Family ties

My gentle relations have names they must call me…

FALLING

Posted by on Oct 20, 2011 in My Children, Poetry | 0 comments


I left my fear of heights somewhere along the road
I didn’t notice it was gone until I came to the last bridge
Stretched across the sky between the mountains.
I don’t know where I misplaced it, but I do remember where I first found it,
My nails clawing at the bricks and clinging to the flimsy metal rail
Halfway up the lighthouse tower facing the Atlantic
Thirty-eight years ago come March

Perhaps it died while I was sleeping
Like some ancient holocaust survivor brought down
Because he stepped off the curb into the path of a bus
Perhaps it withered away from neglect
Forgotten in the closet of my mind
Like last year’s fashion

Now I stand here staring down the abyss of my life,
Almost fearless
Well except for remembering the Mother’s day
My daughter and I laughed, cried, and got drunk together
And the morning sun found me bleeding and sticky with wine
On the sofa with no memory of how I got there.

She got religion somewhere after motherhood and marriage
And lost her memory of all the days we wasted
Doing stupid and loving things together and separately.
My nightmare of driving off the end of the bridge in Baltimore
Was the portent of a death I wanted long, despite my laughter.
I don’t know why she loves me not
Now that I have chosen to live.

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“Because I said so” and other child rearing hints

Posted by on Feb 4, 2011 in My Children, Spirit | 1 comment

When I was pregnant with my first child I had no idea what being a parent would be like. I moved through the months of changes in my body with awe and amazement, from the first butterfly flutter of movement in my abdomen to the definite thud of tiny feet and hands. I was so young I didn’t really consider my expectations about motherhood, but I do remember the first time my newborn was brought to me in the hospital, wrapped in a tight little blue blanket, looking and smelling like he had been freshly dry-cleaned. I sat in bed looking into his perfect little baby face feeling like Mary holding the Christ child. When I brought him to my breast and the sweet little rosebud mouth latched on to nurse I was earth goddess, with nourishment flowing from my very soul. After about 5 minutes of this fantasy he let rip the most horrendous gassy noise, filling his diaper and turning that lovely baby powder smell to a sour stench. After I got over the shock of the moment, I started laughing at myself. Seems like my little flight of the imagination had not taken into account the reality of an actual live human being. Even after the 12 hour labor with all it’s accompanying indignities and discomforts, and then the final frantic rush of an emergency C-section, here was the moment I became a flesh and blood mother instead of the soft out of focus dream variety.

The actuality of our children does come as a surprise. We daydream about what they will be like and what our reaction to them will be, so it is a bit of a shock when they turn out to have the same proportion of faults and strengths as we do ourselves. Raising a real human rather than the fantasy one is a humbling experience, making us face things in our own character we would just have soon left undiscovered. When I was carrying my daughter I had a friend who was expecting shortly after me. This was her first and only venture into motherhood, having started a bit late in life with her second husband, a man who was supporting his two from a first marriage. My friend had just as many opinions on rearing children as she did on every other subject. I grew a bit weary listening to the constant stream of subtle and not so subtle criticism directed at how I was rearing my two boys, and how superior she would be when her little carbon copy arrived. The child had her diet, toys, friends, and career picked for her in utero. No candy, cookies, or sweets ever, and if grandmothers did not comply they would not be allowed to see the child. No dolls for her girl, only educational toys of a more masculine nature to prepare her to take her place in the high stakes world of tomorrow. Private school, so she would meet a better class or people, hopefully descendants of Pilgrims and Presidents, then on to an Ivy league university. She would study to be a doctor, and not just any doctor; she had the specialty all picked out, ear, eye, nose and throat. I forget why, money probably. Her husband, as down to earth and practical man as you would ever want to meet, said without expression, “The whole world is waiting for you to have this baby dear.”

I was on the phone with her when her water broke. I knew that because she started screaming and it took me a while to talk her down. My own newborn was in my arms and my 2 year old was playing on the floor, so my physical presence wasn’t going to be particularly helpful. I told her to hang up the phone and call her husband and the doctor, but not to panic (the universal admonishment), because she would have plenty of time before the baby arrived. She called me back 10 minutes later to ask me what she should wear to the hospital. I told her it wasn’t necessary to make a fashion statement, but she might want to grab a towel for the car seat before she left.
She called me the next day from the hospital to tell me her baby girl was the most beautiful one in the nursery, and I told her I was sure she was. That would not be a lie. After spending many hours in labor to push something as large as a cantaloupe through an opening normally the size of a soda straw, the effort causes a photo shop glow to form around the object of that exertion, and temporally blinds the mother to all but her own offspring. When I was introduced, I the first thing I noticed were the Dumbo like ears sticking out from the bare little football shape head that newborns acquire on their tortured route through resisting flesh and bone. Mom was standing there with a beatific medicated smile and Dad had the shell-shocked look of a man just recaptured after a jailbreak. I kept my congratulatory statements vague and diplomatic.

