A Memory For Fathers’ Day

I remember how my dad took his children to Schroeder’s, despite a lack of ready cash. Screen door slamming; tall, work-slim body striding across the yard, he yelled to any of us within hearing, “If you want to go, climb aboard. I’m on my way.”

Word spread, “He might be going to Schroeder’s.” Deserting chores, we scrambled into our dilapidated jeep, jockeying for position. Dad gunned the engine, shot away and, singing that he’d take Kathleen home again, paid no mind to his passengers caught in mid-scramble.

A fast five miles of irrigated farmland flashed by, dotted by an occasional house hunched beneath massive outbuildings. The finger-smeared windows through which we peered softened the countryside and gentled farmyard clutter. Dad, more interested in his vibrato than our battles, bounced the jeep along rough roads in tempo to his tune, until, gravel flying, he executed his usual abrupt stop. “Whoa there, old boy, whoa there,” he shouted to our great amusement as he flamboyantly pulled back on the wheel and stomped on the brakes at Schroeder’s Auto Repair.

The single, rusted-out gas pump reflecting long departed prices isn’t tempt us; nor did the garage’s shadowed interior with its thick air smelling of rubber and oil. We didn’t stop to examine Schroeder’s grease-begrimed tools or the fly spotted glass case holding PayDay bars, Juicy Fruit gum, and hide-a–key containers. Instead, clutching unfamiliar dimes Dad distributed from a near-empty wallet — an act our money-worried mother wouldn’t approve — we ran to the rectangular soda machine sitting like a dusty treasure chest in a far corner, burbling moistly to itself.

While Dad discussed man things — lay-offs, unemployment checks, failed crops — with big-voiced, thoroughly dirty Schroeder, we circled the red machine and argued best flavors: orange and strawberry being top contenders. Then, decisions made, we clinked our dimes into the coin slot. The machine’s scratched red lid sighed reluctantly as we lifted it, exhaling cold air that washed over our peering faces.

Inside the rectangular chest, icy water bathed cold bottles that we slowly worked along notched metal rows until we could each lift our choice clear, remove its crimped cap with the built-in opener, and take the first sweetly stinging swallow.

Carolyn, a teenager, assumed a pose of nonchalance and sophistication, drinking as though it was almost more than she could manage. Bob threw his head back and drank like the rowdy boy he was, pausing only to burp. I sipped, savoring and saving. Barbara, who had yet to grasp the science of swallowing, let orange liquid flow down her throat in an uninterrupted stream, plugging it with her tongue when she needed to breathe.

As we drank and laughed, Dad looked over at us and grinned.

If the total of a man is made of small acts, our dad was a giant.

This post was adapted from my book, A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns

Comic Relief

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My great-aunt Beulah and I were searching for ripe tomatoes in her garden when she said, “It’s a good funeral when you laugh as much as you cry.” She then spotted a tomato slug and squished it beneath her galoshes while I pondered her perplexing observation.

Seven years later in high school during a discussion of Romeo and Juliet, my English teacher said Shakespeare used puns, witty dialogue and funny characters to weave scenes of comic relief into his tragedies to give his audiences a break from feuds, betrayals, suicides and murders most foul. Mr. Sabatini then paused so we could reflect on his brilliance and ran his chalk-coated fingers through his abundant black hair, a habit we noticed.

“Wow, I thought, “William Shakespeare and Skunk Sabatini are no smarter than Aunt Beulah.”

Research has since confirmed the social blessings of laughter: when something tickles us and we tee-hee together, tensions lessen. Whether disagreeing with a loved one, entering a roomful of strangers or enduring a blind date; we feel more connected to those who share our laughter.

To get a teaching credential in Nevada, I had to be tested for TB at a public health office, which was not a happy place. Some folks were there at the behest of others; a few had worrisome symptoms; some needed a shot or two or three; and others nervously awaited test results. I sat in crowded waiting room filled with anxiety, impatience and sodden tissues.

Suddenly the door flew open and a disheveled young man, who looked a bit berserk, strode to the front desk. “Hey, I need to see a sex doctor,” he announced in his outdoor voice.

“We don’t have a doctor today. Just nurses.”

“Well, I gotta see a doc. Tiny bastards are crawling around like crazy. Down there. I think they’re probably crabs from this girl I met.”

“You can’t see a doctor until Monday. If you’d like to see a nurse today, take a seat and do this paperwork — well, actually, it might be better if you stand.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Monday? It’s the weekend. The little suckers will ruin my social life. I’m going to the emergency room.”

The door slammed behind him, and spontaneous laughter exploded around the room. Even the receptionist lost her professional composure and succumbed to the merriment. “Did you hear that? Can you believe it?” we gasped.

