Tag Archives: Family

Kindred

3 Jun

 

This is what I remember.

Dave’s Robin, I’m Batman.

The candy store with Aunt Barb.  Pop, candy, gliders and parachutes.

Breaking down just shy of Mackinac.  Fan belt on a Sunday.  Sitting under a tree while Dad waits for the mechanic to get home from church.  Dave curled up in Mom’s lap.  The wind in their hair.

Amy coming home for the first time.  Dad holding her in the air. Her giggles.

Crawling all over me as I try read.

The time she stopped breathing.

David falling off his bike on the way to Quik-Pik.  Scratched watch and scraped hands.  So angry, because now Mom will find out.

A thimble-full of soda, Dad’s popcorn and Carol Burnett.  Sitting in our pajamas, laughing on the floor beside him.

Blood through the hands that rush Amy inside.

“Don’t pick her up! Don’t pick her up!”  But he does.

The cast on her leg.

The weight of it.

The scar that wraps all the way around.

Years later, making her up, pale and bloody.  Walking her to the neighbors.  “I think something’s wrong.”

Scouring the beach with Dave for butts.  Kools.  You get them wet and a number appears.  If it’s smaller than 32, you win.

Smoking corn silk on the back porch with our corn cob pipes.  Earlier attempts at rolling our own had not gone well.  We used toilet paper.  Singed eyebrows, burnt bangs.

Yanking a perch out of the water so hard it flies, wrapping round and round the catwalk.

All the toys under his bed.  Unopened and untouched.

Terry (and David).

The endless games of bedroom basketball.

Chewing with their mouths open, smacking away.

Amy disgusted beyond belief.

Which was the point.

All of us holding out the army surplus parachute when Rod takes off, running like hell as the boat guns it, then sitting down hard as the harness takes his legs out from under him and he bounces across the beach and into the lake for a face full of water before finally, finally lifting to the sky.  Swinging wildly from side to side, he’s almost makes it.

Terry with a golf club.  Just a kid.  But we run for our lives.

Swapping his empty glass for David’s full one.  Repeatedly.  Dave never catching on.

Barb’s funeral and David disappearing.  Karen finding him, walking him through it.

His swim across the lake.  Me rowing beside him.

Our walks through the woods.

Staying with Amy and her roommate when I move to Chicago.  Robbing the same apartment months later when he stiffs her on rent. A camera.  Some cassettes.  Back when cassettes were worth stealing.

Her dating a drummer.  Me pretending it’s OK.

Leaving David at Connolly Station and running back to Moore Street to get the best price on Toblerone, because when you’re in Dublin and you can’t walk, that’s what’s important.

Genoa, lost for a while, then finding the restaurant.  Tasting both pesto and gnocchi for the very first time.

Separating the next day so he can rush back to London to catch his plane home.

Such a long way to go all by himself.

Driving out from Chicago on the weekends.  Breakfast with Dave at the Village Kitchen.  I order the Z:  2 Hot Cakes, 2 eggs, toast, hash browns, and choice of meat.  For a while, those weekends are home.

Canoeing before his wedding.  Salmon racing through shallow water.

The deer I see the morning after.  Standing in the mist.

Moving us to New York.  Getting that couch up the stairs.

Blue blazers, khakis and the walk to Khardomah.

My wife holding up her phone so Amy, too pregnant to fly, can hear the sounds of her little brother getting married.

The closeness.  And the laughter.

Like nothing else.

But the storm’s coming across the lake, and the wind’s whipping the curtains as thunder rolls out of the west.  In the darkness, visible in flashes,  David is asleep in the bed next to me and Amy’s on the cot against the wall.  Terry’s down the hall with Mom and Dad, but the thunder will have to get much louder before I run through the darkness to join them.  Aunt Barb’s by the stairs, Gram’s across the hall and Aunt Pat’s one room farther along.  All of them asleep, but near.  So I cuddle in and close my eyes, and never once imagine it will be any other way.

 

 

 

 

Beloved

22 Mar

 

be·lov·ed
adjective
1.  dearly loved.
synonyms: darling, dear, dearest, precious, adored, much loved, cherished, treasured, prized, highly regarded, admired, esteemed, worshiped, revered, venerated, idolized

 

Morning light

Quiet

A Long run

Cold water on a hot day

Swimming

Laughter

Riding my bike

Wind

Rain

Sun

Back roads

Grasshoppers skimming from weed to weed

The smell of cut grass

My Dad

Small towns

Bakeries

Diners

(With a hard preference for the old rail car variety over the giant, novel-length menu, Jersey variety.)

