The Man in the Blue Oxford Shirt

CMV with Annie 1993 2

A Remembrance of Charles M. Vest,  former President of MIT

When I think of his memorial service at MIT planned for later this week, it is hard not to envision Chuck Vest himself coming up to he podium, looking around at what is sure to be an impressive gathering, and saying, “Well, hello there!” Legions of others will have better stories of the man in the ubiquitous blue oxford shirt, and I look forward to hearing all of them. All I can say is that these moments are uniquely mine, and they’re dear to me because of both who he was and the singular place he occupies in my life.

I was fortunate to be designated as Chuck’s transition assistant in 1990 and there were moments when we shared a kind of bewildered joy to be there, tucked away in Building 14, with a meeting schedule that could have passed for a list of the greatest minds of the 20th century. I don’t think he ever stopped being tickled to find himself among people he admired. Chuck and I developed a kind of rapport that summer; he would call me Radar for my ability to anticipate what he needed (and my propensity to blurt out an unsolicited opinion at the exact wrong time). But when he announced that everyone needed an e-mail username and address (it was that long ago) and I chose a contraction of my name – Scamp – that was the nickname that stuck over the years.

We have ways of creating stand-ins among the living for those who are with us only in spirit. There comes a point, inevitably, when our parents die and we find ourselves feeling a specific kind of aloneness. When my mother was dying, she had all kinds of crazy wisdom for me, and my favorite was, “You’re turning 40, and we’ll be gone. I never really felt grown up until both of my parents were dead. Your life is your own now; you won’t have me looking over your shoulder. It will be liberating.” I get what she was saying, and, liberated or not, she left me reams of advice that sit in a binder on my shelf.

But with my Dad it was trickier. His illness was shorter than Mom’s, and he was much more reticent to create any sense of closure. On matters of the heart, Mom did all the talking. Dad and I had said goodbye without my realizing it was the last one; I am certain he knew. Several weeks earlier he’d phoned me at MIT – the first and only time Dad called me at work. I happened to be in Chuck’s office that day – I was filling in for Laura for a few weeks while she was away. The call had followed me down the corridor from ASPG.  I rushed to the outer office, my face flushed with embarrassment and concern, and took the call in which my father informed me that he was sending me plane ticket so I could go home for a birthday party he was planning for my mother (another first and only). I had told him before that I was too busy to come; it was a crazy summer. But I was summoned and I went.

At first glance my father and Chuck could not have appeared more different, but they shared some characteristics: a firm handshake, a low voice that was seldom raised, a quiet devotion to family and faith, a way of chuckling through a funny story, a gallows sense of humor and a fondness for mixed nuts. They each had a kind of heartland sensibility that is largely undemonstrative; the hint of a smile or a furrowed brow spoke volumes.

So I flew out to Missouri for the party and had a wonderful time. Dad spent an afternoon at the head of the table, regaling the family with stories we had heard a million times before. When it came time for Dad to drive me to the airport, as he did every time I visited home, he told me that my brother-in-law would drive me instead. I should have known then. But instead I wrote it off to the fact that there were so many people visiting that weekend, Dad could not make all of those trips himself, and I blithely kissed and hugged him goodbye. Two weeks later I was flying back for the funeral. When Mom called to tell me he was ill, I asked if I should come home and she said “No, don’t come. It’s fine, you’ve had your turn.” And it was tough to take, but I guessed she was right.

TQM with CMV July 1992When I returned to Cambridge after the funeral it was the first day of a Total Quality Management Workshop for Constantine’s VP Staff Group. Shioji Shiba, the TQM guru, was there and it was a big deal. I was exhausted and as I stood in a daze during the pre-conference coffee, Chuck approached me, and wordlessly hugged me and kissed my forehead. And that was it. In one moment I got the goodbye I had missed from Dad and the hello that I needed to move forward. I went to the rest room and wept. Then I joined the group and promptly nodded off while Professor Shiba was talking (Yo-One!) and even though everyone around the table could see me, they let me snooze. We gathered for one of those team building group photos, and somebody directed me to a chair and I sat down. I was startled and delighted to find myself seated with Chuck, CBS and Professor Shiba; I’m not quite sure how that happened. We all look so happy, and in that moment, despite my loss, I truly was happy.

