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Sun at Low Slant

It means nothing unless you breathe in life,Exhaling warmth like the sun at low slant.

--Ian Peterson-Nedry

June 12, 1977-October 2, 1996

Fathers’ Day, 2002. My former-husband and I are walking downhill to the bottom of the original vineyard block, the one we purchased in 1980 and began planting in 1982. He is carrying the marble urn that contains our late son’s ashes. Our daughter is with us.

Harry wants to bury the urn.I want to disperse the ashes in one of the places on earth Ian loved best.Wynne does not offer her thoughts. When Harry and I argue, she keeps her mouth shut. It is safer and probably more interesting. And, being the youngest in a highly opinionated family, it’s just easier.

I carry my favorite shovel just in case. It is slightly smaller than the average garden spade, with a smooth hickory handle. It belonged to my great-Aunt Emma, who died in 1996 just months before Ian. He was the love of her life.We reach the bottom of the hill. Underneath the stately black walnut tree, site of many family picnics, Harry and I continue our debate.

Then we strike a compromise. We will sprinkle half of the ashes so Ian can be free to roam. We will bury the rest so we have at least some idea where part of him is. Both parties are satisfied. Wynne says nothing. She looks around uncomfortably as if uncertain of her role.We shake the ashes into one-another’s hands. They are heavy, gritty, even chunky. They are all that remain of a life the nursery song tells us “is but a dream.” We fling them out over the lush grapevines. A little breeze riffles through them. They whirl and twirl in the air and then disappear. I feel light-headed. It’s not Ian, I tell myself. It’s the dream part.Harry closes the urn and sets it down. Under the walnut tree he prowls and paces, kicks at some twigs and damp leaf detritus. “How about this?” he asks finally. I hand him the shovel. It is good enough. He has selected a spot just this side of a large tree root.With shovel at a 45-degree angle, he stabs into the damp earth. In a split second it is over. The shovel is gone, disappeared, swallowed into the ground leaving no trace, Harry standing empty-handed. His face registers profound disbelief!We fall to the ground and paw at the dirt. There is a small slit in the ground near the tree root. Harry reaches in up to his armpit and feels around. Wynne tries her luck. No shovel.

“I guess Ian didn’t want to be buried,” I say, and shudder. No one responds. We set the urn at the base of the black walnut and walk back up the hill. I can almost hear Ian laughing.

October 2, 2006.  I munch a cluster of nearly ripe Pinot Noir grapes as I wait near the black walnut tree. Wynne’s 13-year-old Dalmatian, Dot, and my blue heeler, Sadie, romp and snuffle in the vines. It is a perfect fall day—crisp, bright and promising—as perfect as the day Ian died exactly 10 years ago.The hillside vineyard has grown from its original 15 acres to more than 50. Vines undulate in straight rows, traveling down and over hillocks from north to south—green vines, black grapes, red earth. It is rich and beautiful and primal, underwritten by hard work, cold cash and sacrifice.

I am waiting for Harry, who is bringing a shrine he commissioned made of exotic woods. It is designed to hold Ian’s ashes, which have waited in the urn under that tree for more than four years. In the dazzling sunshine I own my regrets and disappointments. I own great sadness for the dreams I had to leave behind. Most of all, I miss Ian. I always miss Ian, every single day of my life. And I remember the Fathers’ Day weirdness and wonder what is in store for us today.

Ian was a restive kid from the get-go, colicky at first and then addicted to movement. For Ian there was no ebb and flow. Life always was lived at full speed, what’s next, and damn the consequences. He would only think about consequences when they smacked him in the chops. He was bored in school and resolved this personal dilemma by acting out.

Often I didn’t know what to do with him, so I designed projects, assigned chores, took him and Wynne to art classes, drama classes, day camps at the zoo. There were play dates and sleep-overs, swimming lessons and music. I read to them; we made play dough from scratch and baked cookies. Above all, I always tried to keep one jump ahead of him because I recognized when he was quite small that the same evil twin that dwelt in me since the day I was born also resided in him. I had learned to calm mine with alcohol.

In 1986 we moved from Portland, Oregon to Newberg, close to the location where we had started our vineyard in 1982. Ian was nine, Wynne six. My idea was twofold. First, if we were closer to the vineyard perhaps Harry would rejoin the family. The hours he wasn’t working were spent in the fields. Second, a small town was a safer place to raise children—particularly the one who was fond of yelling curses at and flipping off every thug who drove through our urban neighborhood.

