JENNIFER JACKSON’S PORT TOWNSEND NEIGHBOR COLUMN: Wait for ferry helps form lines of poem

TWO SUMMERS AGO, Diane Belmont was returning home to Everett after visiting her mother, Alice Albert, in Port Townsend.

Belmont had taken the ferry across to Keystone and, driving down Whidbey Island, got in line for the ferry to Mukilteo.

During the wait, which turned out to be two hours, she looked up at the bluff, the blackberry bushes and madrones standing out against the sky.

The images of sky, trees and sea gulls wheeled in her mind and started settling into lines of poetry, which she wrote down.

Titled “Peninsula Paradise,” the poem evokes the same response from every Pacific Northwesterner who hears it, she said: It’s their home ground.

“People I have shared it with say it reminds them of Port Townsend to a T,” Belmont said.

Belmont, 56, is a 1974 Chimacum High School graduate who has always composed songs and poems for fun but since the new year has started to think about writing as a career.

Her literary talents are broad, ranging from a novel idea for a literary mystery to lyrics for country ballads.

The latter is something her grandmother, Merlyn Albert, predicted.

“She always told me I would write my life story in song,” Belmont said.

Merlyn taught writing classes through Peninsula College during the 1970s that were designed to help people write their life stories for their grandchildren.

Belmont remembers her grandmother’s use of file cards, recommending to her students that they write down one idea per card to jog their memories.

Belmont, who sat in on the class at the Tri-Area Community Center in Chimacum, remembers one woman who wrote about raising a family in a log cabin.

In the story, the woman describes sitting in a rocking chair nursing a baby and seeing a rat running across the rafters. She picks up a pistol and shoots it dead.

Sights and smells

Belmont used what she learned in the class to write “Peninsula Paradise,” incorporating the sights and smells of a summer day: the peeling bark of madrone trees, the heavy scent of the ocean, the jasmine, honeysuckle and evergreens.

“My grandmother taught me that: how to capture smells,” she said.

Belmont also has plenty of visual memories to draw on.

She arrived on the North Olympic Peninsula in 1967 on a Greyhound bus with her mother, three younger brothers and a little sister still in diapers. Also on the bus were 55 boxes containing the family’s possessions.

All were deposited at Shine, near the Hood Canal Bridge, where Belmont’s grandparents owned 12 acres with waterfront and a creek.

That first summer, Diane and her siblings camped out in an apple orchard on the property. The boxes were protected by a tent donated by neighbors.

They slept under tarps strung over twine or under the stars, and her mother cooked in a cast-iron skillet over an open fire.

“I call my mother the last of the pioneer women,” Belmont recalled.

The neighbors, Peggy and Neil Stark, had the family over Saturday nights for chowder and weekly baths.

That fall, the family moved into a large Victorian house on E Street near the high school in Port Townsend, and Belmont started junior high at Mountain View.

Her first attempt at composing was “Frogs and Elephants,” a children’s song she made up for her little sisters.

After Belmont’s grandparents retired and moved to the Shine property, Belmont and her brothers, Danny, Dana and David; and little sisters, Desiree and Daphne, spent many happy days there.

“My grandmother called us ‘Dear’ and ‘Darling’ so she didn’t have to remember our names,” Belmont said.

Her grandmother would also pick the children up in her station wagon — probably to give her mother a break — and they’d drive into the country, choosing roads just to see where they went, Belmont said.

They sang as they rode along. The children grew up singing, Belmont said, including songs around the campfire on the beach.

“The family song was ‘You are My Sunshine,’” Belmont said.

‘Alice at the Palace’

Alice, who lives in a Port Townsend apartment, plays the piano and taught Belmont to play the guitar after they moved to Port Townsend.

Alice used to work at the Palace Hotel, Belmont said, where she was known as “Alice at the Palace.”

When a fundraising campaign was started to buy trees for the downtown sidewalks (which have been removed because of the new sidewalks), her mother was not shy about going around to business owners and asking for donations, Belmont said.

She is also natural ­storyteller, Belmont said.

“One time on a ferryboat, she was telling a joke to the people at her table, and by the time she was done, she was standing up, and the whole room was listening.

“My dad used to say, ‘Alice, you need to put it on the stage.’”

Belmont was born in a converted attic apartment in Hollywood, Calif., to the accompaniment of “Ave Maria” on the record player.

Her father, Charles Albert, was an actor and drama coach who taught the cast of “Petticoat Junction” to speak in a Southern dialect.

In addition to theater work, Charles was the stand-in for Lloyd Bridges on “Sea Hunt” — that’s his head in shots where the character is not facing the camera — and the stand-in character known as Mushy, the cook’s assistant, on “Rawhide.”

“When we’d go camping, he’d do his Mushy impersonation, flipping pancakes,” Belmont said.

Her parents divorced when she was 7, and after her mother remarried, the family moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., and then the Olympic Peninsula.

Her father stayed in California and after inheriting a neighbor’s library, opened a bookstore, The Silent Bell, in Mount Shasta, where Belmont worked in the summer.

Her father died eight years ago, and his ashes were scattered on property the family owns on Mount Shasta.

“My mother gave me a love of reading, but my father gave me a love of books,” Belmont said.

Each child inherited books from their father: For Belmont, it was a set of Dickens. But it was Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 19th-century novels by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, that inspired her to write a mystery novel about the Brontë family.

It wasn’t something she planned.

Woke to book ‘popping into my head’

“I woke up one morning with 40 percent of the book popping into my head,” she said. “I started writing it down.”

Divorced with five sons, Belmont, who currently works for a satellite television company, also started writing poetry and is dusting off country songs she has written.

One, a waltz called “Dancing with the Man of My Dreams,” is about a dream her grandmother had after her husband died that he had walked into the room and asked her to dance.

“She fell out of bed thinking she was getting up to waltz with him,” Belmont said.

Belmont has her own dream: to go to England to visit the Brontës’ home, Haworth Hall, to round out her research for the novel.

She also dreams of having her music recorded and of publishing her poems to pass along memories of childhood, including waking up in an apple orchard on a summer day.

“We lived on the beach, and built forts and rafts,” she said. “We were pirates. We were hillbillies.

“It was the best summer of my life.”

Here is the poem she wrote that day while waiting for the ferry:

Peninsula Paradise

by Diane Belmont

Watching the grasses

blow in the wind

near blackberry vines

taking over again.

With morning glories

waking up

every little buttercup.

Poppies scattered on the hill

make me long to go there still.

The peeling bark

on madrone trees,

the heavy scent

of the ocean breeze,

rhododendrons and evergreens.

Our paradise is made of these.

Bachelor buttons

on a lonely hill

make way for the

yellow daffodil.

Jasmine and honeysuckle

in the air

just make me want to go back there.

Hydrangeas changing

from pink to blue

seem to be whispering

“I love you.”

The flowering cherry

and plum in bloom

welcoming every

bridge and groom.

The gulls that croon

incessantly,

even they keep calling me.

Where doe and fawn

have the right of way,

it’s such a lovely place to stay.

With ferries gliding

back and forth,

let’s take a stroll

out on the wharf

The mountains cascading all around.

Our piece of heaven on Puget Sound.

________

Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County every Wednesday. To contact her with items for this column, phone 360-379-5688 or email jjackson@olypen.com.

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