Broken Summers: Letters to Laertes 1

Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay’d for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character.

Hamlet Act I scene iii

Dearest Laertes,

I wish that the wind had stayed you, that whatever was burning in you, frustrating you, confusing you, angering you… all of those raging emotions… would have given you pause for a second, or even a first, goodbye. In the absence of that, I have tried to understand the fierce need for independence that drives a young soul. I have been driven by similar fires. What follows is not a list of fatherly cliches, nor a list of things that I think you should do. No, it is a sharing of stories, after the grand oral tradition: shaman, mothers, fathers, chiefs, prophets, seers, spiritual seekers, medicine men handing down the stories that mattered and that needed to last. The stories are somewhat chronological, but by no means complete. They are snapshots in time. If there is a pattern to the structure of these letters it is this, all illusions and dreams break down before they can be rebuilt.

Be well, where the winds have taken you. And perhaps, these stories will span the gaps that time and space have left us.

With love,

Polonius

Broken Summers

Norman Duane Clark was dead. I  stood up and walked to the front podium set up in the Mormon Relief Society meeting room.  The long room was full of mostly elderly folks: people waiting to die. Some of them I knew, had known a long time ago, or at least knew of: distant great-uncles and aunts, relatives who remembered me as a child. Perhaps it was a morbid thought, but looking from side to side at the white haired mourners whose tears flowed into the cracks of their faces, I realized the true common denominator of people as they age – was funeral attendance.

I looked above their white heads at the paintings hanging on the walls of the room. White Jesus washing Mary Magdalene’s feet. White Jesus walking on water. White Jesus preaching on the mount to the masses. My father was sitting just a few rows back on my left. He was crying, and his face was flushed red beneath the white of his unkempt beard. The weeping looked at me, waiting. Cousins, siblings, my aunt, people who had grown so distant I was slightly entertained just watching recognition hit their faces. “Was this the small, chubby, nerdy boy with glasses who didn’t know how to play with other kids and always seemed more at home with adults?” their eyes asked. “Is that Steven’s boy?” They looked at me like I was a tall, long-haired stranger.

Ryan and Papa in San Diego, mid 80s

My parents, Daphne and Steven, divorced in 1975. I was a year and a half old. I don’t have any memories of my parents together, happy or otherwise. My mother had custody, and I was raised with her in a carousel of marriages and step siblings.  My father was all over the place – sometimes in sales, sometimes in retail, sometimes a garbage man – but usually not in Arizona. I, like many divorced kids of my era, had summer visitations with my father. Five weeks a summer, and every other Christmas. That was fatherhood. The story of who Daphne and Steven were, as young lovers, as friends, as trusted confidants, was not a story that I was privy to. My story began loving two people who seemed to hate each other and held absolutely opposing worldviews.

Sometimes – those world views overlapped and became confusing.

“My Papa would not have wanted to be here,” I began. The wooden podium warmed beneath my hands as I pressed down trying to force my voice not to stammer and break. “That is not to say that we as a family are not appreciative of this congregation’s hospitality. We are grateful. I am simply stating, this, in fact, is the last place he would have wanted to be.” The tears continued, and all of the faces and eyes were upturned and looking at me. Not angry. Not affronted. They knew Norman. He had not stepped in a Mormon church in decades. They wanted to know where I was going… they were like fish attracted to a shiny lure sliding through the water. I had been a missionary. Fishers of men and all of that.  I had been a teacher. I had coached speech and debate champions. My grip on the podium released.

*

In the winter of 1987 I turned twelve, and, as is the Mormon tradition, was ordained a Deacon and endowed with the Holy Aaronic Priesthood. I spent the majority of my youth playing Dungeons & Dragons and reading fantasy novels. I was a nerd. I was twelve. Getting the Priesthood really just felt like being a cleric/bard multi-classed badass, with the ability to prepare normal loaves and water for sacrament, the duty to pass it to the Brothers and Sisters of the Church, and the power to turn those loaves and water into the sanctified body and blood of Christ.

All illusions of real life wizard powers aside, turning twelve is a big deal in the LDS faith. Kids stop going to Primary, and are split by gender. Being a teen meant you could now go to mutual, go to dances, become home teachers, collect fast offerings on the first Sunday of the month, and… ahem, have the Power to prepare and bless and sanctify the blood and body of Christ.

Like a warlock.

My world had always been pretty confusing.  My Papa’s house was the one place in the world that wasn’t. My grandparents owned a ten-acre spread at the base of the Uinta Mountains. My grandfather designed and built their retirement home by sharing labor with friends from the Tucson Fire Department. They shared duties working and vacationing to each others’ places of retirement throughout Utah and Arizona building homes. My grandparent’s was a rustic log cabin, built as close as possible to the log homes of Papa’s youth down on Willow Crick in the Bookcliff Mountains to the south. Building that home had been his life long dream. Every summer it became my heaven.

The porch of all conversations

I arrived on a Friday afternoon. Papa had spent the previous day loading up the small camper. He had aired out the bedding. He had made sure all the propane tanks were full and the batteries were charged. He had strung each fishing pole with new line, and stocked the tackle box. Everything was ready to take me, his number one grandson, camping and fishing up at Smokey Springs in Uinta Canyon.

I got out of the car as fast as I could and ran to my tall, lumbering grandfather. Norman ‘Papa’ Clark looked like John Wayne’s distant cousin. He stood like him, kinda walked like him, and sometimes he even tried to talk like him, but that was pretty much to get us kids to laugh and call out, “Papa, you’re teasing!”

