The Porch

The house stood at the dead end of Grand Avenue. “For Sale,” It said. I didn’t want the house necessarily. I wanted the memories of the childhood more than the malformed nuances of adulthood. Ignorance was bliss and that bliss faded into the backdrop of life away from home. My driveling reminiscence stood hoping for a sensory flashback. Scuffed Red Ball Jets shoes and ham-burg gravy I suppose.

My daughters climbed the stairs with me and we became momentary voyeurs of the place where I learned to walk, ride, and drive. We cased it like burglars. We peered over the window sills. We walked its perimeter. I started pouring out stories like a coffee pot.

I told them how I used to ride and ride my stingray around the house until the roots of the maple trees rose like varicose veins. The path allowed only the hardiest dandelions to survive. Now there was actually green grass circling this “used to be” home. How my mother would have liked to have something to mow back then.

I got on a knee to peer under the wooden overlay of the cement stoop in front. It was under there, crumbling still. Instead of five smooth stones there were five rough steps with bookend brick walls. Those walls held, for a while, the stories of our lives.

In the spring ten children fell out of our winter barracks and sat at ease on those steps. The porch was the place to hang out and watch the world go by…even on a dead end street. It was never dead; more like a holding yard for the neighborhood kids.

My sister Mary sat on the wall and wander around guitar chords. I remember her playing the intro to the Beatle’s Blackbird. Now I hear my son playing it and his fingers pick and point me back to front porch days…

Back when it was a safe zone for tag or home base for hide and seek. Back when my mom blew the police whistle from that porch to call us home for dinner or baths or a head count. Back, when in early August, it was an excellent place to watch lightning bugs and listen to the cicadas sing. Back when neighborhood kids showed up for senseless banter and storytelling from its podium. Back when cigarette butts were flicked into the sidewalk cracks. Back when the porch served as a barricade from water balloons and squirt gun fire and pitches of the little pearly berries from the shrubs out back. Back when it was the backdrop for graduation pictures. Back when tears of sadness, frustration, anger, and happiness had freckled its grainy mortar. Back where hellos and goodbyes were handed out.

It reminded me of my mom. Actually, it was for her I wrote these words down. That porch was like the house’s lap. We crawled up on it to relax and be ourselves. There was a comfort of simply sitting there. Sit and be. Let the wind blow our hair back like she did when she checked for fevers. First the back of her hand against our cheek, then a cool palm on our forehead, then the brushing back of our hair and her pursed lips just above our eyebrows.

Then to climb up on her lap…the best easy chair ever there was. It supported our weighty little bodies. We sat and waited for her strength to be transferred to us. A short visit there lent us security. I know now that her strength and security was often waning. Only God and she knew how many times her cup was empty and yet a little drop of love managed to fall on us… and that was all we needed.

Now that porch is laminated in painted wood, make-up that covers its inner beauty and foundational strength. I feel like I need to go back in cover of darkness to pry up the cover up. Then I could sit on the pitted remembrance of who I was becoming. I imagined all my siblings stuffed on that porch sharing the steps and the one lap we all had in common.

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15 Minutes on Family

Recently I wrote that “family is our resting heart rate.”

When we’re tired of playing hide and seek we can make a run for it. We run for home base.

I was a scrapper, a wee lad with dirty finger nails and iron-on patches covering the knees of my jeans. Our house sat on the dead end of a street. The brick porch leading up to the front door was our plopping point. When my mother blew the whistle we were homed in.

There are days when I wish I could hop in a DeLorean, rap on the flux capacitor, and set off for the early seventies. All my sibs and I would fill the front porch and get snot silly and tell stories and listen to Motown or Beatles.

Then I realized that our patchwork family does the same thing today. We find the fun in our dysFUNction. We find a peace within our imperfection. It’s a safe house and God shows up to let us know there’s room to grow, but “sit on the porch a bit…look at each other, love on each other.”

When a Headache Alarms Me

I picked the wrong pillow. Yeah, that’s why a pounding headache pulled me out of sleep. I tossed the pillow and fluffed up the one flattened underneath and settled back in. But the pounding like a tom-tom wouldn’t relinquish its rhythm. I laid on one side then the other, and for a minute on my back waiting for release. Nothing. Monday, 5:30am, and I guess waking and walking with headache was as good as tossing and turning with one.

