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

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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.

The Gift of a Child

merry-christmas-free-clip-art-merry-christmas-clip-art-7-jpgEvery Christmas, I think about the gift of a child and remember my brother’s birth.

At the age of nine on a worn-out day in February, I heard a rackety car approach and ran to the kitchen window. The barren branches of cottonwood trees streaked shadows across dirty snow; and a pale sun fled behind West Mountain as Mom stepped from Mrs. Anderson’s car.

She slammed the car’s door behind her — launching our resident crows into an orbit of admonishment — then walked along our sidewalk of frozen mud, her face as tired as the day.

Entering the house, Mom glanced at me — my scattered paper dolls, their cut-out costumes and her sewing scissors. Then, saying nothing, she slowly stirred the coals in the stove with a poker. Made uneasy by her silence, I wondered about its cause: Was it her visit to the doctor in town or my use of the forbidden scissors?

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

“I’m pregnant.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I’m going to have a baby.”

“Don’t you like babies?”

“Oh, Janet, I’ve loved all my babies. But I’m old. And tired.”

My mother had delivered family news, introduced me to a new word and shared a confidence. I forgot all three before dinner.

Then, a few months later, my family arrived at church, and I rushed to catch up with my best friend. “Oh, your mother’s pregnant,” she remarked, looking at Mom in her new, ballooning outfit.

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

“That she’s having a baby. My mother’s too old to have another baby. She said at her age, it would kill her.”

My insides shriveled. A few years before, my mom had nearly died giving birth to a baby sister who hadn’t lived. When she told me she was old and tired, did she mean having a baby would kill her this time? My world slowed to a standstill; and in the following weeks my anxiety grew along with my mother’s stomach.

In September, shortly after Mom told us the baby could come any day, she and Dad went to Provo, saying they’d be home by dinner. But they weren’t. So we ate the bottled tomatoes and toast Carolyn fixed for us; then, sent to bed, but wide-awake and worried, I crouched by a bedroom window and hoped the headlights I could see across the fields would turn at our lane. I held my breath, watched the headlights, and promised I’d do my chores without whining and change the new baby’s diaper without complaining, if Mom was in that car rather than dying, far away in Provo, trying to have a baby when she was too old. The headlights turned.

A week later, I again stood sentry by a window. The evening before, Dad had taken Mom to the hospital. Grandma either believed my lie about an upset stomach or understood the fear clouding my eyes. When the others ran for the school bus, I stayed home.

Again, I tracked our car until it stopped beneath the cottonwoods. Dad stepped out, then stopped and studied the sky. Why was he looking at heaven? I ran from the house. Panic squeezed my voice tiny: “Dad?”

“Hey, Janet. You have a new brother. We named him Blaine. They’ll both be home Friday. Looks like it’s going to rain, doesn’t it?”

A few days later, I experienced an unexpected rush of love when Mom let me hold my brother, bundled in white flannel, smelling new, small fists waving at nothing. I smiled up at Mom, and my last worry vanished as I saw that she, too, loved this baby.

In that moment, as I exulted over the birth of our baby, I began to understand why hearts overflow with joy, love and hope each Christmas.

Thoughts on the Man I Married and Other Odd People

Joel Sheridan

I’m often surprised by the habits of others: My mom and dad ate pickled pigs feet and beef liver with gusto. That’s abnormal. My sister doesn’t collect anything: no quilts, snow globes, Madam Alexander dolls or baseball cards. That’s odd. In college, it boggled my mind when my roommates postponed studying for a test until the evening before and then pulled an all-nighter. I shook my well-rested head in disbelief as they stumbled into class, bleary-eyed and confused.

My uncle wrote a weekly column for his local paper. Each week he sat in front of his typewriter the day before the column was due and waited for inspiration. When I picture him—sitting, waiting, clock ticking, deadline looming—I fight hysteria. I don’t know how he found the time to debate using a instead of the in the third sentence of the fifth paragraph of his ninth revision.

The man I married twenty years ago has his peculiarities as well, one of them being the way he watches TV. When we’re watching a show together, he invariably surfs other channels during every commercial. By the time he finds his way back to the show we’re watching, we’ve missed a pivotal segment and so watch the remaining segments in a state of confusion.

Another bone of contention we chew on is the amount of lighting necessary for happy living. As darkness falls, I busy myself drawing blinds and switching on lights and lamps. Then Joel wanders in, starts a diverting conversation, dims the lights and turns off the lamps.

Even the kitchen where I chop, sauté, and simmer his dinner is too bright for him. If I drop my guard, he extinguishes the overhead lighting, leaving only the glow of the under-counter lights to illuminate my cooking. It’s difficult to chop vegetables when I can’t distinguish my thumb from a parsnip; sometimes, when bending low to check on the soup’s simmer, I blister my nose.

