Tag Archives: Tom Leskiw

Tom Leskiw

Tom_LeskiwTom Leskiw lives outside Eureka, California with his wife Sue and their dog Zevon. He retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. His research, essays, book and movie reviews have appeared in a variety of scientific and literary journals. Awards include The Motherhood Muse (1st place contest winner). His column appears at www.RRAS.org and his website resides at www.tomleskiw.com.

 

 

 

Family Matters

August 1963. The Leskiw family is going to party. Our parents had just moved into a new home in the Bay Area’s Santa Clara Valley. The subdivision was carved out of cherry, plum, and apricot orchards that stretched to the horizon. Although my three siblings and I understand that the orchards belong to someone, their vast acreage—ripe for exploration on foot or by bike—retain an air of unkempt mystery, of wildness.

Even a nine-year-old like myself senses the transformation—renters buying a dream home. Long into the night, my mom and dad discuss plans for home improvement projects: a sidewalk to connect the front yard with a soon-to-be enlarged back patio, landscaping that will include fruit trees, a series of stone planter boxes slated to zig-zag across the entire width of the back yard. These new surroundings—from front and backyard crannies to bike treks further afield—all seem to symbolize a new beginning for our family.  Settling into our home gives us a sense of security, palpable and positive.  

So, we head to a pizza parlor to celebrate. My dad orders two pizzas and the first of several pitchers of beer. I don’t remember how many pitchers my father drinks, but Leskiw-lore holds that it was several and that my mom abstained from drinking.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this.

We finish our dinner and leave the pizza parlor, all four kids in the back of the Pontiac Catalina.

We begin a right-hand turn onto Homestead Road, but my dad is slow to react and the driver-side tires carom off the curb of the pedestrian island.  We four siblings come to attention.

 “Give me the keys, Walt,” says my mom. “I’m driving.” In a slurred voice, my dad replies that he doesn’t want to give them up. There’s more verbal thrust and parry between my parents, until, finally, my mom commands, “Just get out. I’m driving the kids home.” The door opens and, into the darkness, with cars whizzing by, my dad gets out. Mom slides over behind the wheel, puts the car into gear, and drives off. We are stunned. Long moments pass before anyone says anything. 

Ellen, the eldest, speaks first. “Mom, it’s a long way home. How will Dad get there?”

Silence. Then my mother says: “I don’t know. He’ll probably take a cab.”

I dared to speak up. “Should we go back and pick him up?”

“No. Even if he has to walk… he’ll get home.”

Given the distance—over two miles—it occurs to me that, should Dad have to walk all the way home, he is going to be pissed.  However, tension fills the air, and one look at the expression on my mom’s face, makes it clear that this is an opinion best kept to myself. Once at home, we siblings are too amped up to even consider sleeping, but my mom insists. “Off to bed you go.”

I awake to my mom standing over me, shaking my arm. Downstairs, pounding at the front door, my dad is shouting. “Eileen! Ei-leen!!” Mom, her voice quavering, speaks to us. “Tom, Larry, get in the bathroom.” We do as we’re told, encountering Ellen and Beth who are already there. My mom joins us, locking the door behind her.

I really don’t know why I’m telling you this.

I hear sounds of the front entry hall door being opened and an unsteady clomp of feet up the stairs. Dad continues his bellowing, “Eileen! Ei-leeen!!” Huddled together in our jammies, we look to our Mom for an answer.

Bam. My father tries to kick in the bathroom door. Bam, Bam, BAM! The hollow-core door reverberates like a kettledrum, the percussion pounding at my inner ear until I think I’ll pass out.  

“If your dad gets in, he’ll kill us all,” cries my mom. We know the lock could be picked with a hairpin. That, combined with the splintered shards of the hollow-core door giving way beneath my dad’s kicking, petrifies us. Mom slides open the tiny bathroom window. Climbing out requires a drop of several feet onto a sloping roof. “Beth and Ellen, out,” she commands.

Bam, Bam, BAM! “Eileen! Ei-leeen!!”

Larry and I join our sisters on the roof.  I wish I could say that our shivering is due solely to the cold night air. Stars must be blazing in the inky darkness, but we have no time for that.  

The events of that night grow hazy at this point, but I think my dad passes out. Neighbors must have called the cops. They arrived to escort him away.

