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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, December 29, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Epilogue

How Things Turned Out

"Romance is hope in story form...the thread that darns the gap between what is and what we dreamt would be." T.K.

When Duncan Phyfe was making his furniture in the early 19th Century, embroidery was a craft enjoyed by women who lived in homes suited for his style of furniture. This etching suggests a life of leisurely homemaking and the fact that somewhere beyond this room, there were servants doing the harder work.
There was another type of needle craft practiced (but perhaps not enjoyed) by women of that day: darning socks. Very few people darn socks anymore. Even back in 1951 my mom had never darned a sock in her life... until she married Dad. "Why throw out a whole sock when only the heel has a hole," he'd say. So Mom, of course, learned to darn socks in her "spare time" as one, two, three, four, and eventually five children were added to her life of leisurely homemaking.
[Dad would have considered sock darning more practical than embroidery, but there's a place for both in life. By the way, if my mom had taken up embroidery, like the lady in the picture above, Dad would not have sat and watched (and he most surely would not have crossed his legs like that).]
When I was a kid, Mom still darned our socks, and though I now appreciate that labor of love, back then I hated wearing those darned socks. I could always feel the mend down there in my shoe. But Mom did another kind of darning--a kind done so skillfully I didn't know it at the time--she filled all sorts of gaps in our lives through the years.
Eventually, Mom quit darning socks, but the other sort of darning never stopped. She kept our home happy whenever life "wore through." Call it hope; call it romance; but Mom made us feel blessed to be exactly where we were in time and space even when times were hard and space was cramped. She knew enough about darning to know that the secret is not pulling the gap shut--it's filling it in with newly woven threads. Romance is hope in story form... the thread that darns the gap between what is and what we dreamt would be.
Like any good story, family life is rich in character, setting, theme, and, yes, conflict—both seen and unseen.
My Mom is a romantic—I got a double portion from her. My Dad was more of a realist (and a bit of a pragmatist when it came to problem solving)—I have plenty of that in me, too. Being a blend of both has made life interesting, and for that I am forever indebted to them both. I think it has been easier to be a blend of Mom and Dad’s traits than it was for them to manage the purer traits alone. Until recently, I never thought of my parents' marriage as an endearing and enduring clash of romance and realism. Take the Duncan Phyfe for example.
Mom wanted the table in hopes of bringing a hint of the romantic past to her home. If not the long past of the 19th Century… then the near past (and security) of her childhood home. She knew the feeling she wanted the table to bring to their apartment but did not give much thought to the actual task of getting it there. Dad, on the other hand, wanted to make Mom happy, but was immediately faced with reality. To him, the table did not represent a feeling. It was an object. It had weight and dimensions that were in conflict with both their small apartment and the trunk of his car. From the start, the table presented a problem to be solved, and solving such problems was very satisfying to Dad. Problems are challenges—dragons if you will—and slaying dragons is what husbands do (even those so romantically challenged that they would never phrase it in such terms).
This Duncan Phyfe tale was the story of my parents’ life before my siblings and I became a part of it. Having said that, I’ll briefly tell about the days and years that followed with us and the Duncan Phyfe, because to whatever extent this felt like a story, those reading it may wish to know how things turned out.
Before I proceed with this epilogue, however, we must look closely at the above print of the embroidering. If we could look at the bottom of the lady's tapestry, we’d see the shapes and colors roughly in place. We’d probably “get the picture,” but we’d also see the awkward knots and frustrated tangles and a hundred loose ends.
When it comes time to frame and display the finished work, we tend to put the good side out. Is that hypocritical? No more than combing your hair in the morning. Need I say that this story of my parents’ first year has been something like that? I’ve spun the yarn and chosen which side of the fabric to show, but I know—we all know—life is far from perfect, my parents’ marriage was far from perfect, our home was far from perfect—and the same is true for all their descendents. It hasn't always been a pretty picture. Sometimes it was more darned than decorative, but the fabric held together. There's something to be said for that.
It’s good sometimes to look at the back of the embroidery, to remember all the work and imperfections and knots and loose ends that are just below the surface of our better days. But it’s also good to cherish those better days and to smile upon the picture as it was meant to be seen from above.

And now on to those loose ends...

