In Search of the Owl—A Memoir
by Jean Sidinger
Poetry ~ Narrative ~ Journal ~ 274 pages
Publisher: Silver Sage
To Order: Amazon.com
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
“Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die
young.” If I were to select one phrase that epitomizes Jean Sidinger’s memoir,
In Search of the Owl, this quote would be my choice hands down. The
quotation, credited to Benjamin Franklin, succinctly summarizes the life of
Jean’s father, Levi L. Mohler. Subtitled, “A father’s death begins a quest for a
deeper understanding of life,” In Search of the Owl, invites readers to join the
author on a year-long journey to think deeply about life and death.
Style and Organization
Sidinger writes in a lucid, engaging style that held my attention from the
opening line of the prologue to the end. Owl is organized into five major
sections: “Time of Death: Spring”; “A Surreal Summer”; “Finally, Fall”;
“Winter Awakenings”; and “The Second Spring.” This simple sequential
outline works in concert with the brief 1-to-2-page narratives which comprise
the body of the book. Functioning like prose poems, they open windows
revealing the author’s heart. Interspersed throughout the work are handwritten
journal entries which are easy to read because of the beautiful script typeface
chosen for these entries. An accomplished artist, Jean enhances her story with
graphite and ink creations judiciously placed throughout.
This seasonal sequencing is a perfect fit for Jean’s memoir in that Levi was
intimately acquainted with virtually all aspects of the natural world. A
credentialled ornithologist, Levi took great joy in observing and making
interesting notes about the coloration, migratory habits, songs, and history of
birds. Little wonder, to my mind, that the “Owl” becomes a coalescing symbol
throughout Jean’s quest. This “natural world” legacy, lovingly bestowed by
father to daughter, is a key to understanding two lives that were and continue to
be intimately connected.
Journey from Life to Death to Life
Recently, a death occurred in my family. It appeared to me that family mem-
bers could not get my stepmother into the ground fast enough. There was a rush
to get the whole thing “over with” and move on as quickly as possible.
Message: death is an annoyance, a mere comma in a sentence, a temporary
interruption to one’s preferred routines.
Jean Sidinger would have none of this! What stands out to me is Jean’s
tenacious mission to learn, to truly learn and grow because of her loss.
Levi had been in robust health most of his 94 years. However, Jean became
alarmed when talking with him on the phone. His voice was raspy; his
breathing labored as they talked. Diagnosis: pneumonia. Soon thereafter, her
dad was hospitalized. On day three of Levi’s hospital stay, he suffered a severe
heart attack, this came on the heels of noticeable improvement otherwise.
An important feature of Jean’s writing is the details she weaves in and through
her work. One such detail concerns a question Levi posed to Jean following his
heart attack: “Do you and Lois (Jean’s sister) and Robert (Jean’s brother) still
need me?” Jean goes on to state, “This is the most difficult question I ever
encountered.” Later her dad posed another question, which seems odd on its
face: “Do you have good tires on your car?” Later Jean would muse about this.
Good tires? Yes, her parents’ commonsense values prepared her for life: get
enough sleep, eat right, honor nature, live within one’s means. All of these, in a
sense, were the “good tires” that supported her life-journey. At this critical
juncture in his life, her loving father could think only of her welfare.
Her dad would pass on April 3, at the very point in nature where everything
comes to life. In the season of resurrection, Jean found herself making plans to
honor her father’s life and bury him. The irony was not lost on Jean.
In Search of the Owl
I found a moving entry in Jean’s handwritten journal entitled, “Today I Buried
My Dad.” In it she describes her feelings amid convulsive sobbing as she said
her last goodbyes, viewing Levi’s body for the last time. I lingered with her words.
Within this framework of love, loss, irony, and grief, I came to understand that
Jean feels everything more deeply than most people. This is essential for the
artist. Only the deeply wounded are equipped to offer healing and hope to
others. This is what artists do; this is what poets and loving children do.
Enter the owl. Owls are often associated with wisdom, endurance, regal silence,
connection, and clarity of vision. Jean describes serendipitous sightings of owls
as she moves through the darkness following her dad’s death. The owl became
a sustaining metaphor in her quest to learn and grow. I enjoyed wondering
about the owl as I read. Was Jean’s search for the owl a literal search which
would end in finding an owl? Or was the owl representative of something else,
some need or yearning residing deep in her soul?
Such questions justified, for me, many rewarding hours of reading. For
example, Jean noticed, “tiny wonders” often overlooked before: The “jigsaw
patterning of the bark of the ponderosa pine,” the “early blooms on maple
trees,” the “gentle beauty of a pastel sunset.” Gifts from her father’s intense
love of life and the natural world.
Over time, days melted into weeks, weeks into months, the months representing
the seasonal procession of birth, fruition, maturation and finally harvest.
From Death to Life … Again
As I followed Jean Sidinger’s year-long journey through the seasons of her
grief (often with many tears), I was moved by the gentle closure she brings to
this memoir. I’m betting that her readers will be equally rewarded as well. And,
as a friendly tip, place a box of tissues near your reading stand.