At our new house, my siblings and I build a fort in the back yard. A month or so later, our dreams of adding a second story to our Children Only—No Adults Allowed refuge are put into action. My parents had replaced the shattered bathroom door, so we claimed it for our fort. The door served—not only as the floor for the entire top story, but also as a reminder of that chaotic night.

*****

Several years later, my parents divorced again—the second of three from each other—I moved in with my dad. By this time, he was consuming a half-gallon of bourbon every three days, and my mom had remarried.  The judge in the custody suit was aware of the toxic relationship that had formed between my stepfather, my mother, and me, and decreed that I’d be better off with my dad.

Although I was intensely curious about my dad’s side of the story, I avoided bringing up the topic of “What the hell happened that night?” for several years. Finally, one weekend afternoon, when I was about sixteen, I couldn’t contain myself any longer. Maybe it was a question I should never have asked, because I wasn’t prepared for his response.

“Tom, don’t ask me why, but I just felt that night like your mother might harm you kids.”

 “You were trying to protect us… from Mom?” 

“Yeah, I thought she might try something.”

Over the years, I’ve sometimes wondered if there could have been a way for my mom to get my dad to relinquish the car keys without forcing him to walk home. However, since then, I’ve encountered enough drunks to realize that the answer is most likely no.

Maybe now I know why I’m telling you this.

I’m the only one of four siblings who chose not to parent. Even after I told my mom about the vasectomy I got in 1986, she continued to confront me about the need to “Grow up and raise a family.” Over the years, I’ve cited the standard litany of reasons that people give for not raising a family. “The organization Zero Population Growth had a big impact on me. The planet—with its finite resources—isn’t able to feed an ever-expanding population. ” Or, “Who would want to bring a child into this messed-up world?” Or, “Being a parent has its drawbacks, such as loss of freedom and a financial sacrifice I don’t want to make.”

I knew that no matter how valid these points might be, they weren’t the real reason. Even when I was four, in the Chicago courtroom where my parents’ first divorce took place, I could see how they used us kids as weapons against each other. I remember the pressure I felt when the judge asked me which parent I wanted to live with…while both parents waited for my response.  Like my three siblings, I elected to live with my mother. I’m confident the judge felt that taking my preference into consideration was the right thing to do. And maybe it was. But the judge lacked the backstory. He was unaware of the lengths my parents had gone to win our favor. They even enlisted both sets of grandparents in their game, catering to us for several weeks—trips to the park, buying copious amounts of baseball cards for my brother and I—to tip the scales in their direction.

Finally, I know why I’m telling you this.

Did I mention that my mom was a nurse? Long before the term codependent was coined, my parents found themselves ensnared in those dynamics. Nurse and patient. Bad-boy drinker and his good-girl savior. Although each of my parents had a good side, the genes I inherited from them terrified me. And the only way I could ever positively, absolutely know that I’d never wield my kids as weapons against a spouse was to never have them in the first place.

Tom Leskiw

Tom_LeskiwTom Leskiw lives outside Eureka, California with his wife Sue and their dog Zevon. He retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. His research, essays, book and movie reviews have appeared in a variety of scientific and literary journals. Awards include The Motherhood Muse (1st place contest winner). His column appears at www.RRAS.org and his website resides at www.tomleskiw.com.

 

 

Lithic Voices: Honoring Those Who’ve Come Before

Droplets of sweat fell from my dad’s face as he leaned over to pick up another rock. Grunting, he placed it into the trunk of our 1960 Pontiac Catalina. Shadows lengthened. The day expired, yet the heat clung. The housing tract was of 1962 vintage, an extraordinary crush year for California’s Santa Clara Valley. Landscaping was absent outside the new house we’d just bought, so we were building a rock wall – one that would hold a raised bed – along the back cinderblock wall. The sawtooth pattern of the bed required that we obtain enough rock to build a wall 150 feet long by about fourteen inches high. That’s a lot of rock. So, as we’d done many evenings before, Dad, my brother Larry, and I made our rounds of nearby housing subdivisions, searching for rocks unearthed by backhoes excavating for foundations and utility lines.