I understand much more clearly now the value of the sense of belonging I enjoyed at that time in my life. I look back and wince at my many rookie mistakes – CBS would refer it to it as “letting my slip show” – but I also miss the unbridled enthusiasm I had for nearly everything. I knew from the moment  I arrived in ASPG that that I was part of something extraordinary, but I didn’t grasp then how rare it is to work for and with people who share a common vision and have respect and admiration for each other, even under difficult circumstances. I worked hard and I was rewarded, which is such a simple concept but in these times it seems like something of a miracle.

Twenty-one years have passed. I left my job to stay home with my children, engaged in a new and challenging set of tasks but still working behind the scenes with and for people to whom I am devoted. The affirmations of parenting are both clearer and murkier – a child’s love is magic but you’re never really sure if you did a good job. No calls at the end of the day from CBS on the cell phone patting me on the back while he sped down the Mass Pike in his Volvo, no nod of bemused appreciation from Chuck at my fabulous color coding of the Faculty Meeting agenda. In my case the job has been more hands-on for a longer time; having a child with a disability presents a slew of joys and challenges, and there are no performance evaluations or raises – just a constantly changing job description (there are plenty of meetings, though, and lots of notes to take).

I look back on those days when I was out there in the working world, in that very brief moment where I was not so defined as a daughter or a mother, and feeling that I was in the right place at the right time with the right people. Those moments of synchrony (thank you, MLAM, for giving me that word) are as important to me as falling in love with husband and children. I feel a little nostalgic but mostly I feel incredibly, tremendously lucky.

A few years back, in the process of advocating for my child I got some press and sometime later I heard from Chuck. Over the years we kept tabs on each other, sending photos and occasional pithy e-mails (thanks to Laura, ever the catalyst). In one of those e-mail exchanges about family updates came a small moment – he told me he’d seen the piece in the Globe and that was proud of me. And because it was Chuck, whom I don’t think ever said anything he didn’t mean, it was the kind of validation I thought I had learned to live without.

I have a thin file folder that contains a few handwritten notes and short e-mails from Chuck that mean as much to me as anything I own, and I am grateful for the presence in my life that they represent. I am proud to be among the many people who enjoy the indelible imprint of Chuck Vest on our lives. I’m pretty sure I’m the only Scamp, though.

Grief That is Coming of Age

SONY DSCI found a new diary app call Day One that makes it simple and fun to record moments on my phone and attach a photo. It’s a wonderful, quick way to capture images and events that otherwise get recorded in my many random notebooks. The images get buried in my 30,000+ photo library and the words and pictures seldom come together again in the same way I felt them at the time. All the entries can be downloaded en masse as a PDF on my computer if I ever want to do anything more with it. It’s brilliant.

This morning I was waiting for a child to awaken and took a moment to look at the pouring rain and remember this, the anniversary of our Dad’s death, 21 years ago today. I opened the Day One app and I wrote this:

It set off a chain of events that have influenced every moment since.

It was as though the words typed themselves, without my knowledge or permission. It is absolutely true, though, and even though it may seem like a surprise to me now, I knew even then that something fundamental had changed with Dad’s passing. I felt it on the train home that day, knowing as I stepped off that when I left Cambridge he was alive, and when I arrived in Concord, he was not. When I got to the house I called my brother and told him Dad was gone.

“How could you possibly know?” he asked.

“I just do.”

My brother was in New Jersey, I was in Massachusetts, Dad was in Saint Louis. It didn’t matter. A long chapter in my life, in all of our lives, had closed and we were free to look back and forward in ways that were not possible before that moment. It’s when memories and myths and mysteries all start to form and weave together ways that are different for every person; truth matters for a while but then becomes so complicated and elusive that you give up, only to go looking for it again later.

It happens this way for plenty of people, I’m sure, when they lose someone so influential to them. The absence of the reflected love, hate, or diffidence changes the image in the mirror and adjustments must be made. In my case it marked the start of the transition from being a child to being a parent, and the quick realization that even that traditional and expected path was not as straight or simple as I thought.