Trees

Rivers

Being lost

But not that lost

Michigan

And it’s music (Bob Seger)

Grand Haven

Khardomah

Shaving in the sun, window open with a view through the trees.

London

And all it’s boltholes

History.  Near, and brushed against.

And the trains

Withnail and I

The Orkney sky

Radio

Late at night and early in the morning

The BBC

Robert Elms

Open Country

His Finest Hour

Road trips

Motels

And their pools in the afternoon light

Kids

Wild Flowers

Okie Donuts

And kindness

My neighborhood

My friends

The little patch of dirt I call a garden

A slow afternoon in the kitchen

Cooking

With wine

Especially the reds of Italy

(I could go on)

Waking up after a snowstorm with nowhere to go

Soft warm socks

And a good book

Jim Harrison

Michael Palin’s diaries

The music of Gavin Clark.

Time alone

Skating the smooth ice of a frozen lake

The evening sky ablaze

Hope

And People

Family

Mom

Sister

Brothers

Hallie, nearby, as I’m falling asleep

Heath, with his arm across my shoulders

And Amy, who illuminates it all and makes my life shine.

 

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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Durant Station

14 Sep

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Durant is situated at the intersection of U.S. Highways 69/75 and 70, fifty-two miles east of Ardmore and seventy-six miles southwest of McAlester. Occupation of the townsite began in November 1872 when a wheelless boxcar was placed on the east side of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway tracks. In 1873 Dixon Durant erected the town’s first building, a wooden store, on the east side of the boxcar. Named “Durant Station” for his family, it was shortened to Durant in 1882.    — Oklahoma Historical Society

I tease Amy that she comes from a desert state.  Growing up, that’s what I assumed Oklahoma to be; a vast wasteland of parched earth and the lined faces of those who had tried to farm it.  The truth was more familiar.  Another town that seemed to revolve around the chain stores and fast food restaurants out along the highway, while the once vibrant downtown limped along on the strength of its few remaining businesses.  Another community that no longer wished to commune.

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Heath doesn’t see it that way.  For one thing, a couple miles down the road is Okie Donuts, where, I kid you not, they make the best donuts in the world.  Heath used to ride out there in the morning with Amy’s dad for coffee and a Boston Creme.  Now I take Heath.  The owner treats him as a special guest, having come all the way from New York.  And then there’s the donuts: light, fluffy, and sweet, but not too sweet.  Good sweet.  The kind of sweet that gets you out of bed at 6 AM, because if you’re too late all the maple will be gone.

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After donuts, we drive back to Durant in the early morning light.  The highway’s faster, but we take the back way, just like Amy’s dad.

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Farmers are talking outside Wright’s Drive-In as we roll into town, sipping coffee in the morning sun.

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Downtown the buildings still stand, soaking in the light and giving back the warmth and color of their red clay bricks.

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And somewhere in the past, a button-nosed girl is buying a ham salad sandwich at Durant Drug and stepping into the Plaza Theater for the afternoon showing of Endless Love. As romance blooms onscreen, the streets outside grow humid and warm; humming with footsteps, the laughter of chance meetings and the sound of cars going by.  The sun is low as the movie ends, and the girl and her slightly scandalized mother step outside and make their way home, past friends and neighbors; checking the time and talking about dinner as they go.

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The sounds fade, the air grows cooler, and the people disappear.  Heath and I are alone on the cobblestone street.  The drugstore is gone and the Plaza is now an office building.  For the first time Heath grows impatient, so as we walk, I try to paint the picture for him, attempting to bring to life a town I never knew, but which did so much to create his mom.  He listens, he nods, but he’s ready to go.

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The heart of Durant may be battered and worn, but I don’t think it’s moved out to the highway.  It’s not in the McDonalds drive-thru, and it’s not at the Waffle Shop, and it’s sure as hell not at the Walmart.  No, it’s still downtown, where the old facades continue to glow, beautiful and resilient, like Amy, her family, and so many of those formed by this place.  The heart beats softly these days, forgotten by many, but it’s there:  fifty-two miles east of Ardmore and seventy-six miles southwest of McAlester, just east of the old boxcar, waiting for those with ears to hear.

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Dark Clouds, Blue Water

1 Aug

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She looked at that buck and said “I would love to shoot you,” and, you know, he looked back at her like he understood.  —Conversation overheard this morning Char’s Café, Bruce’s Crossing, Michigan

Leaving New York in the darkness, the quiet morning streets of my neighborhood are like that frayed old blanket that you love for its warmth and comfort.  The flight gets off late, but travels fast through a morning sky of dirty clouds.  Smoky hobgoblins hang in the distant gray.  Chicago bristles in the gloom, the dark buildings flipping me off as I fly past.

