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The Distance

6 Oct

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“It isn’t what’s left to do at the end, it’s the things left unfinished along the way.”                                                     — Deadwood, by Pete Dexter

Driving in darkness, I hug the road as it rises and falls through the night.  We plunge downward and as trees blow past, I am in a mountain pass, my mind creating walls that can’t possibly exist, for this is Wisconsin, and surely we are surrounded by farmland.  But the road tells a different story.  Veering right, my headlights glare off the window of a small cabin before sweeping back to the asphalt, trees, and the staccato white line I desperately try to follow. Tired, I flash my brights whenever possible, scanning for those little bounces of light along the roadside.  Because the deer are out there, and tonight they’re feeling lucky.

*     *     *

When we were kids, my siblings and I would occasionally find mom face down on the laundry room floor.  Familiar with the situation, we would stand around her.

“Mom?  Mom?  We know you’re joking mom. Mom?  Come on, mom, get up.”

And still, she would remain motionless, to all appearances having suffered some sudden cardiac episode.  This would continue until someone’s voice took on an edge of panic, and then her body would begin to quiver, the movement growing ever more convulsive, until, finally, we’d realize she was laughing.  Releasing the sound as she got to her feet, she’d laugh so hard tears would come to her eyes.  And while down through the years this story has been met with universal horror, it’s always made me proud.  Even at a very young age, when it came to death, no babies we.

 *     *     *

Having eluded the deer, and found our hotel, we continue on the next morning, refreshed.  Unable to find a diner in downtown Janesville, we settle for a chain restaurant out by the highway, the kind of place where the portions are huge, but it seems they occasionally run soup through the coffee maker.

Chicago is Chicago.  Rain, road construction and the slow tide of humanity crawling down through the northwest suburbs, past the rusty overpasses and the neighborhoods of my youth.  Occasionally I miss it.  There’s no better place to make friends, and of course it gave me Amy.  But nevertheless, Chicago and I never warmed to each other.

Back on familiar ground, we fly.  The Skyway, Gary, and around the lake into Michigan.  That great gray swath of the world where the steel plants have been silenced but the smoke never seems to go away.  Cars, campers, exits and boats; a great world of motion that always seems to be going fishing.

And then we’re at Mom’s house.  A quick repacking, hiking boots and dirty clothes boxed up to be dropped in the mail, and off to the airport.  But even before I reach the counter, they tell me my flight has been canceled.  The storms, currently raging over Lake Michigan, have followed us all the way from South Dakota.  There will be no flight home tonight.

 *     *     *

When my father died I was not nearly so well prepared as I’d imagined.  It effected me in ways I still don’t understand.  I know it created a distance.  A safety zone, as it were, from the people I love.  My kids have chopped this down a bit by simply refusing to recognize it.  And Amy, trail-blazer that she is, has grown familiar with the terrain, and is willing to cross it when I cannot.  But my mom, my sister and my brothers are still out there, loved, but at the distance they were placed by a fourteen year old who could not bear another loss.  Each of us, in our ways, living these past 38 years with slowly mending hearts.

But we’re not alone.

From the unexpected death of Amy’s father, which started this journey, to friends along the way, and their stories of prairie wind, blinding snow, and the sudden loss of the people they’d thought to spend the rest of their lives with, we are not alone.  From the families of others, further back, buried beneath the mud of a collapsing dam, to the loved ones of those lost in the violence of a place and time that valued gold above human life, we are not alone.  And with the stories of a family who struggled, built a life, and died, leaving quiet houses, a few gravestones and the fields they worked, we are not alone.

*      *     *

You know when you drink a lot of coffee in the morning, and about an hour, hour and a half later you really need to go to the bathroom?  You know what that’s called?  Prostate cancer.  — Lesson from my mother

Our first days on the road, I was struck by her calm assurance.  Like a bird aloft in strong winds, her mind, of late, had seemed unable to settle and find rest.  But the woman beside me was different.  Seemingly free of worry, she was less a mother, and more a friend.  The comfort of her presence was palpable.  The ways in which we are alike, and the simple pleasures we share, brought days of quiet enjoyment.

But on our return the serenity slipped away.  When I pointed this out, she replied, “Well that’s normal.  To return home is to return to your worries.”  Which I understand, but can’t agree with.  Home is a refuge.  I struggle to make it so.  Where did I learn this if not from her?