In those shared moments of hilarity, we became friends. We continued to chat easily and shared a last chuckle when someone left: “Goodbye, have a good weekend, enjoy your social life,” we said to folks we’d studiously ignored earlier.

As Bram Stoker wrote in Dracula, “It is a strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles. And yet when King Laugh come, he make them all dance to the tune he play. Bleeding hearts, and dry bones of the churchyard, and tears that burn as they fall, all dance together to the laughter that he make…”

We can laugh as well as we ever did, laugh fully and joyously until the day we die; and when we do, tears will be balanced by laughter at our funerals.

Thoughts on Sunday 

I awoke late at night to a crescendo of crickets and a surge of fever. Mussed bedding trapped my limbs. Pain entangled my dreams. I heard a whimper and wondered who was crying. A shadowed presence appeared at my bedside, palmed hair from my forehead, freed my legs from sodden sheets, soothed until I slept.

My mother’s touch that fevered night formed my earliest memory. Later, when I was thirteen, Mom shaped the direction of my life.

We were the featured speakers during a Dear to My Heart night for mothers and daughters of our church. I don’t remember what I said in my tribute to Mom, but I do remember fussing endlessly with my bangs, gluing them in place with Brylcreem and hair spray, more concerned with my appearance than my words.

But I have a hand-written copy of Mom’s speech. She began with startling news: “Janet, from the moment I first held your warm, perfect body in my arms and gloated over your dark, curly ducktails — I actually had a baby with hair! — you’ve been a source of joy and delight to the entire family.”

The entire family? Even Bob?? Did they vote?

Later, another surprise: “I enjoy leaving your younger sister and brothers in your care. Even if the dishes are sketchily done and the furniture pushed awry, I know the little ones will be well cared for and also have fun with the games and stories you create for them. You’d be a good teacher, Janet.”

With those words, she directed me toward my future.

Mom made my heart soar that night; then, driving home, she returned me to reality. “Janet, we have to do something about those shaggy bangs stuck to your nose. When we get home, I’m cutting them. You look like a greasy Shetland pony.” Amused at the accuracy of her description, she giggled, and, despite myself, I chuckled with her.

When Mom was seventy-seven, I spent a week with her in Wyoming. Most of the time we talked. But other times I sat with a book in my lap and watched her sleep in a recliner; her hands unusually idle in the middle of the day. Soft window light bathed her lined face, and her breath seemed slow and faint.

Not wanting to bother her children, she admitted to heart problems, but told us her medicine and pacemaker helped. As I sat near her, watching her drift in and out of sleep, I refused to recognize the truth.

She died seven months later. With time, I recovered from the emotional turmoil of her death, funeral and burial — a poignant week I walked through with my father and siblings, united by our grief and love.

Then began the long-term ache of her absence.

Over a year later, in Carson City, Nevada, I absentmindedly drove a street of golden leaves let fall by tired trees. My neck tight with stress, I worried personal choices, professional puzzles, a life littered with busyness. Then I saw a woman who reminded me of myself: face beginning to age, flowing skirt and heels working-woman high. Her head inclined, she walked slowly toward a nursing home, tenderly holding the frail arm of a stooped, white-haired woman. Their smiles were identical.

As I watched, they paused and commented above a bed of purple asters. Without warning, my heart collapsed like a butterfly caught in a net, and I mourned: I never walked my mother through her decline; I lived far away, thought I’d have time; others were there. And she died so quickly.

I grieved that I hadn’t taken the time for more memory-making moments with her.

Sunday, I experienced the same regret.

At a Loss for Words

The average English speaker makes seven to twenty-two slips of the tongue each day and fails to think of the right word another two to four times according to Michael Erard, who explores verbal gaffes in his book Um.

My life validates his research.

In fourth grade, asked to read from a book called Pesky Penelope, I pronounced the heroine’s name the way it looked to me: pen-e-lope, rhymes with cantaloupe. When Mrs. Thomas corrected my pronunciation, I flushed with embarrassment while my cousin Blake laughed so raucously he fell off his chair. I still question his worth.

Then, years later in high school, I was asked to give a speech in church about one of my pioneer ancestors. As always, I discussed the topic with my mother, and she suggested I talk about her great grandmother. I read a brief, handwritten history of our plucky ancestor then wrote and memorized a speech destined to be a humdinger.

On the assigned day, I donned my Sunday best, slicked my bangs and walked to the podium radiating confidence. But when I began by describing how my mother’s great grandmother, Harriet Beecher Stowe, had carried her baby and walked across the plains from Illinois to Salt Lake City, Mom looked startled.

“Do I have bits of breakfast stuck to my teeth?” I wondered, “I brushed them, didn’t I? She’s probably surprised I came up with an attention-getting introduction by myself.”