Connection made in time for the short hop back over the Lake and into the sun.  Lunch with my brother and we hit the road.  The first gas station we stop at has a live bait refrigerator.  Michigan.

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Nine miles into the U.P. we hit a long stretch of route 2 along the northern edge of Lake Michigan and pull over so I can wade into the water.  I climb back into the car and mom pulls back into traffic, the wind hitting my arms, the sand on my feet not yet dry.

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Joyously empty roads and a sun that doesn’t want to set, the U.P. is magic.  Like stepping back in time to when there weren’t so many of us,  and the world not quite so damaged.  Mom and Pop motels and motor courts abound.  Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert could be just around the next bend in the road.

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Diner Breakfast, followed by a completely unnecessary bakery stop.  Cinnamon rolls and Blueberry turnovers.

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Judy Garland’s birthplace, just because.

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Abandoned liquor store in Crookston, Minnesota.  At the other end of town mom sees a house from a dream. “I kept trying buy it” she says.

And there’s talk, lots of talk.  More in the morning when we’re fresh, less as we grow tired.  But these conversations are marked by their ease,  for at this point the road seems long, and our time together endless.

And now I must sleep, for tomorrow we cross North Dakota and on into eastern Montana and Mom wants to be on the road by 6:00am.  Luckily, I’ve booked us into a lodge with a bar.  I can already taste the beer.

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Road Trip

29 Jul

Todd 4 folks 2 Mom and Dad, 1967

When I was four years old my mother gave me my first camera.  It was made of plastic and took 120 mm film, which I had to mail off along with a small amount cash to have developed.  Later that year we took our first family vacation, driving from Michigan to New England.  It was there I took these pictures.

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Cape Cod

Todd 2 docks

My Mom and little brother David at The Mayflower

Todd 6 Kennedy's Grave

Kennedy’s grave

When Amy’s father passed this spring, I was talking to my mom and she mentioned that she had planned a trip to Montana, but her friend had backed out because she didn’t want to drive.  She thought it would be boring.  Mom disagreed.  She wanted to get out on the back roads, eat at little diners, see something of the country.  But she didn’t want to go alone

“Wow,  I should go with you.”

“Oh that would be great.  Would you?”

Um… I would.

So, this coming Friday I fly to Michigan and we hit the road.  I have a new camera, and hopefully some time to write.  So I’ll be posting on the fly, doing my best to keep you all informed.

I have not spent this much time with my mom in 35 years, and though I’m looking forward to it, I already miss my family.  And both the world and my mother are far from predictable.

So check in frequently, keep me in your thoughts, and prayers would not be turned away.

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Sycamore

22 Apr

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“Why is the cross the symbol of Christianity?” 

“Well, it’s supposed to signify the sacrifice Christ made for all mankind.” 

I know, but it doesn’t really seem like much of a sacrifice.  He was only gone for like a week.”          

—  Conversation with Heath, shortly before our trip to Oklahoma

I notice the tree as we pull into the driveway, its hacked limbs struggling over the roof and into the sky.  John and Sue bought this house shortly before I married their daughter, and the tree over their back deck shaded our wedding festivities, a party for which her father and I drove to three different places, including a gas station with a smoker out back, to get just the right assortment of barbecue.

They’ve been waiting over an hour for the ambulance.  Battling pain and plummeting blood pressure, John is struggling with both his illness and its treatment.  I call the ambulance again and go back to see him.

“Hey John, how you doing?”

“Oh, I’m doing OK.”

We talk for a moment, and he does seem, not great, but OK.  Heath has been worried, so I ask, “John, do you feel well enough to see Heath for a moment, he’s been asking about you.”

“What? Sure, sure, I’ll talk to Heath.”

When we return, things have changed.  Now in pain, Amy is helping him back onto his pillows.  Not recognizing the situation, Heath begins.

“Hi Pawpaw.  I’m sorry you don’t feel well and that the chemo is making you sick.  Dad says you’re even having hallucinations.”  Amy shushes him with a look, and I lead him back out of the room.  Through the front door I see the ambulance pull up.

In the days that follow, while the rest of Amy’s family camp out at the hospital, Heath, Hallie and I take care of her parents’ house.  I open windows, tie back curtains and lift shades.  Heath plays video games while Hallie and I watch T.V., walk down to the mailbox, or play catch out on the driveway.  Amy calls, we visit the hospital, and then return to await more calls.  Two days in, late at night, I get the one I don’t want.

