Thomas Hirsch |
by Carol Smallwood

Excerpt from Lily’s Odyssey, a novel, published with permission by All Things That Matter Press; its first chapter a Short List Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award for Best New Writing.


One snowy afternoon when school had been closed I saw Thomas Hirsch looking for my house in the road with his coat blowing in the wind. He wore what Uncle Walt called “a damn Russian Cossack hat,” with the jutting earflaps giving him the profile of a pitcher with handles. I’d called the newspaper after reading his appeal for memorabilia on the local opera house so ran out to meet him.

Thomas rarely took the time to button the cuffs of his shirts, so he was affectionately called “Cuffs.” His wife had taught adult education art for years and was a respected northern Wisconsin portrait painter. When I took his coat and hat, I saw a pair of Mark’s underwear he’d put on a chair when I went outside and whisked them into my pocket, and heard my son snickering in his room.

Under his shirt Thomas wore a T-shirt that said
world’s greatest grandfather. His large round eyes, and his brows shaped like inverted V’s, gave him a startled look, but he was hard of hearing. Some people said he just pretended to be, so they’d speak openly around him, and he could gather tidbits for the newspaper, at which he was a reporter. They said he could hear very well clear across a room when something was newsworthy, but if someone under his nose wanted free publicity, he’d lean forward, shake his head and tap his hearing aid.
I too, was becoming acquainted with selective hearing: Odysseus put wax in his sailors’ ears so they wouldn’t be tempted by the Sirens; I used ear plugs to not hear people talk about lost animals.

After Thomas smoothed back his hair and dried his glasses, I showed him my grandfather’s plate. He was delighted, took a few pictures, and then asked, “Have you been doing any more writing since your book on Wisconsin geology?” He smiled encouragingly.

He seemed sincerely interested, so I showed him some of the boxes of source material I’d gathered.

He shook his head and said, “I’m amazed at all that hard work you do. It takes you hours upon hours just to collect the material. How do you do it when you work too?”

“Because of cutbacks at Nicolet City,” I told him, “I’m only working part-time now, and I like to keep busy.”

Even as I said it, I realized I felt guilty for talking about my work, as if I was flaunting my independence. In fact, my writing was security for me. Whatever else was happening, however frightened or terror-stricken I felt, I knew it was something I could do. But now, asked to talk about it, it seemed that if I acknowledged the success I’d had, I’d be saying that my adoptive father and my ex hadn’t measured up, that I didn’t properly regard men as the head of a household, as Christ was the head of the Church. I could still hear Aunt Hester’s hushed church voice telling me about the Catholic girl’s role in helping men get to Heaven. And how could I be competent when I wasn’t able to protect myself from Uncle Walt growing up--nor had I been able to keep my family together?

According to the Church, Cal, Uncle Walt, and Aunt Hester, and most others, the blame was mine; cutting up my old clothes and those of the children’s and sewing them together to make quilts was one way of going back to my proper role as a woman. Maybe the Church had been right in saying that sex/marriage was for the procreation of children, but where did love come in--or was it one of nature’s tricks?

When I gave Thomas the inch mat of compressed mosses, liverworts, and fossils I’d found when burying leaves, a specimen similar to one I studied in college, his gratitude was sincere and made me glad I was able to share my interest in geology with him. I’d held the specimen many times trying to will it to give me clues about life. Knowing that glaciers shaped the landscape around me always filled me with awe and it seemed that the gouging and relentless movement of immense sheets ice miles thick had happened only yesterday, and that Lake Michigan lapping close by still had ice under the water, fantastic secrets. Knowing how the ground I walked upon was formed made it feel more stable, less likely to split open into a black pit and swallow me. And yet, knowing that the Ice Age was caused by a change in the orbit of the earth around the sun, wasn’t very reassuring. Nor was knowing that all species die. I wasn’t ready to admit that the life force that compelled me not to give up was intertwined with the drive to love, to understand, like a ball of twine—a ball that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t unravel. Perhaps Caroline was right when she advised, “Don’t look to this world or in yourself. Lift your eyes to Heaven.”

Wisconsin was shaped by the past, a past determined long before man. To help ground me, I got out my childhood atlas and once again was reassured that Wisconsin was surrounded by Lake Superior on the north and Lake Michigan on the east; its western boundary was Minnesota, Iowa; the southern was Illinois. By the way the roads converge, you could tell Milwaukee and Madison were the main cities.

The Great Lakes was dwarfed by Hudson Bay on a map of Canada. Milwaukee was the only city noted in Wisconsin and straight red veins (railroads) radiated from it.

On my globe, Wisconsin is an orange spot surrounded by green Minnesota, yellow Iowa, pink Illinois; the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is sandwiched between the blue of Lakes Michigan and Superior. The globe squeaked when I turned it to French West Africa. The name Anglo-Egyptian reminded me of a hyphenated name of a modern bride.

The globe was made in Chicago but had no date; an eagle with outspread wings clutched branches over the LEGEND showing three dots for Ruins and others. The Population Classification for Cities was indicated by the size of the dots, and the capitals by stars. The LEGEND was between the North Pacific Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean, the Marquesas Islands (Fr.) on the left, and the expanse of blue water on the right.

Under the stand I’d written: “Lily Alger, Grade 6, Age 11, 3/11/51, Sunday.” There were traces of rose decals I applied long ago below Alaska to make the expanse of the North Pacific Ocean less empty.

The north pole had a sunrise, sunset, high noon, mid-night moveable circle so you could tell time all around the world once you pointed the current time where you were: I found that the sun was setting in Ireland, and it was rising over the Territory of Hawaii.

The amount of water covering the earth was so overwhelming I still thought that fish should’ve evolved and ruled everything: as the globe revolved I could’ve been looking at the very spot humans evolved. The continental drift had once sounded too fantastic, but then I saw how the coast of eastern South American fit into the western coast of Africa like an old married couple, it was unreasonable not to accept it.

Carol Smallwood co-edited Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching (McFarland, 2012) on the list of "Best Books for Writers" by Poets & Writers Magazine; Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing (Key Publishing House, 2012); Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity, and Other Realms (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011) received a Pushcart nomination. Carol has founded, supports humane societies.