In about six months the baby turned into a fairly decent looking infant, and after many years she became a beautiful young woman. In the intervening time my friend, the micro manager, did everything she could to enforce the rules she had made, but to little avail. The child turned out to have the inflexible temperament of her mother, constantly begged for snacks and sweets, was sent to the office on the very first day of kindergarten, struggled with her school studies, hung out with a bad crowd in high school, and decided she didn’t want to got to college. When the child came to our house she played joyfully with my daughter’s endless supply of pink plastic girl toys, the ones I let my child pick out for herself. Once her Mom suggested we should go back to her house to play, but the wee one protested that there was nothing to do at home. When my girl went to get cookies for a tea party, Mom had a look of panic on her face, but finally relented. We sat down with coffee and my friend related regrets about her own wasted childhood where she ate a lot of sweets and snacks, struggle with her school work, hung out with a bad crowd, and decided against college. I bit my tongue, offered her a fourth cookie, and held my laughter until she went home.

It is a shock when our children come to us not a blank slate for us to write on, but wired with abilities and personality often similar to our own, our spouses, or even the in-laws we deal with only grudgingly. I was not immune to this discovery process. Once I was lamenting to my mother about the amazing musical talent my middle child had on the violin and how frustrating it was that he never practiced.

“I had really hoped one of my children would become an accomplished musician,” I said to Mom with a sigh.
“I always wished the same thing myself” she retorted.

Being a good parent is learning how to let go, first of your belief that your child will be perfect, then the hope they will be like you only much better, then the misconception that they are yours to mold at all. Somewhere between diapers and dating I relaxed, gave up my expectations, and really began to enjoy being a Mom. There were dark days when I abandoned all but hope. That is when I realized the essence of the parental role; give them unconditional love, keep advice to a minimum, and if you can stand it, let natural consequences be their teacher. Just when you finally get the knack of the parent thing, they are on their way out the door, suitcase in hand, eager to make the same stupid mistakes you did when you were young. Despite all I’ve learned, and how differently I reared my own brood, it what really kills me knowing now that my mother was right when she said, “You won’t understand until you have children of your own.”

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Flowers on the table

Posted by on Jan 30, 2011 in Death and renewal, Mother in Laws | 5 comments

Such is the marvel of modern marketing and shipping I was able to carry a bundle of beautiful blooms to my mother in law Friday, even though I drove through the snow to visit. She is in her end days now, in hospice care and happy to see even me when I come to visit. After a hug and several minutes of friendly conversation she looks at me and says, “Now you are of the family, right?” She then introduces me to the nurses and aides around her, all of whom know me already. We smile indulgently, like one would do for a child with an altered view of reality. Secretly all of us breath a silent prayer that we will die with our mental functioning intact.

She rolls her wheelchair into her room expecting us to sit and talk, but this is not the plan for the day. She tried to hold on to us, because even through a fog of dementia she still has some comprehension that her world is getting ready to shrink again. Armed with a few extra sets of hands and a 12 foot rental truck we are following the blunt instructions of the extended care facility where she has made her home for the last 20 years. “Mrs. Haley can now be best served by the health care unit. You need to remove the contents of her room and two storage lockers within the next two weeks.” Perhaps those are not the exact words. I’m not sure, because unlike my in laws my relationship to material objects is tentative. I have already discarded the letter.

