The expansion and compression theme | Field notes from the Pacific coast

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5 (at 30K!). It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.

Eberhard met my mom through John (my stepdad), whom Eberhard met backstage at a concert John was giving in Germany. John was English, had run a successful ‘learn to play guitar’ program on the BBC; Eberhard, like many others, was a student who got to know John through his guitar lessons on the TV in the late ’70s, early ’80s.

And my mom met John at the grocery store in the neighborhood where I grew up, west Allentown: John was in front of my mom in the checkout paying by check, and as he gave the clerk his phone number to write it down he looked at my mom and mouthed the numbers, she memorized them, called him 20 minutes later, said here’s my number if you want to go out, think about it.

So it was from that exchange at the grocery store that all those times through Europe followed, even a trip orchestrated by John to Morocco, where we both got sick and had to drive back via the Spanish coast on anti-diarrhea medication, a car full of scarves, lanterns, robes—chameleons, fated to die.

John and my mom got married in ’94 in the Pennsylvania house they called Highgrove, built by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. John gave free guitar lessons for 10 years to the prior owner in hopes he could get the house from him one day and at last, it worked.

And then they got a condo on the Mediterranean so they could start going back and forth, as John only had a green card in the States, and wanted to keep a ‘foothold in Europe,’ as he said.

The condo turned into a bigger house in the adjacent village of Port-Vendres near the Spanish border, a region known for its Catalan influence, charcuterie, sweet, strong wines, good pink/gold light for the impressionists who’d come before.

And so back and forth they went three months on, three months off, conveying the animals, collecting treasures from the antique markets of southern France. But come 9/11 and changes to everything “travel,” it got harder to fly with the animals. The normal JFK to Barcelona route got discontinued, logistics became untenable.

They put the house in France up for sale and sold the condo. And they were traveling the wine country of southern Germany when they got word the house in France had sold. The amount they got for it was the same amount someone wanted for this old house in the village where they were having lunch, Besigheim. It was the oldest house in town, at the bottom of a narrow, cobblestone road. It had views to the south beyond the old wall, to the hillsides, surrounding farms, small motorways: south was Stuttgart, north, Frankfurt. Without much time or thought they made an offer and relocated their things from France, John’s guitars, antique clocks, paintings, the deux chevaux that didn’t run, and sat in the barn until John died.

They were at the guitar trade-show in Frankfurt when they saw Eberhard again, and announced they’d bought a house in southern Germany. When Eberhard asked where, they realized it was just 20 minutes from his apartment in Ludwigsburg, where he worked as a cop. Eberhard offered to help with logistics. And when Dawn and I made our first visit to Germany in 2004, we met at the airport, and he conveyed us to my mom and John’s new house, 500 years old.

Christmastime. Dawn’s parents Dick and Beth flew over too, and we all stayed at the house—and that first night there was light snow and choral singing in the village square, I think Beth’s favorite time there.

But it was not a good visit overall, it was strange. John’s health was declining and the doctors and specialists couldn’t diagnose the problem. He was losing sensitivity in the nerves in his fingers (death, for a guitarist), had sleep apnea, pain in his feet, pre-diabetic, at risk for dialysis, and was on a bunch of medications you’re not supposed to take with alcohol, but that didn’t stop him. He’d start falling asleep at the dinner table talking, drinking wine, and then snore, sitting upright. It was funny at first (a cartoon snore, a faint whistle at the end), but upsetting.

And with only a house in Germany now and Dawn and I expecting a baby, I pressed them to consider buying a place near us in Seattle, maybe British Colombia. But John had designs on a place in Greece, was getting more and more isolated (or wanted to be, it seemed), and we got into an argument about it, Christmas Eve—and everyone else said well, maybe we should go take a walk.

There was a rift that opened that night between us and took some time to close. And later, on our way up the road to the old church for the candlelight service John stumbled on the stone steps and nearly landed on my mom or Dawn (who was pregnant), and at the time he was a good 250 pounds, six feet tall, maybe more.

