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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Good Old Irish Beating

In last night's Vernors post, I mentioned that I don’t drink. I say that casting no judgment on those who choose to do otherwise. I don't wear abstinence as a medal of self discipline, for if I did, it would hang ironically on the crest of an out-grown suit.

But the title of this St. Particks' Day post is not “To drink or not to drink.” Patterns of Ink is about stories—not arguments. So here is the Preface Story to some essays on why I don’t drink—I’m writing it today not to be a party pooper but in honor of my red-headed, Irish great grandfather who knew this topic all too well. It was he, after all, who got the good old Irish beating in this short story that I called: "The Gray Hair in the House."

First some background: I must be careful how I tell this story. You see, my 95-year-old grandmother reads printed versions of these posts, and I wouldn't hurt her for the world. Through the years, I've never heard her speak ill of even the harshest realities of her life and of those with whom she shared it. So if this story about a difficult topic seems a bit soft focused, you'll understand. As is true with so much of life, you'll have to read between the lines. [That's her there at the right in 1930, holding my mom on the front porch of her parent's house.] And now for the story...

The Gray Hair in the House

Some time early on in the Great Depression, when my mom was just a baby, her young parents fell on hard times and the three of them moved in with her grandparents. The shared house saw them through the 30's...and the 4o's, 50's--actually, they never moved out. They lived together for 40 years.

Whenever we watched "The Waltons" in the 70's, my mom would say, "See. Everybody back then lived together--you had to," as if we held secret questions about the stories of her life, all of which were set in her grandparent's two-story house on the corner of Forest and Riverview in Port Huron, Michigan.

Because of these shared living arrangements, Mom often said she grew up with two sets of parents. She called her grandfather "Dad" and her father "Daddy"; she called her grandmother "Mom" and her mother "Mumma." It's understandable how that happened. She loved all four "parents," of course, but as a child, she found security in her grandparents, "Dad and Mom" Collinge--just as her own mother did.

When Mom and Dad Collinge were home, things were calm; things went as planned; and if not, they were settled with less words and commotion. You see, my mom's dad was an alcoh... well, let's say daily "drinking" was his pattern of life. [I wrote of him with nostalgic affection in Present Tense Past Perfect, but by the time I knew him, he was a kind caricature of his younger self, a loving but slightly detatched grandfather.]

For Grandpa, all roads went from point A to C with a "B" for bar in between. On the rare occasions when he came home on time, clear eyed, and smiling, my mom says her teeth would chatter with excitement because it usually meant they'd all get along that night. She recently told me that her grandparents were always home to make sure things were okay for her and her siblings. I'll never forget how she said it, "I always felt safe when there was gray hair in the house." (I'd not heard that before, so I had to read between the lines.)

In the summer of '42, my mom was 12. By then she had learned the patterns of wonder and fear and hope. She'd learned that good days followed bad, and that playing on the cool lawn between the front porch and the apple tree was a good way to pass bad days. And so she did on a hot morning in July.

Just twenty steps away, Dad Collinge [my great grandfather] was skimming his goldfish pond with an old wire colander lashed to a broomstick. He was not a singer, but when his heart felt it, could carry a tune. Every now and then he'd step toward the house and with a faint brogue sing up to the open kitchen window: [Double-click the word "Maggie" to hear the tune.]

"I wandered today to the hill, Maggie
To watch the scene below
The creek and the creekin' old mill, Maggie
Where we sat in the long, long ago."

His wife's name was not Maggie but Lura from Tura Lura Lura, an Irish lullaby. He sometimes sang that, too, but whenever he was "in Dutch" (as folks back then called "trouble"), it was "Maggie" that he sang in bits and pieces through the day. Even when it didn't work, my mom found peace in the old song's story and the enduring love it lifted up. He hummed a verse by the pond and then stepped back to the window:
"The green grove is gone from the hill, Maggie
Where first the daisies sprung
The creekin' old mill is still, Maggie
Since you and I were young."

The charm of the song was lost on the rusty screen. The only reply was the clank of dishes and the thud of cupboard doors from the kitchen inside.

The cool grass tickled my mom's back, and the sun warmed her lightly closed eyes until it was suddenly eclipsed by Dad Collinge hovering over her. She opened her eyes behind a lifted hand but could not read his face for the sky. Then from out of the blue he said...

“Beverley, don’t ever drink. Don’t even take one sip. So help ya. Will you promise me that?”

She nodded "yes" and without thinking asked, “But don’t you drink?"

Not quite answering the question, he said, “I’ve only come home drunk once in my life, and I think you know when it was.”

Mom did know, for it had happened recently, but she hadn't said a word, believing firmly that things not talked about sometimes went away.

