Driving Through History

Each Memorial Day I visit my father’s grave marker at sunrise. It started in the year 2000, the first anniversary of my father’s passing. My three brother’s and I met to reminisce, pray, and pay some respect to a life, without which we wouldn’t have our band of brotherhood.

This morning the drive through town resurrected a collage of memories. Places that held memorable slides of personal cohesion.

I had a Free Press route on the west side when I was in pubescent transition. There was a house on Grand Pre Avenue that tested my throwing arm each pre-dawn day. Its porch was unlit, and I got freaked out every time the shadowed enclave came into my field of vision. I could pinkie swear there was a person nestled in its corner, ice-sculpture still, waiting to snatch my body and what was left of my courageous façade. I never heaved a rubber-banded paper so hard while trotting off balance. I was like Joe Namath outside the pocket, under pressure, throwing off one foot. Those deliveries fused my definition of fear tighter to my understanding. Not to mention one morning while picking up my bundle at the convenience store a 45 pistol was waved at me and the attendant before a masked man ran out with the contents of the cash drawer.

I drove past what used to be H&G Market, my first W-2 employment. I still recall the sound of snapping open paper grocery bags. The May-day in 1980 where I stood in the parking lot after loading a lady’s checked off grocery list of things in her trunk was recalled with no effort. I stood looking up at debris circling above the rooftops like the disciples watching Jesus float through the clouds. Then my conscience asked me why I was standing there. I ran back into the store in time to feel the pressure pop my ear drums while the front windows and back wall of the store simultaneously broke free. My sister, who cashiered, and other employee’s ran for safety, but the tornado went by so fast, most of us didn’t make it to the basement before the twister continued disheveling its way to downtown Kalamazoo. A handful of lives were lost, including a lady at the laundromat next to H&G, who tried to save her dog when a wall fell on her. The silver lining of it all was eating ice cream, lots of it, until my gills were swollen shut.

Then I passed the house in which I met my wife. A brick bungalow all of our children know about. Right near the top of West Main hill it stands as a talking point each time we drive by. “That’s where we met!”

The hill itself surfaced a memory of the shenanigans of my friend Dennis (The World’s Tallest Leprechaun) and me self. Well, it was one shenanigan anyway. We decided to see what would happen if a tire were rolled down the center line. It was early morning, pre-sunrise, so there was no traffic. It had to have been doing 40mph by the time it jumped the curve near the bottom. We could’ve done worser things…worser?

Funny, when I visited my mother’s resting place on Mother’s Day this year, I drove past the last house in which my father lived. This morning as I stood over my dad’s marker I was a short distance from the last place my mother lived. Lived. They lived. Because they did, I can say I live now. My mother was in assisted living her last month or so, after she spent so many years assisting me and my nine siblings. I cannot wrap my head around such mystery. All our stories melding at points, separating at other points. Now, some stories are only held together by memory. Memorial stories. Man, I could go on…I suppose I will, just like my parents do in my memory.

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>Clinking, a winter memory

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So, why do boots that have a row of clasps remind me of my father?  You know, the over boots that often are hard to push the heel of your shoe through.  One could almost dislocate a shoulder pulling a heel through the last inches like a baby’s crown pushing through the birth canal. Then, the clasps themselves would will resistance against a thumb or finger and pinch the skin leaving a glowing white and red remembrance on the side.  My three brothers know what I am talking about.  After sledding or snowball fighting the snow and ice would seal those clasps shut.   Some only to be pried open with white knuckles and gritted teeth.
But, again, why do boots like these remind me of my father?  Of course he wore them during very informative years.  I was a kid who observed everything.  When the original movie Home Alone released (by far my favorite of the three) there was a character that reminded me of my dad because of the boots and the beard.  It was a movie about a young boy named Kevin who was accidently left behind at home while the rest of his family went to Paris over the holidays.
Another character in the movie was looked on as a villain by the children of the neighborhood.  He was seen often going up and down the sidewalk with a metal garbage can of salt and a shovel.  He would spread the salt as he shuffled in his half buckled boots, face stoic, back bent on the completion of his self appointed rounds. Buzz, Kevin’s older brother would retell the legend of the old man as he passed by.  In a slow cadence Buzz would tell about how children came up missing occasionally.  How the old man would use his shovel like a gavel and kill wandering children…never to be seen again.   The old man seemed to be servicing the sidewalks from ice but in Buzz’s alert imagination was waiting for another unsuspecting child to walk by.
In reality the gray haired seventy something was a lonely father.  As he shuffled and salted with his boots buckled half was his mind was on his family.  His wife passed away, and he was estranged from his only son’s family.  He especially was heartbroken not being able to be a grandpa to his only granddaughter.  Another Christmas was approaching and his ache for them became stronger as the day drew near.
Then there was Kevin, the one forgotten by his family…home alone.  His perception of the old man transforms as he gains understanding… the moment of enlightenment comes in the scene where Kevin is hiding from some thieves in a Catholic church.  The old man is in there already quietly thinking and praying or something.  Then the boots move toward Kevin, the metal against rubber unique soft clanking sound.  Kevin is at first scared, but after a brief conversation, the fears begin to melt as the old man shares his heartbreak.   Then compassion and understanding replace Kevin’s hesitations toward the old man.
Several nuances reminded me of my father who passed away years ago.  The quietness, the work ethic, but mostly the boots brought me back to my father.  I remember him not buckling them all the way up.  I keep thinking of some transcendent truth of loose boots…There was something about the clinking as he walked that assured me of his presence.  His words were few and my soul often felt abandoned by him.  Maybe knowing he worked and persevered at putting on those boots for so many winters gave me the sense that I could too.  That maybe I could make noise that my children would remember years from now when they might feel neglected for my lack of words.  I will commit to speak into their lives more but I realize a default in me, if unchecked, can swallow good words for my family.  May some clinking sound remind my children they are not alone.  May my words be a source of engagement and relationship in their lives.