Despite these numerous collection forays, we ran out of rock a mere sixteen inches shy of connecting the end of our wall with the existing cinderblock wall. So, we had to use a single cinderblock to complete the structure. The presence of that single cinderblock still bugs me, even though it was faced with rock and no living person shares my secret. But, I can’t get this transgression out of my head: we cut a corner; we compromised the purity of our craftsmanship.

***

Fast-forward twenty years. My friend Duane and I had decided to take a break from the Pacific Northwest’s winter rain by fleeing to backpack Kauai’s Na Pali coast. The trail, built long before the advent of explosives and heavy equipment, never lingered on level ground, but was forever heading steeply up or down to avoid rock outcrops. Hawaiian legends speak of a race of hard-working beings called the menehune. At night, away from the prying eyes of humans, the menehune built the trail, blazing a route into this region of dazzling sea cliffs and spectacular waterfalls.

We strayed from the main trail, intent on exploring a side canyon. Here, our progress was slow due to dense jungle and slippery rocks. We crashed through the last bit of brush to behold a towering waterfall slicing through a notch in the basalt cliffs. At its base was an immense plunge pool. Jungle fragrances – the perfume of flowers, overripe fruit, damp vegetation – wafted to us on air currents generated by the waterfall.

We pulled off our sweat-stained clothes and slipped into the water. It was refreshing, surprisingly cold. After our swim, we poked about the undergrowth. In the dim light, I paused to let my eyes adjust and permitted myself to slip into a well-worn fantasy: I am the first person ever to stand in this spot. A sapling grew at the base of a small rock outcrop. I studied the area a bit more closely and realized that I was looking at a stone that was but one of many stacked together to create a rock wall about four feet high. We now saw that the portion of the wall we were inspecting was just a short segment of a lengthy, interconnected network. I leaned over and sighted down the length of the top of the wall, surprised to discover that it was level. The mortar-less, narrow joints indicated high-quality rockwork constructed by skilled craftsmen. Finally, it dawned on me. These were retaining walls, built to create fields that were then flooded to grow taro.

Talk to me, I implored the rocks. How many people lived here – and when?

Me, the first person to stand here? Not by a long shot.

 ***

Four years later, I supervised the construction of some large rock structures of my own. Seizing the opportunity to transfer into the fisheries department, my first task was to inspect the placement of 1- to 2-ton boulders in California’s Willow Creek to benefit salmon and steelhead restoration. Laid in a downstream V-pattern, the purpose of the structure was to slacken the water’s velocity just enough to allow gravel to drop out immediately upstream of the rocks during floods. Hopping from rock to rock while wearing waders, I’d check the elevation of each rock and give a thumbs-up or down to the excavator operator. On that particular project, not wanting to wait for the next flood, we placed clean, washed gravel into the stream.

That year, the rains came early, calling the Chinook salmon home. It seemed as though the raucous echoes of the excavator had scarcely subsided before my colleagues and I glimpsed the first returning salmon slaloming through gaps in the boulders, the females depositing their eggs in the gravel we’d imported, closely followed by multiple males, jousting with each other for the chance to fertilize the eggs.

 ***

Last year, my wife Sue and I traveled to Santa Cruz, California for a concert. On the way home to Eureka, I convinced her to detour to my old neighborhood in the Santa Clara Valley. The orchards had long ago drawn their last breath, moments before bulldozers uprooted and piled them for burning. In their place were endless subdivisions and the gleaming, multistoried castles of the semi-conductor industry. We pulled up in front of the house I had lived in between 1962 and 1968.

I climbed familiar steps and rang the doorbell. No one answered. Was the rock wall still there? I made a quick calculation: 1962 from 2012: 50 years. Fifty years. . . Had the wall meshed with the plans of its subsequent owners, the ebb and flow of changing landscaping motifs? Slipping into the backyard was just too audacious. What if the residents returned? Hello, Sunnyvale Police Department? We have a problem…

***

The home Sue and I live in was built on an old log landing – a hillside area scraped level by heavy equipment. Behind the garage stands the deepest cut: about sixteen feet. The previous owner had landscaped the yard into a series of raised beds and terrace walls, all constructed from rock. Several years ago, I needed to replace 150 feet of rotten wooden retaining wall. I hired a backhoe operator to place the boulders, some of them weighing more than a ton. After the project’s dust settled, I took stock of the job. I realized that the stonewall will long outlast the wood house. Many years after our home’s 46-foot-long roof beams are reduced to cellulose compost, this imposing structure will remain, the rocks whispering seductively to future archeologists. Who were the residents of this place? What endeavors filled their days? What things did they deem important?

