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.

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/

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/

You’re Gonna’ Carry that Weight Forever

I had one brother. Only one. And I knew his name his whole entire life, even before HE knew his name because he was my little brother. He did not grow up to be the kind of adult every parent dreams of and the “why?” for that has been the subject of many theories and discussions among family members and friends. In almost every respect, he was his own worst enemy.

I’m a conventional person, overall. I’ve always been basically OK with the way things are. I didn’t really rebel against societal norms. I have never done any really interesting drugs. I didn’t run away from home. I tried to do well in school. My dad taught me a lot — just in small messages, the size of a gumball, but they stuck with me. Lessons like, “Picasso? Yeah, he does a lot of abstract work but he didn’t start doing that until he could draw things the way they really are. Then he was a master; then he could choose.” “Don’t do anything to your mind, MAK. That way, if something happens to your body — like me — (he had MS) you can still work, you can still have a life.” “Some people get funny when they’re drunk; some people get mean. Your mom gets mean. Let’s go for a ride.” There are more lessons like these, little moments that have steadied my course.

No lessons like that reached my brother who was a troubled soul, violently, destructively, troubled.

For most of his life he was an alcoholic. I don’t honestly know how long — I think it could have started in junior high. Back in the 50s and 60s drunks were often portrayed as “funny” by comedians, particularly Red Skelton. My brother ALWAYS thought they were hilarious. He wanted to be funny, too. It was his main way of being socially accepted. I don’t exactly know what my brother’s problem was (I suspect ADHD) but he had a hard time in school and many fights after school, which I usually fought. He would not fight back. Another axiom from my dad, “MAK, if you’re going to fight, fight right and fight to win. I’ll teach you.” A punching bag was installed in the basement…

My brother depended on me. It was a co-dependent relationship — a term I neither understood or believed in until my awareness was awakened in therapy. I ‘d been raised with the little saying from Boy’s Town, “He ain’t heavy, father. He’s my brother.” So, when my brother called and asked for money, he’d say, “Martha Ann? This is Kirk, your brother, you know, the heavy one.”

There was ever, only, the one.

Anyone who’s ever loved a drunk who doesn’t recover knows how much it hurts and how long (forever). The feelings and questions one is left with are so unclear, most of all, “Why couldn’t he stop? A lot of people stop. Why didn’t he?”

Around the time I learned of my brother’s death, I met a man — Chris Bava — who had been a junkie, drug smuggler and dealer. In conversations with him I finally expressed my perception of what had happened to my brother. I said, essentially, that he’d lost the battle for his soul. My friend agreed. “That’s exactly what addiction is,” he said. “During the time I was in the pen, I got clean. It was wonderful. I wanted to stay clean and I believed I would, but years later I got cocky and smoked some shit and BAM, I was hooked again. It was Satan, absolutely. Temptation, arrogance, Satan. I had to do it all over again, but I didn’t waste any time. I knew the difference. Sounds as if your brother never really wanted anything else.”

***

 

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

It’s all Root Beer in the End

“Mom, can I color when we get home?”

“Maybe.”

“Is that yes or no?”

“It’s maybe.”

“Yeah but can I?”

“If you keep pestering me it’s ‘No’.”

Maybe was never a good bet, but it was better than ‘No’. I retreated to a corner of the backseat.

“You kids want to stop for root-beer?” asked dad.

I think, “OK, if we stop for root-beer, then we get home later and ‘maybe’ is ‘no’ because it will be bedtime.”

“Do you? Kirk? Martha Ann?”

“Root-beer!” says my brother, only 3 and already a saboteur of my wishes.

“Root-beer it is.” Dad pulls into A&W, a car hop comes out, takes his order and returns with a root-beer for my dad, a root-beer float for my mom and two baby root-beers, one for me and one for my brother.

