live close to them anymore, we’d long since all agreed it made sense to look toward next summer (2015) for a family get-together to mark their ascensions to this great new height. All the same, nobody in our clan has any respect for leaving an excuse for a party just lying there unused. So Sisters 1 and 3, who do live near Mom and Dad in Seattle, helped them plan a big party on Mom’s birthday weekend so that our parents could have their local siblings, nieces and nephews, and a few special friends together. I made up the digital invitations, since I could do that from my remote location, and because I’ve long done such design tidbits for family events as a way to be involved when I couldn’t otherwise be on hand to participate. But our Seattle sisters did the yeoman’s work on the whole thing.

We kids did up the ante a little, though. Sister 4 and her husband sent an email to the other three of us a couple of months ago, announcing that they had bought plane tickets to fly over from Norway for the November party and surprise Mom and Dad. We sisters were surprised, too! My husband, with three concerts and more rehearsals to conduct on either immediate side of the party date, couldn’t get away, but with a batch of saved air miles, I could, so I planned to fly up from Texas and join in the fun. Once all of our tickets were bought and the wheels set in motion, the real challenge was not only to see if there were any small things 4 and I could do from our bases of operation but to see if we and our partners could keep a secret for seven or eight weeks, a dubious probability at the best of times with our talkative bunch.Photo: Pink and Green Bouquet

We did. We let one of Mom’s sisters in on the secret so that she could help get our parents in the right place at the right time when the day arrived, and my spouse’s parents knew, because they were invited too, but despite a couple of close calls, nobody slipped up irrevocably. Part of the larger plan, once we’d decided to add in this surprise element, was that there would be an immediate-family-only lunch on Mom’s actual birthday at Sister 3’s house. Dad, Mom, Auntie and Uncle, and sisters 1 and 3 were to have a nice, low-key luncheon date to mark the day and wrap up any last-minute details for the bigger open house party the next day.

Sister 4 and her husband and I flew into Seattle on Thursday the 6th. It was wonderful to have a reunion of the four sisters, our first in at least a couple of years, and to convene a few other members of the immediate family—3’s husband and one son, with the other son flying in from college on Friday—that night and to laugh up our collective sleeves over our plot. In keeping with the family tradition of combining food with fun, this first evening was spent at 3’s house, slurping bowls of a beautiful, creamy winter sweet potato, kale, pasta, and sausage soup (based on Martha Stewart’s recipe) while taste-testing a couple of good single-malts the Norwegian contingent had picked up on a duty-free spree en route.

On the 7th, Mom’s birthday, we got lunch ready and in the oven and fridge and then spent a little while nervously skulking past curtained windows to escape any unexpectedly early arrivals’ discovery, and as the parental entourage at last approached, three of us ducked into the back bedroom, where we giggled like little kids and perched on the bed to avoid making the creaky hardwood floor give away our presence. Auntie got Mom settled into her favorite armchair so we wouldn’t have to explain her absence at the next day’s party as the result of an aneurism, and we finally strolled out to say Hello to our startled parents. Their faces remained in virtually the same blankly surprised expressions for a fairly lengthy, attenuated moment.Photo: Mom's 80th Birthday Lunch

Lunch broke that spell. We feasted on marvelously simple steak, lemon-dill oven-roasted salmon, salt-baked potatoes, green salad with a fresh blend of herbs and creamy lemony dressing, green beans, and buttered peasant bread. Classic, delicious, and with a handful of their kids on hand to help, an easy way to feed our parents well on a meaningful day. We worked a bit more on the details of Saturday’s open house event, but 1 and 3 had covered all bases so thoroughly that we were all able to make an early evening of it and rest up for the main event.

Sister 3 had found a wonderful venue, a community center run by the parks service in a beautifully renovated vintage power station right next door to the church where our dad had grown up. All five of Mom’s siblings and Dad’s only sib, his brother, and all of their partners, were on tap to come. So did some of the sibs’ kids, and even a handful of grandkids joined the gang; with the friends who came, we totaled just over fifty in attendance. We saw many relatives we’d not seen in years, many of them as surprised as our parents at seeing us there like long-distance apparitions. I think I can safely say that the party was everything Mom had wanted, that Dad was also happy, and that we all felt pretty chuffed at pulling off a great success, especially at not blowing the surprise.Photo: Birthday Buffet

But again, food was central to the grandness of the day, and once more, that was thanks to the wise planning and [literally] tasteful choices made by our Seattle sisters. The buffet spread’s main dish stars were ginger beef and sweet walnut prawns from our favorite local  Chinese restaurant, accompanied by a wide range of finger foods and sweets, many of them bought ready-made from various shops and stores. We had just about enough food on hand to feed 250 guests. So we kept up that family tradition, too. And we all left the tables full and fulfilled.

