A Letter

My aunt died this morning. I’m happy that she only suffered the terrible pain she was in for a short time. I’m happy my cousins did not have to contend with it for weeks or months on end, unable to do anything about it. My grandma said that death was merciful sometimes, and this is one of those times.

I found the actual letter my grandfather wrote his brother’s sons, and I sent it to my cousins. It’s a pretty amazing piece of literature in its way. It’s written in pencil on manila paper. I don’t know if that exists any more.

My grandfather was born in 1870 and grew up on a farm in Eastern Iowa. He was a brilliant man, self-taught, they say, but I have his 3rd grade math book and it has trigonometry in it, so that bit about, “He only went to third grade” is kind of bogus. It’s not how far you go in school, but what you learn while you’re there. He thought of himself as a philosopher which isn’t a very useful calling when you’re sharecropping a farm on the high plains of Montana in the 30s. I never knew him, really. I was 5 when he died.

The letter is a precious family artifact. It was written in 1941 when my aunt would have been 16.  It was kept by my grandfather’s nephew, passed to his son, and then given to my mom when she went to “find her roots” in Iowa. That’s how I happened to have it. It was one of the rewards of the “great garage purge of 2017.”

This is something my cousins might want to pass along to their kids. I hope so.

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

Real Fame

I had six aunts. I now have two. Last night I learned that the youngest — Dickie (Madylene) — has gone into hospice with a large mass in her lung. She doesn’t want to go through the misery of tests and so on, so she’s asked her kids to just let her go. I don’t know how that is for them, but she is a nurse, she is not in the least sentimental, and she is very, very practical. When I read my cousin’s message more-or-less conveying this, I heard in my mind Queen’s song from The Highlander, “Who Wants to Live Forever?” No one does. I don’t. I am sure my aunt doesn’t, either. The second-to-youngest of my aunts is at “the home” with pretty advanced dementia and doesn’t want to eat or drink. Both of these women are in their 90s.

I’m very sad. My relationship with some of my aunts has been important to me and, I hope, vice versa. I grew up around these women. My mom felt her family was important, she relied on their being there, so we spent time around them. This aunt — Dickie — has kids around my age, in fact, one of my cousins was born a month after I was. We grew up as friends.

One thing I learned from these women is that OTHER adults — not just parents — can be important in a kid’s life. I reached adulthood wanting to be that OTHER adult, not the parent.

A few years ago I decided I wanted my Aunt Dickie to know who I am. We’d been close, but had gotten estranged as a result of family stuff, and I didn’t like that. I have always liked her. I sent her a letter and a copy of Martin of Gfenn. She loved the book and wrote me a letter with two messages that meant the world to me. She was proud of me and she loved me.

I sent her Savior which she liked even more and then The Brothers Path. She really loved that book. Last winter her church book group read it as their winter book. She wrote me that and said, “I’m making them order it from Amazon so you’ll make a little money.”

Later I heard how the book group went. “Please keep writing the story of my mother’s family,” she said. “I’m very proud of you and she would be, too.”

This year I’ve ploughed through the sludge of disillusionment over writing, publishing, promoting, etc. Afew weeks ago, — after months and months — I looked again at what I’m calling “The Schneebelis Go to America,” and saw it’s a pretty good story. I wondered if I should keep going, or? My aunt’s words, “Keep writing the story of my mother’s family” echoed in my mind. “That’s a good reason to write,” I thought, “so my Aunt Dickie can read my book.”

My grandfather, my aunt’s father, in 1941, wrote a letter to his brother’s kids when their dad died. He wrote:

“I’m awfully sorry but it is a natural condition to make a change. It would be too bad for us to have to be bothered with this old body for ever. It seems sad but it might be if there was no death, that life would lose its meaning and love would perish from the earth and I would rather live where love rules and death is sure as to live forever in a land without love — but I am very sad.”

I can’t say it better.

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

Getting the Boot

“I’m not a toy. I’m your sister!” So said my 3 1/2 year old step-granddaughter to her 1 year old little brother who was suddenly fascinated by her foot clad as it was in a rubber rain boot. I am sure to him it didn’t feel like a sister, but what the heck was it?

She pulled her legs under her, folded her arms around her chest, turned slightly away from him and pouted as she should at 3 1/2. The kid has NO problems setting borders.

This morning Bear (2 years old) was playing roughly with Mindy (10? 11? years old) and I  had to say, “Bear, stopas it was bordering on elder abuse.

I was really tempted to say, “That’s not a toy. That’s your sister!”

When I was the age of my step-granddaughter, I had a book about a little girl who went to the store with her mom to buy boots. Back then (I’m saying back then, good god) we put boots over our shoes, hence overshoes. The little girl and her mom got on a city bus and went downtown. They walked down the city sidewalks to a shoe store and went in. The clerk was eager to help them. They sat down and the mother said they needed new overshoes. The clerk brought out two pairs. Only two pairs. They were identical, but one was red, the other was black. The little girl wanted the red ones. They were VERY lucky that day because by the time they left the store, it had started to rain. Mother pulled on HER overshoes and the little girl had her NEW overshoes, and under mother’s umbrella, they went to the bus stop and then home.

