Family ties

My gentle relations have names they must call me…

Time Zone Shift

Posted by on Sep 28, 2010 in Angst, anger, anarchy, My Children | 0 comments

I have slept on this futon in my firstborn’s living room for four nights now, and only this morning became cognizant of the clock that ticks somewhat laboriously right over my head. It has the distinctive mechanical sound of a swinging pendulum, something I can’t help but believe is a calculated contrivance. Perhaps the pulse of it has been soothing me at night, the heart steady beat taking me back to a time and place of primitive comfort. After three busy days and four restless nights neither my brain or my body have adjusted to the rhythm of the northwest coast. I don’t think I can blame it on the wonderful coffee, for although my consumption of it has increased while here, I lie me down and sleep peacefully with enough caffeine roaring through my system to lift the airplane that carried me from the east. Since I have ignored the clock until today’s 3AM awakening I think we can discard that as a possible cause of my unrest. I feel it might have more to do with recent revolutions and revelations in my own life and those of my children. I am filled with secrets, possibilities, and impossibilities in equal measure.

My grandson’s birthday was held on a cold rainy Monday and all the cool kids were there. We dressed everyone up in homemade cardboard robot costumes and paraded down the street like so many happy fools. Seattle did not even blink at our absurdity. The next day my eldest son took me for a wonderful walk through Elliott Park which is sandwiched artfully between the towers of downtown and the proliferation of ships in the harbor. The hillside is wild and tame in turn and dotted with sculptures. Every man made object along the path seems to have a grace and style that says “look at me again”. For some reason my lasting memory was a lone creosote log, balanced on an angle down the rocky coast line, and bobbing up and down precariously with the tidal echo.

With so much of the day still left my son drove us over to Ballard to watch the ships go through the locks and have lunch at an old converted Firehouse. The words between us were of a private nature that required us being face to face and heart to heart. He tells me his secrets between sips of a light crisp local Pilsner that tastes like a fleeting summer day. He does not have to ask for my blessing or my acceptance, because for these few hours we are the intertwined souls that held each other fast in days gone by. As we leave the restaurant I take his hand like I did when he was a little boy and tell him how proud I am of his integrity and decency. Over at the locks the ships slip by us one by one while all the words that can be said are said. He judges not that he be not judged and I do the same. I come home filled with joy and hope and love beyond my understanding.

Wednesday night I had a less serious interaction with my middle child over dinner in a fu-fu Asian fusion joint that worked a bit too hard at being exclusive. We arrived unfashionably early and the large minimalist room had only two patrons. “Do you have reservations,” the maître d queries, in a tone that suggested she had recently been sitting on a tack.
“They were for 6:30 but we took a chance and came at 6.” She looks around the empty restaurant as if she is trying to figure out where she can squeeze us in. My son and I are both amused, but play along by following her eyes around the room. She seats us in what seems like as desirable location as any other, along the wall toward the back. After a perusal of the menu we order and dine sparingly on excellent but exorbitantly priced seafood. I leave too large a tip, just to prove I am cosmopolitan and accustomed to such practices.

The web of pretense I weave around my humble origins surprises me at times. I try to hold my center as I move through places and people unfamiliar to me, but my success with this attempt is sketchy. The young man across from me, the shy bright peacekeeper of the family, seems to have a firmer grasp on the concept of self. “In Richmond,” he says, “I was a bleeding heart liberal. Here I am almost conservative.” I compliment my steadfast child and he shrugs it off like water, for after all, it is his nature.

No matter where I land, my chameleon character cannot hold its color for long. My voice, my step, and what is left of my religion begins a slow shift, attempting to make myself indistinguishable from those around me. When I was in England I shared my colorful history with my daughter’s family by marriage. In trying to explain my roots I related a story from my childhood of the night when our Redbone coon hound gave birth to puppies under our tiny one bedroom house. My father had to crawl into the spidery darkness to remove the babies, whose whimpering woke all of the occupants above. Of course I then had to elaborate on the practice of coon hunting in rural Kentucky and further expounded that the modest house was literally where I was born. There were no hospitals, no convenience stores, no alcohol, no bars in that small town – only churches and gas stations, one grocery store, and steadfast honest people from the heartland. It stands to reason that I could not hold the pattern of my childhood sacrosanct when I left that life behind in such a tiny corner of the world.

