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Little Shrines

March 7th, 2013

My sister, Buffy, and I have managed to pare down the items left behind by our parents after they left this earth, and any need they may ever have had for the things that still remain. Buffy and I were resolute about donating, passing on, and discarding. But we found ourselves haunted by the most humble and homely of collections — the family “rag bag.”

It was an institution in our home when we were growing up, and my mother continued the practice of maintaining a collection of cleaning cloths salvaged from worn out towels and clothing — especially our dad’s old tee-shirts. Mom had even made a sturdy drawstring bag to hold the rags that survived for decades. When Buffy and I went to divide the contents of the rag bag, it seemed the frayed remains of our entire lives spilled out on the floor. Bits and pieces of old cotton blankets and summer shirts, towels from bathrooms in long ago houses, and shirts with mustard stains from picnics and fishing trips from a lifetime ago — they all lay wadded up before us. We sat on the floor and went through it all with as much tenderness as anybody visiting the shrine of their ancestors. After awhile, Buffy wiped her eyes with an old golf towel of Mom’s, and we went back to the task that lay before us.

Counting Candy

October 23rd, 2012

We used to trick or treat with the same seriousness exhibited by big game hunters. Instead of safari hats and guns, we sported rubber masks and flashlights.

We traded tips on which houses yielded the best treats, and which should be avoided as a waste of precious time. We had exactly two and a half hours every year — from 6 to 8:30 — to complete our quest. The ultimate goal was a full pillow case of Halloween candy each, but few ever achieved that ideal without help from a cheating grandmother.

It was still the day of homemade cookies and popcorn balls —  which were delicious but posed a problem in the bottom of a bag. The choice was usually to eat them as we worked, and work it was. Apples survived fine on the bottom of the pile of accumulated candy, but we avoided collecting too many of them because of the weight factor.

When we finally made the rounds of the neighborhood, ringing doorbells and enduring the questioning of what we were “supposed to be,” we returned to our separate houses. My sister and I rendez-voused in our bedroom and locked the door. Like pirates with treasure, we spread out our loot and began the counting process. The total haul was broken down into apples, cookies, coins, and candy. We then divided the candy up into keep, trade, and give to Dad. Dad got anything resembling licorice, Necco wafers, and raspberry filled. Buffy also passed her coconut items to him, although I kept mine. We both anted up some Snickers for him because he liked them, but we held out on the Milky Ways.

Then came the matter of finding a place to hide everything. If we planned our location carefully and rationed, we could make supplies last past Christmas and going to Valentine’s Day — although Dad sometimes threw off our schedule by bargaining for candy. And Mom would occasionally try to trick us by offering to store a portion in the freezer where it would be “safe.”

Rethinking My Dad

October 6th, 2012

My dad never expected to live to be as old as I am now, and I don’t think he was completely prepared for it. When he actually outlived my mother — for whom he had prepared for every possibility when she was “left alone” — he grudgingly put in two more years on this planet, and then checked out with the eagerness of one boarding a cruise ship for blue waters.

I loved him ferociously when I was young, and fought with him quietly but intensely for decades after that — but we had forged an agreement during his final years, and for that I am grateful. However, I am just beginning to understand him, and I can’t talk to him directly about what I have figured out.

It was a series of old photos that my sister forwarded to me that hit me like lightning. They were of my dad in New Guinea during World War II, picking his way across some old boards that had been placed over the mud. He was shirtless, half-smiling, and years younger than my children are now. He was also a Mormon kid from Missouri who had just graduated with an English degree and had faked the eye exam so he could enlist in the Navy. He had managed to convince the recruiter that it didn’t matter that he couldn’t swim (a result of polio and a broken back as a child), and that he was okay with going down with the ship should the occasion arise. He also didn’t want to carry a gun because he hated them, so they never made him do so since he was a medic and he was able to lug around an extra first aid kit with his gun-free hand.

He had been raised by a Welsh family of mostly women so repressed and so repressing that their collective consciousness must have seemed like wet wool to his finely honed and sensitive intellect. His father, my grandfather Jody after whom I am named, was a whimsical, sweet, brilliant man who simply accepted life and dealt with it, fair or not. My father struggled against it every step of the way, and questioned every nuance, every omen, every shadow.

In the photos in New Guinea, he must be about 24 or so. He’s not much more than the boy who rode the train off to college, who never learned to drive until he had to get behind the wheel of a truck in the jungle, and who worshipped my mother. In her he found his one great stroke of luck in that she loved him without ceasing every moment of her life. Her words of advice to me one time when I asked why-why-why were, “Why does it matter? Just try to love him. Then you might understand how it is with him.”

