Cleaned Out

I didn’t expect it to be fun. I even expected it to be painful sometimes, going through all the boxes of my parents’ lives. Most of the time I just went out to the garage, filled up the trash can and then put everything back. When the trash can was empty again, I attacked another box or two. Some boxes I hauled unopened to the thrift store when I knew what was in them and knew I didn’t want them — my mom’s crystal, my aunt Martha’s fancy clock.

It’s funny that the last box held my own past. Fitting and kind of cosmic, sort of saying, “OK, MAK, deal with your own life now.”

I lost my dad when I was 20. He was my best friend, my confidant, my teacher, my hero. He was funny and iconoclastic, brilliant, but, above all, brave. He had Multiple Sclerosis back in the day before Interferon and the other drugs that exist now, before they knew anything about autoimmune diseases, maybe before the term even existed. I was there for him, beside him and with him through all of it. When he died, I wasn’t really allowed to mourn. My mom was an extremely envious and possessive woman, very jealous of my relationship with my dad. My Aunt Jo told me this and that just corroborated what I already sensed, especially when my mom said, “Shut up. He was your dad, but he was MY husband.”

A lot of feelings got stuffed down, and I wrestled on my own to understand what had happened to my life. Thankfully I had friends and other family who were by my side and on my side as I went through it.

There is something, though. I wish I could have known him once I had grown up as I have some other members of my family. As I’ve gone through all these things, things that I did not myself pack or even know about, I’ve seen a little bit of my dad through my very adult eyes.

One of my dad’s most personal artifacts was in the second to last box, his wallet. Inside were the usual things — pictures of my brother and me as newborns, a photo of his parents in their 40s, a photo of my mom holding me when I was 1, identification for the government places where he worked, even his army discharge papers and a copy of his birth certificate. But this…

Dad's wallet

It took me a little while to figure it out. Then I realized it was my dad’s way of reminding himself that no matter what a crappy hand he’d been dealt, he wasn’t going to whine about it. He didn’t, either. Toward the end, he got very frustrated and angry sometimes, raging over the question of continuing to be alive when his abilities had been abridged dramatically, but he never — that I remember — played violin music.

I was not really prepared for the intensity of my reaction to these artifacts. Last night, it had all so penetrated my mind, that when I saw a friend outside when I began my walk with the dogs, and invited her along, I said, “The light on the Beartooths is beautiful in the evenings, I mean the Sangres. I’m in Montana in my mind, I guess.” I felt awkward and disoriented for a moment.

All today I’ve felt exhausted and sad. I don’t think that’s so strange. I’m glad I’m finished with this, I’m glad I did it, it was the right thing to do, but most of all, I’m most happy that I will never have to do it again. All that’s left is one last trip to Montana.

Radio Days

Sunday mornings I listen to the RADIO. Its signals are no longer radiated through the atmosphere, but come through the miracle of cable Wi-Fi. It’s a station in San Diego. 94/9. The DJ, Steve West, is a guy I listened to back in the day, the 80s when the alternative station was 91X. Yes folks, it’s an oldies show called Legends of Alternative. Steve West plays alternative and punk, sometimes playing songs I request (through the miracle of Facebook). I’m pretty sure his favorite band is The Cure. If it hadn’t been for his radio show, which was always on when I was driving home from school around 1 or 2 pm, I would  not have heard many of the songs that are my life’s soundtrack, such as “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush and “Holiday in Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys.

I grew up with the radio. My dad was a radio man when he was in the army. Having failed to ship out twice with his outfit(s), he ended up out in the California desert with the Army Corps of Engineers. The Army finally sent him to school, and he was trained to be, as he described it, “a radio man.” He told me the whole story, but long before I was old enough to have the context points that would help it stick in my memory.

When I was growing up, our basement had lots of cool WW II tech stuff in it — hand-cranked generators, telegraph buttons (?), field phones (my brother and I LOVED playing with those), and an assortment of various strange radios. My dad had been a HAM radio operator while he was in college in Montana, so there was all that radio equipment, too. I thought of a radio as a box with sound coming out of it; for my dad a radio was a platform with tubes, wires, coils and antennae.