*     *     *

It had rained, and the cabbie splashed along the quiet streets of my neighborhood.  He was chatty, which I enjoyed.  I love how easily people talk here.  If the best journeys bring you home, I was glad of his company these final few blocks.

He pulled up to the curb, and as I grabbed my bags I looked up at our house.  Not a worry in sight.

 *     *     *

A few weeks later, in response to something I posted on my wedding anniversary, my mother writes:  “I feel your love for each other when ever I am around you!”

Pleased, I think of Amy, and the gentle chaos that is our life; of Hallie, and the feeling I get when she sleeps across my chest, and of Heath, and how my love for him seems to never stop growing.   Then I write, “When it comes to love, I had two very good teachers.”  And, by just a bit, I feel the distance close.
Todd 4 folks 2

Kindred

24 Feb

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I sort of split 50-50 between thinking I’m a complete twat, and the other half thinks I’m fucking brilliant… — Gavin Clark

Gavin Clark died last week.  Sadly, until his death, I had no idea who he was.  I met him through Shane Meadows’ film, The Living Room.  Beginning like a goof between buddies, Shane visits Gavin’s home, catches him still waking up: messy kitchen, the familiar routine of trying to get organized after the kids are off to school.  With some prompting, Gavin begins to talk about the project they’re working on, a concert in his own living room, as a first step toward overcoming his fears as a performer.

Immediately endearing, it took me some time to realize that this sweet, struggling man is also brilliant, his singing surpassed only by his songwriting.  Messy kitchen, unpaid tax bill and all, his songs took me to places I have long neglected.  A gift from a stranger, a friend I had never met.

Later I found myself telling Heath, (who’s running for 6th grade student representative on a platform of extended electronics time, computer classes for the 6th grade, and an end to racial and sexual discrimination) that whenever he finds something exciting, something that sparks his imagination, he needs to hold on to it, because people will tell him it has no value, and that his focus needs to be on working hard and making money.  This will be a lie, I told him.  Those sparks are what we live for.  Those moments take us where we need to go.

That evening Hallie wrecked my desk. She was sly about it, waiting until I was outside shoveling snow, nothing but cuteness and good intentions when Amy came down to find her quietly drawing.  But once the coast was clear, she muscled the desk drawer off its runners and onto the bed, scattering notebooks, paper clips, pads, pens and highlighters everywhere.  When I found the mess she had made, Hallie was all innocence, and took my scolding with big brown eyes and a quivering lip.  “OK daddy,” she said, looking up at me with tear-stained cheeks, my noble, six-year-old, pony-tailed martyr.  And then she shuffled off down the hall, no doubt planning her next bit of destruction.

As I listened to her pad away, I gathered up the pens and paper, replaced the drawer, straightened my desk, and sat down for a few minutes.  I dug out the details for that new journal that was calling for submissions, ran through all the half-finished blog posts I’d been meaning to get to, and took another look at that short story that had started so well.  And I thought of my friend Mark, who drowned when we were six, and my best friend Randy, who I haven’t seen for forty years, and all the other people who were so important to me, and who I never see.  I wondered what they were doing, and if they ever thought of me.

And then I thought: I’m as adult as I want to be.

And I began to write.

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Rivers and Streams

6 Jun

 Waitresses

Britta Seaton, née Slaughterback, was born in 1888.  She lived in a little house in Lawrenceville, Illinois with a Mynah bird that could talk.  A small man with an outsize temper, her husband was both an alcoholic and a member of the Ku Klux Klan.  Her life could not have been easy.

Rebecca Bell came from Wales at the turn of the last century, building a life in a new country and raising a pack of boys in the process, one of whom married Merle Ball of Brazil, Indiana, turning her, as she always liked to say, from a Ball to a Bell.

Merle’s father was a section boss on the Indiana railroad.  He had beautiful handwriting, and he drank too much.  She left home at fifteen, taking with her a strain of bitterness that would run through the rest of her life.  The anger in her voice was undiminished as she described, eighty years on, standing in the cold outside the local tavern, waiting for her father, as man after man stepped outside to relieve himself in the snow.  She outlived her husband, she outlived her children, and as things unraveled she lost much of herself.  But she never lost that memory.