***

I’m reminded of lyrics from a 1960’s Jefferson Airplane song, “Life is change. How it differs from the rocks.” However, rocks do change: mountains are upthrust, slowly weather to fine sediments, are then compacted, then upthrust again. It’s the rate of change that can be so slow as to be rendered imperceptible. A number of factors – water-aided transport, freeze-thaw, gravity, and rain creating a weak solution of carbonic acid – conspire to make little rocks from larger ones.

This process has aided a new tradition of Sue’s and mine, the collection of “memento rocks” that are displayed along the rim of our solstice site. During our travels, we try to collect a good-sized but transportable rock from a location that has special meaning for us. Each has a story to tell – a partial stratigraphy of my life. It might be from a beach hike with friends the day after Thanksgiving dinner, or perhaps a black-capped rock that I spied minutes after seeing my first Black-capped Vireo. Rock #22, a conglomerate that I collected from a cobble bar along the South Fork of the Eel River in California, was collected on June 21, 2002 – the Summer Solstice – near a cabin owned by the Naylor family, our hosts for a camp-out. I collected Rock #22 during a spirited, but ragged, rendition of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we performed in honor of the 41st anniversary of the cabin’s purchase by the Naylors.

Studying Rock #22 more closely, I see pea-gravel-sized nuggets of varying shapes and colors embedded in a dark gray sandstone-like matrix. Some are round or oval, whereas others have sharp corners, indicating a shorter transport distance in the stream prior to the conglomerate’s formation. I pulled out some textbooks to brush up on the exact definition of a conglomerate rock: “A clastic – accumulated particles of broken – sedimentary rock containing numerous rounded pebbles or larger particles. Clastic, from the Greek word klastos: broken.”

Conglomerate rock is formed by the wedding of broken and dissimilar pieces of rock into a unified whole. It’s an apt metaphor for my life. Rock has forged connections throughout my life, weaving together seemingly disparate strata: as material for walls built both by hand and with the aid of machines, and as elements imported to or rearranged in streams during the decade I spent improving salmon habit. Rocks have served as portals into native cultures, as trinkets that serve as benchmarks along my life’s journey, and finally, as mnemonic devices to remember family and places.  

To Native Americans, the term “all my relations” refers to both animate and – what we newcomers might consider to be – inanimate objects. A Lakota medicine person may address a stone as “Tunkashila,” meaning grandfather. When I work with stone, I think about its mass, its permanence. I believe that the act of its placement is a way of honoring those who’ve come before. I find myself reflecting on those who’ll gaze upon these rocks in the future. And, in so doing, acknowledge those who have come before. . . and on and on to complete the cycle.

Unmoved
From time without
end
you rest
there in the midst of the paths
in the midst of the winds
you rest
covered with the droppings of birds
grass growing from your feet
your head decked with the down of birds
you rest
in the midst of the winds
you wait
Aged one.1

Epilogue: The housing tract that contained my parents’ home in the Santa Clara Valley had a furnished “model home” to entice prospective buyers. My parents ended up buying a number of its furnishings, among them two light brown marble-topped end tables. Gazing back in time, I can see my mom in the living room. It’s after the divorce. She’s sitting on the sofa, flanked by the end tables. She’s smoking a cigarette, taking a break from the never-ending duties of a working single mom with four children.

My mother died thirteen years ago this spring, shortly after entering a nursing home. My brother, two sisters, and I gathered at her house to sort through her belongings. At the end of a long weekend, the end tables had not been claimed by any of us.

“Our house is too small,” Sue and I agreed. “Would anyone be offended if we just take the tops? I know I’ll find a use for them.”

No one objected, so we did. For several years, the marble slabs waited in our garage. Then, eleven years ago, while connecting a loop trail on our property, I encountered a steep bank that required several steps. The slabs worked out perfectly as risers to the short staircase. Now, when Sue, our dog Zevon, and I take our daily walk around our property, I detect a new murmur among the lithic voices.

 

End Notes:

1. From the Omaha people. Kenneth Lincoln, “Native American Literatures,” in Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Literature, Brian Swann, ed., (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).