I think in every relationship there is a tug-of-war over control. Every person becomes “controlling” when he or she wants something different from what you want. My totally unsuccessful method of controlling a situation is to ask for what I want. If it isn’t what the other person/people want, I’d say in most of my experience they don’t say so or they will even agree, and then, when push comes to shove, dig in and not move. It’s all a big “maybe” and rather than going home to color, I end up with a baby root-beer.

 

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

Water

Living so long in California during the drought (I think it’s time we stopped calling it a drought and started calling it “California’s climate” as it has gone on more than a decade) makes where I live now, the San Luis Valley of Colorado, a high mountain desert, seem like an oasis. The Rio Grande threading through it is, to me, a miraculous thing as are the aquifers and hot springs that are the result of the pulling apart of “our” two mountain ranges, the San Juans and the Sangre de Cristos.

But where I live, water is a complicated substance, something that can be said anywhere in the west and anywhere there’s farming. Right now water is rushing through the irrigation canal and into the fields according to “shares” — a system I’d probably learn to understand if I had bought some property outside of town.

My grandfather was a “ditch rider” back in the 20s and 30s in Montana. I don’t know much about what that means except that he rode (a horse) along the ditch easement and opened and shut gates and monitored the use of peoples’ shares. The family was proud of him for this because he was re-elected over and over, showing he was a very fair man and his neighbors appreciated his work. I think of him every time I drive to Alamosa (the “city”) to shop at a big supermarket. Along the way, there is a small, old wooden structure beside one of the irrigation canals of a type that was very common in my childhood. I have no idea what it is or why there are no longer many of them, but in the dim recesses of my memory (before I was five) there’s a faint image of my mom pointing out one of these little buildings and saying, “Your grandfather had all the keys.”

Back in the late 50s and early 60s when my grandmother was alive, the houses on her street used an irrigation canal to water their yards. I really loved it when it was “our turn” and my uncle opened the gates and the water flooded the pasture. The irrigation water supplemented rain and the opening and closing of the gates depended on how much rain had fallen. The ditch manager kept track of that, too. Farms, of course, had first “dibs.”

Here in Colorado, there has been — for many years — disagreement even who owns the run-off water from a rain storm. The state VERY, very recently gave approval for people to collect rain water at their houses. Before that? The runoff was the possession of someone somewhere according to arcane principles involved with agriculture.

In South China, where there was no shortage of water, there were different devices to move the water in and out of the fields. Some of them were beautiful — there was an elegant waterwheel pump operated by a well-balanced person (often a kid and his pals) who “climbed” it like stairs.

wsci_04_img0458

One of my most beautiful memories of South China is riding home from the city under a full moon, and passing a cabbage field that had been recently flooded. The rows in the field were at 90 degrees to the road so as I rode by, I saw the moon reflected over and over in each narrow channel.

Of course, my favorite kind of water is…

1

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

Mother’s Day

Red roses for all of us whose mother was not the haven of nurturing and unconditional love mothers are purported to be. These are for those of us who were our mother’s mother, those of us who had mean mothers and uncaring mothers and mothers who were substance abusers and mothers who found themselves shackled to a destiny that was too much for them. These are for the kids whose mothers don’t/didn’t like them much. These are for those who never knew their mother, even when they lived with their mom for years and years and years.

Red roses for us for loving our moms anyway and being here now, pretty decent people. Maybe we raised our own kids and have done a good job because we truly know what that is. Red roses for having forgiven our moms because we wonder, in all humility, what we would have done differently if we’d been them, standing in their shoes.

DSC_0248.JPG

The pink roses are for the all the adult women who stepped up and filled the gap for us, teachers, aunts, neighbors, sisters — who might have inspired us to step in a time or two ourselves.

****

And here’s a nice angry Eminem song with lots of profanity in it, but IF you can relate you might enjoy it. I do. It’s more my brother’s story than mine, but still…

 

 

 

Not Lost, Misplaced

“I lost my sweater.”

“It’s not lost. It’s misplaced.”

