Tuesday, July 23, 2019

HOG RIDES AND WRINGER WASHERS

This past weekend, my oldest daughter and her family were staying with me after their return from three weeks in Asia. On Sunday morning, she came in to where I was my practicing my French horn, and told me that she'd just had a message from my cousin that my Aunt Cecilia had died. It wasn't a shock, since my aunt was 93 and had been ill for some time, but for her nine surviving children, their families, her brother, and countless nieces, nephews and friends, it would leave a huge gap, except that she spent her life filling all around her with love and laughter.
As my daughter wrote, "she raised 10 children, wrote a regular newspaper column for many years, wrote several books, and was named both Missouri Press Woman of the Year and Missouri Mother of the Year. Her kind heart and cheerful spirit made us all love her." My mother often claimed that Aunt Cecilia got things wrong when she wrote about their childhood, but my aunt teased her that she could write her own book. She was a mentor for me in combining writing with raising her children, and she appears in my novel, Sooners in Backwater. The excerpt that follows is fictionalized only in names.

When we pulled up in front of Aunt Cecilia’s rambling brown farmhouse, across the road from the long white dairy barn, we couldn’t wait to take a run up the huge pine that grew at an acute angle in the front yard so that even the smallest child could hike up and down almost as easily as climbing stairs. As soon as we’d said our hellos, we tore out with our cousins to the barn, climbed up to the hayloft and took turns jumping down into the bin full of grain that cushioned our landing. The cows were all out in the field, but the barn was filled with the musty ambience of hay and cobwebs, dust motes sparkling in the shafts of light that came through the open doors, and the Guernseys whose aroma lingered penetratingly. We admired a new batch of black and white kittens hidden behind a hay bale in the loft while we exchanged stories of our families and activities since we’d last been together.
Then Johanna, who was as much of a tomboy as I was, invited us down for hog rides. The young hogs, as opposed to the old sows, were generally amiable creatures who didn’t seem to mind little and bigger girls climbing on their backs and pretending to be cowboys. By the time we’d invented a rodeo and giddy upped to our hearts’ content, we were about as dirty and fragrant as our mounts, who signaled that they were tired of the game by heading with deliberateness towards the muddy corner of the pen.
We slid off quickly, climbed through the fence bars and headed back to the house to help Aunt Cecilia with the dinner. My favorite job was shelling peas. I loved to pull the string, pop open the pod and aim the peas into a measuring cup where I could watch the fruits of my labors mount up in a slippery green pile. Hannah and Emma helped our cousins set the table, marveling that there were even more places than at ours. And we all marveled at the speed with which the platters of fried chicken were dispatched.
Since we had a dishwasher at home, doing dishes by hand seemed like fun; Aunt Cecilia could wash so fast, she kept us all busy drying and putting away, except for Hannah, who had the coveted job of taking the slop bucket and throwing it over the fence for the hogs. This trash technique enchanted us all and we agreed to take turns, much to the amusement of our cousins.
Aunt Cecilia told us, while we were busy with our dish towels, that when she had been expecting one of the babies, and had been quite sick, she had sent Corinne, the oldest girl, to make dinner. She had made a big pot of soup, and when they sat down to eat, one of the younger boys, made a face and said, “This tastes like slop.” He was roundly reprimanded, but continued muttering to himself. After Aunt Cecilia had taken her first bite, she asked Corinne what she had cooked. 
“I just added water to all the cut up vegetables in the pot and cooked them.”
Aunt Cecilia choked. “But, Corinne, that was the slop pan!”
We were enchanted with all of the differences between life on the farm and what we saw as a much duller existence at home. When I went to help Maria, who was just a year older, do the wash the next morning, I discovered to my delight that we were to accomplish this with the aid of an old fashioned wringer washing machine, which up to that point I thought had existed only in history books and museums. Maria pointed out that it was quite up to date, since it was electric, but this advantage soon contributed to catastrophe. After I had watched for a while, I begged Maria to let me feed the clothes through the wringer.  I loved watching the water pour off the back and the clothes come out, flat and scrunched on the other side. Unfortunately, I soon became too busy watching the end result and let my fingers get too close to the wringer, and I let out a shriek of terror and pain as I felt them pulled into the wringer. Maria watched in horror, but had the presence of mind to turn off the machine. Unfortunately, she then thought that what was needed was to put it in reverse, and my fingers began to be flattened more as they came back out. By then, Aunt Cecilia, brought downstairs by my agonized cries, rushed over and turned off the machine, and flipped a lever that separated the rolls of the wringer so my squashed hand could be extricated. 
My fingers were so bruised and flattened that I didn’t want to look at them, and Aunt Cecilia thought she’d better rush me up to Hannibal to have them x-rayed. She admonished Maria to call Mama and let her know what happened, and we were off. Despite the aching in my hand, I thought it was a rare treat to have Aunt Cecilia all to myself, because she had an inexhaustible store of funny stories about herself, her family, and everyone she knew, and she brought out a novel’s worth of them on the ride. When the x-ray showed no broken bones, and my aunt treated me to a piece of cherry pie with ice cream on top, in the hospital cafeteria, I decided it had been a very worthwhile adventure, and returned to the circle of cousins and sisters waiting for us with something of the air of a conquering hero. But I watched the operation of the wringer washer from a distance for the rest of the visit.
When I reflect on that day now, I am sure that a long drive over dusty roads with a niece who should have been more careful with a piece of equipment she knew nothing about, was not my aunt's idea of time well spent.  It was summer, and there was always gardening, canning, cooking, hanging the endless laundry on the lines, and feeding what seemed to be no fewer than 20 people every night.  But she never complained, and turned an accident into a special afternoon.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