When I was very small, my dad worked for the University of Denver. Imagine how much fun this must have been. He shot up rockets carrying weather balloons dangling radio transmitters into the atmosphere to “find” radio waves emitted by, I’m pretty sure, the bomb that had been tested at Alamogordo, NM.

The most spectacular radio in our lives was his Zenith Trans-Oceanic. Once he and I (I was 10 or 11) had built his office in one corner of the basement, had stained the pine bookshelves mahogany (brown), put all the books away, set up a small sofa, put in his desk, arranged his things, we were ready for the ceremony of, “C’mon MAK. Let’s see if we can listen to Russia.” Usually we just got Juarez. “C’mon, MAK. We can practice our Spanish.”

I couldn’t choose between my favorite radio songs for this post, so here are my top three.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/radiate/

Bricks and Mortar

My dad was a brilliant man who died young, but not before he achieved some remarkable things, and not just me ( ha ha ). He was one of the scientists who collaborated on a super-secret government computer code during the Cold War, JOVIAL. The name — an acronym for “Jules Own Version of the International Algebraic Language.“– (IMO) reflects the wry, dark sense of humor of guys who had lived through the Great Depression and survived WW II (a good example of this is Dr. Strangelove). My dad was VERY funny in that style and, as I grew up, I thought everyone appreciated it. OH WELL.

This morning, researching the computer language, the first sentence I came upon was, “Jovial is essentially a dead language.” That is true in so many ways, but I don’t want to digress.

In going through box after box of family photos, I found some from the time we lived in the first home my parents owned, a little post-WWII tract house in Englewood, CO. There were — as was the style and necessity at the time — street after street of little houses, 900 – 1000 square foot homes, usually 3 bedrooms and a bathroom, built to accommodate the Baby Boom. I have played several iterations of SimCity, and, seriously, that’s what a 1950’s neighborhood looks like from above.


However anonymous the neighborhoods, or identical the houses, no two families are alike. As soon as the people moved in, they began to make the houses theirs. My dad did, too.

My grandfather was a building contractor and my dad liked working for him. He liked laying tile, building things with bricks, putting up partitions. As my life with my dad proceeded, we both spent a lot of time in the basement of our future homes (our first home didn’t have a basement) building stuff, usually bookcases. Once my dad told me that if he hadn’t met my mom, he wouldn’t have become a mathematician, gotten a masters degree or any of that. “I was happy laying tile, MAK. But thank God your mother came along and talked me into getting an education.” He had many good reasons for feeling this way, notably, that when he was 27 it became apparent he had Multiple Sclerosis. He was ever-after grateful that he didn’t have to rely on his physical abilities to earn a living for his family.

My dad’s project on his first home was a grill. Here’s a picture of my mom standing beside the grill, probably 1955.

Mom and grill 1250 E Bates Pkwy

And here’s the grill as it looked in 2014, the last time the house was sold. It’s clearly marketed as a focal point of the backyard. From the smoke stains on the blond brick, it looks like the grill has been used a lot. My dad designed it well.

One of the BIG EVENTS of this backyard of my childhood was company (by dad’s boss, for example), a cloth spread on the picnic table (also built by my dad, the kind you find in park service picnic spots), T-bone steaks and corn on the cob cooked over an applewood fire. Why all that was so great I did not know, but for my folks it was a very big deal. I think for my brother and me, the big deal was sherbert at the end.

grill

I am sure only a few people remember JOVIAL. The events of the Vietnam war — with which my dad was involved as a war-gamer and adviser to the Pentagon — will be debated as long as people remember it. But this grill has stood for 62 years in this little backyard in Englewood, Colorado, and though no one who lives there, and enjoys cooking on this grill, will know who built it or anything about the lives of the people in the little family who first owned the house, I do. 🙂

***

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/collaboration/

I See Dead People

The task I set myself is — I find — a rather melancholy one. I didn’t know it would be. All I set out to do was clear out stuff from the garage that I don’t need and that no one else (I know) will need.