Libraries and hard drives the world over are full of the stories behind this revelation – that life seldom is what we expect it might be and what happens to us brings us unheralded joy, pain and wisdom. It just so happens that on this day back in 1992, my life took a turn in a new direction – if it were a movie there would be a map with a prop plane and a dotted line moving across continents with great zigs and zags, still going forward but making its way around the globe again and again, flying repeatedly over that point where the journey began.

Hoping that the Present Generation of Veterans Gets the Same Kind of Respect We Give the Greatest Generation

Dad in WW2

Right now that hope is a little dim, given that the wars we have now are coming to a close (if we can call it that) with more of a whimper than a VE Day/VJ Day bang.

NPR ran a touching story on Honor Flight New England, an organization that offers free trips to DC for WW II vets so they can visit the monuments to their service. One surviving vet said, though long-held tears, that in all the years since he came home he thought of his service as a waste – he buried those memories and never spoke about it. On this trip, however, he said he finally understood that his service meant something and, knowing how grateful people are for his service,  he would do it again ten times over. A number of people said that the veterans in their family never spoke of the war or showed any interest in war movies or documentaries. That came as somewhat of a relief to me because my father only spoke of his service in the Pacific the war in small details, although he watched every episode of The World at War and read every book it though the years. He was so pleased when his war buddy came to town – a towering man named Jim who, in uniform as I recall, would delight us with his strength by tearing a phone book in half.

Dad would pull out the atlas and show me the places with exotic names in the Philipines where he was a harbor pilot. I was very young when we did this together – we made a game out of my mispronunciation of Catbalogan – and it seemed to me then that he felt kind of lucky to be an Iowa boy navigating the ocean on big ships. I once asked him why he didn’t drink coffee and he said “I had a lifetime’s worth of coffee in the war.” That’s as much as I ever recall hearing about life on a Navy ship. After he died in 1992, I read his letters home to his mother and they seemed to chronicle the times in ways that were unremarkable. In the few photos I have of him, he is smiling. Some people interpret this as him blocking out the mean experiences of war – that there were stories too terrible to be told. I really don’t know.

What strikes me now is that in the age of instant global communication, we are not under any illusion about what our soldiers are facing overseas. They do not have the luxury, if you can a call it that, of burying the atrocities of war when they come home. It’s on TV, the internet and at the movies. The Greatest Generation had On the Town, South Pacific and From Here to Eternity – our guys have PlatoonThe Hurt Locker, and Jarhead. I suspect there won’t be a musical about Afghanistan any time soon.

We are losing more soldiers to suicide at home than we are  on deployment. It’s hard to know what to do to help, although we should make sure vets get the mental health services they need and their benefits on time, neither of which is happening now. In the meantime, I hope that, unlike some of the men in the NPR story, today’s servicemen and women don’t have to wait 60 years to hear their fellow citizens say “thank you.”

DSC01780 - Version 2

Thank you.

Putting Autism in its Place

There's more than one way to get lit
There’s more than one way to get lit

Autism Acceptance Month includes Light it Up Blue day, and people find themselves reminded, pummeled and delighted by blue lights everywhere. It’s hard to know how to feel about the hoopla when we try so hard not to let autism dominate our lives. That’s why I moved my autism posts to their own blog. To be honest, though, those were the posts that got the most hits when I began writing Lettershead back in 2009. Much as it would lovely to be vastly popular and widely read, Lettershead is about trying to keep some perspective and focus on ideas that are not directly informed by autism.

Autism casts a long, blue shadow, however. Sometimes it feels like I spent my early years escaping the shadow of alcoholism only to turn and face autism. It was good preparation, as it turns out. An anxious person by nature, living with an alcoholic taught me to be flexible and to live with a specific kind of uncertainty about what each day would bring. In recent years I discovered that if I replace the word “alcoholic” with “autistic” in the Al-Anon daily meditation book, it works beautifully, if not in exactly the same way.

The most dangerous thing I allow myself to do is look back and see the years in my between alcoholism and autism and idealize them. I think everyone indulges in this during a standard-issue mid-life re-evaluation. We see high school, college, single life, some point in our youth as something that slipped away accidentally rather than as part of a progression to a fuller life. George Bernard Shaw had it right: youth is wasted on the young. What I’ve come to appreciate by looking back is the value of the cumulativeness of my experiences. For all the randomness of my choices, they all seem to have prepared me for the life I have now, unexpected and unpredictable as it is.

