Tuesday, March 23, 2010

ACROSS THE WOODED HILL

Call it co-dependence – I like songwriters. Though we may personally have little in common, there is something in the nature of a songwriter that makes it easy for me to bond with them. More than a few songwriters and artists have lived with us from time to time. Artists and students, often teenagers trying to cross over rifts between themselves and their parents. It’s been a good thing, in general, for our children to have grown up with a door that is generally open to those in need. And it’s been a good thing for Dave and me.

For a number of months my friend Kendal, a songwriter and musician, lived in the guest room. He had his quirks, like all of us do, but in general he was a good guest. Occasionally Kendal and I sat in the family room and he taught me a few things on the guitar. One of the things he gave me was a small lesson in harmonics. He showed me how, when you softly place the pad of your finger on the left hand halfway up the string, then pluck it with your right hand, as you quickly remove the finger pad…(I know, you’d have to see it or have done it before to imagine what I’m talking about)…this creates a high pitched ringing tone called a harmonic. I use harmonics to tune my guitar and in some songs. But what I had not realized before was that if you are playing a chord on the left hand, then you slap the string halfway up the remainder of that string, you can create that harmonic sound without having to remove the chording hand. Suffice it to say, it opened a new vista for me. Don’t you just love new information? Well, some new information; not all. Anyway, I thought this was particularly groovy new info, so I experimented, beginning with the nice fat E chord, which uses all six strings in its open form. Has a nice deep bass sound. So I did those slap harmonics on the E chord, then tried it with and A, which led naturally to a B7th. I could feel a song coming on, an Irish sort of tune, mournful and old. I remember consciously thinking it sounded like it should be a love song. But there are already so many wonderful Irish love songs, about bonnie lads and lasses and love gone off to war and love unrequited.

This was a time in my life when I felt the changing of the seasons coming on. My boy was 19 years old. He was 19 years old and had just received a call to serve for two years in England and Wales as a missionary for our church. He would leave us soon. Having a son decide to leave his parents…but the reason he leaves is in order to serve his God…this is as good as it gets in the parenting department. John was a beautiful young man, full of life and poetry and music and I adored him. So in spite of the beauty of the reason he was leaving us, the fact that he was leaving was heartbreaking. A broken heart is not an evil thing…it just hurts.

ACROSS THE WOODED HILL is a love song. It's a love song to my son.


ACROSS THE WOODED HILL

Alas my son you come to me where once you did belong
Your gentle face is bolder now your back so straight and strong
And lips that kissed me tenderly they kiss me tender still
And bid me watch you as you go across the wooded hill.

Across the wooded hill, my son and I cannot go too
The song you hear the piper play he plays for only you
So do not tarry here with me for I can feel a chill
And soon the sun will lay himself across the wooded hill

No I have never been, my son, where you are bound to go
I know not if the air is sweet when e’er the wind should blow
But I have prayed you come this far and you’ve a mighty will
So always shall I pray for you across the wooded hill

Oh, ever shall I pray for you across the wooded hill.


Where I grew up, in the woody hills of Western Pennsylvania, we didn’t have the large splashy watercolor-red sunsets that we see every day over the lake from our back window here in Utah. The sun just sort of dropped behind a hill. We simply lost the day, until it returned the next morning. I imagined, in my mother-mind, my son kissing me goodbye, then rising to the top of the hill and disappearing into the series of rolling hillsides, his thick soled missionary shoes on his feet, his well worn scriptures in his hands. I had to trust that he would return. But I knew also that when he returned, he would never again be fully mine. It is a sorrowful and beautiful thing to let go of a son.

In the house of my childhood I grew up hearing this little saying:

A son is a son till he takes him a wife
A daughter’s a daughter the rest of her life.

I had seen evidence of this and felt it to be true. John is our only son, and his absence was profound. The loss was sweetly softened every time I received a letter or a phone call from overseas; a woman with a strong Welsh brogue telling us how much she loved our boy; a mission president saying the same. The mailbox took on a personality of its own, glowing when a letter from him arrived. We squished together around the phone on Mother’s Day and Christmas Day just to hear the familiar sound of his voice. When it was time for him to come home Dave and I travelled to England to retrieve him. The first night the three of us shared a small room in a hotel in Bristol. We had prayed together, and Dave and I had climbed into our bed. Lights out, I heard my boy crawl out from under his sheets and quietly kneel at the side of the little cot next to our bed. I laid in silence and let my pillowcase catch the tears. He looked so young, and so wide-eyed frightened to return to the real world. I ached with the knowing…knowing that the sweetness would rub off soon, that he would once again join the ranks of college boys doing college boy things.

But gratefully, he has kept so much of the beauty that infused into him as he served his mission. I see it when he teaches, when he prays, when we discuss deep and spiritual things. I see it when he interacts with young people. And old. It was a good walk, that one across the wooded hill.

Here’s another good thing. That boy grew to be a fine guitar player and a gifted songwriter and singer. We share the stage pretty often. And every Thursday we unlock the doors to the classroom in the basement of the Farmington Arts Center and we teach guitar classes together. I always say he covers the “hip” factor and I cover the “patience” factor, though truth be known he is likely better at both. How many old lady mom’s get to share this sort of thing with their sons? I am the luckiest!

And here’s something even luckier: John took him a mighty fine wife. She loves him with all her heart. Ashley is a wonderful mother to his three darling children. And, even luckier yet, she loves me… just the way I am.






I am not particularly in love with this recording. It’s nice to have it preserved, but it didn’t seem to capture the feeling of the tune for me. In all my years of live performance there have been just a few times when I feel like we were one with the song. One of these times was at a concert in the beautiful old First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City. It was at a Thanksgiving Concert, the year Johnny left for his mission. It was also one month after the passing of my nephew, Clayton Hansen. Clay had crashed on his motorcycle in October. We kept a vigil at the hospital for 8 days, night and day, praying for him to heal. In that time his beautifully formed body repaired itself. The bruises became lighter, the scrapes turned to scabs then became new flesh again. But he was unconscious, because his head had hit the asphalt without a helmet. His brain was drastically swollen and would not heal. Finally, on the eighth day the doctors told my brother and his wife that there was no hope, there was no brain activity. There is a little corner in my memory bank where the guttural groan of my brother, as he told us the news, haunts me still. We huddled in the ICU waiting room and cried. George and Cyndy chose to extend the gracious spirit of their son by donating his organs. More than a dozen people now live, hopefully in a more perfect state, because of their gift.

Still reeling from the loss, my brother and his family sat near the front in the concert. Clayton had been their first born son. He was about six weeks younger than our firstborn son, who would be leaving in just a few weeks. In the dim light of that church, with the stained glass stories of the Gentle Healer surrounding us, and the century old acoustics echoing our emotion, we offered this song for our sons who, though the hills they crossed were different, took their journeys nonetheless.
John pulls his son Parker across a snowy hill.

4 comments:

  1. Steve can always tell when I've been reading your entries each day. My red swollen eyes give me away every time. He just pats my back and tells me I'll be OK. He's off running errands this morning so maybe my eyes won't be so red by the time he gets back.

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  2. What a beautiful tribute! Thank you for sharing your boy! We quite love him! I love that my sister is lucky enough to be your daughter in law and I am lucky enough to know you as a result. You know how to tenderly express the sweetness of our lives and travels.

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  3. Oh my goodness I do love John! So very much. And I also love you... tons. Thank you for sharing John with me. I am sure that when Parker gets older and finds a wife one day I will come crying back to you to help me understand.... :)

    Loves and loves!

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  4. Oh, fetch. I'm going to short out the dang computer. Oh, this hits close to home. So close.

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