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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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.”

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.

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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.

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.