I put some water to boil for a pour-over and drank a glass of water. Lack of hydration was probably the culprit as much as the pillow. In any case, I knew my usual sit-down with God was going to be distracted by the back of my head acting like a clanging cymbal.

My office was more disheveled than usual and served as an apropos metaphor for the ache in my head. I couldn’t find my glasses, and for a minute couldn’t find God. The pain seemed like a fire-wall stunting my ability to give or receive. I sat. I waited for the thrumming to ease up. I waited for God to do something about it.

Then they came. Words. Words in the back of my mind, right above the pounding. Jerry, your family is your family. What? No kidding. Of course. Thanks for the obvious. Be still now. Your family is your family.

So I sat. Here I sit now, fingers on the keys while the Great Muse above waits. It saddens me to think I need to be told. I’d rather be reading some intellectual gruel. I’d rather be forming a poem out of the pickup sticks of my life. To home in on my family is tough. “How’s the family?” Ah, that loaded question that brings pause. I think of Beirut. I think of “Whack a Mole” at Chuckie Cheese’s. I think of all the brokenness we brought into our lives. I think of why I don’t write about the issues that slurry around this compound we call Casa. Maybe it’s time to let it out and let people in on what goes on in this house of adoption. At least to journal more about my family who is my family.

For now, the headache has subsided. I think the ache migrated to my heart. To feel it, like my “boots on the ground hero-wife”. It’s what she needs and what my family, who is my family, needs.

What do you think? Are you an adoptive parent? Should I air some laundry, clothes pin it with candor and realistic, cathartic, therapeutic, and thinly sliced hope? Should I let it dry out in the wind of bloggery?

Barbara and I have been discussing writing about our journey. Shall I begin here?

Pink Teddy Bear

She had flushed pink cheeks and her eyebrows wouldn’t sit still. Emily’s eyes, fixed on mine, wore anxiety and a shade of sad. Their teddy bear was dead, the one that connected my dying mother to my living six year old child. She couldn’t look at it. The bear she had covered with some of my work uniforms in our walk-in-closet. Emily’s guilt and grief were bound tight. Emily had forgotten to put the bear back up on her bed and Charlie our dog mangled it. Another loss.

The bear had been in the care of my mother until she passed away last year. The shaggy pink bear was looked after quite nicely by my mother. She made sure to send messages through me to Emily about how the bear was behaving. I told my mother how Emily was behaving.

IMG_0005

There is an album on my desk filled with written thoughts and poems and stories about my mother. On the cover is my mother holding the bear. It is one of my favorite photos of her. Emily sees the photo whenever she passes my desk. I reassured Emily that it was going to be okay. Her sadness awakened in me a sleeping grief. We shared it for a while.

I sat on the edge of our bed as Barbara spoke tenderly to Emily.

“I’m sorry you are so sad. It hurts doesn’t it? You know what? Grandma is babysitting the bear now. They are together.” Barbara, mother, kept speaking comfort and assurance to a little fractured heart. Mine.

Her words came from a mother place. Emily was comforted and I was too.

*

A year has passed since my mother died. It was early on a Monday morning. The all night vigil had taken its toll and I had fallen asleep. My head rested on the edge of the bed next to her womb. I woke to find her birthed into a greater light. One day I will awake and see her again, but not yet.

Christmas In 20/20 Hindsight. Our House Number Was 2020 and How Grand It Was.

Christmas Morning at 20/20 Grand

 

The house sat at the dead end of a street 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 cold.

Like the snow which formed 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 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 quiet and yet just enough noise was generated to rouse the sleeping Santa at the bottom of the steps 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 (My mother Santa Clause) 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 aid listening.  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 her thinking and choosing and remembering sizes.

We did see.  Not the exhaustion and sore muscles.

We did see…and now that we had 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.

This year the memories sit under each of our ten trees. All my siblings and I will miss talking to her and stopping by for pie in the evening. I wonder if there is mistletoe in heaven. I hope so. I hope she will be waiting there for us with some hanging over her head as she smirks and purses her lips. Merry Christmas mom.

