Letters and passageways (5): trial runs

This is a series of rewritten journal entries from the summer I spent in the south of France, the first entry here.

You wear it on your body, and you don’t even know what it means?

Allanah grated potatoes onto a newspaper and used the paper to gather up the peel. I told her it’s a wyvern and two sea serpents on a coronet. That’s how my step-dad John always referred to it, how I memorized it: the way you would a phone number, by the rhythm of the digits. “A wyvern and two sea serpents on a coronet.”

I don’t know about other parts of the world but in the West, the wyvern symbolizes war and the devil. Relative to the lindworm when you take off the legs. Allanah studied me from across the room and softened her tone for added effect. War and pestilence.

Allanah’s hair was coming undone and hanging in loose, gray strands around her face, above the sink. I looked down at my ring and studied the symbols: two sea serpents mirrored each other with open jaws, perched on a crown. The wyvern had its back to them, a dragon’s head with two wings and a coiled tail. Eagle’s talons for feet.

It’s John’s family crest, I said. They came from Wales and the north of France. I think it comes from Percy.

So you carry the emblem like it’s your own. Have you showed it to your real father?

I haven’t. We don’t see each other much, and I’m not sure he’d notice.

That part wasn’t true, because I had a memory of my dad asking me about the ring. I took it off and handed it to him, and he turned it at different angles to study the figures on the face.

It’s a wyvern and two sea serpents on a coronet, I said.

Dad handed it back to me and said that’s neat. After they got divorced I changed my birth name to Pearse and talked with my dad about why I was doing it and what it meant. The talk was brief though, he seemed shocked. We were at the old house in Bethlehem and I got out of there as quickly as I could.

I kept my birth-given name but moved it to the middle and only used it on government ID. I’d started going by Pearse, and John referred to me as son. I referred to him as dad. That summer in France was like a trial run for us as a family: John, my mom, and me. It’s a trial run for any kind of family; you don’t get to decide whether you’re going to stick with it or not, you get what you get.

I’ve talked about this with John before. Allanah set the grater on the counter and spoke out of the side of her mouth, gathering her hair back, holding the tie between her teeth.

He needs to have a conversation with your biological father. Have they?

I don’t know. I think John sent him a letter.

Well I think it’s sweet John feels the way he does. You have to decide how you feel about him, and if it’s worth it to you to cut off ties with your real father. You can’t have it both ways.

Gregory called from the other room, something about the TV remote. Allanah called back in the tone she reserved for him, the sound of a mother talking to a child, a bossy mom. Gregory allowed it.

On the program, a humpback whale and her calf were being hunted by a pod of killer whales. The narrator was that same, English voice. Gregory had a satellite dish put in to get English programming, the BBC. Allanah finished the potatoes and took off her apron, folded and set it on the marble countertop. She sat next to me on the sofa, Gregory on the recliner.

I’m a having a glass of wine, Allanah announced.

Gregory told her which one to open and she did, and brought back three glasses. The mother humpback whale was bigger than the Orcas, but outnumbered. There were half a dozen Orcas and they looked ominous with that white patch by their eyes.

The humpback calf was a bit bigger than the size of its mother’s head, two tons in weight. Still feeding from its mother, the milk pink in color and 50% fat, the narrator said.

Gregory, Allanah and I sat in silence sipping our wine, watching the situation escalate. The mother humpback fought the Orcas for five or six hours, but had gotten separated from the rest of her pod. At last the Orcas wear her out, and corner the calf.

After all that, and all they take is the tongue? Gregory brought up the home screen with the other program listings and refilled his wine.

Surely enough, the calf was dead and all the Orcas ate was its tongue and lower jaw. You could imagine how the mother must have felt.

Well just think about all the life at the bottom of the sea that’s going to live off that calf. Allanah came back from the kitchen with a bowl of olives and put it between me and Gregory.

Circle of life, she said. And then she circled the air with her finger and studied me, repeating herself: Circle of life.


I drove the 45 minutes to Snoqualmie Pass, the sun coming up more slowly now. John would have turned 80 this week. For the first time since he died, 11 years now, I listened to one of his CDs on the car stereo. The year is 1970, and he’s playing with Olivia Lyons and two German guys. Olivia is English, the one true love of John’s life, mom thinks.

John sounds distinctly like himself, but his voice is still a young man’s. He would have been 21. Olivia starts the set off and the recording is shrill, you can hear the musicians talking to one another on stage and to the audience. John says they’re going to play a tune but none of them know what it is yet, they’ve never played it before. Key of G. It’s a song about the after-life, what it’s going to be like on the other side. John is singing about playing a harp, in heaven.

When the CD is over it seems like it ends too soon. They spend a good amount of time tuning between songs, a convention that wouldn’t be accepted nowadays, with everyone in such a hurry. The show took place in a German village called Pforzheim, not far from where my mom and John later settled. It makes sense why John gravitated back to Germany for all the memories he had touring there.

The symbols are empty, waiting for us to inhabit them with meaning, to give them life. They take on meaning and value as assigned and in a sense, so do we. We come to represent something more to one another over time.

Signet rings were used to sign letters and documents as a seal of authenticity. John offered me his name and family legacy as an expression of love, and I accepted. It didn’t matter as much what was on the ring, just that it came from him.

Categories: identity, Memoir, writing

Tags: , , , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. Some very deep stuff in this one, and very personal. Hope to hear more about it one day, when it feels good or right or okay to share it. Oddly, my biological dad died about the same time, 11 years ago. The other man I called dad is still alive, here in town. I don’t keep in touch with him anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi there…that’s interesting to know, thanks for sharing. Tough stuff but good to get to the bottom of it, where it seems all the essence collects, at the bottom. For better or for nought I hold you responsible for this project. Thanks! See what a little encouragement does…and would like to read you again soon when you’re up to it. Or even when you’re not! Bill


  2. Bethlehem, PA? I visited once and thought it was beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jadi! Yes, that’s the one…I went to high school there. Funny you saw that town! Love that you read my blog on Mondays, thank you for keeping up with it. Bill


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