I looked at the way his head was lowered in the old pictures, how his eyes were twinkling, and realized that he was happy on some level to be doing something about the war and the wounded. And this realization was made even more remarkable by the fact that he almost never talked about the war later on, almost never mentioned what he had seen and what he had been forced to do.

There are some stories that he told — about direct transfusions into one horribly wounded sailor of his own blood, and that he had hoped he would know when to stop. The sailor had lived — in fact, they both had. He talked about the complications of trying to dispose of corpses in the tropics, and of skin diseases and malformed babies being delivered in huts. He had been there for all of this — the Mormon kid who had been rendered speechless at the glimpse of the back of a woman’s knee. And then it was over, and all of those boys who weren’t maimed or killed were told to go home and go back to living their lives. How could that ever have been possible again?

A few years ago, my sister and I found a name for what we had always suspected had haunted him. Post traumatic stress disorder. It was both a relief to have a name for the odd little circus of eccentricities that our father sometimes displayed. But it was also frustrating, because he had already escaped this little planet to get to wherever my mother had saved him a seat on the cruise ship.

And now the great blue ocean stretches out before me, and for all of us.

The Country Club Set and Reset

September 19th, 2012

Among the artifacts in my past life there are several entities I seldom examine any more: music lessons and dancing school, tennis and golf instruction, a private university and a sorority, and a country club.

My memories of the country club are mingled with memories of my parents’ genuine enjoyment having dinner with my sister and me. We ordered freely off of menus with no printed prices as we spoke softly to the waiters who seemed to hover as they observed every nuance of our body language to anticipate what we might want. More water, another roll, extra butter, coffee?

The ladies’ room was chapel-like with its flowers and candles, and the muted light through the stained glass window. Towels were rolled in what could have substituted for offering baskets, and the little individual soaps were used once, and discarded. The simple truth of body functions being attended to in that setting was alluded to only by the presence of tampons in an opaque box that could have held chocolates, and the row of toilet closets that were each enclosed by a carved door with a brass handle.

It was all very polite, and filled with small ceremonies and protocols that we absorbed more than were taught.

I remember all these things because I am relieved that my life — although messy and unconventional at times — has taken me far past the cloistered walls of “the club,” and its rhythms. I married into that demographic once decades ago, and it was a mistake that I did not repeat.

Perhaps it was the early collapse of my reluctant hold on “the finer things in life” that set me free from inlaws who measured their lives in Waterford and Wallace Grande Baroque and summer afternoons spent poolside, courtside, and what ultimately could have been suicide. I haven’t attended a formal dance or tea in years, although I still remember the rubrics of receiving lines and tea tables. I no longer own a tennis racket or golf clubs, or a bathing suit that could be worn without apology in public.

Groucho Marx is credited with saying, ” I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

I realize that we once belonged to a club that would never accept me as a member today. And somehow I am encouraged by that.

Susie’s O’Dell’s Basement

July 30th, 2012

She was everything I wanted to be in 1957 in the second grade. The only girl and the youngest child in a small-town Illinois family, Susie O’Dell had it all. The dresses with the matching stiff slips that kept her in a perpetual ballerina state, the lace-edged anklets, the little purses. But mostly, it was the hair. Waist-length and elaborately sausage-curled, she was unforgettable on Sunday mornings at church. Oh, I had hair. And lots of it. But my mother kept mine in two straight braids, as precise as rulers. Susie’s was a weekly celebration of all things adorable.

I finally asked my mother if she could do my hair like Susie’s. She said, “Honey, her mother did hair and nails and has a full set-up in the basement. Chairs, dryer, everything. She was a professional.”

The next week at Joyful Jesus Juniors, I asked Susie O’Dell about what my mother had told me. “My mom says your mom did hair and nails.”

Susie smoothed her (new) skirt with the poodle applique and the rhinestone studded embroidered leash that embellished the hem. “She still does mine. We spend Saturday afternoon getting ready for Sunday. She has everything set up in the basement just for me. It’s all painted pink, and I have my own special seat.”

“You spend all Saturday afternoon?”

“Yes.”

I thought that one over for awhile. As much as I would have liked to wear my own hair to my waist in ringlets, I also enjoyed going to the Saturday matinee with my little sister. My mother would drop us off while she went shopping and pick us up after the cartoon festival was over a couple of hours later. I would hate to miss that because I was sitting under a dryer with my hair in curlers.