>We Waited(Christmas memories)

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It was at the dead end of a street.  It was a small house jammed with ten kids.  My mom could barely lace up the shoe.  Yet she worked hard to make this time of year special.  My wife has a tinge of sadness when I tell her we would get clothes for Christmas and one toy.  I keep forgetting to tell her the other stuff.
Like the mistletoe hung over archway right under the plaster “Last Supper”. 
Like the strung popcorn and cranberries that twirled around the tinsel strewn tree.
Like new fireman pajamas.
Like the hand knit stockings with a jingle bell dangling in the middle…twelve of them strung across the sun porch windows…each one with a knitted name. 
Like the smell of mince meat pie.
Like the early years heading off to midnight mass.
Like hot cocoa made from real whole milk and sugar and cocoa after being out in the snow so long cotton balls of ice and slush were fused on the bottom of our snow pants.
Like the Ames Brothers and Bing caroling us in the background.
Like the Christmas bells that hung on our back door year round…They sometimes made me think of the magic of Christmas on a hot August night.
Like heading downtown to see the Nativity and being kinda scared of the eight foot shepherd that stared right at me.
Like when we would eat the un-yellow snow.
Like when Bob McDonald, Dennis Shields and I would comb the neighborhood and steal Christmas lights off of the bushes and throw them in the street to explode like firecrackers.  (Until we got caught trying to steal some off of a front door frame)
Then there was the waiting.  The twelve step waiting.  “My name is Jerry and I love Christmas morning.”
“Hi Jerry.”
Ten kids on twelve steps equal anticipation, impatience, giggling, flatuation, more giggles and squeezing for position on the lowest step.  We tried to be quite and yet subconsciously enough noise was generated to rouse the sleeping Santa at the bottom of the steps just to the right.  Said Santa just went to sleep a couple of hours ago (But we didn’t appreciate that).
A gurgled “not yet!” would waif itself around the corner…then more sleep breathing.
“Almost…”
ZZZZzzzz snarf schoogle smack smack
We could see the colored light seeping around the corner from the living room.  Our imaginations would be bouncing off each other like the little white dot that jumped a top of the sing along with Mitch songs on T.V.  We knew there would be underwear and socks and pajamas…but what of our “list” would be under the tree.  Which present of the urban sprawl under the tree would be ours?  No matter the lowest girth of the fern it could not contain the gifts. 
And so we sat and she snored.
And so we fidgeted and she took cleansing sighs.
And so we creaked the steps with our buttocks and she swallowed the sugarplum fairy like a hair ball.
I imagine a committee meeting on the landing was held to appoint a scapegoat.  Someone had to directly ask the exhausted Merry Marilee if we could descend.  Most likely it was Carol.  The baby.  The spoiled.  The cute.  The Cindy Lou Who of our who’s who.   Surely Mom would be sympathetic to her soft cry for freedom.  The stairs that imprisoned us all like Babes in Toyland held us.  The rail slats like iron bars on which we would drag our tin cups of impatience cuffed us.  Our bodies staggered on risers like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir…yet our voices(begging)didn’t evoke yuletide inspiration per se…more like pleading for parole or pardon.
Then we would hear a rustling and our fidgeting stopped and earwax melted to listen.  Out from the North Pole rose an elf in a nightie.  Red was her bed head hair as she passed.  Her cats eye glasses guiding her one eye to the coffee pot.  I could hear her flick open her cigarette lighter and flick her thumb twice.  The fridge opened and shut.  Cupboards knocked a few times.  Then she walked past again to her room to get her robe.  I swear I saw her smirk a little and a sleepy twinkle in her eyes.  We reverted to silent body language…eyes popping out…hands almost clapping…nudging…touching…scooting.
She once more came out of her den and fetched her coffee and sat in the living room.   She had a box seat for the show. 
“Alright, you can come see…”
We did see.  Not her face glowing, but lights, and sagging stockings, and sleds, and stuffed animals, and candy canes hanging on the branches. 
We did see.  Not the whole picture of thinking and choosing and remembering sizes.
We did see.   Not the exhaustion and sore muscles.
We did see…and now that we have seen from our box seats, we would all call her or stop by her north pole to appreciate the memories.  That gift is greater than any on our “list.”   Memories of the ambiance of what she created for us.  Each memory is a step on which to sit and wonder, like a child, how she did it.