But when I joined my family after the services, one of Mom’s best friends, a giggling Adele Evans, was saying, “Myrl, I had no idea your great grandmother wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Was that before or after she crossed the plains?” Then they both laughed in an unladylike manner.

My stomach sank; my face flushed; and I earned my status as a snide teenager by thinking, “Well. I may have confused my ancestor Harriet Bradford Simmons with a famous author, but I know better than to guffaw and snort at the mistakes of others while leaving church.”

As a result of misadventures with my wayward tongue, I’m sympathetic when candidate Al Gore assures his audience, “A zebra doesn’t change its spots” or baseball manager Wes Westrum summarizes a close game, “Well, that was a cliff-dweller.”

I’m especially partial to the gaffes of President George W. Bush because he modeled an effective way to handle verbal mishaps. When asked what it was like to be raised in Midland, Texas, he responded, “It was inebriating.” Then, realizing what he’d said, he laughed at himself and repeated his blooper for the amusement of others.

I wish I had used the president’s tactic when the junior high school principal was observing my teaching for the first time and I told my students Romeo and Juliet was a great Shakespearean travesty.

Slow Off the Mark

Man o' War in 1920

Man o’ War in 1920

When I was in elementary school, my dad told me I ran like the great racehorse, Man o’ War, but with a fatal flaw: I didn’t know what go meant.

What was he talking about? I learned the word go in first grade: “See Dick go. Go, Dick, go.” Fortunately, Mom saw my confusion and explained; Man o’ War and I both had long strides, but he started quickly.

And I understood. As a racer, I toed the line and listened intently to “on your mark” and “get set” but “go” flummoxed me. Then, while I gathered my scattered wits, my competitors raced away until even a Man o’ War stride couldn’t make up for the time I’d spent in a stupor.

I’m no longer a racer, but my tendency to be slow on the uptake continues to plague me.

Is there anything worse than realizing you have five markers in a row ten seconds after your infirm aunt and daft little sister have shrieked “Bingo” in tandem and won the prize?

Is there anything more humiliating than hearing the same announcement as the other travelers waiting at a gate, then watching, stupefied as they sprint to the customer-service counter to rebook their cancelled flight?

It’s especially embarrassing when Joel leads the mad dash through the airport, cleverly calling reservations on his cell phone while he runs, and I’m left chugging along in the stampede’s wake, hoping he’ll remember I’m with him.

Joel and I also dance a two-step stutter when we walk busy city streets. I drift along, mesmerized by the staccato sound of heels striding purposefully, brake lights blinking like fireflies, and the optimism of street entertainers. So when we approach an intersection, Joel sizes up the situation, sees a window of opportunity, grabs my hand, and strides into the street.

I take a step, hesitate, pull back, stop, and look both ways like a well-taught toddler as the window closes and Joel joins me on the curb with the head-tossing, feet-stomping impatience of a reined-in Man o’ War.

Unlike my husband, I find my failed jumpstarts amusing. With one exception. Several years ago, my tendency to hesitate cast a bleak shadow on my long-anticipated visit to a fabled foreign city.

I walked Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro just as a moisture-laden twilight made it difficult to distinguish the widespread arms on the statue of Christ that guards the city. Weary from the workshop we’d taught all day, five fellow teachers and I strolled barefoot in water-lapped sand through air smelling of salt, fish and wood smoke.

Suddenly, shadows surrounded us, took form, shoved in among us, grabbed at wrists and backpacks, threatened.

I looked at the hand on my arm and the impassive face of the teenage boy who gripped me. While my friends broke free and dashed away, I watched, helpless and terrified, as other shapes turned toward me.

Then a man in our group turned and shouted, “Janet, RUN!” He grabbed my wrist and wrenched it free, then dragged me along until my feet came to life and the attackers faded back into shadows.

I lost my sense of safety in a city I had begun to love.

And I’m still unable to laugh about it.

 

You’ll Regret It Someday

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I stifled a wail when I read Mike Spoor’s BuzzFeed list of “Thirty-seven Things You’ll Regret When You’re Old,” because I’m a shining example of his regrettables. Mr. Spoor provided the bolded descriptions of youthful follies; the confessions are mine.

Not learning another language: I sensed in 4th grade that I wouldn’t be a linguist when I failed to master Pig Latin. Then in high school and college, I took every literature class offered, which left no time to study another language. To me, analyzing Moby Dick seemed more entertaining than conjugating French verbs.

As a result, when visiting foreign countries, I repeat phrases from a traveler’s dictionary with increasing volume to any approachable stranger and receive confused shoulder-shrugs or incorrect information due to my mangled pronunciations. A dapper gentleman once led me two blocks to a zoo when I asked for directions to a restroom. Conjugating verbs has its rewards.