The last box of “memories” has been the best and the hardest. During the time before my mom was completely awash in bitterness, she made two photo albums. One photos of her side of my family and the other of my dad’s side of my family. She was interested in genealogy as well and had in mind that I and whoever came after me would see how things changed over time. She never imagined anything like Ancestry.com or taking photos of photos with a cell phone and uploading them so that anyone who’s interested can see.

I have been doing the 2017 version of what my mom did in the 1980s. It is all online now so that the great-grandchildren of my aunts and uncles can see the family.

There was an old log and sod cabin on the plains not far from Billings, Montana, that we used to drive out to sometimes when I was up visiting family. It was always called, “The house where Pat was born.” Pat was the second oldest daughter in the family of 7 girls and 3 boys.

Today, as I looked at these photos, I realized that most of the kids were born “in the house where Pat was borne,” not just Pat. Pat was ashamed of being born in so poor a place, and so they teased her. The only thing worse than being born into poverty was being ashamed of who you are. “You’re as good as the best, and better than the best,” was one of my grandfather’s philosophical tenets. And so my aunt was shamed by her sisters for her shame. “Be proud of who you are and where you came from!”

My mom is in the first three pictures. In the first two, she is the youngest kid. In the third she stands in front of my grandmother, between the littlest one and the one older sister who never seemed to feel comfortable on the earth. My grandfather — who regarded himself as a philosopher — poses as one. My grandma looks tired with the sun in her eyes. One uncle is missing, the other — who was a cowboy and worked on wheat ranches — stands in front of his own car. Once the older kids grew up, moved out and got jobs, life improved for everyone.

My grandmother made all their clothes, the dishcloths, dishtowels, sheets, pillow cases, rugs, quilts and pillows herself. She drove the wagon that was the school bus on weekdays and the church bus on Sundays. She took care of the chickens and other fowl. Grew food in her garden and “put it up” for the winter.  She milked the cows and made butter and cheese. I can see why farm families need to be large. Sure they have to find a way to feed all those kids, but the man power is important, too. The view I’ve come to about the philosopher is that he didn’t do much, but he was interesting. I don’t know very much about him. Those to whom I was closest did not have much to say. He was already in his 50s when my mom was born and it could be in his younger years he was not so much a philosopher as he was a farmer. He ran for political office in Iowa some years before the move to Montana.

Obviously their life was hard even before the Great Depression. My mother used to go on and on about the hardness of their lives until it was beyond bearing and I could no longer listen. It seemed that the difficulty of her life (their lives) was beyond the difficulty of anyone’s life ever before or after.

I’m done with this task now. I don’t ever want to do it again. It may have been a mistake to go through that stuff. If I had just left it until I died, someone who didn’t care would not even have looked at it. But if I hadn’t done this, I would not have found out some things I am glad to know, and I would not have found a couple of treasures that were tucked away for me to find.

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The family around 1924

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The family around 1928 (with an extra little girl) and one boy missing

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Most of the grandchildren in 1956 (there would be more) on my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary

Mother’s Day Gift

My mother was an anxious person. She panicked easily (and often). There were drugs in the cabinet to help her with this. Librium was the main med, I think. She was also a sad person, an envious person, a doubtful person, an insecure person, a fearful person. When things were going well and life was balanced, she was charming and funny, but it was far too easy to knock her off balance.

She did not like me very much. I think that was always the case. I don’t think it happened later in life as the result of teenage independence fights. I think it was — early on — the status quo. I was a “colicky” baby and it made my mother feel that she was a failure. Very insecure people have an exaggerated idea of their own importance (a paradox) and so my crying and discomfort were all her fault or me doing something to her. She also relied on me, from a very early age, to help her. Helping her was a thankless task, but I loved her and saw it as a privilege to step in where she felt unable. I even made phone calls for her when I visited her in Montana. Once her stove broke, and she just used the one functioning burner until I got there and could call a repairman.

When my father died, my mom broke inside. It was horrible. He’d lived with ever worsening MS for 20 years. In the last years, we cared for him at home as long as we could. I couldn’t bear the thought of him being “sent away to die.” As a kid, I had no clue, really, what was happening. Finally he went to live in a nursing home. That should have alleviated some of my mom’s burden, but it just meant she had to drive on icy streets to visit him, and that terrified her.