Here, far away in the last cool damp days of the brief northwestern summer, I try on the mindset of unfamiliar philosophies and colorful people. Their dress and attitude reflect the landscape, grey and brown and black with unexpected splashes of bright color and print. I feel my colors changing to as I turn through the clothing in the cute shops of the delightful neighborhoods. Still, I am slightly out of step with the street traffic, find no discernible accent to mimic, and realize I am perhaps too old to fit into the crowd I would gravitate toward. It is this advance and retreat that keeps me unsettled here. My elder child and his wife embrace the life on this shore, love the friends they have made, and look forward to rearing their child in an atmosphere that is green and hopeful. My middle son is more stoical and merely says he fits in here as well as anyplace. I see all of them content with a full and rewarding life together.

I peer into the future from this vantage point, but like the rabbit in the Dr. Seuss story, I look around the world and back again only to see the fool on the hill trying to know the unknowable. The only thing I am sure of is that I will get on the airplane Saturday morning and fly back to the comfortable but confining place I have called my home for almost four decades. After all this living, I still have more questions than answers; at a time when I am supposed to be settled and serene, I still yearn for adventure and challenge. The stranger I see in the mirror often lies to me about possibilities and impossibilities, but she always yearns for a perfection she is incapable of achieving. I almost hope she never figures it out.

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Posted by on Dec 6, 2009 in Angst, anger, anarchy, Death and renewal, Mother | 0 comments

Slamming the door in anger was not allowed in my home. The punishment was to be spanked, and then with deep shuttering sobs shaking my body, I was required to go back and close the door gently. Sometimes it took three or four repeats to make the closing sufficiently soft to suit my mother. I think I was about eleven when I finally learned the lesson that my anger would have to be expressed more covertly. I do not think it was the lesson my mother intended. It was around that age when I started stealing money from one of her many pocketbooks on an almost daily basis. She carried a different one each day, leaving a wealth of change jingling in the bottom of all the others. It was money she never missed, money I did not need, money she would have given me if I had been able to explain why I wanted it. I did not care to explain even if I had known why. I took it and spent it at the drug store on cherry fountain cokes or strawberry ice cream sundaes, often treating my friends too, the ones my mother told me really didn’t like me because I was whatever thing she was annoyed about at the time.

We were at eye level by the time I was eleven but I grew three inches in the next year, making her the smallest, but still the most terrifying person in my world. Although we never spoke a word about the changes happening in my body, my mother’s tight lipped disapproval seemed to increase as I morphed rapidly from child to woman. It was that summer that I finally stood defiant and stared her down the last time she ever dared to punish me physically. I did not sob or even speak. I waited until she was finished shouting her angry triad and hitting me, and then I walked quietly to my room and shut the door softly, just the way I had been taught. Behind that closed door I sat dry eyed and felt the power grow in me.

I became a stranger to my mother that day, as she did to me. It was not that moment alone, but the accumulation of blows both physical and emotional that made me close the door gently, my rage sucked inside. Since that time I have traveled many miles and years from my childhood home, often being self destructive, very rarely turning my anger outward. I never realized how much I let it control me until the spring day in 1994 when my sister called me and said, “I’m afraid I have some very bad news.” Although Mother had been ill, the death was unexpected. None of us believed a woman so strong and fierce could actually die, especially not during what her doctor said was a simple surgery. I was numb inside for many weeks, but pictures of that time come to me in dream-like memories.

My husband drove the twelve hours to the place I once called home. My children sat in the front of the van, frightened, while I lay silent and almost comatose in the back seat. I wish I could say I tried to find words to comfort them, but I was an empty husk, moving only mechanically, unable to even hear their loving attempts at condolences. Sometime later that evening I sat in the enormous bedroom my mother shared with her husband of fifty eight years and listened as my family tried to figure out how to arrange a funeral without Mother’s supervision. No one asked my opinion. I was the outsider, a role I deserved, but there in the middle of my chest I felt the old familiar anger at my mother for bringing me to this place with these feelings. Right beside the anger was the grief for the mother I always wanted, and hidden beneath it all was a terrible guilty relief that I never again had to hear her tell me why I was a failure.