Laurie Anderson said in a great interview with the New York Times that she has “zero time for nostalgia,” and that is a phrase I keep in my head because the world is changing so rapidly that I want our kids to know what the world used to be like without getting myself stuck there. In the process of talking about the past it also occurs to me that for all the good experiences we try to create for other people, we have no control over how they see or will remember it. I have no idea what my parents were thinking half of the time they were raising us, but it’s clear to me now that regardless of their intended blueprint, my own memories were built by me and there isn’t a lot they can do about it now. The reality of a large family is that there are as many versions of the truth as there are people. Our children haven’t even left home yet and they are already constructing versions of their childhood that bear little resemblance to the one I thought we gave them.

And autism? It is a changeable, petulant child all on its own. The disorder I learned about in 1998 is unrecognizable to me. I was not a refrigerator mother, my child’s brain is not empty, limited eye contact does not mean a lack of engagement, and we enjoy a level of love and empathy we were told was impossible. It morphs and changes along with the boy, advancing and receding on a schedule known to no one. It’s a cat, a bowl of Jell-O, a dish of mercury, a block of granite. I will follow it, chill it, contain it, haul it around, chip away at it – whatever it takes to deny it center stage. That’s the job, that’s my job, and every day it will change and still be the same. It’s not something I planned for, but I know it’s what I was meant to do.

Long walk.

It has been a raucous month. Graduation, orientation, parties, beach walks, visits from family, packing for camp, berry picking and even a Supreme Court decision that will go down in history. Now we venture into a July that will bring new things we can’t even begin to imagine and so I offer something comfortingly familiar – June 2012’s edition of a photo I have taken dozens of times in in every season. Few spots are more lovely than Steep Hill Beach at low tide.

On that day a few weeks ago when things were particularly crazy, we were walking up the wooded hill from the beach and as usual I was bringing up the rear, the rest of the family out of sight. Lost in thoughts of all that is to come, I rounded the corner and encountered an older gentleman making his way down the path. Long-sleeved open-collared white shirt with cuffs rolled up, khaki pants, glasses, panama hat. He smiled at me and said in a voice all too familiar,

“Long walk, isn’t it?” His voice had a bit of a midwestern accent, so “isn’t” came out like “idn’t.”

My voice caught a little as I replied,

“Yes, but a good one.”

He nodded.

I wasn’t sure if I was making it up by the time I reached my husband at the top of the path. He raised his eyebrows and said,

“Did you see him? It was your Dad.”

Yes, I think it was.

1919-1992

Today is the 18th anniversary of my father’s death; my mourning has come of age.   The hot days of summer bring back all kinds of memories of him and playing them back and filling in details is a process that seems to dominate every July.  As much as I love him, most of the years we spent in the same house would never make a highlight film of his life.  And as much as he loved me, I am haunted by the bittersweet feeling and misplaced sense of responsibility that there are people and tasks that merited his attention and did not get it.

Depending on how you look at it I was in both the right place at the right time and the wrong place at the wrong time.  Appearing late enough in his life that I offered the joyous, no-strings-attached love of a little girl when such attention was in short supply, and in return I got the attention every small child craves from a parent.  My late arrival also afforded me a front row seat to a mid-life bout with alcoholism whose confusion scattered our family in untold directions.  I found myself adrift and distracted in the eye of the passive aggressive hurricane that characterized my parent’s marriage at that time, my allegiances shifting daily and instilling in me an unsettling certainty that there is no such thing as the whole truth.

His story ends well, with beloved grandchildren, an embrace of cooking, work and friends in the community, and a rekindled friendship with my mother.  She liked to say that the first 15 and the last 10 years of their marriage were worth all that happened between.  As it happens, what happened in between was my childhood. While I maintain that it was a happy one, I find myself sorting through it like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to make the brightly colored, oddly shaped pieces fit.

The inequalities of parental love – or any love at all – are tough to reconcile, and because I have witnessed in other families the carnage that can result when people attempt to settle old scores, I find myself overly focused on fairness and communication with my own children, knowing full well I have no control over how they might view their lives, and my role in them, fifty years on.  But what I carry with me is the sense that my parents, my family, have loved me the best they can, and that I should lift my head from the puzzle and work each day to return the favor.