When my dad died, she was a tangled mix of emotions. Since she lived in her own world, in which she was the center, she was increasingly trapped. Without my dad there to need her, to praise her, to love her, she felt she no longer existed. She retreated further into Librium and Bourbon, passivity and darkness. She was unreachable for a long time.

Then, somehow, it seemed miraculously, she rallied herself. She sold the family house (built for my dad, a special house for disabled people paid for partly by the Veterans Association) insisting it be sold to a disabled veteran. She moved from Colorado Springs to Denver where my aunt lived and not as far from where I was with my husband in Boulder. She tried (and fairly succeeded) to build a life.

Still, as dependent as she was on others, the life stood on shaky ground, and as time went on, life’s normal disappointments dragged her down again to the dark place where, finally, I think, she surrendered not only her life but her soul.

Yesterday, in the process of cleaning out the garage, I opened the box marked (by my mom) “Family Photos.” I don’t have any family that will want these photos, and I had determined to throw them out. There was a plastic bag with letters in it that my mom had saved. Many were letters from me to her while I was in China. There were a few letters from my brother, I kept them. Letters from her friends. Not my business. There was a letter from the man who had been the minister to her family all my mother’s life. He had baptized her (and her sisters) in the Little Bighorn River. He officiated at my parents’ wedding in 1948, he had done the funeral for my father in 1972. His name was Chet Bentley.

Rev. Bentley had suffered one of the greatest losses any human can experience; the death of a child. His son had fought in WW II. He’d survived and was coming home. Just a few miles from Crow Agency, less than 30 minutes from home, he was killed in a car crash. My mom, telling me this story, said, “I don’t know how Rev. Bentley survived that.”

The letter to my mom answers that question. It opens with, “O Helen, what in the world are you doing to yourself?” The rest is an impassioned plea that my mom pick herself up and find meaning in her life. He writes about the importance of will. He quotes Scripture (minimally) “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” He then writes, “It takes effort, it takes a change of mind sometimes and an act of the will, as well as reliance on the Divine Power. You can do it, Helen. I believe you can. I’m praying that you will find something to live for – in yourself, in Martha Ann and in some thing to you want to accomplish…”

I have wondered if this passionate, inspiring letter was the reason, the motivating factor, behind my mom’s effort to find her feet again.

After finding the letter and thinking about the times I met this man, I wanted to know more about him. I “Googled” him and found this amazing bit of history. It told me things I didn’t know — such as the Crow Indians refused to let the government put the Japanese who lived on the reservation (and there were many) into the internment camp at Hart Mountain. It’s a beautiful, inspiring piece of western history in which this passionate, kind man played a large part.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/panicked/

Records of Recordings

My dad liked making recordings and he liked new technology. Back in the late 40s, before tape recorders, he bought a machine that made records and took it to my grandparent’s house on what was then the outskirts of Billings, MT. They had a few acres, a couple of cattle, chickens, geese, that kind of thing. My grandfather was born in 1870, so by the 40s he was already an old man. My dad thought his father-in-law was a riot and made several recordings of him.

Among the things my grandfather made fun of were Baptist and/or Methodist preachers. I understand that, from his point of view, they didn’t say anything, but the way they used their voice made what they said sound important. To illustrate this, he declaimed the alphabet.

Now the only existing record of that record and the declamation is in my memory, but it was first a record and then my brother recorded it onto a cassette.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been purging such “records” — not the intangible kind, but the tangible kind. In a month or so I’m getting my garage repaired and there’s stuff in my garage. A lot of it is family stuff that I didn’t know I had until I moved from California to Colorado. It came to me from my mom’s crawl space when she died in 1996. I didn’t look at it then; I just stored it away.

I went through it before my move to Colorado three years ago, but not with the brave and radical fervor I should have felt. If I hadn’t brought it, I could have brought stuff that meant more to me like my drawing table and bicycle. There were boxes that held my dad’s writing and the records of his life’s accomplishments, his uniform from WW II, a box of family photos, those things that — I think — everyone has. When my trash can is full, I stop for the week. I’ve also hauled maybe a dozen bags of useful stuff to the thrift store. In going through it, my standard is, “Will I ever use this? Will this have any meaning or use to the person who goes through my things when I’m dead?”