Thousands of people who loved and revered my saintly Mother filed past her casket where she lay so tiny in death. She wore an unfamiliar blue suit, my brother’s choice of clothing. On her cold left hand was the diamond my father had given her for her 50th anniversary and on the right the Eastern Star ring I had never seen her wear in life. My sister had insisted the jewelry be buried with her. Somehow in seating people for the funeral my family and I ended up on the second row, with me on the far end, directly behind one of the giant columns of the First Baptist Church sanctuary, while my father, brother, sister and all their children sat in front. It was only later I realized I had still been praying that in this last goodbye I would somehow finally be a child beloved, cherished, asked to come to the altar rail and receive her blessing. The symbol would be lost on her of course, because kneeling in public was a scorned ritual of the Methodist Church that I had joined despite her objections.

As the time without her has slipped by, I have shed my anger a bit each year, like a snake letting go of its skin in order to grow. In those rare times when I have lost my temper with one of my three children I have done my worst by going to my room and slamming the door. The boys accepted it and left me alone, but it always made my daughter furious to hear the noise, the closing off of communication. I have come to understand that my resolve to never spank my children did not free me of the curse of my own childhood. The slamming of the door is no more helpful in teaching them to deal with their anger than the blows from my mother’s hand. I had to invent a way of showing love, and allowing anger, and letting my children know how amazing they are to me. In those areas where I have done badly I have gone, pride discarded, and asked their forgiveness. Hopefully I have not made them suffer too much because of my ignorance of mothering. I do not want to have to die to set them free.

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Snitched Melon is Always Best

Posted by on Aug 7, 2009 in All things natural, Dad | 0 comments

Summer has always been my fourth favorite season but somehow this particular August has caught me in it’s languid little trap. I realized it finally when I touched the watermelon on my kitchen island with the blade of my sharpest knife. The cracking sound of a ripe and ready to burst melon echoed through the empty room and the smell of it told me everything I needed to know about the taste. The only thing that kept me from cutting off an enormous chunk and heading out to the deck to eat it, juice washing down my face and hands, was the little black dress and high heels I had put on to go shopping later. Perhaps that’s what has got me about summer this year. I suddenly notice that I have had no time to lie back in it’s embrace and enjoy.

In my mind’s eye I see my father in his work overalls and teeshirt cutting into a melon out on the side porch. It is one of the big oval stripy ones with seeds. He cuts off a thick slice and bites into the sweetness. Then turning toward me, mouth too stuffed to speak, he shakes his head back and forth in affirmation of delight. Soon he spits the seeds rapid fire into the green grass and bites again. Like a movie picture going to dissolve, the light slowly fades on the scene and he is gone again, a figment of my imagination, long dust. Then this story comes to mind…

My Dad, age 15, a tall gangly lad, slipped quietly into Mr Johnson’s watermelon patch under the cover of darkness. He moved quickly to pick three of the best melons, one under each arm and one in the front of his bid overhauls…

He stretches out the words and illustrates with a tug at the front of the freshly ironed dark blue ones he is wearing now. In his poverty ridden childhood they were threadbare hand-me-downs, soft with age…

The melon fit snugly against his chest as he plotted his escape path. Suddenly a noise of cracking branches echoed in the still night air. Knowing Mr. Johnson had a shotgun and might be on patrol, Dad “took off running” toward the dirt road that led home. As he skimmed across the ditch his foot rammed into something big and he fell flat on the muddy bank. The melon secreted against his body smashed, pouring sticky sweetness down his chest. Such was the quickness of the fall he never let go of the other two. Ignoring a muffled grunt from the ground he was on his feet again in seconds making his escape. The next morning, bathed and in fresh clothing, he ventured into the general store bold as brass, despite the fact that Mr. Johnson’s team and horses sat outside. He heard the farmer’s voice raised in anger before he was fully in the door. “Nearly killed me he did, broke a rib I think! Those good for nothing hooligans! If I ever get my hands on that one…”

Dad listened to the back and forth typical of the close rural community, trying to look nonchalant. The truth of what he had tripped over began to dawn on him. It was Mr. Johnson himself hunkered in the ditch watching over his precious crop, shotgun loaded with birdshot. He never got off a single round in the darkness such was the speed and stealth of the accomplished young melon rustler.

