Wednesday, March 10, 2010

geese and glazed bricks

4 am one January morning my mother gently woke me.
It’s time, she said. Hurry your dad’s waiting out in the truck. I numbly pulled on my clothes and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. No time to eat anything, I was promised there would be donuts later.

I stumbled out to the truck in the dark and slipped into the seat beside my mother. The excitement was palpable. We were going to watch the geese in Cibola. My mother had arranged an expedition with a few of her school teaching colleagues, Mrs. Arnold, Mrs. McCreary and another teacher I can’t remember. These ladies were bird watchers extraordinaires and had recruited my mother to join them in their pursuits. But my mother out bird watched them all by pulling this coup. This was high excitement, to see these special geese in Cibola. My Dad, of course, was slightly amused by all this but as always supportive of my mother in all her activities and interests. He drove the truck to Mrs. McCreary’s place where these ladies sat excitedly in the car, clutching their binoculars and waiting for us to show up. They were to follow us to Cibola where my Dad would lead them to where the geese were.

Judging from all the excited chatter, and the whoops and exclamations, the outing was a huge success. My mom earned her bird watching credentials that day and officially became a member of the bird watching teachers club and thereby a member of Blythe intelligentsia.

I did not appreciate then the sacrifices one must make to be a woman of substance. As we sneakily crept up on our bellies with binoculars pressed to our eyes, I didn’t know this was the price one paid. And my Dad watching, amusedly for sure, from a distance. Waiting patiently until they had had their fill of geese. Geese he had seen a thousand times before.

On the ride home he asked me how I liked the birds. Okay, I shrugged. He smiled. I laid my head on my mom’s lap and ate my doughnut.

I happened to think of all this because this morning I came across one of my mom’s scrapbooks. She kept old spiral notebooks and pasted quotes or stories she loved.
This was before blogging, people. Think what her blog would have been, eh?

Anyway. Glued onto a page was this story. Yeah, I know you’ve heard it many times and it’s truthfulness has been questioned. Still. My mom loved it, I see now why. She believed in the principle it teaches. Though her circumstances and environment were limited in Blythe, she always tried to find a way to thrive, to grow. She lived nearly 30 years in the same place and as I sit here, me living in the same place, same house for 30 years I can relate and I appreciate so much her ability to have a rich inner life. She was a woman of substance and thought. She sat on ‘glazed bricks’ all her life but found gladness and things she liked to do. So many things came fairly easy to her, and when she finished, she had more energy than when she started.

The story:

The famed naturalist of the last century, Louis Agassiz, was lecturing in London and had done a marvelous job. An obviously bright little old lady, but one who did not seem to have all the advantages in life, came up and was spiteful. She was resentful and said that she had never had the chances that he had had and she hoped he appreciated it. He took that bit of lacing very pleasantly and turned to the lady and, when she was through, said, "What do you do?"
She said, "I run a boarding house with my sister. I'm unmarried."
"What do you do at the boarding house?"
"Well, I skin potatoes and chop onions for the stew. We have stew every day."
"Where do you sit when you do that interesting but homely task?"
"I sit on the bottom step of the kitchen stairs."
"Where do your feet rest when you sit there on the bottom step?"
"On a glazed brick."
"What's a glazed brick?"
"I don't know."
"How long have you been sitting there?"
"Fifteen years."
Agassiz concluded, "Here's my card. Would you write me a note when you get a moment about what a glazed brick is?"
Well, that made her mad enough to go home and do it. She went home and got the dictionary out and found out that a brick was a piece of baked clay. That didn't seem enough to send to a Harvard professor, so she went to the encyclopedia and found out that a brick was made of vitrified kaolin and hydrous aluminum silicate, which didn't mean a thing to her. She went to work and visited a brick factory and a tile maker. Then she went back in history and studied a little bit about geology and learned something about clay and clay beds and what hydrous meant and what vitrified meant. She began to soar out of the basement of a boarding house on the wings of words like vitrified kaolin and hydrous aluminum silicate. She finally decided that there were about 120 different kinds of glazed bricks and tiles. She could tell Agassiz that, so she wrote him a little note of thirty-six pages and said, "Here's your glazed brick."
He wrote back, "This is a fine piece of work. If you change this and that and the other, I'll prepare it for publication and send you that which is due you from the publication." She thought no more of it, made the changes, sent it back, and almost by return mail came a check for 250 dollars. His letter said, "I've published your piece. What was under the brick?"
And she said, "Ants."
He replied (all of this by mail), "What is an ant?"
She went to work and this time she was excited. She found 1825 different kinds of ants. She found that there were ants that you could put three to the head of a pin and still have standing room left over. She found that there were ants an inch long that moved in armies half a mile wide and destroyed everything in their path. She found that some ants were blind; some ants lost their wings on the afternoon they died; some milked cows and took the milk to the aristocrats up the street. She found more ants than anybody had ever found, so she wrote Mr. Agassiz something of a treatise, numbering 360 pages. He published it and sent her the money and royalties, which continued to come in. She saw the lands and places of her dreams on a little carpet of vitrified kaolin and on the wings of flying ants that may lose their wings on the afternoon they die.

(Marion D. Hanks July 1971 Ensign, also Stephen R. Covey and Jeffrey R. Holland have used this story as well).

Oh. And here's a bit of significant irony for our family. :)


ld said...

I, too, can join the Blythe intelligentsia for I observed two flocks of geese flying over my father's house this morning.

Devry said...

I've recently become a tiny bit obsessed with bird watching myself. On any given morning, from my kitchen window I can usually see a couple of vibrantly red cardinals, a eastern bluebird or two, blue jays, and a red bellied wood-pecker. I'm steps away from getting my own pair of binoculoars. I must have inherited this from Grandma!

Anonymous said...

My dearest sister. I must take a moment and comment on your blog even though I no longer blog. I too was a member in good standing of the Blythe intelligentsia as our dear mother coaxed me to drive her here and there to watch birds. I can remember pulling off the side of the road at some farmer's field so she could watch a red- breasted warbler. I must confess, I never really understood her fascination with these birds. She used to hand me the binoculars and tell me in a hushed, but excited voice, what kind of bird I was looking at. Little did I know I, in fact, was making "glazed bricks". By the way, I think the other teacher could have been Mrs. Scott. I always thought she looked alot like Abraham Lincoln.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to make an additional comment, but do you remember your mother always telling us to "be quite" so we wouldn't disturb the hummingbirds feasting at our Red flowered Bottlebrush tree just outside your bedroom window? For the record, I am the proud owner of two Bottlebrush just outside our master bedroom window. Additionally, I am also the proud owner of one beautiful hummingbird who delights me every morning as he/she flutters not five feet from my bed. No binocs needed.