As he moved into puberty, Ian’s restlessness grew. During the middle school years, Harry spent hours in the vice principal’s office. At home, none of our considerable efforts with him bore fruit. We could put out one fire and it would flare in a new, uncharted territory. We found a nice private school. It was a 20-mile drive one way—but if it helped, God be praised.

During high school Ian struggled to focus. On the soccer field he was known as “Yellow Card Ian” and later, “Red Card Ian.” He excelled at track (State Champion, 1600 Meter Relay; Second in State, Pole Vault). He discovered girls and wrote poetry every night for two hours. He smoked and chewed, and once grew marijuana in his closet. He regularly and unbeknownst to us helped himself to the contents of our wine cellar. He was sweet, kind, compassionate, disciplined, and funnier than anyone I ever knew. A Merry Prankster. Alternately, he was lazy, selfish, abusive to some of the people who loved him most, and sometimes downright wicked.He was named Poet Laureate of his high school graduating class. Even with average grades he was admitted to University of Oregon’s prestigious School of Architecture.

He flunked out of college his freshman year, yet earned an A in an English 400 class. On October 2, 1996, while working for his dad during grape harvest, he pulled out onto Highway 99W in broad daylight while running a routine errand. He was hit broadside by a car traveling 65 miles per hour. We were told he died instantly, but he was still breathing up until the Life Flight helicopter arrived. 

Harry pulls up in the pickup and we unload the shrine. It stands three feet high, shades of red and golden woods layered and inlaid, hand-burnished and glossy with a waterproof finish. Inside it is a little shelf where the urn will rest. It is beautiful, out of place amongst the dust, leaves and grapevines. We level it and secure the shelf. Harry cleans the marble urn and places it inside. We place roses in a little vase on top. We are confronted with the awkward moment. Now what? As if in answer to this burning question, Dot, the geriatric Dalmatian, trots past on her way to another adventure. In a split second she is sinking into the ground before us. Slow motion, like someone caught in quicksand, she is swallowed into the ground. I keep expecting her to stop and jump out.

She is in up to her canine elbows when Harry and I fall to the ground and grab hold of her forelegs, which are only partially above the earth’s surface. With one great rolling heave he pulls her onto solid ground.  I look into the hole from which we pulled her. It is the same hole where the shovel disappeared years ago, only it has grown. This time we can see into it. It is cavernous and open, almost as if someone lives there. But what? A troll? The white rabbit Alice followed into Darkness? It is tidy and dry like a room left vacant awaiting its tenant’s return. I lie in the dirt bereft of answers. I do not see my shovel from our previous escapade at this enchanted space, but I do see what looks like a corridor leading deeper into the ground below the tree roots. Again I imagine I can hear the laughter.

November 1, 2006, All Souls’ Day. I return to the vineyard, and since I am returning to the Bermuda Triangle of vineyards I bring a camera, a flashlight, and one not-too-fanciful friend. The dogs stay at home. It is a glorious late autumn day, the surrounding hills ablaze with color, the sunlight a gentle blue tinged with green and weakening. My companion on this journey is Ginny, an artist and dear friend. She and Ian were close, similar souls, ethereals in earthly garb.

 “Do you remember when I drew him?” she asks on the drive. “I remember thinking he had such beautiful eyes.” 

Yes, I remember. And yes, he did. 

We hike to the old picnic site. The black walnut stands before us, huge and magnificent, its black trunk and limbs accented by a crown of flame-colored foliage. As we near the tree, we startle a fat doe from her browsing among the grapevines. The first thing Ginny does on arriving at the site is to grab the flashlight, get on her knees and examine the hole. “This is amazing,” she yells, head still in the ground. “I can see light.”

With the flashlight we inspect the cavernous area carefully. It is as I remember it, easily large enough for two people, clean, with a tunnel running generally downhill to the south. No shovel. There is a tiny patch of light in the distance. The rational part of my brain tells me the cavern was formed by water washing down the hill and eroding the earth around the roots. The other part of my brain says “Who knows?” Someday, perhaps this coming winter, enough water will rush down the hill to topple the tree.

We dust off the shrine and take a photograph or two. I breathe it all in—memories, sweetness, pain. We reminisce. We laugh. We walk back up the hill.