Tell Me a Story About When You Were a Little Girl

Many nights after we read together, my youngest child will say sleepily, “Tell me a story about when you were a little girl – one that you have never told me before.”   Sometimes I am hard  pressed to come up with a new one, but most times I amazed at how many events I can conjure up – many of them laughably short (“One time my father’s friend George helped us plant corn in our backyard – it grew but the ears were not big enough to eat. The end.”) but still enough to satisfy him.  I know that this is a ploy to keep me in his room long enough for him to fall asleep, and so I talk. . .

When I was small, probably four or five, I moved from the nursery next to my parent’s bedroom on the second floor of our house up to the third floor where the rest of my sisters slept.  Mom turned the nursery into her office, where I spent just as much time playing under her desk as I had playing there when it was my room.  They’d converted the third floor from an attic to bedrooms for their growing family.  There was one small bedroom with a door – a nod to my eldest sister, by then off at college – a larger dormitory room with four beds and then a third bedroom with a double bed through an archway opening off of that.  By the time I moved upstairs, people had shuffled around a bit and the large dormitory room was left to me and my sister B.  It was a sizable linoleum tiled room with a bank of floor to ceiling windows dormered out of the roof.  The windows looked out of the rear of the house and over the rest of the block and the neighborhood down the 11th Street hill.  From it I could see the roof of the little white house next door and the house beyond it, a fabulous, magical Victorian on the corner belonging to the W’s.  Painted a deep gray blue with white trim, I would sit for hours trying to imagine what was behind those gingerbread trimmed windows.  The W. children were all older than me, so my siblings had all been in the house, but by the time I was intereted, all of them had moved on and there was no reason to visit anymore.

The third floor windows opened on long, grooved wooden tracks, which created lovely breezes in summer but also made them rattle in the winter wind.  The train whistles that wafted through them in the night echoed loneliness and adventure, depending on my mood, but the bottom line was that those windows, so full of possibilities in daylight, scared me to death at night.  I felt exposed and far removed from all that was safe.  I wanted to leave the stairwell light on, which drove my sister crazy.  She couldn’t sleep with it; I couldn’t sleep without it.

 “You’re such a baby,” she said.  She was right about that.  I alternately relished and detested my place as the youngest in the family.  Though there is no question that there are many perks to being the last of many children, the cumulative weight of the experiences of the ten who came before me is not a simple burden to bear.  Being spoiled is not the same as being included, and being allowed to play does not teach you to play well or fairly.  Still, all of it was tempered in some way by love and attention, and I am still learning the value of those details as I try to look back and look forward at the same time.

And so, ‘fraidy cat that I was, on many nights I would wait until my sister fell asleep – or until I thought she was asleep – and tiptoe down the squeakish linoleum steps across the soft carpet of the second floor hall in to my parents room at the opposite corner of the house.  There in the king-sized bed my parents would be sleeping with their backs to each other, and I would scramble up from the foot of the bed, across the white coverlet that smelled of bleach to nestle in the valley between them.  I never recall them waking up and shooing me back upstairs, though I am sure there were times that they did, but I do remember bemused conversations in the morning about how I appeared there.

 Some mornings I would lay in their bed and watch my father as he shaved in the bathroom while the morning news was on the television.  There was a local voiceover guy on KWWL who bellowed “Good morning everybody!”  It made a good day a forgone conclusion.  And then came Captain Kangaroo, and Dad, in boxers and shaving cream, would come out and dance next to the television with dancing bear.  It was a magic moment.  Then he would come over and kiss me and I would swoon to the sharp soapy smell of shaving cream. Some times he would take the blade out of the razor and let me imitate him by putting shaving cream on my own face and swiping it off.