 

 

 

Just a Poultry Encounter. Part Three of Three. Talking Turkey.

Smiley face

Thom continued to tell of his dream…

His head and neck then disappeared and a translucent uncle Thommy floated above the Hubble family table. He hovered over grandpa’s comb over, Lauren’s  pigtails,  Kelsey’s cornrows, and grandma’s poofy grey arrangement. He saw the horn of plenty and the expanded double leaf table full of plenty, and there in the middle, his body. The center piece wasn’t the candied yams or the mashed potatoes. It wasn’t the salad, cranberry sauce, or the green bean casserole.  It wasn’t the cherry, mintz, or pumpkin pie.  It was the body of a bird raised free.

“Oh Thom. Thom,” he began, “Take a good look. This family is bowing and thanking God for the gifts they are about to receive and I was one of them. I was the one in the middle to be carved and given to each. This is why I was raised. Look at them. Before they sat for prayer I was able to float around the house and listen in on conversations. They have their dysfunctions and differences. They have their favorites. They have their spoiled last borne. See that little one over there. Her name is Emmy and she took special care of me when I was just fluff. Thank goodness she lost track of who I was!

It would be arrogant to tell you that they gather just because of me. No, it’s their God given desire for connection and the God-image in them. This holiday is just one reason they make efforts to come together. It’s a human thing, we wouldn’t understand. They pray to One bigger than their collective experiences. We fulfill God’s design for us.  We feed, but more than that, our species in America feed thankful bodies, thankful hearts. Your destiny is at hand. You could be in the middle of all sorts of possibilities. Redeeming moments, forgiving moments, loving moments, joyful moments, meaningful moments, all basted in the juices of thankfulness.”

“It was then I woke up and looked east and rousted my roosting. Time to head home, I said to myself. It is my time to walk through the door of destiny. No more running. I figured if I got back soon enough I could be a part of someone’s thankful day this year.”

I was without a word. Did a turkey really go there? Nobody’s going to believe this. I don’t believe this. I’m on my way to Berrien Springs. I’m a turkey taxi. There’s a turkey in my baby’s car seat who just gave me a lesson in religion, philosophy, manifest destiny, and the difference between free range and PPP turkey farming. What did eventually pass through by lips was, “Thanks for sharing.”

“Thanks for caring and carrying for that matter!” he responded. “It felt good to process the story to you. It was like getting the stuffing scooped out of me. I feel lighter.”

“Hey Thom, I know this is sudden, but why don’t you come to my house for dinner! I mean, I have a couple of punk mass produced turkeys in the back I can give away to two families in Mattawan. You’ve got to be thirty pounds dressed. You are what I was looking for earlier…a nice, fat, Thom Thom! We both laughed. If you’ve never heard a turkey laugh before you’ve never split a gizzard.

“I would be honored to be front and center at your house on your Thankful Day.  Blullulla!”


 

“In everything give thanks.” The Bible

Gathering the Mess and Refrigerator Chess

We were there on the beach, just south of a wedding. Sixteen was our number.  My wife and I, our twelve children, one niece (Who is really child number thirteen), and one soon to be fiancé. I had hopes the wedding reception would follow the vows as a beachhead for all of Jerry’s kids to crash. I am always inviting my family to wedding receptions. The amount of baggage we set down in the sand was comparable to a week’s worth of laundry for the average 2.5 child family.

Barbara, my wife, and I settled in two chairs close to the water and kept an eye on the children. Just one eye each, actually two of Barbara’s eyes, one of which represented my share of “watching” as I napped. I awoke to the sound of voices on the water. The same voices from forty years ago when my mother would take us to Lake Michigan. Tears welled up as the memories of chicken fights, hand stands with toes pointing at sea gulls, and waves of laughter doused my thoughts. There, out on the sand bar, for a moment, a synthesis of generations stood waist deep and I longed for my mother to sit with Barbara and me. I think she did for a moment.