I struggle to get the difference between the meaning of those two words. If I put it in the wrong place then I’ve lost it.

“You’ll find it.”

“Where?”

“Are the kids ready or not?”

“Martha Ann misplaced her sweater.”

“Well she’d better find it and in a hurry. We have to go.”

“I don’t know where it is!”

“You’re not looking for it! Look for it!”

I scramble around my room and find it in the corner, lying on the floor. My mom is watching.

“If you’d hang up your clothes like you’re supposed to we wouldn’t have these problems.”

I had a hard time with all this. Hang up your clothes. Put your shoes away. Make your bed. Everything took so LOOOONNGGGG and there was so much else to DOOOOOO. There was outside. There were books. There was my doll. There was my brother. There were the grownups. There was imagining stories. So much more interesting than hanging up my sweater.

“Come here. Let me button it. Just the top button.”

The sweater was navy blue. The dress was shades of pink.

Kirk was in his car seat in front between my parents. I was alone in the back seat. The sun was low. The light coming in was golden. We arrived at the restaurant, my dad carrying my brother and holding my hand.

“Welcome to Lotus Room.”

“We have reservations. Bill Kennedy?”

“Some of your party is here already. Come this way.”

I felt timid, and hid a little behind my dad. There were hearty hellos and “Sit here with me” and there we were, Kirk in a high chair. I insisted on the seat beside my Aunt Martha. My cousin Linda sat on Aunt Martha’s other side.

“Try some of everything,” said my dad, but what I liked were fried wontons.

Years later, sitting on a stool beside a street vendor’s hot wok on Zhongsan Wulu, a busy Guangzhou street, holding my dish and my chopsticks, waiting for potstickers, I remembered my first Chinese dinner. I remembered my dress. I remembered my misplaced sweater, and the family gathered around the table. I saw how that evening so long ago had been one of the things that brought me to China.

 

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

Uncle Hank

Who was your first childhood crush? What would you say to that person if you saw him/her again?

This man was not just my first crush, he was one of the great loves of my life. If I saw him again, I’d know there was a Heaven because he’d be there (with all my dogs, but Cody O’Dog would be right beside him).

Uncle Hank

Uncle Hank at his 50th wedding anniversary dinner. He and my Aunt Jo celebrated sixteen more anniversaries. ❤

I always adored him because he was so beautiful and he was also so nice to me. I remember once arriving in Montana and feeling shy and little — I suppose I was 5 — and Hank taking me outside with him to help him finish stretching a fence. I wasn’t any help, but I felt much better outdoors with Hank than I did inside with all the people and the noise. If he talked to me, it was like I had an opinion about things or he was just quiet, sometimes telling me what to do.

Over the years things like this happened hundreds of times. The most dramatic was the afternoon in 1996 when I learned from my mom’s doctor two sad facts. First, that my mom could never go home again and second, that she had been an alcoholic. I did not know the second thing though I guess it was in plain sight for years. I am a pretty emotional person and I started to cry. Our family’s “cowboy mentality” spoke up in my Aunt Martha’s voice, “Quitcher crying. You have work to do.” I was so bewildered by that; I knew I had work to do and I knew I would do it, but that moment I hurt like I do not think I ever hurt before. The depth of my mother’s betrayal took me years to contend with.

I couldn’t cry (I wanted to) but I knew I could just go outside and DO something so I went to the garage and got a snow shovel and went out to Jo’s driveway (Foster Lane — the house to the left facing you in the photo above. Hank built both these houses.) and started to work. I looked up and Hank was there. He wanted to be with me, to be my pal and to share my sadness and that was the best way he knew. I didn’t want him to. He’d had a heart attack not long before, so I hurried and shoveled a walkway to the cars and said, “That’s good enough, don’t you think?” and he said, “I think so.” And we came in. I still needed to get rid of all that emotional energy and I couldn’t cry and I couldn’t shovel and I did not know what to do. I decided to go out and see the hawks the vet had. I headed out the back door and started to run across the pasture but when I looked up, Hank was coming. I went back to him (he couldn’t see very well) and said, “I’m going to go look at the hawks.” Hank said, “That sounds like a good idea. Hang on a minute.” There was no escaping this man. Though it worried me, it also made me happy. He knew how sad and scared I was, and he was not going to leave me all alone with my feelings.