Part I: Flipping Houses to get a Home

Virg Palmer and my Dad were more than friends. They became business partners. They were both hard-working, hands-on, can-do home builders in disguise as telephone repairmen. One day over lunch came up this idea:
“I’ll help you build your house. You help me build mine. Agreed? Deal.” Handshake.
Virg owned a vacant neighborhood lot. Dad had been “saving up” for a dream and had a few thousand dollars at the credit union. Pooling their cash and collateral, the two men built a spec-house together and sold it—each more than doubled their investment in a year’s time. They worked well together, and purchased two “fixer-upper” houses to “flip. That’s how Dad got enough money to buy the house on Lapeer Avenue, which had an upstairs apartment that they rented out. In no time at all Mom and Dad went from being tenants to being landlords. But Lapeer was just a house to live in while Dad built their “dream house.”
Dad and Virg each bought an acre lot on Atkins Road outside the city limits. Together, they built the Palmer’s house first, and then began ours in 1959. This was the dream house Dad was “saving up” for, and with the help of his friend it was within reach. We lived for one year in that unfinished house. [It was this house on Atkins where the boy woke in "Kept."]
Part II: The Duncan Phyfe in Roseville, Michigan
Our family's journey took a dramatic turn in 1961 when Dad took a promotion at Bell that relocated us to the suburbs of Detroit. Roseville to be exact (just a few blocks from Gratiot Avenue). This was to be a temporary address until Dad could find some land on which to build “Dream House II,” but in fact we lived there 14 years.
(I wrote about some of these years in a story called "Mixed Milk.") Mom loved the burbs. There were lots of neighbors to talk to over the back yard-fence or on the porch. A borrowed cup of sugar or loaf of bread was just a few steps away. It was very much like Forest and Riverview. Dad, however, felt fenced in and never took his eye from their once-shared dream of raising the five of us in the country. In 1968 he bought 14 acres on 23 Mile Road [a few miles east of Gratiot Avenue]. We called it “the property,” it took several years to develop before we could build the home of our final move.)
During those fourteen years in Roseville, we ate at the Formica table in the kitchen. The Duncan Phyfe was down in the rec-room basement just outside the laundry room. It stayed in that spot for over ten years. When we had Thanksgiving at our house, the cousins ate there, but the rest of the time it was used to sort laundry, or cleared off to play board games or make large puzzles. We built science and art projects on it through the years.
But the most fun thing we did with the Duncan Phyfe was making "tents." Sometimes my brothers and I (Kathy may have joined in, too) along with some of the neighborhood boys would get that crazy urge to build a huge tent in the basement. None of the other moms would allow it to happen in their house, but our mom was always cool about spontaneous creative "bubBENtures." [She always called our childhood adventures "bubBENtures" because that's the way my brother Paul used to say the word when he was little.]
We'd open both of the drop-leafs of the Duncan Phyfe, drape blankets all around it, and then add all the other card tables and blankets we could find until it was a sprawling Bedouin labyrinth. It was while spending hours under the Duncan Phyfe, that I became familiar with the unique design of the pedestal and characteristic wooden "banana peel" legs. They were not ideal for the "tent" because they took up the center of the biggest "room," but we worked around them as best we could. Then we'd drag in our sleeping bags to spend the night in our home within our home. Mom would come downstairs and crawl in one end until she found us. Then she'd embarrass us by chirping, "Isn't this cozy!"
Cozy is exactly what it was of course, but no boy would be caught dead using the word cozy-- at least not in front of his friends. Cozy is a Mom word. In fact, I believe that the feeling of coziness stems from our pre-natal state. It is a remnant of fetal feng shui. Mom was the Queen of Cozy. She could make anything cozy--a blanket on the beach, an umbrella on a rainy day, a camping tent in the woods, the whole family on the couch during a scary movie. Things became officially cozy by proclamation of Mom. When she said it, it was true, and with her help it was true of every place we ever called home.
Part III: How Things Turned Out for the Duncan Phyfe
Eventually the Duncan Phyfe was marred and scratched and scrolled on by us kids, but the most interesting scar was a large water stain that we did not make. Mom heard that if she kept her Christmas poinsettia in a dark basement until the following winter, it would bloom again. All she had to do was keep it watered. So for a few months Mom kept watering the thing down in the basement.
The quietest demands of life are sometimes forgotten, and it’s easy to forget a poinsettia in June. One summer day, Mom saw the leafless dried poinsettia wrapped in bright red foil behind a pile of dirty clothes. She felt bad to have abandoned it and worse when she lifted the lifeless pot and saw the white blotch tattooed into the mahogany. Twenty years before, she may have cried, but now forty-something she sighed and shrugged it off, having learned long ago that elegance is over-rated, and life is far more life-like than our dreams.
No matter really. By then the Duncan Phyfe was little more than a horizontal surface. One day soon after, in fact, the weight of all the piled up board games and puzzles and laundry was just too much. No one remembers exactly how it happened… but the table was found toppled with one of the wooden banana peel legs broken right off.
Dad put the broken table in the back of the old utility van we used as a truck and hauled it to the barn out at “the property.” You may recall from other pages that we built the barn from logs we cleared from that land. It was a cabin of sorts with room for the tractor and tools inside. We sometimes over-nighted there just for fun as we spent weekends improving the land, bridging the creek, digging the well, and building the house.
Just as it had done in 1951, the Duncan Phyfe presented Dad with a problem to be solved. He knew the pedestal table, as designed, would never bear much weight, so he did what any inventive, realistic, pragmatic back-woodsman-carpenter would do: he amputated the entire pedestal and bolted 2-by-6 boards to each corner. It looked awful, but is was very sturdy. The barn needed a functional table that didn’t take up much space, one that could be opened up to eat a quick lunch or to sharpen the chain saw blades. This was perfect.
The funny thing is… our family ate more meals at that Duncan Phyfe in the barn than in all our other homes put together. We’d be working hard on some project with Dad, and then about an hour after noon, Mom would show up with a hot meal in a picnic basket. Dad would take a rag and wipe off the saw dust, or the chain saw oil, or metal shavings or whatever debris was left behind from the last odd job on the table. Mom would spread a table cloth—she liked to make things homey…as much as Dad liked to make them sturdy—and we’d sit down, say grace, and dig in.
There we were among the ladders and axes and wheelbarrows, sitting around the very same table that Dad carted home behind the ’39 Ford back in 1951. In all those eat-and-get-back-to-work meals, I don’t remember the story of the table ever coming up, and I never brought it up. I’d heard the story by then, but the significance of such things had not settled in. There’s a huge difference between knowing something happened and fully understanding the story, the human part, the part that reminds us how it feels to live as life plays out, the part that foreshadows how circumstances come full circle.
Some may find it sad that after all the table went through it ended up in a barn looking so hard-used, but it makes me smile. The table had served its original purpose—it gave Mom hope when she wondered if she could ever make a house a home. Then after twenty years it was finally in a setting that didn’t require matching chairs.
The table is a living testament to the romance and reality we call marriage. With or without a table, we're all of us "bringing home the Duncan Phyfe." We're bringing it home each time we see a longing in our loved one's eyes and do our best to meet it; each time we strive to keep the windows of communication open; each time we learn to smile at what frustrates us; each time we make room for things kept beyond their need; each time we salvage what we can from what's been broken. We're bringing home the Duncan Phyfe each time we look back and see that life, perhaps, has not turned out the way we thought it would... but we can embrace the good and bad, the pain and pleasure, the regret and hope... and find joy in living with the way things stand in the end. .