A few weeks ago we cleaned out the first storage locker and in doing so disposed of what seemed to be a lifetime’s accumulation of magazines, cards, rubber bands, plastic bags, free calenders, used envelopes, and rusted paper clips. Now as I open drawers and boxes I discover that I have underestimated how many useless objects one can actually acquire and save during a lifetime. It is a grim and tiring day, as we first attempt to sort and discard as we work, but as afternoon approaches we begin to spend more time loading and less time discriminating. Our cousin Keith comes back from one trip to the truck with the news that Margaret (the MIL) has escaped the medical unit and is determinedly wheeling her way down the long corridor to what she calls her “home”, the room we are ransacking like viking raiders. He bravely throws his body into the lurch, gently intercepting and diverting her. He returns later with her demand that she knows we are somewhere in the building and we better not leave without seeing her. My husband distracts her by carrying her TV to her, a plausible reason for his absence. We go back to stuffing teddy bears, home recorded music tapes, silver coins, and old shoes into boxes and bags.

This morning I started unloading my car and the truck my husband “white-knuckled” over Afton Mountain long after dark last night. I cannot move the monstrous box that staggered him as he loaded it into the truck. I’m afraid to tell him this last indignity, but it is filled to the brim with color slides. I flash back through all the years we spent trapped in the living room of various parsonages with Pop running the slide projector and my step mother in law narrating. “Wait Carl!” she jumps from her seat and touches a wavering image on the screen. “See that flower box in the window? That was filled with the most beautiful petunias I have ever seen. I tried to find out the variety so I could get some seed and plant them here. It’s a little blurry in this picture Carl. Don’t we have a few more that are better?” …and he did. So it went, ad infinitum. I laugh in spite of myself at the memory and start carrying them into the already cluttered basement.

Over the next weeks and months I will be sorting through these along with thousands of pictures, letters, ledgers, and household object, the vain attempt we humans make to leave some monument, some legacy. After I am finished I will reconnoiter my own life’s accumulation of object as to not burden my children with this vanity of material goods. As the children of the depression leave this earth, it is my generation, the boom time children, who are sorting and clearing in amazement. We indeed cannot know the fears they lived by as they could not understand our cavalier outlook on the world. Cousin Keith takes this all in stride, but he keeps saying to me, “This was not in the marriage contract, now was it?” He tells me of his wife’s father who never forgave or forgot the $2.00 he lost when his bank shut down during the great depression. He went through the rest of his life hiding money in books and drawers without regaining his trust in financial institutions. The laughter we share is not without a certain forbearance and endearment for one who took life lesson too literally.

Sitting at home tonight nursing sore muscles and a lingering cold I sort through all the tiny boxes tied up with string and the omnipresent rubber bands. There are treasures and trash in abundance. Here is a note from Lord Bottomly, an uncle, with a commemorative coin from King George’s coronation enclosed. This tiny leather box is stuffed with presidential campaign buttons that vary from the plain pewter “Hoover” tie clip to the patriotic colored and hysterically innocent “I like Ike and Dick” buttonhole pin. Here is a cardboard necklace box chocked full of arrowheads, side by side with a collection of keys from long ago forgotten doors. As I handle each object, look at each picture, glance over each birth, death, divorce and adoption decree, some part of who they were seeps into me. While a portion of the knowledge I gain is burdensome, some is liberating. The balance between the two shifts constantly.

Burdened with this new knowledge I find some strange yearning in me to know how the young girl in the pictures became the wrinkled bedridden stranger I see. Not having been blessed with the patience of Job I found it impossible to talk to her when her mind still retained some clarity. The new revelations about her I am unearthing tell a story of a very different person than the one I thought I knew all these years. The fault of her not revealing herself to me rests ultimately on my carelessness. We were natural antagonist from the minute we met. I used to pride myself on being deceptive enough to let her think that was not true. Now I wonder if she believed she was behaving in the same way. This much I know however. She and I were both born innocent. She has come full circle to the point where she will likely die with a mind just as innocence. She gave me her best crinkled smile as I put the blooms on the table beside her. Then she looked at me earnestly and asked, “Who sent those beautiful flowers?” I smile back but don’t try to tell her. It is enough that she delights in them.

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Excelsior!

Posted by on Dec 31, 2010 in Death and renewal, Holidays, Mother in Laws | 1 comment

I sit with a blank page on my laptop watching my reflection in the large black monitor on my son in law’s desk. The picture I see looks like a ghost of either Christmas past or Christmas future, perhaps both. It seems a line has been drawn across my life this year with bittersweet endings on one side and uncertain beginnings on the other…

The long and arduous relationship with my mother in law appears to be coming to an end as she lies in a hospital in Roanoke gravely ill. I have never been able to feign any words of endearment toward her, although I recognize that she has accidently taught me many lessons. It still makes my stomach churn to think of her lying there alone, even though it is doubtful that she is aware of much around her. I cannot count the times I have wished her out of my life, but now I find there is no triumph for me in her passing. I believe that in this I have followed my children’s example of forgiveness and acceptance. My husband’s mother passed before he and I married and my mother lived far away and died when they were young. So with all her faults she has been the only grandmother that has had a relationship with them.

