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.

Home Windows – a reading spot

It’s been a while since I posted any window photos, though I have taken many.  This one is in the house where I grew up, looking much the same now as it did then.  We used to climb though the windows on the left and right to sun ourselves on the warm tar roof during cold April days.  It was a sign of spring. The vantage point from which the photo was taken was where my mother kept her cedar chest, and I imagine it full of  wool blankets and linen and lace wrapped in brown paper – to be honest I am not sure if that’s what was really in the chest or I am just channeling all of those Laura Ingalls Wilder books I read on that landing, my body wedged between the radiator and the window.  But I do still have lace and linen wrapped in paper from that house, that much is certain, and I wonder now when I will ever have occasion to use them.  They’ve been waiting for their  moment for so long.

It’s that time again – January, and an election year to boot

How many platitudes, resolutions and predictions can you cram into one January blog post?  The mind reels.  But times are changing and I can’t stop thinking about it because it all seems so overwhelming good and bad – it’s exhausting to move so constantly from depression to enthusiasm to panic in sub-zero weather.  Coffee. Wine. Cupcakes. Stale Christmas cookies.  I’ve tried them all.  And I just read on the Internet – on Science Daily, no less – that people who write about their emotions regularly are more likely to lose weight.  Seriously.  So I put down my cupcake and here I am, typing away on my fabulous new computer on which I should be writing anyway because, well, what else am I going to do while the plumber is here fixing my bathroom?  Unfortunately the article does not give me a word count to reach before I can return to my cupcake.

But seriously, 2012 is bound to be a doozy one way or the other, right?  The Iowa Caucuses alone constitute a shot over the bow.  And even though that is indeed a link to the Daily Show’s coverage of the caucuses, pretty much any coverage of it is hilarious.  I’m not rushing out the door this year to take in the New Hampshire primary scramble this year, though, oddly tempting as a Newt Gingrich sighting might be.  Back in 2008, I spent the day after the caucuses tracking down Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

I watched Bill and Chelsea Clinton, wearing pained expressions as they watched Hillary try to recover from her loss to Obama the night before.

I witnessed McCain’s last retail style appearance at a Hollis, NH, pharmacy in which I was one of a handful of people who saw Warren Rudman endorsing McCain.  The tiny store was so jammed with press people and equipment there was no room for actual voters – Cindy wisely stayed on the straight talk express bus.  after that, it was all Town Hall style venues.  I also spent some quality time observing CNN’s John King at work in the still-empty country pharmacy as he waited for McCain to appear.  This was before he was promoted to the role of smart screen guru in the studio – I recall being in awe of his ability to talk on a cell phone, look at a Blackberry and type on his laptop all at once.  Even just 4 years ago that kind of multitasking was novel stuff.  Still, he took time out to chat about the momentous events in Iowa and was relaxed and personable even as he continued to work and the room slowly filled with people around him.It was probably the best January morning I have ever spent anywhere.  Mitt, Rick and Newt could not hope to come close.

Skunk rolls

Fall 2009 - Skunk Roll bakedWhen Ruth Casey came to babysit, I hid under the bed.  It was nothing personal, really.  As the youngest in a large family, I relished being home alone with my mother when all the other children were in school, and Ruth Casey robbed me, the nursery school dropout, of those precious moments.  If I stayed under the bed long enough maybe my mother would give up and stay home.

Mom was justifiably annoyed at me for my awful behavior when Mrs. Casey arrived.  She was a friend of the family, a well turned out woman with nicely coiffed white hair, rimless glasses and a deep blue suit with pretty buttons down the front of the jacket.  She had a throaty voice that squeaked a little when she laughed, which reminded me of the Andy Devine (he did voiceovers in cartoons).  She seemed a little scary but in truth I was just reluctant to separate from my mother.  I understand that better now, when my youngest scowls at me when his beloved sitter arrives, though she is more fun-loving than I remember Ruth.  As I kept company with the dust bunnies beneath the bed, I recall wondering why Ruth would possibly want to look after me.  She appeared and acted as though she should have a million other things she could be doing, even as she would read to me and try to coax me into playing games with her, I just couldn’t understand why she was there.

As I got older my admiration for Ruth and my embarrassment at my behavior toward her grew.  Ruth Casey was widely loved and respected in Cedar Falls.   Her full name was Ruth Livingston Casey, and her brother, John Livingston, was an accomplished test pilot in the early days of aviation.  He was said to be the inspiration for the Richard Bach’s 1970 book  Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and the kitschy movie that followed.

Best and worst of all, Mrs. Casey gave us one of our most treasured family recipes, and I probably wrecked that for her, too.  Her crescent rolls are present at every holiday in every household in the our family, where they are known as skunk rolls because as a tiny child I thought the curl of dough over the center of the roll looked like the tail of a sleeping skunk.  They don’t deserve the stinky name – guests at the holiday table are always taken aback by it – but some names just stick whether you want them to or not.  I can only imagine how my new moniker for her rolls went over with poor beleaguered Mrs. Casey.