The mischief in my dad’s blue eyes had not diminished in the 30 intervening years. The story he told was as fresh as white sheet flapping on an old fashion clothesline on a hot August day. I remember how hard he worked, more than any man I ever knew, but he knew how to sit it down when work was done. Today he would be pleased with me. I’m going to take a lesson from him and sit for a hour in the cool shade, while the watermelon days last.

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Overlooking all but the Obvious

Posted by on Oct 7, 2008 in Mother in Laws, Reckless youth | 0 comments

At eighteen, alone and armed only with the innocence and audacity of youth, I took the train from Louisville Kentucky to a place through the looking glass, Washington DC. My mother had driven me from Beaver Dam to Louisville with dire warnings and instructions that I completely ignored. In my pocket book I had the hundred dollars she had given me, along with an envelope that had a boy’s address and an invitation from his mother to visit. Since I had met him in September we had bandied about terms like forever and love and marriage like we knew what they meant. Now this cold January day I looked out the train window into the back yards and industrial wasteland of America, believing only a tiny portion of the things I told myself and my family about him. The steel rail rocked me finally to a fitful sleep as it carried me safely to my doom.

I was wide awake long before the conductor announce Union Station around 10 the next morning. I pulled my round blue American Tourister suitcase down from the overhead rack and clutched it firmly by the loop handle and stepped off the train into the cold bright January day. I walked briskly along with the stream of people who obviously knew where they were going and pretended I did too. I was giddy with excitement because I knew that the boy who wanted to marry me would be eagerly awaiting as soon as I went through the iron gate into the station.

I did not see him immediately, so I slowed down and scanned my surroundings with an anticipatory smile frozen on my face. Seconds turn into minutes as I milled about the station staring at the rushing press of strangers, hands wrapped tightly about my oh so chic hatbox suitcase, my navy blue suit now rumpled, my new leather pumps feeling a bit tight . Nothing in my previous life had prepared me for being stranded alone in a large city. I grew up in a town of 2000 people all of whom would have taken me in if I had knocked on their door and told them my plight. I had been in a Baptist college for one semester in a town of 7000. The only two people I knew that lived in DC were my boyfriend John and the president , and I didn’t know how to get in touch with either of them. The prototype edition of a cellular phone was still 15 years in the future, so I looked about for a phone booth. I was stunned when I saw there were five phone books, each of them the size of the giant bible my mother kept on the coffee table in our formal living room. I picked one at random and turned to the F’s. My heart sank where a cursory scan revealed there were more than a dozen pages of John Freeman listings.

At this point it might have occurred to any sensible girl to use her return ticket immediately, but I was a month and a week past 17, not an age especially given to sensibility. I stepped through the tall outside doors into the frigid air with a ghost of hope that he was waiting in his father’s car. Instead I found rows of yellow cabs lined up at the curb. I had never ridden in one before in my life, but it looked like I was going to have to chance it. I told the driver the address from the envelope without giving him the quadrant, and fought back tears as he became impatient with me for not knowing. He softened a bit when I told him my problem in an accent that made my lack of local connections obvious. By the time he got me safely to what was then the Italian middle class neighborhood of Anacostia, he told me he was going to wait until I was sure I wanted to stay before he left.

We pulled up in front of the row house around noon and while I puzzled over the tip and the fee for my rescuer the front door opened and the face of my consort appeared in the glass screen door. His neck was wrapped in a plaid muffler and he had an ernest and contrite expression, but he did not open the door until I walked up the steps. Greeting me with a quick kiss on the cheek he apologized for not meeting me. I was waiting for an explanation of the catastrophe that must have occurred to keep this boy from me, the one who told me I was more important to him than oxygen. That’s when I met Josie, his mother.

“Well see,” she said, “She made it here safe and sound. Glad to meet you. John wanted to come get you but I couldn’t let him come out in the cold when he had a sore throat.” She launched into a long and detailed medical history of her only child which should have sent me screaming back to the taxi, but at this point I was so relieved to be safe I just smiled, waved the driver on, and embraced my future mother in law.

