BETWEEN THE LINES - The lady of the logs

Thursday, January 3, 2002

From time to time, I like to introduce you to some of the special people around us who tickle me.

You won't find the politicians and the movers and shakers here; frankly, they don't make that much of an impression.

I'm drawn toward the romantics, rare that they are these days.

What is a romantic? Heck, if you don't know, don't expect me to explain it. One of Iowa's best writers, Robert James Waller, once said this:

"Romance dances just beyond the firelight, in the corner of your eye. She does not like you to look at her directly; she flees 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..."

Most of the good music, art, literature and poetry we like comes from these few romantics, although you can also surely find musicians, painters and writers who are in no way romantics.

So when you find one in a "log cabin" out on a rock street near Lakeside, it's a good find.

Of course, it isn't a cabin at all, but a very nice log home, the kind of thing that most practical people don't live in, which alone makes it a place of value in my book.

I first met "Grandma Dunham" while taking my then-2-year-old daughter out for Halloween.

To the practiced trick-or-treater, the log place was too far removed for maximum collection of sweets, and there was no sidewalk. Yet there is something undeniably luring about the logs, that maybe only romantics recognize. "Log cabin," my daughter said, pointing.

"No, look, lots of good houses over here," I argue.

"Log cabin," she repeated, forcefully, blue eyes flashing.

A kindly woman with steely hair but warm eyes opens the door. Before I know it, she and my little girl disappear, holding hands, exploring the "log cabin." A gentle ghost story and a Baby Ruth later, they are fast friends.

Next Halloween around, with a new little brother in tow, the "log cabin" is the one must on the Halloween tour. The woman remembers the little girl by name, and had a special treat waiting - a book with a special inscription to her.

Only a romantic would give, and happily receive, a book in place of candy.

Since then we've come to visit regularly, including Christmas Eve, when no romantic should ever be alone.

I must say, after several years of knowing her, I still couldn't tell you her first name. She seems comfortable enough with "Grandma," so Grandma it has been.

She speaks softly, but her voice does indeed dance.

There in the "log cabin," she is an educator and an artist, a student of nature and of human nature. And perhaps most of all, she is an extraordinary teller of stories - a true sign of the romantic.

She speaks lyrically of her days as the sole woman in the education administration program at Iowa State, and as one of the first women principals at a major school in Iowa. She would take the most troubled children aside herself. "Usually, a booster was all a child needed. The desire to learn is inside them already," she says.

She speaks warmly of her great friend, Sister Nyla who ran the parochial school across the way. "I loved her dearly. One day I called and asked what was going on over there, and she sighed, 'Oh, they are just hanging from rafters today!'" remembers the lady in the logs, laughing softly. The sister was sent to Chicago years ago and they lost touch, but not memories.

A prolific painter, she speaks of light and shadow in lilting tones that makes you wish for a brush and canvas in your hands.

She is one of those who appreciates the things that the rest of us are too busy to see - the peculiar way the morning sunlight flows off the water and the poetry in the patterns of bark across a tree limb.

She gave an artist's pad to my daughter not long ago, again, a perfect gift between romantics.

"Katie, draw, draw, draw!" it said on the cover.

My daughter grins. And draws. There is a bit of a place on the fridge in the log cabin that is just crying out for a child's unencumbered sketching, after all.

Grandma Dunham weaves a tale of her grandson's first home run for Storm Lake High School that puts "Casey at the Bat" to absolute shame. Baseball and romantics go together as nicely as the leathery smell of a ball glove and the soft feel of an impossibly emerald outfield.

This Christmas, she told us of a story she had seen unfold on the lake. She had watched a wounded Canada goose left behind on the lake as the flock had left. Soon, a big goose cut out of its place on the flying V, and for the next few days, there were two, side by side, alone on the water.

"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 without her," she says. "I worried that they wouldn't make it. But he cared for her, and shared his strength with her, I think, and then finally, one day, they both were gone. They had made it the only way they could - together."

I think I saw my little girl swipe at her eyes with a sleeve just then. Must get dusty in a log cabin, huh?

Romantics don't just love nature, they require it as surely as oxygen and water.

"Iowa is a very romantic, mystical place," the poet Waller says. "It takes a little more perspective to see the beauty of Iowa... she lies there, on hot June days, like a woman in the sun, while romance splashes around where the Winnebago runs to kiss the Shell Rock..."

Most people are not romantics, Waller says 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 analytic teachers, drummed out by those who scoff at romance as foolish

and weak. In those people, romance looked around and said, 'I'm not living here; it's too cold.'"

That's okay, there are still places to find it. For our family, the "log cabin" has been one.

I'm thankful for the whim of a 2-year-old that pointed us in the direction of a woman who has been a treasure to those lucky enough to know her. A true romantic lives in those logs.