When I was five and my brother just three, my dad’s father died. There were two flights each day  — Denver to Billings and back. My dad drove us all to the airport to meet the plane Hank came in on. My dad got on that very plane and went back to Billings to be with my grandmother. Hank drove us home, we packed the car, headed to Billings to join my dad, driving all night in a 1949 Ford. Hank was tired, my mom was scared, Kirk and I were confused, it wasn’t easy to find an open gas station in the middle of the night in Wyoming, but in Wheatland Hank was able to wake up a gas station owner and fill the tank. We got to Grandma Beall’s very early the next morning.  Before Jo took Hank to the airport in Billings, they’d gotten White House Ice Cream — my favorite — and put it in Grandma’s freezer. Before my brother and I crawled into grandma’s bed, Hank gave me a bowl of my favorite ice cream for being a good girl on the trip.

A couple years later, Kirk and I went to live for three+ months with Hank, Jo, David and Greg. It was wonderful, but naturally I missed my parents. It was different having two older brothers. David was a pestilence, Greg was my best friend and angel. Kirk was wild. There were three steers in the pasture between my grandma’s and Jo’s house. I thought they were “Bret, Bart, Hobie and Chester” but I later learned their names were “Bret, Bart, Hobart and Festus” — named from TV westerns. They were calves then big cows, pets and later meat for someone. One of our adventures was all of us getting into the back of Hank’s black pick-up (early 50’s late 40’s Chevy, probably) and heading out of town to pick up dried corn stalks and ears that had fallen in the harvest.

It was a great golden Montana fall day, unforgettable. The brown pasture dirt, the big sky, the Big Horns and Bear Tooths in the distance, the golden beams of the sun setting behind the mountains, the light — the particular light of sunset Montana ANY time of year. I felt all these things already then when I was just a kid. A gift from my dad or my blood; I don’t know. I remember standing on that pasture looking at the sky until someone said, “What are you doing, Martha Ann?” Probably Aunt Jo. We loaded up the foraged steer food and went home. It was dusk when we got there. Dave and Greg unloaded the truck. Jo made steak, fried potatoes and onions for dinner. It was a great afternoon. The rest of that fall we picked up sugar beets from the side of the road where they’d been dropped by trucks and loaded them into the feed shed for the steers. We took a couple of runs in the pick-up to the railroad tracks to gather sugar beets that had fallen from the train.

I started school in Billings that fall. I can’t say I liked it (I didn’t; it’s never easy being a “temporary” student), but I liked that summer. I liked playing croquet on the front lawn after supper, catching snails from the irrigation ditch, the exotic expeditions to open the “big ditch” to water the pasture, the treehouse in the cottonwood where I was not supposed to go (because I am a girl), the picnics in the backyard with all the family — my grandmother so nearby. I loved the way Hank and Jo were with each other; they were playful and affectionate and silly.

Later, 1979, I got my MA at the University of Denver. In all honesty, for a long time I didn’t understand why Hank and Jo came. I didn’t feel then that my MA was worth anyone’s 12 hour car drive just to watch me walk across a stage. I hadn’t “done well” in grad school. Lots of things happened that were not pleasant and not fair. I was anxious to get out. I didn’t even let my department keep a copy of my thesis in the department. I was a misfit and was all but thrown out. It was impossible not to buy in — a little bit — to their assessment of me. But the day of the ceremony, Hank and Jo were there and went with my mom and Aunt Martha. They yelled “Yee–HA!” as I crossed the stage. Not all that long ago, maybe 7 or 8 years ago, Hank explained to me that he was so proud of me and what I had accomplished. He said, “I never wanted to tell you, honey, because I don’t want you to be ashamed of me, but I didn’t finish high school. Your Aunt Jo and I are very proud of you. We wouldn’t have missed your big day.”