Three days before on the 4th, after the fireworks at the park (and some more in a spat between him and Mom Collinge), he’d gone to the Grotto for a drink...or two...and returned home to a darkened house. He left the car askew of the narrow garage door, stumbled up the hill of the yard and again up the back porch steps, bumped through the door, and came to rest in the middle of the living room floor. It was a long rest, face down.

When Mom Collinge woke to see him there, she smelled the scent so often brought home by her son-in-law, and disappointment swept over her. In a fit of rarely provoked rage, she grabbed the nearest thing to hit him with, but seeing it still plugged in, a better idea took charge.

It was her Hoover vacuum sweeper--the one he'd bought her. She turned it on, and turned it on him--trouncing it up and down his back like white shirts on a washboard. He rolled over in shock, but the Hoover kept beating and sweeping until it sucked up his shirt tail and whined to a halt.

“Lu, what are you doing to me?” He begged with an ever-clearer mind.

“I’m cleaning you up that’s what. You’re a mess on my floor. I stayed up waiting for you. Swept the floor two times, but I must have missed this spot! Lookatcha! I'll not have this from you, too.”

My mom heard all the noise in the night but knew not to go downstairs. Her own mother and father either didn't wake or knew they'd long ago lost the right to call the kettle black.

Next morning at breakfast, no one was talking. At lunch, Dad Collinge said, “Aw, Lu, come on…” That night after a supper of rump roast and "cold shoulder," he said, "Aw, come on, Gert..." (Her middle name was Gertrude.) But Mom Collinge held her ground and her tongue. She'd been quiet for three days.

So yes, my mom did know the "one time" he was talking about; she knew it was for that he was singing, and she loved him all the more for the effort. She stood up and gave him a hug. "You promise, Bev?" he asked again, and she nodded to his earnest eyes. She walked him back to the pond, and continued around the house and up the back porch steps.

Inside, Mom Collinge was peeling potatoes into a brown paper bag.

"Need any help?"

"Lunch is already on. These are for supper. "

Mom looked at the table. It was set with sandwiches, but the usual call out the back door had not come and was not on its way.

As always on such days, my mom felt a vague guilt, and just as staying clear of household conflicts had become a pattern of life, so too had her tendency to apologize for them. "I'm sorry," she said.

"Honey, don't do that to yourself." She cut off two pieces of potato and handed one to my mom. [To this day, my mother and I cannot peel potatoes without eating a raw wedge.] Crunching down on the slice gave my mom an idea.

"Remember last fall when I brought apples in from the tree, and you were peeling 'em in curls--right there at the dining room table--and you put some of the peelings in Dad's hat...and when he put it on they dropped all over him? Remember that?"

"Yes, Dear. I remember."

"That was sure funny, Mom. Remember how he acted mad then laughed?"

"That he did, Dear, but..."

Outside the window, Dad Collinge resumed his crooning....
"And now we are aged and grey, Maggie
The trials of life nearly done
Let us sing of the days that are gone, Maggie
When you and I were young."

My mom left the kitchen and came back with her grandfather's snap-bill cap from the coat tree. She dropped it up-side-down beside the bag and smiled. Mom Collinge took a deep breath; her eyes welled up; then she let out a long slow sigh.

"I love you, Beverley," she winked and peeled a potato into the hat.

Mom set the cap beside her grandfather's plate, and called him in to lunch. Her teeth chattered with excitement, like they did when her dad came home on time. All would soon be right she knew. It always was when all was well with the gray hair in the house.

My mom says Dad Collinge never drank again after that, and my mother kept her promise to him. The other patterns in the house remained but became more tolerable with time.
[That's my Great Grandpa, "Dad Collinge," in the middle; my mom's parents are with him in the living room of the home they shared for 40 years. circa 1973]
When Mom was 19, Mom Collinge died just a year or so before my parents wedding. To that marriage my father brought a mostly German lineage, but his father's bloodline (and his blood) also had the sting of alcohol. Because they both knew what it was like to live with an alcoholic parent, together my mother and father had sworn off drink. It was not a "holier than thou" stance as much as a "been there, seen that, no thank you" approach. In that sense, some experts would say that both my genetic disposition toward alcoholism and my personal bent against alcohol were set before I was born.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, my not drinking is not a testament to my self-discipline, as if I reign victorious over some recurring decision. For me it was a choice I made as a young man. My parents rightly forbade it, but by the time I could do as I pleased, it pleased me not to drink. So now looking back from age fifty, I ask myself, "Would life have been better with alcohol?" Nothing I have seen in thirty years has made me think so, and nothing I've heard (from those telling me I should) has met the burden of proof incumbent upon change. I don't think I've missed a thing but, in fact, have been spared from much.