And, since I don’t HAVE to do this, I can keep what I want. One thing I found was a speech my dad gave at a university in Missouri on the topic of using computers in colleges and universities. It’s a record of how he saw the future of computers in education and, in itself, it is a record of what computers could do when I was 8 years old. I believe (based on things I saw later, the work of a professor of mine who compiled a concordance to Chaucer’s work using a computer) and knowing my dad and how he would have wanted to do this, that this is a print out, but I do not know for sure. The paper makes me suspicious that it is not. Back then, data was entered using punch cards and his text — a computer printout — means someone had to type all that onto punch cards.

ibm-punch-card

No “GUI,” just the giant Burroughs and UNIVAC mainframe in the WW II building on the periphery of the University of Denver campus that housed Denver Research Institute.

Computer

I knew that monster well; I’d gone on a lot of errands with my dad to by tubes to replace some that had burned out and spent some Saturdays with him when he was working.

For me, this was a wonderful discovery. Much of my career involved teaching people — colleagues and students — to use computers in college and university computer writing labs. I wanted so much to say, “Hey dad, look at this!” and show him my MacBook, iPhone and iPad — all proof of what he said:

Computer 1

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/record/

The Wind Beneath My Wings

Today is my Aunt Martha’s 98th birthday. I actually celebrated a couple of days ago when I accidentally ended up on the “luv” station on my car radio and this was playing:

 

The last Christmas my Aunt was reasonably independent and in her mind, she bought Christmas presents, went shopping first with my Aunt Jo and then with me. It was a lot of fun. My present was a music box (my aunt had collected them for years) that played this song.

I have no idea if the song meant anything to her. I never liked it. But now it is my Aunt Martha’s song. In my mind it is my mom helping her big sister in school — my aunt couldn’t see well until she got glasses. It’s my Aunt Martha being on my side all through my life. I don’t know what, where or who I would be right now if it had not been for her steadfast faith in me, her encouragement, her sometimes very wise and timely advice, her perception, and the life she lived herself which was courageous and beautiful.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Martha. I wish you were here and we were making you a cake with a ridiculous number of candles so that all the wax melted all over the top as we did when you turned 50. I wish we were trying to put pennies under your plate, the family custom when you were a kid that we kept up every year for you. You are almost worth a dollar now. I love you and I miss you.

P.S. Aunt Martha is the woman in the light suit; I’m between her and my mom. It’s Easter, 1967. Her name was Martha Liberty because she was born on George Washington’s birthday. The family name was Beall — pronounced “Bell.” Her middle name was source of greater or lesser embarrassment to her all her life. 🙂

Post-It Notes

“Y-ellow?”

“Aunt Jo? It’s Martha Ann.”

“Well Martha Ann. How the heck are you? Uncle Hank and I were just talking about you.”

“Did you reach any conclusions?”

“Not yet. So what’s new?”

“I’m coming up for Christmas.”

“Halleluja! Your Aunt Martha will be so happy!”

“Me too. I’ll mail you the flight info.”

“We’ll be there to get you.”

And there they were. My beautiful uncle — the first crush of my life — my sweet Aunt Jo and my precious Aunt Martha, then in the early-middle stages of dementia, in her green coat, waiting. It was Christmas, 2001. That year pretty much everyone in Billings had a paper flag (cut from the Billings Gazette) taped in their front window.

After I got my bags, we took Aunt Martha back to her apartment. I went in with her, and found about a hundred yellow post-it notes stuck all over her living room on which she had written “Martha Ann arrives today.”  That pretty much made my whole life.

***

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/yellow/

August, a Week before School Starts

“There’s nothing to do. I’m bored.”

“Find something to do.”

“But what?”

“Figure it out yourself.”

Damn, the woman was actually giving me answers, but I was too young to get it. In fact, I didn’t get it until just this minute.

“C’mon, Mom. I wanna’ DO something?”

“Then DO something, honey. I’m not standing in your way. Your room is full of books and toys, things I never had growing up.”