My husband believes the best defense is a good offense, so when he senses my irritation with his choice of lighting, he says, “Why do you have to have it so bright all the time? The house looks better in low light.” He could be commenting on my housekeeping, but I prefer to think not.

We also have our smaller issues: I put things away. He likes tools, clothes and potato chips left where he won’t forget them. I sigh when he questions my tendency to take things to the thrift store. He grits his teeth when he expresses a preference, “I like the chair better in front of the window,” and I respond dismissively, “I know you do, Joel.”

Despite these differences, we usually accept one another’s oddities as minor nuisances, insignificant when compared to the many important values we share and the many ways we like each other.

But the next time we go to a movie, and he interrupts an intense scene to ask what other roles the lead actor has played, I plan to insist on a fair share of the popcorn. That’ll show him.

In My Father’s Words

Dad young

“Your letter arrived just in time,” my father wrote after his retirement in 1977, “I needed something to do. You must hate it when I write back so soon. Well, anyway, here goes.”

He would then record family news, describe his day, or share anecdotes from his life: “So there I was, fresh off a freight train in Amarillo, Texas, sixteen, and broke. One day I saw an Uncle Sam poster that said, ‘I want you.’ Being very hungry, I thought the old boy could have me. That’s how I ended up in the army.”

His letters ended abruptly, sometimes in mid-sentence as though he’d run out of words. He signed off as Father, never bothering with sincerely or love. Once he wrote, “Your Father,” then added, “I must have been thinking you don’t know whose father I am.”

I had the foresight to save his letters; and last winter, missing him, I reread them and discovered bits and pieces that told a story.

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He frequently reflected on the “stellar qualities that made your dear mother a heck of a woman.” He mentioned her intelligence, “the smartest woman I ever knew,” and her skills, “She could make anything she put her mind to.” Once he delighted me with this: “Your mother left this morning with some friends to go to Salt Lake. She whipped up a fabulous pantsuit to wear. I swear she looked like whistle-bait.”

The following appeared in a letter for my birthday: “Your mother never had a single one of her nine babies when I had to miss work to be there. She always had remarkable self control.”

He respected Mom’s opinions, ideas, and most of her suggestions. “I’m getting my pension checks now, and I’m starting to feel like a bloated plutocrat. So I shined my alligator shoes, put on my $20.00 Hagar slacks with my brown sports shirt, and strolled Main Street with my stomach hanging over my belt ever so slightly. When I came home, your mother told me I had to do something about my belly. She’s my only boss now. I like it when she tells me what to do because she’s usually right.”

He enjoyed Mom’s company: “Your mother and I get along well. I seem to be laughing a lot. She’s either really funny or I’m turning daft.”

After Mom died, he continued to mention her regularly: “I’ve thought about moving, but I don’t think selling this house would be right. I can look anywhere in it and see something your dear mother made, and when I go to church, all the woodwork by the podium was stained and finished by her. How could I leave all that?”

He’d been alone for seven years when he commented, “I have good kids and grandkids. Even the ones with nutty haircuts would do anything for me. I’m living the life of Riley. Your mother being gone is the only fly in my ointment.”

Dad believed with all his heart that he and Mom would be reunited when he died — if he behaved: “I got Christmas cards from two old widows in town. They are both sturdy women, but I feel no need to call in the reserves. I’m fine by myself, except for trying to figure out how to quit swearing, which would increase my odds of getting back with your dear mother. Any suggestions would be appreciated.”

And finally: “I’d like to visit Barbara in Alaska again and go to Norway where my ancestors came from if I live long enough. And if I don’t, I’ll be with your mother. So it looks good for me either way.”

I wanted to spend time with my dad by re-reading his letters, and, in doing so, I discovered a love story written in his words.

The Important Things

Happy Mother's day card with colorful tulips

I remember coming home from church on Mothers’ Day, looking forward to dinner and Mom’s surprise when she opened her presents — a cookie sheet, a three-pack of Dentyne chewing gum, and a boxed set of lace-trimmed handkerchiefs — gifts my siblings and I had purchased despite Mom’s claim that all she wanted was a day without fighting, screaming, tattling, or crying.

As Dad maneuvered the car along our potholed lane, I admired Mom’s bouquet: tissue-paper flowers we’d made in Sunday school, sprayed with Lily of the Valley perfume, and attached to pipe-cleaner stems. During general services, after selected classmates expressed appreciation for their mothers, the rest of us distributed the scented blossoms. “Your flowers are pretty, Mom. Hard to make, too. Did you like the speeches?”