Who knows what we’ll get up to next summer. Only sure that it will include much eating and drinking. And probably lots of childish giggling and telling secrets, which I think are a mighty nice lagniappe for the whole meal, whatever it is.

Maybe They *Don’t* Make ‘Em Like They Used To…

Happy Birthday, Dad!Photo: Classic Models

Today is my father-in-law’s natal anniversary. Though I’ve no doubt he sometimes feels his age and then some, as all of us do, he remains marvelously youthful in his wit and charm in general, and like a certain favorite toy car of a somewhat similar production date (one passed around by kids in our family for many happy years), has all the more appeal, truth be told, because of all the stories behind the few dents and scratches.

Not only am I most fortunate among persons in having found life partnership with a best friend who suits me in ways I could never even have imagined, I got a fantastic package deal, his parents being from the beginning the best sort possible. I knew before I met them that they must be rather extraordinary to have produced such a dandy son who really liked, loved, and respected them, so I wasn’t all that nervous about the meeting, a fact all the more remarkable when you consider that I still struggled with a fairly extreme level of persistent anxiety at the time. I was more afraid of meeting my beloved’s then part-time housekeeper, an old-school German lady who clearly thought anyone hanging around with her adopted charge had better meet her rigorous standards. Maybe Irma paved the way to make Mom and Dad Sparks seem that much less intimidating. In any event, from that first time I met them I was quickly falling in love with them, too. In any case, it turned out that I had attached my heart not only to a great life partner but to a great life partner with great parents, who immediately became my parents along with the ones who gave me my birth.Photo: Elegance on Wheels

Our Dad S is a thoughtful, gentle, good-humored, positive person who served honorably in the Army, who with Mom S raised a pair of superb sons, who worked with computers from those early days when a single one still filled a massive, refrigerated room to when they became ever so much smaller yet far more powerful, and even trained for and had a post-“retirement” career as a Myotherapist. He continues to be curious and dedicated enough to keep taking classes, traveling, and beginning new adventures as a seasoned but lively octogenarian. He is indeed a man of a ‘certain vintage’ by now, having had many adventures and being the repository of myriad stories as a result, but never fails to have new tales to add to the inventory because his spirit is so lively.

Most of all, he has as loving and generous a heart as he always did, and makes me hope that he will have not only a lovely and fulfilling birthday celebration (or ten) for his birthday but as many more as possible. He is, after all, a classic.Photo: Classic Good Looks

Don’t Blame Me, My Teacher Did It

photoThe drawing professor responsible for mentoring me in my undergraduate specialization in drawing and printmaking had no idea he was creating a monster. Safe to say there was nothing especially distinguished about either my skills or my scholarship in those days; he may be forgiven if he thought there was little hope of my passing his classes, let alone succeeding in being an actual artist at any point in the future. But for whatever reasons of commitment and kindness and selfless dedication to his pedagogical efforts, he took it upon himself to tutor and nurture me in my studies besides working wonderfully hard in the general studio sessions he taught.

Like any teacher, he had his characteristic methods and terminology, to the degree that any of us who took more than one semester of classes from him had our own favorite little catch-phrases and loving parodies of his work. One of the most frequent phrases (so we thought then, at least) to leave his lips was ‘texturally rich’—and you can bet your sweet pencil sharpener that any of us giving any imitation of him was bound to quote that one.photo

No surprise at all, then, that as soon as I started teaching, which thanks to his intervention and my subsequent hiring I did for the first time out of grad school in the very classroom where he’d taught me, it was as though I was instantly possessed by his spirit. I think I may have visibly started when I heard myself say that mystical phrase, standing there in the very spot where he’d once stood and repeated it to my classmates and me, never having remotely suspected that I would ever quite understand the term let alone use it so glibly and with such conviction a mere few years later. In my turn, I found it became a true favorite topic of study and tool for art-making and there were undoubtedly students of mine who thought it a funny catchphrase of mine and parodied my use of it.