By the end of the day I was in deep cultural shock. My mother’s home was immaculate and orderly but this house was so clean it set my teeth on edge. The living room sofa had custom made clear plastic slip covers. I could see my reflection in the kitchen floor. Nothing, even a visit from the first girl their son ever brought home, disrupted the family schedule. Saturday morning they cleaned an already spotless house. Saturday afternoon they shopped for the exact same groceries they purchased the week before so they can make the exact same meals they ate the week before, and pay the cook the exact same compliments. The cook is Josie’s mother who came to live with them right after John was born. She does not go anywhere with them except church, not even the grocery, and she retires to her room each evening after she does the dishes. Even on this brief visit I realize that life in the Freeman household is scripted. My mission, if I choose to accept it, is to bring chaos into their otherwise orderly existence. I start my job on the very first night by asking why John has a plate of lettuce when the rest of us are eating a tossed salad.

Josie laughs along with John’s grandmother and they explain that little John, just turned 21, is a bit of a picky eater. I wisely kept my theories on picky eaters to myself, but made a mental note that this is one thing I will have to fix after we’re married. The gods must still be laughing about that ambition because when we split up 7 years later he still picked through canned Campbell’s soup discarding the vegetables he refused to eat. By that time I had also found out that his eating habits were the least of my problems.

The rest of the story is so deeply personal I am loath to share it. Let me just say we were predictably bad for each other and for most everyone around us. It took us so much longer than our family and friends to realize it was over. The day I finally had to go I turned one last time to hold him, something we had not done for months. Even then I was still foolish enough to believe he would be less selfish in divorce than he had been in marriage, just because he told me so. Turning from him, I left my childhood behind in that embrace and walked out the door with my son.

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The Reverend Carl Wrenn Haley Nov 27 1912/Sept 30/2008

Posted by on Sep 7, 2008 in Father in law | 0 comments

This morning I turn through the pages of the two books my father in law presented to us for Christmas 1997, his labor of love for his children and grandchildren. They are bound, but printed on one side only, stuffed with afterthoughts of memorabilia and pictures of varying qualities, some blurs of what must be people, others brilliant and vivid. The endearing, frustrating, overriding impression of the book is the mish mash of truth and fiction, history written from an egocentric and narrow point of view. It is however the unwavering vision of a man of God, one whose faith sustained him through many dark times. As far as I know, none of his flesh and blood have given more than a cursory look at the volumes, but my curiosity drove me directly to read non stop for many days.

I try to reconcile the man who lives on these pages with the frail shell I saw when we entered his room yesterday at the Methodist home in Roanoke. His appearance is shocking, mouth agape and gasping for air, eyes open, unblinking, but seeing nothing as far as I could tell. Margaret, his wife of 45 years, snores in the chair beside him. I step out to the nurse’s station through the line up of wheelchairs. I speak my hellos to the occupants but they all stare west to end of the hall like they are awaiting the second coming. I introduce myself to a cheerful woman and ask her if Mr. Haley is awake. She walks back with us, perhaps thinking him already dead, and seems relieved to assure me that all is well. Every instinct tells me that the man has fled but is hovering nearby; waiting for us to come so he can move on. I arrange chairs close to his bedside and encourage my reluctant husband to sit. Margaret is having trouble with her hearing aide, so we screech a conversation across the room as loud and as accurate as cannon ball shots, rarely connecting with a target, and often wounding innocent bystanders

Realizing my husband’s discomfort I suggest he go to the car and get the memory chip he has brought to fix Margaret’s computer. He comes back shortly smelling of cigarette smoke and takes her down the hall to her room. I turn to the faded remembrance of a man and start to talk to him. I try to hold his hand but he is posturing, lifting his arms suddenly into the air and dropping them, looking for all intents like he is emphasizing a point in a sermon. I start to sing his favorite hymn. “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where you ought to be, and when we find ourselves in the place just right, it will be in the valley of love and delight.” I stumble over the words of the refrain but get the part where “turn, turn, will be our delight, til by turning, turning, we come out right.” It’s a sweet tune, one of the few where I like the music more than the words. Finished, I start on one we both know, Amazing Grace.