“I did, but I hope if one of you is asked to speak on Mothers’ Day, you’ll mention things you appreciate other than the way I cook your meals, clean the house, and do your laundry. Surely there are things mothers do for their children more important than maid service.”

Unfortunately, I was never selected as a Mothers’ Day speaker and so never told Mom how grateful I am for the more important things she did for me.

My mother shaped me: She gave me her generous lips, sparse eyelashes, enjoyment of school, and belief that a day without dessert was a sad day indeed. Both of us could carry a tune, though no one in our songbird family expressed interest in hearing us do so. Public speaking, teaching, and napping came naturally to us, but a cheerful attitude before breakfast did not.

More importantly, Mom noticed and appreciated the detailed world around her. One of my earliest memories is of her teaching me to be in the moment: to swish my fingers through the cool pond where we gathered watercress, sniff the plant’s pungent aroma, and then sample a peppery leaf.

When we moved to Lander, Wyoming, I heard her marvel at the tilted red cliffs, rushing river, and towering pines of our new home and so paid closer attention than I would have if left to my self-centered teenage ways.

She once showed me a spoon she selected when she and her siblings were choosing keepsakes after their mother died. “Of all the things I chose, I treasure this the most,” she said, holding out a large silver spoon for my examination. “This was your grandmother’s stirring spoon for as long as I can remember. See how the curved edge on one side is worn flat from constant use? When I hold this spoon, it’s like I’m connected to her.”

My mother also taught me empathy. My sister and I both fled to her at different times when marriages we thought were forever crumbled. We arrived wounded, angry, frightened, and left with a sense of peace and resolution. Neither of us can remember Mom’s words, but we remember the gifts she gave us: our favorite foods, her undivided attention when we wanted to talk, and her tears when we cried.

Though my mother didn’t speak the words “I love you” easily, I never questioned her love for me. My siblings and I learned from her, enjoyed her, and appreciated her. Her home was where our hearts were.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. You did the important things.

Pumpkin Pie and Aunt Mary

Adapted from a chapter in my book, “A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns.”Thank_01.png.jpeg

I love Thanksgiving. Growing up, I looked forward to the quiet holiday tucked between my birthday and Christmas because I could eat all I wanted — an unusual occurrence when competing on a daily basis with six hungry and determined siblings. I discovered Thanksgiving meant more to me than abundant food, however, when I celebrated it with a college friend and her family.

I remember sitting with careful posture at a crowded table, wondering what I would talk about with these people who didn’t ask a blessing on the food and argued about the Viet Nam war while passing the gravy. I felt like a water balloon, full of bottled-up tears, ready to burst.

Then, unannounced, Aunt Mary, whom I adored, danced into my head. I smelled her perfume and saw her flushed cheeks as she kicked off her shoes after Thanksgiving dinner and performed a Charleston to music on my cousin’s transistor radio. Just a flash of memory, then she was gone; and the truth hit me: I was homesick.

Every Thanksgiving my family drove from Lake Shore to Provo in a bulging sedan, balancing foil-covered pans of dinner rolls and newspaper-wrapped casseroles, to gather in a church recreation hall with Mom’s family.

It was a large and raucous group: grandma, aunts, uncles, and too many cousins to count, ranging from college students striving to appear intellectual to babies being passed around. Grandma, Mom and my aunts ruled the kitchen, laughing and working in a precise choreography only they understood and shooing away interlopers looking for a taste of turkey.

A volleyball game with fluid teams ebbed and flowed at one end of the gym. Toddlers, playing tag, ran through the court, disrupting play, dodging between the legs of the players. Uncle Norley’s laugh boomed as he and Dad swapped hunting stories; Mr. Potato Head pieces crunched underfoot; and marbles from the Chinese checkers game bounced off the board. In a corner, teenagers clustered to pose and share insider information, banning younger siblings from their circle.

When Aunt Arlene didn’t finish lining the tables with butcher paper and later wondered why anyone would put walnuts in fruit salad, we noticed. But we reserved judgment; she was from Oregon, after all, and new to the clan.

During the meal, familiar stories were repeated; cousins compared ballooning bellies; and the cooks were applauded. Everyone agreed it was the best meal yet and that Grandpa would have loved it. Then Grandma prepared packets of food for each family to take home and hugged us to her as we left.

Being thankful is easily done when surrounded by loved ones.

Over the years, my definition of family has  expanded and now includes the dear friends and new relatives who have brightened my favorite holiday.

Still, at some point during the happiness of Thanksgiving, a moment arrives when my mind rushes back to a family-filled gym where I see the smile of my still-young mom and enjoy the antics of her kin.