Thursday, August 11, 2005


Lily Matsunaka’s mother had made their home was a place of fountains, pools, chimes and hanging beads and gauze. Her fashions were as flamboyant as her profession, listed proudly each year on the family tax forms and in a yellow pages ad as “Water Witch.” Her words were so deeply poetic that it took years to understand the full measure of what she was really saying when she spoke. She had gone West from the Bajou and married a man her own parents never really understood.

Death at the hands of a drunk driver, on a lonely country road, on the way home from a day’s work, however, is as mundane as any death. But, that is how it happened to her mother, when Lily was only eleven. Lily’s father was devastated. The fact that the driver had no insurance and was driving a stolen car only added insult to injury. As Lily grew up, her father was blinded by grief, and overwhelmed by trying to keep the farm going in the face of continuing drought and dwindling credit and subsidies, while taking on full responsibility for his daughter. He never really noticed the way Lily was growing into her mother’s shoes and becoming a woman. Lily hadn’t been old enough to receive any formal training from her mother. But, she shared her mother’s affinity for carefully observing nature. Sometimes as she’d walk across a lonely field, and follow a dried stream bed until it broke out into an uncharted spring miles later, singing to the birds as she walked.

Lily didn’t fit in well in her small rural high school. She got into fights. Her grades floundered as she found herself incapable of concentrating on homework. She would stay up all night and sleep through class. The principal called her father more than once. Her father didn’t know what to say. That last year, the tractor broke down and there was no money to fix it, so the crop that it would have helped harvest didn’t come. Lily’s father cancelled their health insurance and the insurance on the house, so that they could afford groceries. One of the teachers at the school, who’d been a friend for Lily through it all, left to care for an aging parent in California. Her father had sworn off alcohol after the drunk driver struck, but he took up heavy smoking. The dog her father had had since before Lily was born, who had been his constant companion since Lily’s mother’s death, was diagnosed with leukemia. He attended three funerals that year with Lily, one for each of Lily’s maternal grandparents, and one for his father. All of Lily’s grandparents had already been in poor health and died of natural causes, but together it was too much. A windstorm damaged the roof to the house and there was no insurance money to fix it with this time. Her father swallowed his dignity and applied for food stamps, just to make ends meet. Their pickup was burning through oil and showed every sign that it was ready to die any day. Her father took Lily in the pickup, drove her to Denver and dropped her off with his mother, then drove away. That night on the news, Lily and her grandmother saw his pickup hurling over a cliff in the mountains, caught live by a nature videographer. For a long time, Lily was just frozen. The private funeral, held at the Buddhist Temple across the street from her grandmother’s apartment in Sakura Square, seemed so other worldly that Lily didn’t really believe it had happened at all.

Lily’s grandmother was too frail to drive to the farm on dirt roads, so a couple months later, Lily got a ride with a neighbor to Akron to settle up her father’s affairs. She talked with her father’s accountant, and a lawyer from Sterling. The numbers spoke for themselves. She may have been only sixteen, but it didn’t take someone who’d been raised on the farm all her life long to see that her father’s debts were many times what the farm and all the equipment on it was worth. Almost everything was mortgaged. She took the things she could fit in the back of the neighbor’s pickup, drove back to Denver with him, where he kindly helped her unload it into a storage facility down the road from her grandmother’s apartment, and left her father’s affairs to his creditors. The lawyer had explained that she wasn’t liable for anything, and that she had a right to “exempt property” worth more than everything her father hadn’t mortgaged, so she just took what should could and left the rest behind. Lily’s grandmother tried to persuade her to go back to school, but after what Lily had been through, at home and at school, she flatly refused. She took a job with a florist in Sterling for a few years, living in a rented room in someone’s basement and spending her weekends getting to know the water witches who had known her mother. Every one of them said her mother had a talent that none of them could dream of matching. Not one extended herself to Lily.

When everyone she cared about had left Akron for cities across the nation after graduating from high school, Lily got restless. She bought a bus ticket to Denver. She looked for work in Denver for several days, saw a help wanted sign in a catering shop in the Golden Triangle, and walked in. The proprietor was busy teaching an ice sculpting class, so she watched. When the time came for her interview, she said she wanted to be an ice sculptor. He was reluctant, as she was clearly young and couldn’t claim any experience, but she begged him. He let her make one attempt as an audition for the part so that she could see why he couldn‘t hire her. It wasn’t perfect, but when she admitted that it was her first time, he could see that she had a natural talent. He hired her on the spot and even gave her an advance so she could find an apartment. The next day she moved into an apartment across Cherry Creek from her job. A month later, she bought herself a motorcycle.

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