A few years before my grandmother moved out of the house in 1976, my mom found that old Hoover in the long "walk-through" closet upstairs. That was the first time I heard this story. Grandma said, "Take it. It still works good." And we used the vacuum for years, but it eventually went up to Mom's attic. Two years ago, she gave it to me to put down in the cabin. It still works fine, but after 70 years, it’s earned a rest. On the bottom, scrawled in my great grandfather's hand are repair dates. The first is 12-9-1938. On the top, the brand-plate says
"It BEATS as it Sweeps as it Cleans."
Mom Collinge swore by it.

. [Right click on pictures to enlarge and read.]
.(Long before I was offered a drink by a fellow co-worker and politely declined, I heard the above story more than once. It is a true story, told to me by my mother who would sing "Maggie" and reminisce about various details each time she told it. The memory speaks of a hard topic and hard times, but she told it fondly somehow. The story serves as a foundation for the six short posts that follow, entitled "Why I Don't Drink." Through the years that question has come up countless times. I never feel defensive by the question, and I trust I'll not be offensive with my answers below.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know what it is about your stories (and the links about similar things). I read them and read them again. They take me back to a place and time I am not old enough to know. I would like to know your mother and your grandmother.

19/3/07 2:18 PM  
Blogger Nancy said...

Alcohol can be the root of a lot of evil and pain. You are a wise man in so many ways. Thanks for sharing your story not only for your readers but for a legacy for your children.

Thanks also for sharing your "links" knowledge with me... I hope to have time soon to try it! Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks.

UNC did win... but I pull for NC State and they are big rivals of UNC so I was pulling for Michigan. Maybe next year.

19/3/07 6:33 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Thank you for reading. They are two incredible women who have taught me much.

I owe so much to my parents example. Everywhere we went it seems we were with people drinking, but my parents didn't need it or want it. By the time the choices came my way...it was really no choice at all. I don't think I've missed a thing--but in fact have been spared of much.

19/3/07 8:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came back to see if I had the story right as far as who was whose mom and grandma. and i see some changes. Do you keep writing on things after your done? Where do you get ideas for stories? did they really happen? I"m Just wondering. I never really thought about drinking the way it was back then. I feel bad for kids who have parents drink too much. Nothing is worth that.

21/3/07 2:59 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I apologize that this story was a bit confusing. Some of it was due to my trying to be discreet "family matters." By telling the story of my Great Grandpa's "one slip" with drunkeness, I was trying to point out that it was actually my mom's dad (not her grandfather) who had the more serious problem.
It's all kind of touchy to try to write about without seeming disrespecful.
It didn't help that I referred to people with familial-generational titles rather than names. Have you ever heard that old song "I'm My Own Grandpa"?. The situation was not that confusing but my writing may have been. I suspect the whole thing should be re-written as if the author is not the son.
Anyway... thanks for asking about it. Yes the things you read here are real. The ones that are pre-1960 are stories my Mom has told us through the years. I sometimes have to compress them, but the details of the setting, characters, events are as accurate as I can recreate with my mom's help.
My Great Grandpa Collinge really did sing that song whenever he was "in Dutch" with my Great Grandmother. I never met her.
I like putting my mom's stories down on paper. She enjoys reading here, and I have many more from her life and from our life when my siblings and I were too young to remember things. Great stuff.
I should clarify that even though her dad had a dependency on drinking, she and her mom loved him very much and we had great times at that house growing up. We kids were blissfully unaware of these "realities" when we were little, which confirms what I said about my grandma in the intro.
Whoa... I'd better wrap this up.

21/3/07 8:36 PM  
Blogger FlipFlop Mom said...

ahhhh I LOVED this.. and can NOT wait for the second half.. I love history and always wish I could go back in time or live differently than what this world has to offer!! I grew up with an alcoholic parent.. and it wasn't easy.. and always vowed to honor my children by not doing so.. I too don't judge others...but what's only best for me and my family!!!

Keep writing.. I'm loving it!!

22/3/07 9:25 PM  
Blogger Josie said...

Tom, what a great story. Your stories always take me to another place, almost as if I'm there. I could feel the grass. What a great family you have!

I've been missing all the blogs lately, with my computer on the "fritz".


23/3/07 6:08 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Flip Flop Mom,
So you know better than I do why my mom and dad felt strongly about not drinkng. As you will read in my follow up (when I have time to complete it), I think a large portion of our population must be very careful about this decision. Some leaders who work with young people should be especially carefull as they casually discuss the issues. So many of today's leaders seem to think drunkeness is wrong (or drunk driving) anything short of that is okay. They persist in this argument regardless of the statistics and facts about alcohol and young adults.

My mom and dad were determined to break the cycle by example, and all of my siblings or cousins from her side have upheld it as far as I know.

Dr. John had a quote a couple days ago...something like "a writer creates a world then welcomes you to it." I'm not sure I qualify for the quote, but I do find the time period of my parents' life and the world they created for us a place I like to go in writing... so it's very encouraging to know it's a "place" others can enjoy as well.

24/3/07 2:40 PM  
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