With their buttery, yeasty aroma wafting through the house, those rolls, more than any other single thing, mean home and love and happiness to two generations of our family.  It took years of watching my mother and then many failed attempts on my own to learn to make them properly (oh, the lost art of proofing yeast!), and now I am teaching my own children to make them.  There is nothing quite like working with the dough, which stretches and collapses with a rhythm of its own as it is kneaded and rolled, buttered and cut, then left to rise under tea towels in a warm sunny spot.  Baked and brushed with melted butter, skunk rolls are the ultimate comfort food, and they are the only food my family begs me to make that does not contain chocolate.

I suppose part of the irony is that watching my mother roll out Ruth’s rolls was one of my favorite contexts for her.  She was such a mix of the traditional and the radical, someone who fought for and railed against tradition; you never knew where she would come out on something but in the end you knew she could make it all sound perfectly rational.  Homemade rolls served right next to the potato buds and raspberry Jello-O with cut up banana floating in it.

I hope that, out in the heavens, Ruth Casey understands that I have come out from under the bed and am doing my best to make amends each time I turn out another batch of rolls.  When my brother comes for Thanksgiving in a few weeks, the first words out of his mouth as her greets me on the front walk will be, “You DID make Skunk rolls, didn’t you?”  Of course.


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.

Early Release

Once or twice a month we would be dismissed from school at 1:30 so that there could be a teacher’s meeting.  We were savvy 7th graders, done with the playground flirtations of 6th grade – we wanted to spend the day downtown.  Only a few blocks from our school, our Main Street was like every other in the Midwest, with lines of brick turn-of-the-century buildings, numbered cross Streets and mom and pop stores increasingly aware that they were a dying breed.  Still, the seventies were taking their toll on Main Street, holding disappointments and surprises along the way.  Already losing ground to the new mall on the other side of town, the city planners had torn up the straight main street and made it curvy and added modern multi-globe street lights and more stop lights in hope of drumming up business for the merchants who remained.

It was perfect for us.  We could walk from home and school and spend a whole afternoon making our way from the Library at 5th and Main to the Regent Theatre at 2nd street.  The Regent didn’t show matinees on weekdays but we would always check the coming attractions (anything from Annie Hall to Gone With the Wind) and come back on the weekend.

Pockets loaded with allowance money and whatever we could scrounge from our mothers’ change drawers, my best friend and I would recruit any of our other friends who wanted to go and hurry to our first stop, the Public Library.  We bounced down the street in those days before 60 pound backpacks, iPods and cell phones, elated to know that we were free of nuns, coaches, and parents until suppertime.  That was true every day, of course, but going downtown on our own was a special freedom, one that allowed us to peek through windows and doors and make a short foray beyond the neighborhood.

The library was an old blond brick building with a modern addition that had large widows and thick carpet on which you could run through the stacks without being heard.  I loved the books with their gold embossed spines or jackets covered in cellophane, so much so that I often hated parting with them – much of my allowance went to library fines. It was understood that, even though we were old enough, there were certain books in the adult section we weren’t supposed to check out, and so we would snatch the romance novels off of the rack near the front desk and sneak them to the back stacks so we could read the steamy parts.  No elegant binding here – they were well-worn paperbacks with titles like The Wolf and the Dove and The Flame and the Flower (which, incidentally, are still in print and have dozens of reviews on Amazon).  Occasionally one of my friends would actually smuggle one out the library in her jacket, but I never dared.  It would not have been worth getting caught.  My mother had already given me permission to check out my beloved Hollywood biographies (over the objections of the nuns at school) and there was no way I would give up access to Marilyn Monroe, David Niven and Judy Garland for a cheap thrill.

On to the soda fountain at Hieber Drug.  Located in one of the older storefronts, it had high stamped tin ceilings with black fans twisting lazily overhead.  There was no more empowering experience than to hoist ourselves up on the black leather swivel stools, rest our elbows on the cold marble countertop and order a green river or a root beer float.  With enough green dye to make you glow in the dark, green rivers were all fizz and no flavor but they looked spectacular in the curvy soda classes.  The root beer floats had a thirties moonshine look in the thick mugs; I still love silky vanilla ice cream against sharp, foamy root beer.  Dog ‘n Suds, the yellow neon drive-in restaurant across town, couldn’t hold a candle, neon or otherwise, to a countertop float at Hieber’s.