It is an easy song for every voice, the octave range narrow. It sounds sweet in the room and his breathing calms a little. I adjust his pillow and find he is damp with sweat. Lifting his head eases his breathing, but he pushes back against my hand as if he were uncomfortable. I go back to singing. “Will the circle be unbroken”, “I’ll fly away”, “A child of the king”, “Just as I am”; I dig deep back into my Baptist roots for all the words. “I come to the garden alone”, “the Old Rugged Cross”, “My eternal home”; I sing for over an hour and between times I talk to him. I tell him I love him. I kiss the baldhead, the stubbly cheek. I tell him it’s okay to go now, that his struggle is over, that we will watch over Margaret. Facing death I become a believer, or rather I suspend my disbelief and I ask him to say hello to my mother, my father. I remind him of the glorious reunion he will have soon with his beloved Eva, the mother of his children, and with Russell, the son who died in 1967, his father and mother, the three brothers and one sister that went before him. I want it to be true.

His minister comes by and finds me dry eyed and singing. He speaks a few words and tears start trailing down my cheek. I tell him about the letter Pop wrote me when my mother died and how it touched my heart. It was not written by the minister but by the real human being that lived inside my father in law. With that letter I realized for the first time I loved him and that he loved me. The kind pastor leaves me and I go back to singing, digging around in my brain I come up with “Circuit Rider”, the song about a minister at the turn of the century riding his horse through the night, bringing the church to the people in the hills, just as Pop’s own father did in the early days of his ministry. Old gospel hymns long forgotten spring to my lips, “I am weary, let me rest”, “Carry me off on your snow white wings”, “Life is like a Mountain Railroad”, “Far side banks of Jordon”, I don’t know all the titles, just the words learned in revival meetings in my childhood.

My husband and Margaret come back into the room and he smiles and kisses me and tells me he heard me singing when he was coming down the hall. Margaret’s dinner is here and she sits and eats. Neither Wrenn nor I have had anything substantial since breakfast so I decide to go pick up something. The phone call comes while I’m in line at Kroger. “He’s left.” No drama, just one breath he was here and then he stopped. My husband says Margaret talked through it and he had to yell the news across the room. When I come back my eyes go first to the body , skin as yellow as a spring jonquil, mouth still open, but no struggle, only stillness. Margaret is still eating dinner. I hug my husband and kiss Pop a last goodbye. We chat for a while and I go over to sit on the bed beside Margaret. Her face is flushed and she cries as she eats the chocolate cookie from her tray. I put my arm around her and tell her she is not alone. I tell her I love her. In that moment I’m not lying. She is as frail as mortals come, argumentative and always contentious, but I am mortal too and have no stones left to throw.

After an hour the nurse arrives to pronounce him, kisses us all, and tells him to rest in peace. Then the funeral home comes with a red velour covered gurney and the kind man in a suit puts a pillow under Pop’s head after he moves him, a sweet touch my husband appreciates. Then, there in the empty room surrounded by the stench of death, Margaret tests my resolve to be kind by deciding everything must be moved out this evening to prevent people from stealing. I puzzle over who would want his underwear and socks, his old man sweaters, his jaunty hats, the last of a tube of toothpaste, the stacks of adult diapers sorted in plastic bags and labeled with a jagged cursive “size medium”, “extra absorbent”, “too small”, but I pack them uncomplaining. She tells me I walk too fast as we go down the hall at a snails pace. I slow down to accommodate her walker.

At 8:30 when we stop at Sheets for food and gas Pop has been dead two hours and forty minutes. All the relatives have been called by myself or my husband, the obit written 20 years ago by Pop has been located on the computer, and Margaret sits alone in a 12 by 12 room surrounded by boxes and bags and a lifetime of memories. It is midnight when we arrive home, and worn from the day I have the blessed relief of sleep. I hear the insomniacs, my husband and my daughter, talking loudly and laughing in the kitchen around 4 am. It is their time like the morning is mine, and tomorrow will be here soon enough, so peacefully, I go back to sleep.

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Hello, Goodbye

Posted by on Aug 31, 2008 in Death and renewal, Father in law | 0 comments

I wrote my father in law’s obituary this week. A lady from the Richmond Times Dispatch called us asking if they could do a feature article on him. I listened to my husband speak on the phone about how dedicated his Dad was to the church. “Sometimes we would go for a week with out seeing him for dinner except on Sunday.” I wonder if the woman on the phone heard between the lines as clearly as I did? My husband loved and admired his father but he knew always that he came in second to the family business. It’s hard for a child to compete with God for his Dad’s attention.