Not Using sunscreen: In the sixties, my high school friends and I believed we’d be more attractive with a deep tan. So we slathered baby oil on any exposed skin and lounged on top of Meldrum’s chicken coop, miserably roasting in the sun, hoping to look like Annette Funicello — and failing.

Then my college roommates and I sunbathed on the thick grass of a cemetery that bordered our dorm. We misted water on our hot skin with a spray bottle, poked one another to test for doneness, kept a wary eye out for cemetery workers and suffered unsightly sunburns that drew looks of pity rather than admiration.

Years later, my youthful skin-toasting financed my dermatologist’s second home..

Being afraid to do things: Some things frighten me — deep water, selling things and fried liver; other things don’t — spiders, public speaking and Jack Nicholson in The Shining. My fears of climbing a Colorado fourteener and traveling by myself faded when I did those things, but no matter how many times I drive big-city interstates, my hair stands on end, and I hyperventilate. My age has nothing to do with it.

Caring too much about what other people think. When sunburn didn’t make my teenage face flame red, embarrassment did: “But nobody else will wear a coat; I’ll look stupid.” “I hate it when Dad sings while my friends are in the car. They look at each other.” “Why is it when I drive up with one of my boyfriends, Blaine and JL greet us by riding around on the tire-less rims of our old bicycle? They look deficient.”

Eventually, as they matured, my family quit embarrassing me. It’s nice.

Worrying too much. Evidently it’s OK to worry a little. I’m an outstanding worrier, so I’d hate to give it up completely. During the last five minutes, I fretted about my cravings for dessert, the sharp pain I had yesterday behind my eye, and whether the weatherman feels bad about his poor forecasting record.

With age, I’ve begun to realize the futility of some of my worries like fretting that I won’t be able to open an airplane’s emergency door after I assured the stewardess I could. But I still worry that not worrying about something will give it permission to happen.

Home Nursing

Not my mother

Not my mother

When sick, Mom maintained a stoic silence and went to bed, telling my siblings and me to move our squabbles beyond her hearing; so we dutifully went outside when thumping one another became unavoidable.

She expected the same bed rest and silence from us when we complained of swollen glands, stomachaches, or ingrown toenails, “Go to bed. You’ll feel better after a nap.” Her job description didn’t leave time for entertaining us or clucking over our earaches and bee stings.

One day Mom heard howls coming from the yard where Barbara had taught Blaine and JL an exciting new game in which she threw rocks and they dodged them. When Mom went outside to investigate and discovered the crooked, bloody mess that used to be Blaine’s nose, she pinched it into shape, staunched the bleeding, applied tape and told him to go take a nap. She then advised Barbara to run away from home and returned to her ironing.

When a chronic problem, unusual symptom, or something she couldn’t fix prompted a visit to the doctor, she enforced any recommendations with rigor. After we bared our behinds for penicillin shots, we stayed in bed until well, swallowed pills so big we didn’t need breakfast and huddled beneath blankets breathing the pungent fumes of a vaporizer. As directed.

I’ve had sinus problems my entire life. I sometimes imagine the thought process that accompanied my creation: “We’ve given this girl sturdy feet. Let’s even things out by equipping her with flawed sinuses.” One winter, our family doctor told my mom to irrigate my sinuses daily and showed her how to do so. That night, she filled our all-purpose hot water bottle with a saline solution and attached a tube to it with a special nozzle I had to stick up my nose.

She held the contraption level with her head, pinching off the tube, while I bent over the bathroom basin, then let ‘er rip. Oh, the caterwauling and grief. Water and mucus spouting from my nostrils and mouth, I gagged and pleaded; but the water continued to flow. So I pulled the nozzle from my erupting nose and threw it in the basin.

“Janet, you have to do this.” She leaned over, reinserted the tube, and held it firmly in place as I wept. We did this dance for two weeks, as prescribed. I eventually accepted my fate with stony-faced dignity, and my siblings quit clustering around the bathroom door for the evening entertainment.

We couldn’t look to Dad for sympathy or coddling either. He had robust health and didn’t fall prey to common illnesses, so he reacted to the sicknesses of his loved ones with indignation and expressed his worry as anger: “Oh, get up, there’s nothing wrong with you that a little fresh air or work won’t fix.”

Naturally, I inherited Mom’s no-nonsense bedside manner punctuated with Dad’s irrational irritation: “Why doesn’t he just go to bed?” I wonder as Joel wheezes and snuffles around the house, giving me hourly updates on his symptoms.

But the mother who tenderly cared for my sister, Carolyn, during her childhood struggles with polio and rheumatic fever; and the father who visibly worried about Carolyn and checked on her as soon as he got home from work are part of me as well. I learned from my parents to respond to serious illnesses with attention and sympathetic care.

Perhaps the secret of good home nursing is knowing when to nurture kindly and when to stick the nozzle back up your screaming daughter’s nose.