Eventually we relinquished our squatting rights and gave the clarion call. “Okay, it’s time to go!” Barbara and I got up and turned from the sparkles dancing on the waves to the “urban sprawl” behind us. Chips were in the towel basket, towels were half buried and strewn like a spastic rhubarb patch, and packages of cookies were left open like barn doors. My favorite cookie, the pecan sandy, was sandy indeed.

Then the phrase exited my mouth. The one every parent says. The one my mother said over and over. “Somebody grab the…” Fill in the blank. It was a scene from the show M*A*S*H and I tried on my best Colonel Potter for just a few minutes and then grabbed an end of the huge pop cooler with Noah, my eighteen year old, and started walking. I kept listening though. That phrase “somebody grab the…” was coming out of several different mouths.

Back when I was in Jr. High I heard tell that I was “somebody”. I existed and made a difference. A smile crossed my face as Noah and I switched arms on the cooler. They were all calling for “somebody” and “nobody” answered. I knew that Barbara had instilled in them that they were “somebody” and they mattered, but right then “somebody” left the building. There they stood over the piles of their existence and yet “nobody” called for “somebody” and couldn’t find “anybody”. My mouth opened to yell again “somebody grab the…” but all that spewed out was a laugh from my belly.

What does refrigerator chess have to do with the beach? Nothing really except it made the title of this post more appealing.  I’ll talk about that later.

Somebody did eventually grab everything except one flip-flop and off we went to the traditional Ice Cream Shoppe.

 

 

 

Remains of a Day. Part Three of Three.

After a prayer, it was time to set the cloth bag into the earth. Margie reached over and down as far as she could and released. The sound of air being displaced was like when someone fogs their eyeglasses to clean them. Then there was a thud followed by tubular bass echoes. Marge put her hand to her mouth and we all looked at one another in surprise. “Sorry Mom,” said Marge. Then laughter erupted and poured into the hole right on top of our mother. It was the most beautiful sacrilege.

I bent over in hysterics and felt jettisoned back to the dinner table when we were all a little silly. We sat on unmatched chairs and the window sill around a fully leafed table. Mom’s spot was always on the western end of the food deck.  We always sang the Johnny Appleseed song like the national anthem and some of us must have heard “Plaayyeeee Ballll!” Things would happen. Things always happened. We reached for and spilled the whole milk. We retched up and spewed the whole milk. Someone often would end up on the floor curled like a baby and wishing he or she had worn a diaper. My mother, like an umpire behind the plate, would make the calls with authority:

“Sit still!”

“Oh, straighten up!”

“Oh honestly!”

“Someone sop it up!”

Then we would sit still and straight and wait. We sat with elbows on the table, like Judas in the ceramic “Last Supper” that hung off kilter above us. Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” would hush our immaturity, for a moment. We looked at our plates. We held cottage cheese on a spoon in front of pursed lips. We smirked at each other as our peripheral vision looked on the west end of the food deck. There she was, bless her, mouth open to receive a shovel full of gruel, and…she swung and missed yet again and a blob would roll down her front. Then ten umpires would resist the urge to yell with authority…”Strike!” She would mumble a disappointment and we would relax, smirk, wink, and sign to each other that another traditional meal is in the books.

One hundred years from now sounds of laughter will still work its way out of this piece of earth.

We all picked up a shard of sycamore bark and tossed our piece into the hole like a rose. We took turns shoveling the moist earth in and on her ashes. Then Mike, my brother in law, served again as grave-master. He came back from the shed with a tamper. A tool with a long handle and on the end was a square foot of iron which was flat on the bottom. It was heavy and compressed the orange soil. We laughed again as the symbolism of a son-in-law interacting with a mother-in-law was displayed in a vignette of a two-handed pound down.

More dirt was layered, more tamped down, and more tampered with holy, happy moments of goodbyes. My mother’s “Sentimental Journey” had taken on a transcendent ambiance and all her children were thankful.

In a message threaded to all of us siblings my sister Marge said it aptly;

I would like to add we had a good, sharing time, and placed Mom “carefully” into her resting place. You were all there in spirit with us, and now we must move on and make Mom proud of her children.

Yes, and a hundred years from now we will be with her.