And sometimes in the summer on Saturday afternoons if we weren’t at the pool at the park or riding our bikes, we got to walk around the corner to the Dairy Belle and get an ice cream cone. I sure didn’t want to give that up, either.

But the thought of a pink kingdom dedicated to me in the basement also kept my imagination going for a few days. I knew my dad wouldn’t let me wear even the pale pink polish that Susie did, except perhaps on my toes — but I didn’t really care about that. I just wanted to experience the bouncing of waist-length ringlets.

Later that summer, I told my grandmother about Susie O’Dell and her pink chair in her mother’s basement. So my grandmother took some rags, and rolled my hair onto them after I washed it. By the time it all dried almost 24 hours later, I was wild with boredom and frustration. However, my grandmother made ringlets, and I bounced around the house for a few hours until I could stand it no longer.

I came to her and said, “It itches.”

So, she braided my hair most of the way, except for about eight inches or so, which she left in curls. “There,” she said. “That’s the way Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz wears hers for most of the movie.”

I went off to find my little sister, to see if she wanted to pretend to be a flying monkey while I ran and screamed.

An Orange

July 19th, 2012

To understand his death, it is helpful to recall his childhood trip to the department store Santa some 80 years before. His mother had taken him, and had been horrified that when Santa leaned down to little Alexander to ask what he wanted for Christmas, my eventual father had whispered just loudly for all the overdressed women in line to hear. “An orange.”

My grandmother, who despite the family’s modest circumstances managed to put an orange in a bowl in front of young son every morning, was livid. But he would explain decades later to me, his eventual child, is that he remembered that he loved his morning orange so much that he just wanted Christmas Day to be just like any other. So Dad’s answer to the Kansas City downtown Santa was basically a request to leave well enough alone. He already had what he liked, thank you.

I don’t think Tess, his mother, understood because she still bristled a half century later at the memory of the fur-wrapped matrons murmuring sympathetically to her child and glancing at her cloth coat with mild disdain. She always ended her recounting of the incident with the words. “An orange. He had an orange every day of his life.”

Some years ago, my then long-time father began the dying process deliberately, laying aside the medicine that forced his battered heart to beat. He was tired and lonely, and since my mother had gone on without him to wherever it is that we go from here, he was determined to follow her as quickly as possible. He began hiding his twice daily doses of medication in his bathroom pocket to flush down the toilet until my sister and I told him knew what we was doing and we promised we wouldn’t stop him. He thanked us for our understanding, and we alerted his nurse that he no longer wanted anything other than something to soften the pain of his failing heart. Quietly and simply we had arrived at a plan, and most of his remaining days and their abbreviated routine were kept as ordinary as possible. A hospice nurse joined the circle, and we continued to move through the familiar rituals of living.

Dad’s mind remained engaged, but his body faltered quickly. He put his shoes away, and placed his slippers (now cut on the sides to accommodate his swelling feet) within easy reach. He was never again in street clothes until he was dressed for the last time in his good suit and tie.

The last time I ever saw him sitting upright was less than two days before he died. He was settled in his easy chair, his slippers on the floor and his feet propped up on a little footstool. He was rubbing them together lightly the way he always did when he read something interesting. I noticed that it was a copy of The Smithsonian that had arrived in the mail that day that engaged his attention.

He was simply proceeding with his evening, however it intended to go. He had paid bills at his desk, had a bit of supper, clicked through the news channels on his television, and settled on a magazine article about a remote part of the world that he would never see.

It was absolutely his regular routine. Nothing more  — and more to the point – nothing less. An orange in a bowl. He had seen no reason to change a thing.

I kissed the thin spot in his hair on top of his head, and let myself out the front door.

 

 

Ceremonies

June 20th, 2012

We hit the milestone of 32 years of marriage, and wondered how that much time could possibly have gone by. I suppose any couple that has been married more years than they were old when they put on their rings wonders that.

Our wedding was a very simple civil ceremony, held quietly in my parents’ back yard in rural Indiana and witnessed by a circle of short relatives (my side), and David’s wonderfully quirky and enigmatic (and tall) mother. It was a second signing of a license for me, and the prevailing custom at the time was to keep things on the discreet side for an encore bride. The county judge lived next door, so he hopped the rows in the vegetable garden as he fastened his robe, and we all took our positions in front of the rose trellis and under the locust trees. (Every photo taken that day reveals that the family cat and dog were also in attendance, although my nervous father had tried to corral them.)