I must give my husband credit for reinventing fatherhood. With no example to go from he managed to let the children know that they were the most important people in his life. I turned through pictures on Thursday trying to find ones to show at my father-in-law’s memorial. As I scanned through the children’s birthdays, holidays, concerts, special awards at scouts and school, I note that their grandfather appears in only the Christmas photos and a few random shots when they stopped by, usually unannounced, and scooped the children up to have their picture taken together. I found a few where the children visited him at his birthday, but mostly the pictures are ones of him and other preachers.

My daughter and I were talking in the car earlier in the week and she stumbled around for a description of her grandparents. “They just never look at themselves,” she says definitively. I give her the quote from Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and we talk about Thoreau and living deliberately. She asks again if she had to come to the memorial service and I tell her again, yes, you need to be there. She went to Pittsburgh on Wednesday to visit a new friend. She called me Friday morning when we were halfway to Roanoke and told me that I was going to be mad at her, but she couldn’t make it to the funeral. She told me a long complicated story about why her alarm didn’t go off but well, it’s her choice.

My middle son, the peacemaker, flew in from Seattle to attend the memorial. The preacher from Pop’s church asked me if one of the grandchildren would read something at the service. I should have said no, my children are all agnostics and atheists so they wouldn’t feel comfortable standing in the pulpit, but instead I volunteered the flesh of my flesh without his consent. As we drove over Afton mountain for the third time this week, my son sat in the front with his Dad studying the piece from Romans he will read. He was dressed in the new clothes I bought for him the day before, black blazer, soft blue shirt, gray pants with a subtle stripe, and a tie borrowed from his father. When he stood up in the church he was so handsome and he spoke in a clear strong masculine voice, like a prophet crying in the wilderness. Even knowing all that I do, I believe him for a few seconds. In the face of all the amazing men who speak today, godly and intelligent men, men who have spent their lives believing something I was taught but cannot accept, I stumble briefly over my incredulity. It is all so comforting. I smile as I imagine Pop’s ghostly presence standing in the pulpit smiling down like Luke’s father from Star Wars.

Each of us on the front row have our own private grief. The widow cries for a lifelong companion, but the rest of us, son, grandson, and myself, we mourn for a relationship that could have been. The important man in the pulpit talks about how children loved Carl and flocked to him for hugs. I think back through my children’s life and cannot recall even one time when they went spontaneously to their grandfather for a hug. The man they talk about is not the man my family knew. The man we knew could never divide himself from the role he played. As I watch my son interact so patiently with the grandmother he drew in this flawed family, I realize that he gave his grandparents the unconditional love they could not give him. I know he is able to do that because he got that same kind of love from us, an exasperating love evidently. He explains it to me in the kitchen last night. “Why do you always tell me everything is fine? Why don’t you just tell me I fucked up sometimes? Why do you always blame yourself?” Of course, I immediately accept the blame for that and apologize, and the boy shakes his head in dismay. Laughing now, I promise I will try to be more critical, but I know I’m lying.

My failure is in seeing my children as they will be, as they have the potential to be, but not giving them the constructive criticism they may need to achieve that potential. Perhaps because I was reared without praise of any kind, I have erred in the opposite direction. The boy will be 30 this year and I’m thinking he may just have to learn to accept the fact that I’m the mother he got. My daughter tells me always that I’m the perfect mom, but then, she knows what sells. My oldest forgives me all my sins just as I forgive his and he always holds part of my soul within his own. I love them all with a primal animal instinct that would send me rushing into the path of an oncoming tornado to protect them, however that is something that is rarely required of parents.

What they need and what I give them does not always coincide, but if I learned one lesson from the life and death of their grandfather it should be to listen. On one rare occasion my father in law touched my heart and made me love him in spite of all his flaws. It was when my mother died and he wrote me a letter from his real heart, the heart of a man who cherished his mother. In it he said, “The loss of one’s mother is the most wracking experiences life can bring us. All the nerve ends of the soul are centered there.” It’s strange to me that although I know how gigantic a figure my mother was in my life that I cannot see myself being the same in my children’s eyes. I suppose I won’t really understand until they have my funeral, and damn, I hate that I’m going to miss that.

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