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Wayward

11 Nov

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A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a DS’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity – you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.  

This kind of stuff is advanced US citizenship.  – David Foster Wallace

What if what you do to survive kills the things you love? — Bruce Springsteen

Earl Stressman, the son of German immigrants, worked at a creamery and did construction around Grand Rapids, Michigan, living in rundown houses, fixing them up, and then moving his family on once they sold.  His wife, Gladys, whose roots run too deep into the tangled terrain of Appalachia to even begin to unravel, ran a series of small coffee shops with her six daughters to help make ends meet.  The fourth of these, my mother got her high school diploma and was married a year later.

Ralph Bell, the son of Welsh immigrants, worked nights at the Grand Rapids A&P warehouse while his wife, Merle, raised two daughters and a son.  Their house had two bedrooms and my dad slept on the couch.  Saving money from his paper route, he bought a car and went to community college, got a job with General Motors, married my mom and moved to Detroit.

Three hours across the state, Detroit didn’t seem much different from the world of my cousins back in Grand Rapids.  While aunts, uncles, and eventually cousins, took jobs with Steelcase, opened restaurants and drove trucks, my suburban neighbors worked their shifts at various auto plants, chauffeured for the Ford family, or ran their Dunkin’ Donuts.  My dad went to work in a suit and tie, but most collars were still solidly blue.

At Christmas we’d drive back across the state and celebrate with both families.  My mom and her sisters had six boys in two years, and as our ages tripped into double digits we formed a loose, mischievous pack, sneaking away from the gifts and the eggnog to hurl snowballs at the passing traffic on Plainfield Avenue.  The slam of ice on metal, the red flash of a brake light and we were off, kicking up snow and laughing as we ran, god’s own outlaws.

And then we grew up – jobs, military service, marriages, kids, divorces and death.  I got into the college by the skin of my teeth, left home and rarely got back to Grand Rapids.  But when we’d meet, however infrequently, those little boys were never far away — Gladys and Earl’s grandbabies, four generations off the boat and spoiling for mischief.

During my lifetime Detroit withered and died, and the consequences rippled across the state.  My childhood world faded along with the factory jobs and I miss it to this day.  But what I miss most is the humor, kindness, and unspoken love that wove its way down through the generations.  It’s the gift of those who brought us here, outsiders all, wanting the same things we do today – a safe home, good work and a family to love.  And while there’s no going back, if we’re lucky we can carry that gift forward in the people we love, and the lessons they teach.

My aunt Bonnie died this past winter.  She was something.  Queen of the realm with her cigarette and Diet Pepsi, she was irascible, opinionated, funny as hell, and as long she walked the earth I had a home, no questions asked.  Her passing leaves my mom the last of the Stressman girls, a loss she feels deeply.  We all do.  Prickly, raucous and outspoken, those six women didn’t always get along, but their love for each other was fierce, and the respect they earned unquestioned.

Bonnie’s family held a memorial service this summer, which was more like a family reunion, as she would have wanted.  My cousins’ band Tenderfoot played, marking the event as they have so many times throughout my life with the songs my family loves.  Some of my cousins were there, some of them weren’t.  But it was a blue-sky summer day and it was good to be together, as it always is.

I don’t know much these days.  I don’t know who we are, or why we do the things we do.  I don’t know.  Humor, love and kindness, that’s all I got.

But I’m haunted by those boys, running through the snow and laughing like hell, with the world before us as we disappear into the night.

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