Afterwards, David and I left in my parents’ second car for a short stay honeymoon, and as we made our way through the Indiana summer countryside, we encountered another wedding just finishing up in a tiny little church in a tiny little town somewhere between Danville and Springmill State Park. Because the guests had parked across the road in the ancillary church parking lot, we just pulled over and let everybody spill down the steps of the church and into the road so they could throw their rice and send off the smiling couple.

Later when we pulled into the parking lot at the inn, we left our car next to three others that had wedding clothes hanging inside, and rice in the window tracks. David and I would try to spot the other new couples in the dining room or on the hiking trails, but were never sure who they might me.

I have often wondered how everybody fared — the ones who shared our anniversary date of June 14, 1980. Statistics would say that half of the couples are uncoupled and probably don’t bother looking back at that summer Saturday. But I am grateful that we have made it this far, although the odds would have seemed to have been stacked against it had we paid any attention to predictions and somebody else’s math.

There is a photo I took of David early on Sunday morning, June 15, 1980. He is sipping a cup of coffee on his first day of marriage and is getting ready to tell me something. He is young, his ring is shining, and so are his eyes. Now every day when he picks up his coffee cup and gets ready to expound on his first topic of interest for the day, I remember the bridegroom. And I try to celebrate one more little ceremony — that of the day beginning again, whatever it happens to be.

A Second Look

June 15th, 2012

Recently my sister, Buffy, sorted through a box of old old pictures and came upon one taken of our aunt, Imy, in about 1924 on the day she graduated from high school. She is dark-haired and serious in the photo, wearing her cap and gown in the same pose that every graduate seems to assume. What sets this photo apart is that when Buffy took another look at it she noticed a little figure in the shadows that she hadn’t seen before, despite having looked at the photo dozens of times over the years.

When she enlarged the photo, an image of our mother, Betty, became clear. She is less than three years old (she and Imy were more than 15 years apart in age), and she is digging in her sand box. Her face is in profile, and she is clearly working very diligently with her little shovel.

I find the photo haunting because I know the expression on her face, and saw it many times on the grown-up version of Betty. To see it, you had to catch her unaware because if she knew you were watching her, she would turn and smile or make a joke. To catch her in a deeper moment, you had to sneak up on her. And both Buffy and I caught on early that our mother’s thoughts went to a place that only she could reach regardless of how skillfully we tiptoed up in back of her.

I have many pictures of our mother taken throughout her rather remarkable life. They range from standard grin-and-grabs of her accepting awards or congratulations, to photos of her holding up strings of fish, little dogs, or new babies. My own personal favorite of her is a candid one that she hated that was taken decades ago. She is at a national convention wearing a teddy bear costume complete with ears and a red neck bow, and she is trying  to smoke a cigarette without being noticed.

But the unnoticed baby in the sand box in the shadows that my sister rediscovered quite by accident is truly my mother — our mother — and it breaks my heart but I don’t know why. If I could, I would like to warn her of something, although I’m not sure what.

I can chant the litany now of what heartbreaks she herself would encounter later on, including some that I brought home and shared. But I also know that she survived, as did we all.

So I look at the baby in the sand box. If I watch long enough, I imagine I can see her hand begin to descend as she fills the shovel one more time and continues to dig where we can’t see.

Killer Commentary

June 14th, 2012

At one time in my youth, I became a military wife. The day I was issued an ID so I could get past the guards and onto the base, I was also handed a booklet about what was and was not considered to be acceptable behavior on the part of a spouse or dependent. The instructions made it very clear that there was no room for open criticism, profanity, and derision when referring to the President of the United States. He was, quite simply, the highest ranking officer. Respecting his position as such was not an option. Courtesy was mandated.

The times were turbulent, participation in the military was quite often not voluntary — but breaks in protocol were amazingly few. I managed to avoid any direct conflicts with the powers that were, despite my own questions about what I believed to be going on during the unpopular war that was being fought (and lost).

Some years later, I was preparing to become certified as an adoptive parent. At a parenting education class required by the state to become licensed, I was given another little booklet that described chronic insults and verbal sparring as being the gateway to actual verbal abuse. And verbal abuse as being the first step towards physical abuse. I was impressed by the logic, and although 30 years have passed, I still remember much of what I read in that handout and believe that it is perhaps even more pertinent today. As a society, we treat each other rather miserably. And I believe that much of it boils down to not being required to maintain even the most fundamental postures of courtesy and consideration.