A MENSCH FOR A SON

My birthday is a few weeks away and I hadn't been reflecting on it much, because I have so many other family members and friends whose birthdays are coming up. Being in the greeting card business, I'm conscious that I want to send them all cards--on time--but that I have been sending out belated cards way more often than I'd like.  I guess it's a case of the cobbler's children going without shoes.
One of my daughters lives about half an hour away, and she generally makes sure that she is here on days that are important to me, especially my husband's and my anniversary, the day of his death, and also my birthday. Since she usually comes with some or all of her six children in tow, even the sad days are happier than they might have been.  And I will never forget that the last time I had a birthday when my husband was alive, he could no longer drive and  he told my daughter that he was worried about getting me a present when he couldn't go out and buy one for me. She found a beautiful bracelet in my favorite colors and got it for him to give me, and each time I wear it I remember his thoughtfulness and her kindness.  
And it was more successful than a gift he gave me for my birthday when our children were small.  My birthday was a few weeks before we were scheduled to leave on vacation, and I had told him that I would like a particular game so we could bring it with us and play it as a family on our vacation.  Sometimes I gave him hints, but this time I was pretty specific, I thought.  My birthday rolled around, and the package from him was the right size, so I was excited about opening it--until I tore off the wrapping paper and discovered...a bathroom scale. I must have looked stunned because he immediately said, "You said we needed a new bathroom scale!" I had, but it was at the same time when I was telling him to put things on the list for the department store. He said he knew he shouldn't have gone to Price Club at the last minute for my gift.  And of course giving a bathroom scale to a woman who was always watching her weight might have been practical but wasn't taken as complimentary--even though he didn't think I needed to lose weight. He did buy the game a few days later, and we took it on vacation, though it wasn't the smash hit with the kids that I thought it would be. 
He did have some real home runs with gifts he bought me, like the Christmas when I opened his present to find a Thomas Kincade painting and I burst into tears. I had never thought of asking for a gift that I assumed was too expensive. It was so beautiful that I hung it in the living room and for years I would sit in there and eat my lunch and work on my poetry, feeling the sunshine that poured in through the window as if it were his love wrapped around me.
After he died, I stopped expecting much on special days. Christmas was about the grandchildren and my birthday seemed like most other days. Last year, though, my daughter was here with her children to help me celebrate during the day.  After she went home, my son, who was 25 then, texted me to say that a friend of his, whom I know fairly well, was coming over to wish me a happy birthday.  When he arrived, he had brought a delicious sushi dinner and we had dinner together.  My son knew I was going to have to eat dinner alone on my birthday and asked his friend to surprise me by having dinner with me. It was such a thoughtful thing to do since my son lives in LA and couldn't be here himself.
When I posted this in my Mission Accomplished program, Deborah Hurwitz, our coach, commented, "You have a mensch for a son!" I knew it was a compliment, but I had to look up what mensch meant: "a person of integrity and honor." According to Leo Rosten, it's "someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character." Yes, he is.