That’s the way this stuff works, isn’t it. We become our teachers. First we find ourselves imitating our parents and siblings and playmates, learning from them both the persistent bad habits and, if we’re lucky and perhaps not too dumb, the worthy and useful skills and knowledge that will stay with us as we grow. Then we turn to teachers outside of the walls of home and neighborhood, as we get to school and move forward, and learn to imitate them too. This, not to put too fine a point upon it, is what helps us create for ourselves our texturally rich lives.photo

In art, it is the visual or tactile form of texture that I most often seek, finding in the wide variety of possible touchable or perceptible patterns and surfaces worlds of ways that I can shape and delineate and describe whatever subject I choose. As I work to make the art deeper and more complex, the textures I seek include less concrete, more metaphorical and philosophical ones that lend further meaning and impact to it. And that is where it begins to intersect with the learning and growing processes of life in general. A life well lived will be inherently texturally rich. I had no idea of the magnitude and import of this when my professor was saying that simple little phrase. But I’m very glad he said it often enough that I did internalize it, ponder it, carry it with me, and eventually, find a wonderful and purposeful truth in it.

Perhaps even fine teachers like him can’t make me into what I never was, a great teacher myself, but there was clearly a place in my heart and mind that resonated to the phrase ‘texturally rich’ happily and hungrily enough for it to take root and teach me good and useful things long after the echo in the classroom had faded away.photo

Attention to Detail in All Things

digital illustrationI’m far from being the world’s best gardener. I may have the perfect skill set as a lazy dilettante, loving the design process and having a tremendous appreciation for all of the non-laborious joys of a garden, whether it’s well tended or not. A bark-boring beetle or a sculptural skeletonized leaf can be as beautiful as any spectacular, pristine lily or a lilac’s heady bloom. A moss-choked stone path is as glorious as a graceful fountain encircled by perfect tea roses and rosemary. And I have had quite the aversion to trench digging, rock picking and weeding ever since I was old enough to be conscripted by my parents for the purpose.

But I also know that if a garden is to have any hope of continuity and flourishing in flower, it needs occasional attention to such details, at the least, from Nature’s seemingly random hand. The gusts and waterings, composting and tillage performed by her weather and her handyman crew of creatures all do their parts in keeping the landscape in beautiful form. Even better chance of thriving if I do my part, too, having noticed what details might better prosper under my attentions, however slight they might be.

I was reminded of it recently as I watched a family make their valiant attempt at getting a group portrait. Flanked by grandparents, the parents stood holding their two little boys: Dad, in back, held the eight month old and Mom, ahead, wrangled the three-year-old. No one seemed able to get the normally placid toddler in front to hold still for even one quick photo, or to understand why he was so unusually squirmy, until someone finally noticed what I could see better from my side angle: that the baby was cheerily leaning forward at intervals and yanking his big brother’s hair. Detail noticed, problem solved. Had that adorable little scalawag been able to keep up the practice, I have little doubt there would’ve been need, eventually, for an expulsion from that particular little Eden.

I, meanwhile, must try to keep after my own gardens, the real and the metaphorical, and make sure the little buzzing creatures and weeds don’t get too far out of hand.digital illustration

Sonnet for Sisters

restored antique photoMy Sisters’ Names

Three sisters, three have I, each one a star

to light the night or day with brilliance new,

a spark these shining few, though rare, bring to

the darkest, deepest places where they are–

Fair Wisdom bears a gleaming cup, as thirst

for knowledge waits in ev’ry darkened realm

to sip the learning springing from her helm,

sweet Wisdom bringing in this treasure first–

The next is gracious Kindness, in whose charms

of sympathy and care is safety found

when she with gentle strength wraps all around,

encompassing the world within her arms–

The third with equal radiance inclines

to lighten hearts as much as sun can do;

Laughter‘s her name, and like the other two,

her sparkling wit enhances how she shines–

All three, my sisters light the corners of

The universe: their other name is Love.digital artwork from an antique photo