Gladys Seaton, daughter of Britta, also fled a drunken father, only to flee again from the abusive uncle who had taken her in.  The eventual mother to six daughters, she ran a string of diners and coffee shops.  She smoked like a chimney and drank coffee in much the same manner.  Born in 1909, she wrote a letter to her children and grandchildren on the night of the first moon landing in which she marveled at all she had seen.  Outgoing and vivacious, she never let the truth get in the way of a good story.  And in the end, even death couldn’t stop her.  A great believer in the afterlife, for a year or so after her passing she would occasionally appear as a shadow, a scent, or a bit of mischief-making, whether checking on her grand-babies, or teasing and terrifying the daughters she had left behind.

One of whom was Barbara “Bobby” Stressman.  A beautiful, playful woman, she started dating my father when she was fifteen, lost him when she was thirty-eight, and was left to raise four children alone.  She remarried, taking in her mother-in-law, Merle Bell, as well as her second husband’s grandson.  Her children grown, she continues to care for others.  It seems to be her mission.  She told me once that as a very young girl she was taken by friends to a revival meeting downtown, where, with a certainty belying her age, she walked down the aisle and accepted Jesus as her savior.  I’d never heard  that story before, but when I see her now, volunteering at the hospital, or caring for a dying friend, I can’t help but see that same little girl, all by herself, taking the first steps on a journey that would last a lifetime.

From these women came my daughter, who tomorrow turns six.

They are, of course, but one tributary, for flowing north out of Oklahoma and Texas comes another just as beautiful, and certainly just as strong.  But this is the stream I know, for it also flows through me.  And on this day it is good to remember that despite all the obstacles that have stood in its way, it continues to rise anew, cold and clean, bubbling forth in the early morning light.

 

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An Actress of Uncommon Stature

15 Nov

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The performance begins without prelude.

Quietly at first, as we await our breakfast, Hallie catches sight of herself in the mirror and begins to chatter, rapidly but softly, with an intense staccato that slowly builds as, with virtuosic restraint, she works her way, rung by rung, up to the emotional highwire where, finally, she releases all in a swooning crescendo, her arm sweeping the sky as she falls away in a blood curdling “Noooooooooooo!”  A brief pause follows, and then she strains against the straps of her booster chair to check her reflection. Pleased with the effect, and the attention she has drawn, she drops back into her seat, spent from the culminating moments of her five-year old Medea.

But wait! Gathering her energies, she takes a breath and begins again. Initially terse, she launches into a finely wrought internal monologue, a soliloquy of intent.   Passionate, yet controlled, my daughter is rapidly developing into an actress of uncommon stature, her brilliance taking us all by surprise. Certainly, genetics has played a role, but she is now far beyond any gifts inherited from Amy and I, and her talent is all her own.  As a result, in some instinctive fashion, she has gone back, far beyond the modern canon, beyond even Shakespeare, to the primal works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Not yet regal of bearing, she has, nonetheless, thrown down the gauntlet, challenging the great classical actresses of our time with her staggering combination of intensity, intimacy, and emotional commitment, all expressed with a banana-smeared face and only the rudiments of language.

For Hallie will speak in only the simplest of sentences.  Stubbornly refusing to use three words when one will do, she has expanded this approach into her own unique and rapidly developing oeuvre through which she proves, with each and every performance, that words are merely an adornment to great acting, a crutch for those who lack her artistic rigor and wide open heart.

Suddenly quiet, something shifts, and Hallie enters a different world. The intensity is still there, but it’s combined with a wry sense of amusement, a fatality which, in one so young, is both disturbing and mesmerizing. Could she possibly be…? Yes! She has moved on to Baby John, the youngest Jet in West Side Story! What am I witnessing here? Is she performing in back to back productions? Or has she interpolated the two plays, creating an extraordinary mash-up through which, with her loudly erratic personal rhythm and no sense of pitch whatsoever, she can deconstruct the American musical in a manner that challenges the very boundaries of theatrical convention?

The food arrives and Hallie settles in, glancing across to the mirror and smiling to herself as she begins to eat her scrambled eggs.  Fully aware of the ground she has broken and the ambitious heights she has yet to scale, she is an innovator to her toes, and I fear for the resistance she will meet. Luckily, though, our daughter is fearless, and cares nothing for the critics. Performing only for herself, she alone knows the perfection she pursues.

The rest of us are just lucky to catch a glimpse.

Hallie zoo