It was a beautifully illustrated book; I remember the pictures even now. They were watercolors that went with the story and the story was told in four or five lines on each page. Both the little girl and the mother wore grey-blue coats and hats, not warm hats, but the kind of hats women wore in the 1950s. The city was not unlike downtown Denver (where I went sometimes with my mom, dad, Aunt Martha) and, as my mother read the story, I could imagine going to Denver and buying overshoes.

But when my turn came, we went to Downtown Englewood ( a LOT closer ) and it was my dad who took me. As MY overshoe story unfolded, it was mixed with the story in the book. I knew what would happen because of the story. We went to a shoe store. My dad asked to see overshoes in my size. The man was eager to help us and brought out three or four boxes of overshoes. I expected two. There were no red ones. All of them were black, some with zippers, some with buckles “Those are for boys,” said my dad and he pushed them to the side. And some  were boots you just pull on.

I was a feminine little thing back then and I chose black zippered boots with fur around the top. I wanted to wear them out of the store — of course — and I strutted down the street on that sunny October day in my new overshoes.

***

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

Old Lady’s Preoccupations with Her Arthritic Hip, Part 2

Monday we had snow. Today we have a Red Flag Warning — high winds/warm temps. In between, temps in the high 60s/low 70s. “I have no idea what’s going on.

Fall doesn’t want to succumb to winter, I guess, nor summer to fall. I’m here to tell them that what they want has NOTHING to do with what will happen. THAT’S a lesson I am very good at learning, but I also understand the desire to resist the inevitable…

In thinking about hip surgery, I realize that the parts of it I dread most are not the surgery or the possibility of dying on the operating table. That would be OK. I dread the prep, the waiting time and the recovery. If I could just go there, do it and come home to my life I wouldn’t mind at all, but it doesn’t work that way.

Recovery is a messy and complicated business. Some might say, “You won’t mind. You’l be taking narcotics,” but I don’t like narcotics. I’ve already been there. What a lot of people don’t know is that whether you get psychologically hooked to them or not, you will get physically hooked and the withdrawal isn’t fun. And then there are all the antibiotics. I can’t take penicillin and, as a result, whenever I need antibiotics, they have to give me something that would kill the bacteria in the dirtiest lake in the world. The after-effects of that aren’t fun, either.

So… I will have X-rays Monday. I don’t know how they WON’T say what I think they will say. And if they don’t? Then I’m here with this pain for what — forever? Hip surgery removes the source of pain and returns the joint to normal functioning. Why wouldn’t I want that?

Meanwhile, I’ve amped up my activity on the Bike to Nowhere and find it relieves the pain a LOT. Walking the dogs is not a lot of fun right now, but as they are as happy with a stroll around the high school as they would be with an expedition to the Antipodes, it’s really OK. In fact, they are helpful in a strange canine way. Dusty was around for my first surgery and he was trained professionally to help me out. Bear is extremely empathic, but while her crawling up on my lap to save me from whatever is hurting me is always a morale booster, sometimes it’s not convenient and she CAN’T do that after my surgery. Mindy is just there, a kind spirit.

My job will be to find the best surgeon who can do this with the least fuss and the greatest success. I’ve learned Medicare will pay for 3 weeks in a rehab facility and I might need that since I don’t have kids or siblings to stay with me and drive me to physical therapy and stuff. That’s OK. It could work that I drive myself to the hospital and drive myself home if that’s the case. Friends have stepped up and I’m very grateful for that.

Meanwhile, I have brought my “horse” out of the closet. To you it would probably look like a cane, but it has a story.

When my other hip “went south” (2005) I bought a cane at the drugstore. I liked the cane. It was adjustable and functional and helpful. I arrived with it in Montana, much to the shock and horror of my Aunt Jo and my Uncle Hank. “What happened, Martha Ann?” Since I was always running in the hills, they were always sure I’d hurt myself sooner or later.

I explained I had end-stage osteoarthritis in my hip and was trying to find the best solution, meanwhile, I had to walk with a cane.

One day after lunch, I went to “my” room to take nap. Pain is tiring. My Uncle Hank said, “Leave your cane outside your room.” I did. I hung it on the door. When I woke up there was a beautiful wooden cane hanging in its place.

It matched the cane my uncle (who’d had a stroke) used to walk with. He loved working with wood and tried to make useful things. You have to know he’d had retinal detachment so he had mostly peripheral vision. He couldn’t drive and was essentially, mostly, blind.

My uncle and I took our walks together, morning and evening, both of us with our canes. When we would go out somewhere, we had our matching canes. If one of us forget his or her cane, the other would say, “You got your horse, cowboy?”

I also have an adjustable, shock absorbing  “hiking cane.” I have been relying on a trekking pole, but I think I’m going to use this thing instead on dog walks since I can lean on the handle. Bear will have to learn to walk on the other side.

image

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

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…

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