My mother would have been proud of my daughter for taking on the duties of Christmas this year. Although my children do not remember much about my my mother, the ceaseless work and attention to detail Eva showed preparing a wonderful meal for friends and family reminded me so much of her. In contrast, I did not so much as put up a tree this year. I admit that the passing of the reins is not without some trepidation. After so many decades of sitting in the driver’s seat it was strange hearing the words I used to tell everyone else directed at me. “Just sit back and relax”. I have no practice at this indolence and I find it bewildering, like being a child told to stay out from underfoot.

I empathize with my newly mobile grandson who clammers at the baby gate, wishing to be in the thick of things. Looking at him I know I should not waste a second bemoaning times past. Both of us just need to acquire the necessary tools and understanding to function in this new order. It’s nice to have so much in common with him actually, although I doubt he would see it that way. I am bursting with optimism about the future and it is obvious he feels the same. He is unaware of how much I am learning from him about persistence and ignoring barriers.

My favorite inspirational phrase this year is on a card at my work desk, “Life rewards those who let their actions rise above their excuses”. This quote is reportedly by Lee Colan, an organizational guru, and it was passed to me in an email from my director. The same email also quoted Jedi Master Yoda “Do or do not, there is no try”. I am ashamed to admit that although I have read an reread them, I have not taken the words to heart like I should. Instead of doing I have been trying. As I have watched my grandson Logan progress from being stuck where ever he was placed by an adult to a fearless independent locomotion I recognize his total grasp and application of the attitude I am striving to learn. The fact that he would walk straight off the edge of a cliff with his newfound skills is not lost on me and neither is the inordinately strong and ultimately ineffectual will to live exhibited by my step mother in law. I however have no excuses not to succeed at anything I want. I have the common sense not to walk to the edge of the Grand Canyon and jump, but the health and fortitude to strap on a parachute and leap out of an airplane. I’m not saying skydiving is in my immediate future but perhaps something equivalent, only slightly less terrifying. I’ve never quite overcome my fear of heights you see, but like the young Jedi I am not trying. Let me just say welcome to the fresh new year and give you one more homily, this one from tinybuddah.com.

“Death is more universal than life. Everyone dies but not everyone lives.” ~Alan Sachs

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Rain

Posted by on Nov 25, 2010 in All things natural, Dad | 1 comment

I sat on the front step watching the lighting storm, feeling the cool damp air pressing down on my body as I hugged my knees to my chest, thinking of my father. He loved storms as much as my mother hated them, and perversely, seemingly to annoy her, he would carry me out with him to the porch to watch the wild play of light and noise. In the safety of his arms I never felt a second of fear.

I think about how many times over the years I listened to my father tell the stories of the early days of his marriage and the struggles they survived. Somehow he managed to make the worst of times seem funny and wonderfully entertaining. My father’s most amazing gift was his way with a story and even retold a hundred times we all sat spellbound, listening to every work, like a familiar and beloved book dog eared with the reading.

One of my favorite stories was about the time spent visiting with his in laws down at Echols, the rural village in Western Ky where my mother was born. It is a tiny community whose heart was my grandparent’s general store. Other than that were  a few houses, a Baptist Church,  and acres of farmland. Dad’s story was set in 1937, the first year of their marriage. Until that night my mother had always accepted her family’s actions as perfectly normal. I could always see the signs of discomfort on my mother face when my dad commenced telling about the time they were all awoken in the middle of the night, ordered to dress in their Sunday clothes, and then quick marched through the backyard and into the root cellar.

“The men,” my father intoned with an ironic seriousness, “all stood in the front, by the door.” That would consists of my placid, long suffering grandfather and his two oldest sons, Cleo and Billy, plus the kin by marriage, Uncle Bill the war hero, Uncle Hillard, Uncle Dick and my father. “The women and children were pushed to the back.” As he speaks I can see them huddled among the canned peaches and bins of potatoes listening to my grandmother predict their imminent doom with dramatic sobs and prayers.
“I think it’s gonna blow off over toward the river,” my grandfather states with quiet authority.