Remains of a Day. Part Two of Three

Throughout the day, April 27th 2012, my mother’s 83th birthday, a thread wove through an e-mail my brother Pete sent to his siblings. He attached some thoughtful words of a scene from the past. In it he recalls an interaction with our mother. In essence, he wrote that he basically wanted a “do over”. Many siblings chimed in with similar regrets, and I thought of many personal scenes I wish I could change as well. But Peter’s piece didn’t end in regret; in fact he spelled out what most of us realized as we stepped into parenthood and beyond. Our mother endured so much yet love kept coming on strong.

My sister Mary added a thread to his;

And with each passing event, it’s only natural for us feel the effects of what happens, sometimes to the very deepest core of our being. And each time, it changes us. It’s the process. God and His wisdom created it to be so. And for that, I (we) are thankful.
Mom’s ashes will be in a perfect spot. At that tree that all of us have seen, commented on. Ashes to nurture life, just like all those millions and millions of events that nurtured our souls.

Then more threads were added throughout the day:

 To know that she was always right there to pick up our pieces of heartache, when her heart was breaking too, was truly a blessing. Sister Pat.

 So many memories …Sister Ellen

One of the most impacting things to me is the times I would visit her and we would sit in silence and I always felt bad.  I felt like we should be talking it up!!  She would always say to me “it’s enough just being together”. Sister Carol

Rick and I had a Manhattan last night and made a toast to mom. Wish we could have been there in person. Sister Barb

I want to say I missed all of my siblings last night…I got called into work early, and so as I reflected on life, I was feeding the ungrateful and impatient masses. I miss Mom more than words can express, and I am very weary of losses and illness. Brother John

She wept when I wept and she smiled when I smiled.  Brother Peter

Yes, Happy Birthday Mom. And as you watch today from the Heavens, kiss each of our tears. We love you.  Sister Mary.

All my mother’s children are grown with grown children of their own. Generations now with her DNA tucked in their physiology walk around in space and time putting dents in the world around them. My parents started it all sixty some years ago and the photographer at the reunions has to stand farther and farther back to fit us into the frame. As my oldest brother Rob and I stood under the sycamore he put his arm around my shoulder and the weight of reunion rested there; it was like a paper weight of sorts, keeping us from blowing too far away from the shelter of family.

One hundred years from now when my parent’s genes have thinned out a bit there will be slices of all of us scattered putting dents in space and time.

Remains of a Day. Part One of Three.

My mother’s ashes were carefully poured into several small popcorn paper bags. The bags were evenly divided into two mom-made Christmas stockings. One with the name “Mom” and a small jingle bell dangling and the other with the name “Russ” with a small jingle bell dangling. Russ was her second husband who preceded her in death. The two stockings were placed inside a cloth bag with giraffe skin material and a print of a giraffe on one side. My niece mentioned that mom would have done the same thing. Mom would triple bag the fragile stuff when she worked as a cashier.

One hundred years from now someone might dig up two jingle bells.

Right underneath the sycamore tree that my mother loved sat a three to four foot hole sixteen inches in diameter. My brother-in-law Mike prepared it earlier in the day and next to it was piled moist orange earth. The bonfire was a couple of yards away and the wind lightly sprinkled ash on us with a scent of carbon dated air. We gathered around and Margie held the weighted sack. There were eleven people circled, but I felt a much larger crowd, like when we took the “Big Picture” at family reunions.

One hundred years from now a reunion might take place around a celestial mountain lake.

I read a poem about the tree that stood over us. The sycamore stood over one hundred feet tall. My mother would often ask my sister Marge to take pictures of it. Mom requested to be placed under its shadow and embraced by its roots. I had come earlier in the day to sit under it, walk around it, and look at it from a distance. Its grandeur and uniqueness was breathtaking. Maybe in an odd sense it took my mother’s breath away. At its base there were ridges, grooves, and gray/black terrain that gives way to smooth ivory skin as it reached to the sky. My wife said to me that my mother’s skin was beautiful, even after her death.

One hundred years from now many branches will have fallen and maybe this monument of God’s artistry will be gone. Maybe this memorial will fall away from all memory.