I don’t want to tell Heath his grandfather is dying, but I have promised never to lie to him.  So when, in the darkness following Amy’s call, he asks again if his Pawpaw is going to die, I wait, remembering Amy’s firm denial of the possibility only hours earlier, and then, looking into his open face, say “Yes, it looks that way.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t look like he’s going to make it buddy.”

After a moment he breathes, and with his breath comes a high, animal sound like nothing I’ve ever heard.  My ten-year old son is keening.

“No!” His face is a grimace of teeth and tears, his voice a howl.  “Nooooo! Are you sure?  Is there no chance?”

“I don’t think so Heath.”

“No chance at all?”

“I don’t think so.”

And then he starts to pray.  I have never seen Heath pray, but he is praying now, laying on his back, his knees pulled in toward his chest, his clenched hands held above him.

“Please God.  Please!  Don’t let my Pawpaw die. Dad, do you believe God answer’s prayers?”

I hesitate.

“I believe he hears them.  I don’t think he always answers them the way we want.”

“But there’s a chance.   At least there’s a chance.”

“A very small one.”

“Well what are the rules?  Are there a limited number of times you can pray?”

“No, no.  You can pray as many times as you want.”

Though still crying, he is quieter now.  If he prays more, I do not hear it.  We must have slept, for when I look out the window the sky has begun to lighten.

“Dad, do you think God will answer my prayer?”

“I don’t know buddy.  But I do know it was a really good prayer.”

Silence.

“If Pawpaw dies I don’t know how I’ll ever be happy.”

The evening skies of Oklahoma go a fair way toward making up for everything else.  As the day cools, the air slides from a clear robin egg blue down into warmer pinks and oranges while the wispy clouds shade into gentle swipes of purple and gray, a vibrant display that, for a time, makes everything below seem irrelevant. Occasionally on such evenings John and I would talk, sometimes on his front porch, other times out back beneath the shade of the sycamore.  He’d always want to know about Heath and Hallie, his kiddos.  But though the skies are lovely over the following days, we don’t have a chance to talk again.  John does not make it home.  It’s just the kiddos and I.

The Monday after the memorial service a hard rain sweeps across the neighborhood, great gusts of wind snap limbs, damage the back fence, and struggle to carry away the stubborn old patio umbrella no one wants to run out and close.  After years of drought, the storm is too late to save the sycamore, and serves only to remind us of the danger it poses.  Sue tells me that over the past summer the tree “just burnt right up.” She couldn’t water it enough.  But she hates to see it go, for one limb is still alive, covered with buds and young leaves, offering the hope of a bit more shade in the days to come.

Sad for a few days, Heath finds happiness again in the family he loves.  He’s a different kid though –  more open, more present, and more thoughtful.  He won’t talk about John, though.  It makes him too sad.

Amy and I don’t talk much either.  Every time we try, I feel my own distance.  She did ask if I believe in heaven and, shamefully, I dodged the question.

But should it come up again, I’ll tell her that I don’t feel like her father is gone.  He’s here with me, much as he always was.  The conversations we had, the times we shared, and the solid feeling in my chest that I have for that man are strong.  Whatever he taught me is there.  The confidence he gave me as a husband and father is there.  He is with me, he is real, and he is not going away.

Heath and John Easter 2013

Walking the Dog

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Alone Again (Naturally)

11 Jul

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Cigarettes and beer on a warm summer breeze. 

To this day, walking the streets of New York, I’ll turn a corner and bam!  There it will be: that essence of summer 1972.  And I have to stop, because, for a moment, I am nine years old, sitting on the porch of our Lake Michigan cottage, holding my little Sears & Roebuck 9 volt transistor radio, listening to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally.”

It’s an odd song for a kid to fall in love with.  A father dies, a mother dies, a young man’s abandoned at the altar.  I believe suicide may be contemplated.  But none of this really matters.  Because it’s not the words so much as the gently loping beat, like the saunter of a sun-kissed girl walking along the sand, a melody with the quiet insistence of waves on a shore,  and that distinctly English melancholy of something beautiful coming to an end.

Cigarettes and beer.

It was a crazy summer.  My cousin Joni, sixteen and wild, had run away to California, only to turn up several weeks later, with a copy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue tucked beneath her newly unshaven armpits.  She would play “California” and then solemnly intone to whoever would listen, “It was just like that.”  She was so cool.

But even cooler was her friend Memphis.

First of all she was from Memphis.  Second of all she would take driftwood  and turn it into art, painting it with a big letter “M”, and clouds, and seagulls and stuff.

But mostly, she would talk to me.