Post Script: How Things Turned Out For Us
Still against the idea of a mortgage, and with three kids in college at the same time, Dad had his hands full finishing that last dream house, but we built it ourselves from the foundation to the chimney, learning all the trades from Dad as we went: masonry, electrical, plumbing, roofing—everything. Finally the house was done enough to live in. During the first semester of my sophomore year in college, my family moved in. When I came home for Christmas in 1975, it was to that new house, where Mom still lives today. It was not yet finished. It would not be truly finished for years, but Mom had added her touches, and stepping through the door that cold December night with my suitcase in hand… it already felt like home.
All through those growing-up years, these places remained an integral part of our lives... my grandma's house, Palmer Park, the beach we walked to under the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, Blue Water Bridge, and Pine Grove Park. Grandma moved out of the house on Forest and Riverview (just a block from Gratiot) after Grandpa Spencer died in 1975. (My Great Grandfather had died a couple years before.) But Grandma Spencer, my mom's mom, celebrated her 97th birthday last July. We had a big party at Pine Grove Park. It was like old times.
I can never go there without staring out at the cold blue water of the St. Clair and remembering all the times we swam there and how my father used to swim across and back, and how Mom would meet him downstream. The huge oaks under which they shared summer lunches in ’51 are still there with their spangled shade. They're bigger I suppose by more than 50 rings, Trees are always bigger than before, but with oaks… it’s hard to tell.
I said at the beginning that on February 10, 1951, my folks began "...the longest journey of their lives. This is the case every time a bride and groom drive away from the place where whispered vows and steeple bells ring true." Marriage itself is not a journey--life is the journey--marriage is the commitment to travel it together 'til death do us part.
That's Mom and Dad at Pine Grove Park in the summer of 1994, four years after their 40th Wedding Anniversary. He wore that crew cut all his life. That's the Blue Water Bridge spanning the St. Clair River to Canada in the background. (A second bridge was added in 1996.)
Mom and Dad enjoyed skating and dancing together through the years. On April 1, 1995, they went out for dinner and a dance at the VFW. They both looked as fit as they do in this picture. After an enjoyable evening and one last dance, Dad experienced a heart attack and was gone. A few days later we laid him to rest at Lakeside Cemetery in Port Huron a block from Gratiot Avenue. [Now do you see why I called that avenue they drove their wedding night "the byway of their life"?] From that quiet spot, it's just a short walk to the cold blue water of Lake Huron at the mouth of the St. Clair.
In 1998, my mom went to the Class of '48's 50th reunion. She had no date so my Uncle Bob, dad's married brother, escorted her for the evening. (He's a year younger but went to the same school and new many of the people there.) That night, Mom met an old friend from the days before this Duncan Phyfe story began. A few years later they married. If you want to read a story about the funny providential twists life sometimes takes, read their story here. Bob is a retired photographer. He helped me with some of the pictures for this story. [For more go here and scroll down to "Visiting Home" April 1, 2006.]
.......... “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
.......... Is just to love and be loved in return…”


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 25

"It Didn't Occur to me at the Time"
[12-28-07 A short chapter 24 was inserted before this newly numbered chapter.]