I believe that reality television shows, with their ever-escalating displays of outrageous rudeness and verbal attack, are becoming accepted by some people as freedom of expression. In the meantime, we struggle over the most politically correct way to describe everything from ethnic groups to agriculture without ruffling anybody’s litigious pinfeathers. What is seen on television is often accepted as “the way it is,” and even Jerry Springer has commented that what began on his show as almost satire has morphed into a culture all its own.

As appalled as I am by child abuse, I can’t help but wonder if the grandfather from Indiana who almost killed his grandsons by forcing them to hike the Grand Canyon in the heat wasn’t trying to emulate the so-called “fitness boot camp directors” that scream orders at sweating and weeping victims on almost every channel during prime time viewing.

The grandfather, who was rightly convicted of child abuse charges of the most serious kind, is facing up to life in prison. The reality show sadists are being paid handsomely for their conduct.

How can we teach young people to NOT tolerate verbal assaults from a partner or spouse, then encourage them to absorb (even indirectly) insults and scathing criticism from judges on dance and performance competitions, chefs on cooking competitions, dance school directors and child beauty pageant judges, and political figures trying to make their points with potential voters?

The last line of the pamphlet that I was given along with my military-issued ID said quite simply: “Respectful conduct is our tradition.”

Small Exorcism

June 7th, 2012

“The Welsh are dark.”

That phrase has been spoken and followed by knowing nods in our family — when there were still heads to nod — for many years. My father’s mother, our paternal grandmother, had dimmed the light in her eyes by the time my sister and I were really aware of her. Her thoughts were her own, and her logic was so convoluted that eventually we who were her grandchildren made no attempt to carry on a true conversation with her

Tess had been beautiful at one time, and our grandfather had waited through a 13-year engagement before she finally married him. The theory held closely by some relatives was that she had delayed until she thought there wouldn’t be any children as a result of their union, but our father was born nine months to the day after her wedding. And then our uncle came a few years later.

The Welsh are dark, indeed. Our grandfather’s family was both Welsh and in the dark. Slate miners who made their way from Wales, they had settled in Missouri to mine coal. Our grandfather was born with physical deformities, but tried to mine anyway as a boy. When he was badly mangled in an accident, his parents let him go to school so he would have something to do. Eventually he ended up working in a bank as a clerk in Independence. He met our grandmother, decided she was the one for him, and endured what couldn’t be changed until she was ready to marry him.

But Tess was ashamed of them and their existence, every bit of it. And her desire for the better things in life for her sons translated into secrecy about the past — even the recent past. She would speak with bitterness and regret, but never affection. As a teenager, I had never seen the little farm where her family had ended up, even though it was just a few miles from where she had raised her own family.

One year when I was about 16, we visited our grandmother at Easter. Our father insisted that we take a ride in the country after the main choir service at 11. All the women in the car kept their hats on, and I tried not to bump the fabric flowers on the window as I watched the scenery slide past. I didn’t recognize the route we were on, but didn’t think much about it until Tess broke her customary stony silence and became visibly upset. She said something underneath her breath to Dad, and Mom (who was sitting in the back seat with my sister and me) turned to us and and opened her eyes wide — which was her silent alarm signal. But Dad drove on and eventually said quietly, “Mom, I want my family to see where you grew up.”

We pulled onto a lane that went a short distance and ended at a tiny farm tucked back under trees that were just beginning to open their leaves. The little Victorian house and the out buildings were all painted white, and the buds were just starting to show on the grape arbor. Daffodils were up and in full bloom, and the forsythia was brilliant. My sister and I got out of the car, and took it all in. In the meantime, Tess stared straight ahead and gripped her cane, her eyes hard with anger.

But her mood was completely lost to us as we soaked in the spring afternoon and the storybook illustration of a farm. Suddenly, the car door opened, and one black lace-up shoe appeared, followed by a cane tip, then another black shoe. Tess emerged from the car, and pulled all five feet-something of herself upright. Uncharacteristically, Dad didn’t go to help her, but let her enter the scene on her own terms.

She looked around, then brushed off the front of her church dress and cleared her throat. She interrupted my sister’s and my oohing and ahhing by tipping her cane towards the house and saying, “That little porch was where I liked to sit in the evenings, especially in the summer.”

She pointed out the barn, the little chicken coop, and all the features she thought we should remember. Then she said, “Well, this has been an adventure. We had probably better go back  home and have dinner.”

Later my father would admit to our mother (who was sworn to secrecy but told us girls anyway) that Dad knew the little farm had been restored. The new owners had told him they would be away that day, but to go out and see how great the place looked.

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