On Christmas morning I sulked in my room on the third floor in that old house. It was the upper floor where the prior owner killed himself, a dentist. We didn’t talk about it much; mom just mentioned there were weird things about the house: estranged teenaged sons who worked on their motorcycles indoors, left grease stains on the floor, had drawn or painted odd symbols on the walls, vaguely occult. Mom later told me she went up to the attic one night by herself and confronted the spirit, whatever spirit there was: said OK, whoever or whatever you are I need you to come out now or bug off, this place is ours, now. And it worked. The kids later reported strange dreams after we moved in, but you could pass that off as jet lag, or kids’ imaginations.

That Christmas morning I moped, just wanting to get on a train and go away, not come back. I told my mom I wished she was with someone who really cared and looked after her, someone like Eberhard, someone more responsible than John.

A few years passed and they stayed on at that house, and the phone calls with my mom became familiar accounts of various doctors and clinics they were trying throughout the region—John wasn’t able to fly anymore, so mom would visit us in Seattle on her own. In August of ’08 mom told me some upsetting things John said to her, he was now on dialysis, and I let my boss know I had to go to Germany to see him, and she didn’t hesitate, said just go.

When we said goodbye that day, it’s like whatever fog or filters were over John burned off and he was himself again for a moment. Our French friend Laurent was with him that Halloween when he passed, and Eberhard let my mom know in the morning, said there was no point in calling at night. He made all the arrangements, held John at the funeral, kissed his head—and it seemed odd to see Eberhard like that, he seemed so strong on the outside: like De Niro, he had this rock solid persona, a perpetual wince.

There was a spirit sense at the house in Pennsylvania too, but it wasn’t the same character-type spirit as the house in Germany, more a sense of raw energy, some natural force. The house was built in the side of a hill overlooking a valley preserved as state game lands, and there’d sometimes be hunters in the fall you could see or hear from the deck. Otherwise, it was all woods as far as you could see, with a creek at the bottom of the hill. And that side of the house was two stories high and all glass, so it let in good morning light from the east.

John said the architectural technique was one of expansion and compression (a term borrowed from physics, where properties of a gas change when compressed)…and with the common area in the middle, a two-level living room with fireplace, records, books, one’s spirit could roam free, expand: yet with the bedrooms or study off to the sides, the office, deliberately smaller, you could compensate for all that expansiveness with a smaller place, compress. Everyone said the house felt good for creativity. I had musicians do sessions there, and I did my best to bang out poems—but it was more a clackety-clack of my manual typewriter, more noise than music, then. I wondered if it was that same expansiveness I needed when I hiked or walked now, for inspiration—followed by the down time in our sunken den at our house in Sammamish, where I wrote. And like a gas, could the properties of an idea change too, compressed by time or space…by letting the idea ‘roam,’ then putting force on it—zoom out, pan in?

It was a rare Christmas my mom wasn’t with us, we talked on the cell phone and she sounded aglow. Eberhard had just been there and said goodbye, but the strangest thing, he kissed her this time. They always kissed on the cheek when he left but this time he held her, and kissed her on the mouth. And then 20 minutes later he called, and asked if he could come back. Mom said he was on his way, she had to run!



Categories: Memoir, travel, writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

14 replies

  1. Ah, love me some Eberhard! Fun reminiscing here with ya Bill, been with reading you long enough these feels like shared memories. As always, thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I stumbled just now on a video of John on YouTube, thinking I could see him from the BBC show. He’s talking about an armrest he put on his guitars to keep the tone from getting muffled. Looks like a charismatic fellow. And then I wondered, wow, wouldn’t it be wild if I might have seen him perform at the folk club in London I used to go to back in ’77/’78? No specific recollection, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Guitar rag, baby!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s really cool you did Kevin. I have a hard time watching or listening to his recordings, probably miss him too much when I do. Need to get over that. You two probably would have hit it off. He was a great friend to musicians for sure.


  3. isn’t it interesting how it all gets entangled? paths cross, seasons change and relationships begin and end?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The spare, matter-of-fact style worked really well for me in this one, Bill. Made the final para a smiling eye-widener; an excellent combo.

    Liked by 1 person

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