On other nights, it was not so much a desire to snuggle that sent me downstairs as abject terror.  I had – and still have – a recurring nightmare that was so real to me that it migrated into my awakened state.  There is a black rock, large and glistening, moving slowly and inexorably toward me.  Everything depends on my keeping that monolith from moving another inch, and yet, no matter how hard I try, it progresses, threatening to crush me in its path.  I remember scurrying to my mom’s side of the bed and shaking her shoulder, telling her in desperate whispers that I needed her help to stop the big, dark rock.   I was tiny enough that, standing up, my face was even with hers on her pillow and I had to reach up to rouse her; she was understandably  groggy and confused, but would cup her smooth dry palm around my check and chin and tell me to climb in and say my prayers and that my guardian angel would come and help me.  I didn’t want my guardian angel; I wanted her, my mother, the person who knew everything and could do anything.

I never turned to Dad at such moments, though I counted on him for other things.  I knew he would love me no matter what; I knew he would never ask more of me than I could give, I knew that the worlds we lived in were somehow different and the same.  I surmise now that he was ruled by a strange mix of fear and obliviousness and that my own greatest fear is sharing his oblivion, of not knowing and conquering my own demons.  My demons are his; my weapons for fighting them are hers, and so there is a battle royal in my head most every day.  And when I lay next to my boy and share my stories, I know that I do have a guardian angel and that she is winning.

More than Veterans

Mom with Lou Friend and Bob Hogan 1943

Last week I wrote about my father’s Navy service (see Overseas) and so today a moment to honor not simply service to our country but the many ways it shaped and created countless lives.  World War II created social structures (our mother with friends at right) and set the stage for a generation that would truly change the world.  A kiss to those who served, and to those who love them.

Here is a link to a new, beautiful song by Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits fame) to commemorate Armistice Day.

Overseas

Dad in WW2

This is our mother’s favorite photograph of our father. She kept it under the glass on her dresser, along with dozens of other photos of her children and grandchildren.  The dresser was several feet long, allowing enough surface area for a single column of photographs depicting each child from infancy to adulthood.  The picture of Dad was in the upper right hand corner and must have been covered by a jewelry box or a lamp, because I don’t recall ever seeing it until she carefully removed it from under the glass to give to me shortly after my father died in 1992.

He is sitting near a beach in a tee shirt, his sloping shoulders, relaxing tanned arms down to hands resting on khaki-clad knees.  He seems happy.  From a distance it is not clear whether he is looking at the camera, and one might surmise that he is looking off in the distance.  But upon closer inspection it is clear that his shadowed eyes fixed on the lens, and that makes his smile seem a little more self conscious, more guarded, but upbeat nonetheless.  It was wartime in the Phillipines, after all. 

A few years back Steven Soderbergh directed a film set in World War II (The Good German) which he shot using only cameras, lenses and lighting that were available in 1946.  Soderbergh, spoke in the Times about the use of direct incandescent lighting and the unique, noir-ish quality of the shadows that type of lighting and lens created.  This photograph evokes that style, with deep shadows and warm whites depicting men in manly poses wearing simple, military issue clothing.  The ocean waves behind them provide the only patterns.

Who took the photograph and the identity of the man on the left remains a mystery; my mother didn’t know either, which I find particularly odd.  But it suits his overall story, I suppose, for he was a man with many friends, many stories and a selective memory.  Born and bred in the landlocked Midwest, he left his college career and enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, and shipped off first to Philadelphia and then to Manila.  I surmise that one of the reasons my mother loved this particular photo is that, besides showing him as he was when they first met, it captures on his face his love of the sea, his joy and satisfaction at being part of something big in a place an Iowa man would never expect to find himself.

But for all of his stories, and his gift for telling them, his war years remained largely a mystery, at least to me.  He watched every WWII documentary, read every book about it, but the only details he shared with us were with maps, showing us the islands he went to, and sometimes the kinds of ships he guided as a harbor pilot.  Some of my siblings, in search of an explanation for the years that followed, theorized that that happened in the war drove him to drink later in his life.  When he lay dying, one of them plucked up all of his courage to ask what happened in the war, what sort of injustices led him to the bottle.  The answer was wholly unsatisfactory.  That was just who he was, he said; there wasn’t a reason, no deep dark secret.  He drank because he liked to, needed to, and he stopped drinking when it stopped helping.  It sounds so simple, so unarguable, when put in those terms.  Even so, there are those that believe he simply was not willing or able to talk about all of his war experiences.   So all we have is the photo hidden in plain sight until it was too late to find out the story behind it.

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