Letter from the Editor

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Return to 'The Lady of the Logs'

On Monday, I picked up our records page to proofread, and it fell out of my hands as my heart dropped - the obituary tells of the loss of a Berneta Dunham.

Now, where I live, you only have to mention "the lady in the log house," and everyone would know instantly who you mean. Or, if you have children, you probably know her simply as "Grandma" Dunham.

She was 80, it said. Really? It never occurred to me that she was aged - she had more life than just about anyone I know.

The obituary tells of a long life of achievements in education, a loving family, lots of activities. But there is more to tell, and it is not so easy to capture in words.

I first wrote about "The Lady of the Logs" in 2002, and the best terminology I could find to capture her spirit was "a romantic."

They are darned rare, you know.

"Romance dances just beyond the firelight, in the corner of your eye," writes one of my favorite Iowa authors, Robert James Waller. "She does not like you to look at her directly; she feels from the cold light of logic and data... the best way to tell a romantic is just to be around one. You'll know... You can tell a romantic by the voice - it dances because the mind is dancing."

They are the poets and the dreamers, the painters and the musicians, the born teachers - and sometimes, the grandmas.

So when you find a true romantic in an unusual abode on the tail end of a rock road out by Bel Air Beach, it's a good find.

Most logical, practical people don't live in log houses in such a place, which makes it an excellent choice in my book.

I first met "Grandma Dunham" while taking my then 2-year-old daughter trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. Hers was the last house before open fields. It was a hike off the paved road, no sidewalk, but the lure of the logs was enough.

"Log cabin," Katie said, pointing.

"Nope, we've got plenty. And there's lots of closer houses over there."

"Log cabin," she repeated, her blue eyes flashing that flash.

A kindly woman with steely hair but kind eyes answered. Before I know it, the little girl and the older lady have disappeared to explore the "log cabin." Now I don't just let strangers run off with my children, ever. But something told me this was a special person, the kind to be trusted and enjoyed. A ghost story and a big old Baby Ruth later, I am frozen on the porch; they are fast friends.

Next Halloween, with baby brother in tow, the log house is the must-do on the trick-or-treat trail. The woman remembers the little girl by name, and has a treat waiting - a book, with a special inscription made out to her.

Only a romantic would give, and happily receive, such a gift on a day dedicated to the pursuit of a bellyful of candy. She still has that book, and the inscription will always be an invitation to dream.

After that we visited regularly, exchanged Christmas gifts on Christmas eves, when no romantic should be alone. She gave Katie art lessons one summer, and though she didn't know it, I took lessons just in listening - her soft voice did indeed dance.

For she was a teacher of incredible gifts, a talented artist, a voracious reader and learner, a student of nature and human nature, and perhaps best of all - a wonderful storyteller.

She spoke of her days as the only female student of education administration at Iowa State Teachers College, her time as one of the first women principals at a major school in Iowa.

The worst, most troubled children, she took on herself. "Usually a booster was all they needed. The desire to learn is inside them already," she said.

She was great friends with Sister Nyla, who ran the parochial school across the way. Berneta would call Nyla - "What's going on over there?"

The nun would answer, "Oh, they're just hanging from the rafters today!"

All these years later, she still laughed at that memory, and it sounded like music.

As a prolific painter, she spoke of light and shadow in lilting tones than made you wish for a canvas and brush in your hands.

There was always an easel in her living room, the small dog running about between its legs, a half finished mallard in repose awaiting only time and imagination to take feather.

She is one of those who appreciated the things the rest of us are too busy to see - the peculiar way the morning sunlight flows off the water just a stone's throw away, the poetry in the pattern of bark across a tree's limbs.

She gave an artist's pad to my daughter one year - again, the perfect gift from one romantic to the next.

On the cover, it said this:

"Katie, draw, draw, draw!"

And she did. There was a bit of open space on the refrigerator in a certain log house that was just crying out for a child's free-form scrawling, after all.

Baseball and romantics go together naturally too. It must be something about the impossible green of the outfield, spreading out and going on without limits, without a timeclock, without being over, as Yogi Berra said, until it is over.

Grandma Dunham weaved a story of grandson's first home run for Storm Lake High School with dramatics that put "Casey at the Bat" to absolute shame. As she told it, you had to squint your eyes against the sun and you could smell the oily leather of the gloves.

One Christmas, she told the kids of seeing the flock of Canada geese rise off the lake and into the air for a migration.

One wounded goose was left behind. As she watched, one big goose cut out of its place on in the "flying V" and settled next to the injured bird, and there they stayed, side-by-side.

"You see, geese fall in love for life. She was too hurt or too weak to go, and he tried to leave, as every instinct told him to, but he couldn't go on without her."

She weaved on. "I worried they wouldn't make it. But he cared for her, and shared his strength with her, I think, and then one day they were gone. They had made it the only way they could have - together."

I saw my little girl wipe at her eyes with a sleeve. Must get dusty in a log house, hey, Katie?

Romantic don't just love nature - they require it, as surely as oxygen.

"Iowa is a very romantic and mystical place," our writer Waller says. "It takes a little more perspective to see the beauty of Iowa..."

But most people are not romantics, Waller points out in his writing.

"They once were, or had the chance to be, but romance got lost along the way, drowned in the roar of our times, beat out by overly anylitic teachers, drummed out by those who scoff at romance as as foolish and weak. In those people, romance looked around and said, "I'm not living here; it's too cold."

That's okay, you can still find it if you look hard enough. Our family shared a little of it with a special lady in a house of logs, and I am forever thankful that a 2-year-old pointed us in the right direction.

I'm going to miss Grandma Dunham dearly, but she has touched so many people so kindly, that the romance isn't about to end now.

I guess what I'm trying to tell you is this. Our obit page doesn't tell it all. Look for a little romance in life. And when you find it, tell them that the Lady of the Logs sent you looking.

* Dana Larsen can be reached at dlarsen@ stormlakepilottribune.com