“Papa never teases,” he teased. It was always his answer, and we would laugh and laugh.

I threw my arms around him. My hero. “Are you ready to go up the Canyon for the weekend, grandson?” His face was radiant. I never questioned the love of this man. Not once. And my heart sank.

“I have to go to church, Papa.”

The radiance died.  Not slow, not incremental. Dead. “This will be our only chance to go up to Smokey Springs this year. Are you sure?”

My mother always told me to be on my best behavior, remember to Choose the Right, and to say my prayers and read my scriptures even if I couldn’t go to church, but the summer after I became a deacon with Biblical powers she and my step-father, Rick, spent what felt like hours preparing me for my summer visit.

“You will be tempted this summer like never before,” Rick said. My mother was mostly quiet. “Satan knows when a person of faith is weak. You have a very powerful and sacred new gift and responsibility, and you are spending the summer with non-members. Satan will do everything in his power to get to you now, he is drawn to that power like light.”

“You know we love you honey,” my mother added. “It’s just important that you stay aware and as diligent as ever. You know,” she was smiling in contrast to Rick’s Puritan anger, “Norma will always take you to church if you ask.”

I squeezed my grandfather as fiercely as I could with my twelve year old arms, before looking up into his face with tears rolling down my own. Standing up to Satan was not supposed to make you cry.

The mountains in the distance had never seemed further away. I dreamed of those misty mountain pools, of the dew in the morning, the possibility of a moose through the fog rolling over the still water. Maybe we would catch a stringer of trout and eat them before a fox could steal them. Maybe we would carve my initials into an aspen, marking a scar that sealed memory. But temptations were all about me. I was a light. A beacon. A burning power of a twelve-year-old that was being beset by Satan himself!

“I can’t go camping this weekend, Papa.” Tears pooled in the thick curve of my glasses. 

My Papa walked away, his head held high, back across the gravel turnabout and towards the log tack room and the waiting camper.

*

The summer after I turned nineteen, I received a letter calling me by God to serve a Holy Mission to my brothers and sisters in Kansas City, Missouri. I had dreams of being called to some place exotic: Russia, Thailand, Norway. My friend Chad had gone to Nova Scotia! God wanted me to go to Missouri. But, before I entered the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, I had one last summer visitation with my dad and my grandparents at my favorite place in the world

I expected my Papa’s eyes to show pain. The kind of pain they flashed just briefly when I stood up to his temptations and didn’t go camping. But they did not. My grandfather was never confusing. In a world that was just continually out of whack, he was a star to set my compass by. Papa never judged me. It never mattered that I didn’t ride bulls. Or wrestle. Or play football. He thought it was great that I asked lots of questions and spent hours looking at books. He was proud of me. He loved me. And I never questioned it. Even when he was an agent of Satan. 

Mormon youth are usually excited for their mission calls. They are rites of passage. Joyful events that kids like Chad and I had been singing about since we were three or four, I hope they call me on a mission. When I have grown a foot or two. I still remember the words. This was supposed to be a watershed moment. Being dropped off at the MTC as a product of divorce, on the other hand, by the non-members, is different. My mind was in overload, and I do not remember much of the particulars of that quick summer visit. Saying goodbye, and going off to serve God. What I remember is grandfather hugging me. I don’t think I have ever felt that loved – or safe – again.

*

Dani picked up her Coke, and took a bite of her fish taco. We were sitting out on the patio of my friend DL Marble’s bar Marauder’s in Tempe. I had just celebrated my 46th birthday, and she was getting ready to turn 36. Nedra Danielle and my brother Fraser lived with our grandparents when they were young. “I am not sure if I ever told you about that drive back to Neola after we dropped you off in Provo,” she said. “It was the most quiet I can ever remember Papa being. Papa was always talking, always smiling, always teasing.” She smiled, and her eyes misted with fond memories. Our Papa had been gone for nine years now. “But not on that drive. He was absolutely silent, and he just stared straight ahead at the highway. He never talked about your mission. He never said anything bad about it at all. It rarely came up, besides Fraser or I asking how you were doing in Kansas City.”

“Fine, he would say, as he offered no details. But we were young, little kids, and you were really good about writing us letters. So Papa’s answer never seemed short or sad. Just to the point.” Dani looked over her black framed glasses and smiled. I took a long drink of my Shiner Bock. “He never wanted to change our minds about anything. He never wanted to be any kind of an influence. It was always important to Papa that we found our way on our own.” My sister reached out and touched my hand as I placed my glass back on the raised table. “But he couldn’t sit still nor stop smiling when he got the news that you had left, and were coming home.”

*

I was back in that relief society room, and the faces were glowing as they looked at me. “I guess I really only shared those two summers with you to say this, and I think it is what my Papa would most have wanted me to share. We live in a broken world. Children living in broken homes are no longer a rarity. They are the norm. Where did you go to see your dad
this summer
, is not a strange playground conversation. You have no idea how amazingly important you are.

The entire beacon in my life, my symbol of hope, order, work, perseverance, love, and family did not come from primary. It did not come from mutual. It did not come from serving a Mormon mission. It came from camping and talking on the front porch with this man that you too have come here today to honor.

Please, never, ever, underestimate how much good you can do in the lives of your grandchildren. You are our heroes.”

It was as if Norman Clark had spoken to them one last time. And the looks I saw in their eyes, made into prisms of light by tears, didn’t question the long haired biker in that Relief Society room any more.

Continue the Story:

Letters to Laertes: Prologue

Fishers of Men: Letters to Laertes 2

Keep the Greasy Side Down