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July 15, 2024

Dreamer 14

By Sand Pilarski

Jesse was Dad's leg sitter. That was her place, at his feet, sitting on the floor, using his legs as a back rest, watching television, or reading, or doing her homework. They were a pair to see, father and daughter, a set. Jesse inherited his coloring, the dark hair and hazel-green eyes, the solemn expressions. Jesse was always less dreamy than I was; she had interests, while I was just content to see how things would turn out, by and large. Dad could really talk about things with her; I was more of a listener, Jesse more of a discusser. Once I got old enough to run with my friends, I think that Jesse filled the gap in his life very well. She kept the loneliness in his eyes at bay.

Her fascination with anthropological artifacts and other cultures was a constant, an interest that he could share. I loved my 4-H projects of cooking and sewing, but as our mother had control of those in the house, Dad really couldn't work up much interaction with them, beyond saying, "Oh, that does taste good," or "Yes, those are some curtains."

I would get lost in the present, the texture and smell and sound of things simmering and frying and being stirred and rolled out, but Jesse knew that her place was the future, and she would investigate things with an eye to what she would do with the knowledge in the future, and she was always making plans to bring the future under her control.

The year that she was ten, just before we moved to California, she and Dad took on a Summer Project. This Project was so involved that I had to admire it (though I was glad that I wasn't forced to participate, as some of my friends had their driver's licenses already and the sudden mobility was an adventure in itself.)

Dad dragged his drafting board out from the attic storage and set it up in the dining room. (We always ate in the kitchen, so Mom didn't even bat an eye.) With him standing, and Jesse perched on a high stool, Dad taught her to use a T-square and triangle. "The edges of the drawing board are damn near holy," he was saying early in the summer. "because those edges are what will make that T-square accurate. Never store the board on its side, or bump it against anything." He showed her how to sharpen her pencils to a hypodermic point, and how to spin the pencil when drawing lines to maintain the point of the pencil and the thickness of the line. He set her to drawing grids, equal spaces between the lines, and she loved it. The drawing board was transformed into her base camp.

While I was running with my hormonal friends (we were like salmon, swimming frantically to some mysterious destiny, chittering with the euphoria), Dad and Jesse measured the back yard, drew a grid that represented it, and then made a real grid out of stakes and string. They did it in one-yard increments, pegging and stringing on the level, and with a plumb bob, even managed to grid the little bank that led down from the patio to the lower yard.

I believe they got permission from my mother to do this because they told her that Jesse would use it for her Science Fair project in the upcoming school year, and would undoubtedly get an "A" for it, maybe even going on to Regionals. I think they were bullshitting at the time, but she did use it, she did get an "A" and a prize, and she did go to Regionals, and won another ribbon for it there. Good for her!

The yard pegged, they proceeded to draw the main structures and areas onto the grid on the drawing board. They put in the cement walkways and the patio, the fire pit at the end of the yard and the garage, and every clump of flowers and every shrub. They worked one square yard of their diagram at a time, Jesse usually doing this while Dad was at work. She had a cheap drawing pad and a wooden ruler with which she would measure the coordinates of every plant or artifact. (She would sneak the good drafting ruler out to the pegged garden if Mom was distracted elsewhere. Dad wouldn't have minded, but Mom seemed to have this idea that good things should never be used, lest they be used up.) The coordinates on the drawing pad, she would return to the drafting board and the grid and fill in a sketch of the artifacts (just a quick sketch of a blossom or leaf for the flowers and shrubs.) Dad would check over her work after he came home from his job in the late afternoon or early evening, first going out to the garden with her and her sketch pad, and then returning to their treasure map to make any necessary adjustments. Or I should say, for Jesse to make the adjustments. She was the impassioned little researcher, with Dad making suggestions and asking questions. For instance, Dad suggested using only latin taxonomic names for the plants as they were drawn in. I was there when he mentioned that, and Jesse's head came up from where it had been bent over the drawing board like a Labrador retriever being shown a frisbee. Dive for the bookcase, and the Taylor's Encyclopedia of Gardening!

When Jesse was asleep, Dad's part of the project was to plant her some artifacts. They mapped any broken piece of brick that was in the grid, and all the plants, but Dad also tossed into the grid some old ashtrays, and some selected specimens of our ongoing rock collection. There was a rummage sale at the Lutheran church on Jefferson Street in the early weeks of their project, and he went there and bought all the gaudy costume jewelry, pins and brooches and pendant necklaces that they had. (He said they all looked at him sideways as though he had some visible repulsive affliction, and so he told them they were for his wife. When my mother found out, she flew into a rage that he would suggest to "those women" that she used jewelry bought at a junk sale. Whoops, Dad, poor man, she never, ever forgave him for that blooper!)

First Dig was a fantastic project, and towards the end, even I was interested. Coral bells, of which were found three specimens along the northern border of the dig, between the border and a curious concrete roadway (about two and a half feet wide) whose original purpose was to facilitate travel to a now dismantled outhouse, ahem, the coral bells were more properly referred to as heuchera sanguinea. And remains were found of what had to be an old chicken coop that had at one time been attached to the garage.

We moved to California the next summer. Mom's uncle had some interesting prospects he wanted someone to share in. Mom was enthusiastic, Jesse and I were scared, and Dad -- well, he did whatever would make his wife happy.

In California, I was the new girl in the community, and so of immense interest to the community's boys. I was thrilled, and went exploring the Wild West every chance I could. Mom threw herself into this opportunity with her uncle full time. She was painting oil paintings on loose canvas as fast as she could -- he would sell the canvases as original oils for his furniture store for two hundred dollars a pop, making a profit of about a hundred and eighty per canvas. Mom perfected an assembly line kind of painting technique, ripping off ideas from other paintings -- as long as they was quick and simple -- changing the palette of colors a little or shifting the elements on the canvas. Dad found a job in an assembly plant, and just worked. Jesse was his mainstay, and he was her anchor. Even after she took her job at the University and began to make a name for herself, when she would come back to California after her digs and travels, it was Dad she reported to first, and then made her presentations to the University professors and curators.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-08-18
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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