We’d sit on the porch as the sun went down and the beachgoers across the street packed up for the day, and in her exotic southern accent she’d tell me stories.  Like how her sister had been home sick one time when she heard that her boyfriend, whose Camaro Z28 was the baddest car in all of Memphis, was stepping out on her.  How her sister had pulled on her bathrobe, tied a scarf over her rollers, and headed out in search of that Z28, and how, finding it parked outside a local burger joint, she had stopped the car, walked inside, and dropped her boyfriend’s date with a single punch.

And we would talk about girls.  She tried to get me to believe that the prettiest weren’t always the nicest, and that I should always give the less attractive girls a chance.  I didn’t really believe her, but I lied and told her that I had a crush on a girl who wasn’t very pretty at all.  She smiled.

And as the night settled in, and the rangers locked the gates and began their patrols, we watched the spotlight on their pickup sweep across the darkness, while the adults inside the cottage gathered around the big table, talking and laughing, playing cards.  The breeze lifted the hair from Memphis’ face and I stole a glance as she looked out across the water.  It was 80 miles to Milwaukee.  Too far to see.

 

Heath came to me last night as we were getting ready for bed.  Having mistakenly tried to eat ice cream from a frozen scoop, I am holding a bloody washcloth to my lips.

“Dad, can we go out on the porch and talk for a while?”  There’s an urgency in his face.  He’s afraid I’ll say no.

“Sure.” I mumble, getting some ice for my lip, which is beginning to swell.  “Go on out on the porch.  I’ll be right there.”

The fireflies have finally arrived, and as I join him they glimmer up and down the block.

“There’s one!” he shouts, jumping up and following it around the porch.  Fascinated by this little piece of light, he is every inch the nine-year old.  But soon he will be ten.  He borrowed my sandals for the first time this week.  Still puppyish, he is growing into his feet.

We talk about his first day at summer school, his new teacher, his friends.  When things go quiet he pushes for more.

“Is there anything else you want to tell me or anything you think I should know?”

Struggling to maintain the conversation, he leans on the professorial cadences he finds so comfortable.

“Dad.  Is there anything else you want to tell me or anything you think I should know?”

I laugh, because of course there’s too much.  And then, gently, I say “You know Heath, we don’t always have to talk.  We can just sit together and enjoy the evening.”

“I know, but I like to talk.”

So we do.

 

In a few weeks we will return to Lake Michigan, and a town that is in many ways unchanged.  But it won’t smell the same.  Most of my family are gone now, and sadly, they took their packets of Kools and their Pabst Blue Ribbon with them.

But, for my kids, there are two houses, a grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins galore, as well as porches, sunsets and the breeze off the water.

I heard years ago that Memphis had become a nurse.  I’m not sure where.  But I like to think she’s still out there, telling stories, painting driftwood, and giving sage advice to precocious lovelorn little boys.

Her hair was auburn.  She was sixteen.  I think of her every time I hear that song.

 

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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.

 

hallie attitude

 

When Time Hesitates

20 May

Some days are holy, some days are rough, but that’s alright…

  –-Patti Scialfa

Standing in the kitchen on a rainy Sunday afternoon, Amy smiles as she catches my glance, and asks, “What?”

“Nothing,” I say, and move on, still shy with her after all these years.

It’s her eyes I’m searching, taking a moment to plumb the depths I dance across from day to day.  Because while two children and nearly twenty years together has fostered the illusion that I know this woman, I know that’s not true.  I’ve  amassed a certain amount of knowledge, certainly.  But I don’t kid myself that it’s any more than the tip of the iceberg.

When I read a truly great novel for the first time, I figure I’m lucky  if I get ten percent of what it has to offer.  I read too quickly, my eyes racing faster than my thoughts.  I get the story, but I miss so much.  Rereading helps, but it is only in slowing down, in forcing myself to savor every moment, every thought, that I begin to fully appreciate what’s before me.  This is even more true of Amy, a creation of far greater complexity than any work of art, whose beauty I will never comprehend and whose mysteries will never be fully revealed.  Blending the outrageously comic with the heartbreakingly tender more effectively, and more honestly, than any piece of literature I have ever encountered, she is a wondrous work in progress, her final pages yet to be written, let alone read.

And that is why I’m standing in the kitchen on a rainy Sunday afternoon, while our daughter takes apart the house and my son yells at the computer, as darkness approaches and baths are delayed and the idea of making dinner grows more daunting by the second.  That is why I’m looking into her eyes, trying get behind her smile, and into the warm depths of the twinkle that comes with it.

“What?” she asks, and I’m almost there.

“Nothing,” I say, and move on.  Still shy with her after all these years.

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