Sometime after — the following summer — my mom (who still lived in Denver) went up to spend a couple weeks with her family in Montana. I went up to spend 4th of July weekend. Back then, people smoked on planes and it was a nightmare for someone like me who is sensitive to cigarette smoke. I got off the plane miserable to be miserable some more with my mom’s cigarettes, but… We went to Fort Smith, near the Little Bighorn River, the Yellowtail Dam where Hank and Jo had a trailer they used for a summer cabin. Down the “road” were tee-pees set up for the same purpose by some Crow Indians. Though this would sound exotic to many people it was normal for us. Hank still had a boat and still liked to fish, but the really large trout that appeared before the dam could be caught only by the Crow.

It was lovely being there. We drove around (new pick up truck, a Chevy, copper colored and white) and looked for rocks, picked wild-plums and chokecherries and then, one evening, Hank said to me, “Get your Aunt Jo’s clubs. I’m going to teach you to play golf.”

The golf course at Fort Smith was all rough. The greens were cut a little closer and some were gravel. The 7th hole was not played because it has a rattlesnake nest. Hank showed me how to hold a club, how to lean over the ball, how to hit. He did not know — and I did not know either — that my years of playing baseball were about to play off in a big way. I’d spent MANY summers staring at the moving wonder of a speeding white ball hurtling at me and then hitting it. I very seldom missed. There was a connection there that had not become conscious (but was about to). I leaned over the golf ball and prepared to make my first drive. “Don’t be nervous,” he said. “You’ll do OK.”<

I lifted back my club (years of field hockey made my swing a little odd) and took a swing, and drove the ball EXACTLY where it was supposed to go. I ended up my first hole a stroke under-par with NO handicap. This happened over and over. It was the same as baseball. It was the whole world vanishing in the moment of hitting a small white sphere. By the time we got to the 6th hole, my Uncle Hank was mad. I was ahead something like nine strokes. We walked toward the hole, Hank suddenly said, “It’s too dark to play.” He grabbed Aunt Jo’s clubs, turned around and headed home.

He went inside, fixed himself some coffee and disappeared. Jo and I sat on the porch looking for Sputnik.

In the year after my mother died (1996), and while my Aunt Martha was living in Billings (until 2008) I spent holidays and some of summer in Montana. Hank told me a lot of stories. He told me his and Jo’s love story, about Christmas Eve and running five miles to keep his promise to be with her before midnight that night. I am happy to have heard them. I love their love story. I think it’s romantic and sweet and the way it worked out is inspiring. But as Jo said, the thing that made it work is that Hank respected her and admired her; they were real partners and had what it took to stick it out in hard times.

His obituary didn’t tell his story. It didn’t tell of him being stationed on an island in the Pacific that supplied the men fighting Guadalcanal; it doesn’t tell about his dengue fever or the kid sitting near him watching a movie outside who’d chosen to sit on a bomb that blew up, killing him. It doesn’t show him as the handsome escort to Aunt Jo when she was Worthy Matron at Eastern Star. It doesn’t show him coming home from work on a Friday night loaded up with Shasta sodas. It doesn’t show him and Uncle Bob cutting the grass in grandma’s pasture using push mowers, or the day he had to kill at least a dozen bunnies who’d gotten out of the hutch and were trampled by the horses. It doesn’t show him running around that dirt paddock with a shovel, crying and banging in their heads. There was nothing else to do, still, it was a horror. It doesn’t show him carrying my dad into a movie theater to watch the last movie my dad ever watched that wasn’t on TV. It doesn’t tell of his great love for Jo, or how he grabbed and snuggled her when he came home for lunch from the auto mechanic job. It doesn’t tell how the smells of a garage still make me happy because they remind me of Hank. It doesn’t show him in the garage trying to teach his boys to build a bird house — Cub Scout project. It doesn’t show him standing on a dirt crossroads with my dad and Uncle Bob surrounded by little kids — me, my brother, David, Greg, Paul and Tom. Hank, my dad and Stocky (Uncle Bob) had driven to Sheridan, Wyoming, to buy real fire-crackers, illegal in Montana. They wanted us to have the fun of firecrackers. None of us thought they were that great, but those three young men — all in their 30‘s — were beautiful in their white t-shirts, their khaki pants, their Lucky Strikes.