Sunday, July 14, 2019

KINDRED SPIRIT

As I was reviewing some of my entries in our Mission Accomplished coaching group led by Deborah Hurwitz 
(www.productivityforperfectionists.com),
I discovered a note to me from Janie, one of the other members, in which she highly recommended Jane Yolen. Because of my six children, I was familiar with her as a children's writer, particularly Owl Moon, but when I went to research her further, I discovered that she has written over 365 books of many different kinds, including poetry.  What really struck me was the reference to her Radiation Sonnets, which she wrote when her husband was going through radiation treatments for cancer, which eventually killed him just as cancer killed my husband.  Most of my recent poetry has been wrestling with his death, though there were a few poems I wrote about his illness.  I ordered her book though I am not sure how easy it will be to read, even 6 years after my own husband's death.  It wasn't until last year that I could read C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed, and I found his anger and struggles with faith very salutary in my own journey. 
What pierced me to the heart was reading her husband's gravestone, 
which included "Beloved Husband, Father, Papa," and ended with "The man who knew everything."  Those were encomiums I could give to my beloved husband as well. He didn't have a photographic memory, but seemed to remember everything he had ever learned or read or heard, including all 47 (or however many there were) of the verses of "Wichita Lineman." Teachers in our children's schools quickly discovered that they couldn't make random assertions about the state of the world--or almost anything else--because our children would return the next day with a quote from my husband disproving it.  Occasionally he would get tired of their asking him endless questions, and would tell them to go look in the dictionary or encyclopedia (in the days before computers) or later to check their research assistant, Dr. Google.  
On matters concerning the Catholic Faith, he was almost infallible.  One of our friends who eventually became an Archbishop said that my husband was the only lay person he knew who had read Canon Law from cover to cover--both the older 1917 version, and the newer one. When he baptized our son, he stayed with us overnight, and at 2 in the morning, he and my husband were still eagerly discussing Canons and Sections. However, I told them that I had a new baby, and was going to bed! I don't remember when they finally gave it up, but it was a glorious day for my husband, a civil lawyer, when he could dig deep into Canon Law with someone who was an expert in that field.
At work, he was known as the institutional memory for the company, which had had innumerable spinoffs and buyouts in the 30 years since he had worked for the original biotech startup. He told me that one day he was talking with a group of people who had worked with him for many years. One of them asked him if there was anything he didn't know. He thought for a minute or two and finally said, "College basketball in the sixties--I don't really know much about that." 
When our two oldest daughters were going to a public university that was close to where he worked, he would take them to lunch every week, ask them about their classes, from biochem to history to linguistics to English literature to Hebrew. He genuinely loved discussing anything intellectual with them (when they were babies, he told me he couldn't wait for them to be adults so he could have some really great conversations with them!) but he also kept up with their friends, boyfriends and eventually husbands and all the crises and resolutions they experienced.  I am convinced that one of the reasons they emerged from a very secular environment with a strong adult Faith was the time he took with them to answer the questions and issues that inevitably emerged in their classes, their readings, and their interactions with so many diverse students and professors.
I am still thankful to him for helping to form six adult children who may differ on many things but whose moral values are steadfast and being passed on to my twenty-two grandchildren.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

SIDETRACKED BY THE MUSE

One morning, I was listening to The Writer's Oasis, Jennifer Louden's podcast on writing and creativity,  and dutifully scribbling away in answer to one of her prompts, when a line popped into my mind about my son.  It didn't sound very poetic and I almost ignored it, but I finally wrote it down on a separate piece of paper. Then I thought of a few other things I could say and slowly "Serendipitous Expeditions" began to appear at the tip of the pen. Each one was a different time when we went to the Wild Animal Park in San Diego when he was growing up, until the most recent visit when we went there for my birthday, discovered a new outdoor restaurant and both of us were old enough to have a drink.
When I looked back at my first version, I was amazed to see how much stayed in the final revision. Once I started sketching those memories, little details etched in a corner of my mind appeared on paper like those children's drawings that reveal themselves as you wash over them with a wet brush. When the incidents were in the correct order, I devised the links, and then set about crafting the rhyme scheme. Much to my son's dismay, my rhymes are seldom in a regular abab pattern. The last word of every line has another line somewhere in the poem with an ending that rhymes, though it might be an inexact or slant rhyme.  Occasionally, it is even the title that rhymes with another line ending. I worked my way into this structure over many years of formal verse, blank verse and free verse (after a semester studying T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land) and gradually found my voice in the way I do it now.  This particular poem gave me a challenge in trying to find a rhyme for "taller" in the fourth stanza until I changed the first stanza with the final lines,
"We watched the tiger cubs
     grow up & bound about"
to 
"We often walked at the Wild Animal Park
     for exercise, but accidentally
     would happen upon the new Lemur Walk
     where we could almost catch their ringed tails,
     or watch the tiger cubs prowl or sprawl or
     bound and pounce with feline rush."

and when I decided on "sprawl or" I gave an inner crow of delight.
After I finished the final revision, I also realized that this was the first poem I had written since my beloved husband died that had no shadow of grief over it.
It was simply a smile of joy over the moments in 25 years where little surprises shared with my son brought unexpected bursts of happiness at the time and when I recalled them years later.  The thankfulness I experienced opened a gate to a previously invisible path through the darkness of grief to landscapes where the sun made its way through the tangle of trees and danced on the green grass of hope. That eventually led to a poem that started as "The Gate of Gratitude" which metamorphosed into a chapbook called "Portal." But that is another, much longer, story.