What she HAD instead were sisters and animals and chores. Even now I can see the advantages to that. I didn’t want to hear the litany of pain that was my mother’s childhood in the Great Depression, though LATER when I could do the MATH I realized she was 10 or 12 when the Great Depression hit the plains of Montana. They were just plain out, simply put, too-many-kids poor. Their depression was real but it wasn’t “Great.” The only ones who actually grew up in the Great Depression were the youngest two who, in all reports, “Had things we never had because Sister (the oldest) was working and sent money home.”

Mopage. Every kid does it. Every kid has reasons. I just needed school to start.

“I don’t like this, mom.”

“What do you want?”

“A red one!”

“You look so pretty in blue. Why don’t we look for a nice blue dress?”

To me, blue was a non-color. I didn’t have blue eyes like my mom had. There was no reason for blue, not at all.

“You take everything for granted,” she sighed. “We didn’t have clothes like you have. Our mom made our dresses from flour sacks. We were happy to get them.”

All the flour I’d ever had contact with by then was in paper bags, so for a while I imagined them freezing in paper dresses. I felt very sorry for them. Later, I saw flour at the store in big, cloth bags and after that, they were all walking to school wearing cotton dresses with “Gold Medal Flour” proflour-11-350x182.jpgudly proclaimed by their little chests. I have since learned that in the 30s, flour companies sacked flour in gingham and calico because they knew ALL farm moms did this and it helped sell their flour. Maybe a lot of times the patterns were red or pink or yellow and the little girl who was my mom just wanted blue.

And she moped.

I suspect on the quilt under which I sleep there are squares made of flour sacks. My grandma made me the quilt. It’s “cherry basket” pattern, but you can see how my grandmother carefully filled each basket with flowers.

quilt

The featured photo is my Aunt Mary Ruth and my Aunt Madylene (better known as Jo and Dick) in front of their house in Hardin, Montana during the depression. Jo is nearly 4 and Dickie is 2.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/mope/

Joy vs. Success

Yesterday I got an email from the woman who edited Savior and Martin of Gfenn. She’s a lovely person, and I like her very much. I even hope we meet someday. Her email suggested a small press I should contact, one that has published the work of another of my editor’s clients.

I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. OK, I know I’ve just barely gotten over the flu and I’m not yet 100%, even though I did take Dusty and Bear out to the fields yesterday, but it was still a strange reaction. I immediately went to their website and assessed it. By now I have an experienced — if somewhat jaundiced — eye. They have published a few novels. They are an offshoot of a literary journal. Their website is amateurish. There is nothing there to tell wouldbe writers how to submit work. None of these are red flags, necessarily, but it reminded me of the now bygone Bygone Era Books, RIP.

Rather than the feeling of hope I would have felt a year ago discovering a new possibility, I felt mildly nauseated by the thought of starting all that up again.

My editor asked if I were working on anything now and I am and am not. One project is busy work, in a way, though it might become something. The other is tabled until I have some idea who the protagonist is and why the story needs to be written at all. The thought of publishing has, meanwhile, pretty much stolen the joy from the whole thing and, as I learned from a tea bag a couple of days ago, “Joy is success.”

Cryptic little tea bag. It could mean that success brings joy; it could mean (as I read it) joy itself is success. Writing was never meant — for me — to be an obligation and what I’ve learned in the past year has taught me that fame might be a subjective term.

I’m famous now in a way I never imagined. I got a Christmas card and note from one of the two remaining aunts in my family — there were 7 girls, one of them was my mom. They were all very bright, beautiful and complex women, significantly different from each other — not too surprising as one was born around the turn of the century and the last was born in the mid 1920s. The note came from the youngest, Aunt Dickie. I’ve sent her my novels and she has loved them. In the note she told me that she and a group of “girls,” her reading group, are going to read The Brothers Path this winter and discuss it and she told me she is proud of me. “It’ll be a little money for you, anyway. Love you, Aunt Dickie.”

No publisher in the world can give me that.

I think the next thing I will write, and what I will do with it, remain to be discovered. Meanwhile, this morning the freezing fog (which I love) is tangled in the tops of the trees, encasing each tiny twig in white, and the tree tops disappear mysteriously into the clouds.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/discover/