The obituary didn’t tell about the last time I saw my cousin Greg. It was winter and snowy. The family was sitting in Jo’s living room, the women in what seemed to be gigantic and hideous Christmas sweatshirts, all arguing about what they would each do if they had a million dollars. Greg and I were going nuts. He had a book — Thomas Carlyle — that had belonged to our grandfather Beall. I love Carlyle and was very happy to know my grandfather — who died when I was 5 — had loved Carlyle too. I said to Greg, “You want to go see the hawks?” The vet who had his office behind my aunt and uncle’s house kept wounded wild birds in cages and used them to teach kids not to shoot them. Many were returned to the wild. There were often bald eagles and sometimes owls. At that moment, there was a snowy owl with some rapidly-growing chicks. “Where?” asked Greg. He didn’t know! So we got up, put on our coats, and went across the snowy pasture in which we’d played as kids. We both remarked on Grandma’s old house, the trees had grown, some other random and passing memories. We got to the hawks and were still talking when I looked up and here was Uncle Hank trudging out to join us. He didn’t see well and it worried me, so I went back to give him a hand. The three of us stood in the snow a long time and talked. I cannot think of many things in my life — a life that’s been filled with beauty — more lovely than those moments. My cousin Greg died soon after of self-destruction; the same illness that took my brother.

The obituary written for Hank in the paper didn’t show Hank riding around with me in his twenty-year old (1980s) Dodge (Mitsubishi) truck, Little Red, shopping for Christmas presents for Aunt Jo, or pushing a cart in Target, both of us laughing at gargantuan red bras and saying, “What about?” (I can say that; I’ve inherited Aunt Jo’s physique.) It doesn’t show us goofing at the supper table and making Jo mad. Sometimes, if Hank laughed too hard, she’d send him outside. It doesn’t show us on long rides out of town imagining a farm I would buy, one with a small house and slightly larger barn and a painted horse. It doesn’t show driving to see the Christmas lights at the zoo and on to Laurel where they still have — and use — the decorations that they had when I was a kid in the ’50’s. It doesn’t show him standing by the baggage carousel at the airport, leaning on his cane — his horse — with Aunt Jo, waiting for me.

The obituary didn’t show us helping each other rehab — him from a stroke, me from hip surgery — taking walks with our matching canes. Hank would tell me stories and ask if he got the facts right. We talked for hours rebuilding and reawakening his memories. He liked the books I gave him and we had lots of chances to talk about Barbara Tuchman’s writing which we both loved.

And, it doesn’t show the hard things he overcame. Life hit him with hard things; no mom, his oldest son was gay, his second son married a Japanese girl. For me — and many of my generation — these would be nothing, but for my uncle, from his moment and place in time, they were almost unbearable, but he did more than bear them. He overcame them and as much as he was able, he accepted his gay son. He adored his granddaughters and their children.

He ended his life friends with the world and his fate. We do look at the older generation for lessons and the real ones we get are not from what they do right or what comes easy for them; certainly they seldom come from what they tell us; the real lessons come from keeping our eyes open and seeing how they struggle and overcome life’s puzzling, personal challenges.