Beyond the delights of the soda fountain there was a certain mystery to Hieber’s.  I never saw my father there, but I knew he bought greeting cards and stale Whitman’s chocolates from Hieber’s for my mother on holidays, and as the years progressed she was less charmed and more annoyed by these offerings (I, of course, was charmed – Whitmans had a map on the top of the box so you knew what each chocolate had inside).  Reading the cards, with their cellophane overlays and cursive poetry, I could not quite connect the sentiments found in them to my parents.  The inscription didn’t match the tone of their banter when they got along nor the smoldering resentment when they didn’t.  My mother would remark pointedly on Mother’s Day, “I am NOT your Mother.” He would just chuckle and I would giggle, too.  It wasn’t really the cards; he would call her Mom all the time, just like us, using pretty much the same tone.  He called his own mother Gramma, too. Once we were grown and moved to the city to be near the grandchildren, he never skipped a beat – he called her Grandma, which also drove her crazy.  I can count on one hand the number of times I heard him call her by her given name.

Anyway, I always thought about my Dad stopping in at Hieber’s and wondered what he did there, whether the knew the man behind the counter or the one who was always smoking in back.  Hieber’s smelled like hair tonic and alcohol and newspapers and reminded me of our town as I imagined it was in the 20s or 30s, as if Bonnie and Clyde might walk in the door any minute.  Dad loved to tell stories about those times.  After 25 years of marriage to a native Iowan, my mother, a transplant from Philadelphia, had clearly had her fill of Old Iowa stories and whenever he began to wax nostalgic we all rolled our eyes and groaned as if we would die of boredom if we ever heard any of them again.  But truth be told we all loved the stories (like the one about the Indians who were allowed to come into the Mains Street stores and take whatever they wanted), Mom included; it was the way he told them in this phase that wearied us – it was like we weren’t even there, he would just drone on, as if nothing in the current day – including us – interested him much.  We were young; our lives were too exciting to be drawn to sepia tones.  Many years later, the fog of middle age long lifted, he would tell all of the stories again on a single afternoon, the colors and joy refreshed as he spun them, his voice animated and his audience rapt.

Time to cross the street and blow some money at Ben Franklin.  Straddling that odd place between childhood and adolescence, we debated among Play Doh Fun Factories, Barbie Dolls, Rona’s Barrett’s Hollywood, Billboard and Rolling Stone magazines.  Usually we got magazines because they were cheaper and easier to share, but I did buy my only Barbie (Malibu) on one of those afternoons, more as an act of rebellion since my mother refused to buy them. Plus, my friend had scores of them with a house and everything, too, so I wanted to show up at sleepovers with, at the very least, my own perfectly tanned Barbie.

Hungry again.  On to lawn City Bakery for fresh long johns from Mr. Lang.  Long johns were puffy, rectangular shaped fried dough with a long perfect smudge of white icing on the top.  With our big family, we had long since abandoned homemade birthday cake, but no matter.  Mr. Lang’s cakes were Crisco and white sugar heaven with red icing roses.  The roof of my mouth still hurts when I think of the all-frosting bites that I saved for last.  Say what you want about the dangers of fluoridated water – it’s the only reason I still have my teeth.  Mr. Lang had developed an allergy to flour over the years and had to keep his arms and hands completely covered when he baked.  It looked a little odd in the days before everyone wore gloves when handling food, and I wondered if the allergy kept him from eating all of those wonderful sugar-filled deep fried confections.

Before we entered the bakery, I would glance across the street at the open door to Vic’s Tap and wonder who would want to be in such a dark place in the middle of the day.  The sounds of deep voices and clinking glass spilled out onto the street, along with the odor of beer and cigar smoke.  Even as the warm sweet smell of the bakery pulled me in, I parsed the familiar and unfamiliar smells from Nick’s.  Cigarette smoke, bourbon, whisky and gin were good smells: beer and pipe smells were musky, strange and unwelcome.  The former conjured up images holiday gatherings and of parents just home from a party.  A hug wrapped in chilly winter mink, Kent cigarettes, Old Crow, and Chanel No. 5; a smiling smooth cheek damp with scotch and Old Spice.  Later, my husband would imbue romance into beer and cigarettes but then it seemed that beer smelled old and stale even when it was fresh; spirits never lose their luster.

Sometimes we would stop by the Hotel Black Hawk to poke around in the lobby.  What the mall was doing to the merchants, the Holiday Inn and the Howard Johnson’s out on highway 218 had done to the Hotel.  It was mostly residential now, a kind of stepping stone to the local nursing home, called the Western Home (I always imagined that it had swinging saloon doors and looked like the set of Gunsmoke, only with wheelchairs).  With its black and white tiled lobby and cloudy front windows, the Hotel still had a lot of folks coming and going.  My Mom rented one of the offices off the lobby for the local Birthright organization.  She met with girls and women who were pregnant and needed support, money and a place to have their babies.  It served her purposes perfectly – anonymous but still easy to find.  It was very simply furnished with a desk, two chairs and a black rotary dial phone that looked just like the one in the Birthright logo.  She was seldom there at this time of day, though, and usually we moved fairly quickly out of the Black Hawk lobby and back onto the street to check out the movie theatre and then head home before dark.

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