No Dad, the wind is blowing directly this way.” says one of the sons, but then a sharp look from his father and a loud whale from the dark recesses behind him reminds him how this game is played. The voice quickly recalculates,

“Well, if it veers a little to the south it just might miss us.” The men agrees with that assessment in a voice that is an echo of his Papa’s firm and steady grasp of the situation. My father remains silent, too sleepy and confused to understand this strange family ritual, feeling he has missed something in the news, in the air, that would justify their behavior.

The rain begins to pour down in buckets. The men shut the cellar doors and everyone sits cramped under the earth like buried victims of some mass murder, suffering but not quite dead. The minutes turn into hours before the rain subsides to a slow steady drip, and then, when my father thinks he can stand it no longer, the man we all called Papa declares it safe to head back to the house.

My Dad embellishes the story with each telling over the years until I can smell the air, feel the breath going in and out of the huddled bodies, see the tense frightened faces when the lightening flashes. Never is the story totally revealed without questioning from the rapt audience.

“Daddy,” I ask, knowing the answer from other times, “Why did you have to put on your good clothes?”

“You know punkin,” he answers with a mocking quizzical voice, “I wondered the same thing, so the next morning I asked your grandmother. Millie Burden just drew herself up proudly and told me,
“Well, if we died and they found our bodies I didn’t want them to think we were trash.” We all have a nice long laugh at the absurdity of the poor woman’s reasoning.

“Daddy,” I ask, “Why would anyone be afraid of the rain?” My father smiles and my mother gets up and declares that she needs to do some laundry.

When I married and had children of my own, my Dad told me another story, this one serious. He confessed that as a child his mother had locked him in a small closet under the steps as punishment for his misdeeds. He said he still had nightmares about the dark and enclosed spaces. My father, who stood a head above most anyone around him, whose square shoulders and barrel chest were still straight and strong at ninety years old, the man who had taught me to be as fearless as a badger had an Achilles heel. The fact that he admitted it to me melted my heart.

He’s been gone from me these four years now, but sometimes when the air smells like rain, I take a minute to slip outside and think about how often I stood beside him watching the clouds churn and the wind turn the leaves inside out. Sometimes he would just slip his arm silently over my shoulders and pull me next to him and we would stand there in wordless communion until the rain came.

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Sunrise in Seattle A Memory from 2005

Posted by on Nov 20, 2010 in My Children | 0 comments

Always the mountain sits and waits, at times only the faintest memory of mountain, sketched in mist and clouds, floating like a magic city above the landscape, but always there, like faith or love, even when unseen…

I wake to the SOS sound of the vertical blinds in the apartment, blown by the fan’s breeze through the open patio door. Since I am cool, and it is July, I realize I have left Virginia far behind. A half moon shines redundantly in the half moon window above me. I rise and turn off the fan and step onto the balcony and into the early dawn of Seattle. I can’t quite see Rainier yet, but a ghostly outline tells me it is still where we left it at sundown last night. A long line of black mountains extends across the horizon, with a hint of gold promising the return of the sun is imminent. I close the door against the chill and dark and crawl back into my bed. It seems a time for sleeping, but I am unsuccessful in my attempt to doze again. My mind is filled with the impressions of last evening, a beautiful restaurant patio, the cool breeze, fabulous flowers, and the crisp, grapefruit scented wine we enjoyed on my arrival. Even the bus ride had seemed exotic, a quiet, clean, electric trip through a neighborhood of wedding cake houses, interspersed with terra cotta adobe and grey cement apartments, ornamented with plants, sculpture, and flowing wrought iron. I give up on sleep and attempt to make coffee, a Seattle religious ritual, but find myself puzzled by the electric bean grinder. I dress and step back out to the balcony where I enjoy the promise of the new day, watching as the mountain reappears, splashed with spots of gold and pink across it snowy face. Some lights blink on in the hillside windows of other early risers, and dawn slides down to Lake Washington, bringing its scattered sailboats to life. The seagulls have turned out for breakfast and sing their discordant squawks, complaining about their empty bellies. Jets soar high above, carrying sleepy people to distant, unknown destinies, reminding me that my time here is limited.

When I last visited the west coast, real life had seemed so far away, but now, with family sleeping cozy downstairs, I understand how this comfortable place can be home for them. I am content as I anticipate their awakening, knowing that love abides, solid as the mountain, seen or unseen

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