Last time I was in Montana was July 2010. I drove up the route we took in 1957 and I stopped in Wheatland and Chugwater knowing that I may never pass that way again. My dog, Cody, a Siberian husky, traveled with me. Cody was a special dog and he really took to Hank — and Hank to him. When the time came for me to head back to San Diego (actually 3 years ago to the day Hank died — Hank died on July 30, 2013; I last saw him July 30, 2010) I put Cody in the back seat of my red Focus and opened the garage door. Hank came out and said, “I want to say goodbye to my pal.” He opened the door, leaned into my car, gave my big dog a hug and said, “It was nice knowing you, buddy.” I was pretty teared up. I gave Hank a hug and told him I loved him and backed out of the garage. He stood in front of the garage door and saluted us as we drove away and that’s the last sight I had of my very precious Uncle Hank.

Cody O’Dog died the following April and I wondered if he hadn’t gone to keep Hank company.
Cody O'Dog

Cody O’Dog

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…and THEN

The next book in the series I’m calling the “Schneebelungenlied” will be about the members of the Schneebeli family who left Europe and came to America. Interestingly, I have some of the actual words of these people from 1739 or so describing the voyage (“sehr hart”) and their life; “I wish from my heart that you could be with us, then you could enjoy the wonderful freedom. Here you never have to take your hat off to someone if you don’t want to. Only the journey is difficult. Anyone who will take the chance and likes to work and can bring money along is much better off here than in Switzerland.”

The man who wrote these words to his cousins back in Affoltern am Albis had lost his wife and daughter on the voyage…

Long ago when I was in Switzerland for the second time or third time, I went to a town, Stein am Rhein, a walled town, a medieval town on the, yeah, Rhine. 😉

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My friend and I wandered around and then we went through a pretty arched doorway to a courtyard with a doorway into a stone building. Above the doorway was painted the eagles of the Holy Roman Empire and in a circle the date, 1623. I was jolted. Already people had left Europe to live forever in America. I saw for the first time with my own eyes what they left behind, and I didn’t think I could leave it. I loved it. I loved Switzerland, the beautiful old towns, the architecture and construction that were so far away from the pioneer homes I’d visited all my life in America that I was really shaken. Most of the people who emigrated were not destitute in their homelands (or they could not have afforded the very expensive voyage or even had the possibility of serving out their fare as indentured servants). For the first time I understood what it must have taken for them to leave at all.

To my right was another archway and steps leading to the river where passengers could get on a boat. At that point, I didn’t know that my own ancestors could have walked down those very steps to a boat that would carry them down the Rhine to Strasbourg, or even to Rotterdam from which they would have gone to some English port and set sail for America. That building could easily have been a customs house or a point of embarcation. It was certainly a government building with the painted eagles over the doorway.

When I discovered the history of my family (after I’d already written a plausible version of it in Savior) and began studying their history, I learned that many of them were Anabaptists. THE BROTHERS PATH, the novel I worked on over this past winter and which I’m peddling on the marketplace, tells a mostly imagined version of what the 8 years of Huldrych Zwingli’s years of power might have been like for six brothers. I knew all the while that I would then want to write about the ultimate journey of the family across the Atlantic.

They were Mennonites. By the time they finally left for America, they’d suffered 200 years of intense persecution by every local government and by every major religion of their world — Lutheran, Swiss Evangelical Reformed, and Roman Catholic. Remembering that small landing dock on the Rhine, the beautiful town leading to it, I can understand how it must have felt for them to leave and how desperate they were.

Today I got two fascinating books to help me with this containing diaries, Bibles, birth certificates and all kinds of first-hand documentation of the journey and settlement. I don’t plan to write much about their lives in America; I plan to focus on the time leading up to it. In the case of my direct ancestor, he married, went to the Alsace for safety with his new wife who, it appears, died in childbirth. He remarried the next year and had three children with his second wife. She and their infant daughter died on the voyage. He arrived with his oldest — my ancestor — and two other sons. I imagine ending the story there with an epilogue which will be the letter he sent home several years later. I like it best when I begin a story knowing the end.

Wish me luck!