The Friday after that move, Mom said goodbye to her bosses and co-workers at Star Oil, not knowing that in her hand was the last paycheck she would ever earn. I asked Mom how it felt walking out of work that day. Did she feel happy or sad that she would never "work outside the home" again for the rest of her life. She said something that could be the subtitle for all of our lives: ...................

It didn't occur to me at the time.

As I wrap up this story, I'd like to give my readers a sense of the kinds of conversations that went into its writing, so I'm just going to let Mom tell this part herself. This is not the conversation that began in Chapter One, when I heard the story for the first time. This is very recent. The Italicized paragraphs below are her:

"It didn't occur to me at the time," she said, "Wouldn't it be awful to know the future. I was frightened enough to face the changes one day at a time. If we fully understood that some changes change everything, I think it would scare us half to death. No... my last day at Star Oil felt pretty much like any other Friday. I just said my 'Merry Christmases' and left. Who would've guessed that four years later I'd have four kids. Kathy was born in April; Paul the March after; David the June after that; and you in April of '56, That's the way it was back then--Boom Boom Boom. Stair steps (then Jimmy came as the caboose later on). But I didn't know what was comin'...It didn't occur to me at the time.

"I did see those people at Star Oil through the years. The owner, Mr. Kaiser--not Mr. Kellerman my boss, but the owner--he bought Kathy her first pair of baby shoes. Came right to our place house to see Kathy and give me the shoes himself. Here's the funny thing, it wasn't that second apartment on Wells Street. The landlady there was scary--she yelled at us for making noise. Virg and Bev had been over playing cards late, and Virg went outside for a smoke and came trouncing up the stairs with that laugh of his. Well the landlady just about ran up after him for waking them up. She was a scary lady--so we moved to Glenwood Street in March, the month before Kathy was born.

"It was at Glenwood that your Dad built me a nice clothes line. I didn't have my Speedqueen yet, so I was still washing by hand and wringing the clothes out like before. I'd take the wet clothes out and hang 'em on the line in whatever order I pulled 'em out. It's seems funny to me now, but the clothes used to freeze out there on the line. Then one day your dad came home, looked at the line, and said, 'Wouldn't it look nicer if you hung the towels with the towels and the linens with the linens and the underwear in between on the center line instead of just hangin' it every which way?' Well, it had never occurred to me to care how I hung things on the line. The point was to get 'em dry and take 'em down, but after that I started hanging them in categories with the underwear in the middle. I didn't mind. It made sense. It just hadn't occurred to me that it made any difference to your dad.

"Okay. Where was I. Oh, yes. From Glenwood we moved to Detroit. Your dad got transferred with Bell. I was due for Paul in March, but I wanted to deliver in Port Huron so I went to live at Forest Street during the last weeks while Dad finished his last month in Detroit. Then we moved into a Duplex on Riverside after Paul was born. By then we had enough money to buy the house at 1127 Lapeer Avenue. That's where we lived when Dave was born.

"So in those two years we lived in seven different places--me who had never left home until I was married, and your poor Dad had to carry that Duncan Phyfe with us to each new address."

She laughed. And I stopped taking notes and joined in her thoughts.

"Mom, I was born in '56, and we were still on Lapeer Avenue.

I remember the Duncan Phyfe being in the front room, but it still didn't have chairs. Did you ever get chairs for it?"

"No. We never did. We hardly ever used it, but we--I--always planned to eventually."

"After Lapeer Avenue. We moved into the house we were building on Atkins Road in 1960. I remember the Duncan Phyfe was down in the family room where we put up the Christmas tree that year, but I don't remember ever sitting at that table."

"We only lived there a year and a half, and we were so busy still building the house around us we never had time to do much else. I think we used it a couple times."

"Then in 1961, we moved to Roseville. I remember the Duncan Phyfe was in the basement over by the laundry room. Whenever we ate down there with the cousins, I think we sat at it then."

"Yes. We opened it up, and put you kids at it for Thanksgiving, but we just used those old folding chairs around it."

"Mom, you and Dad hauled that table to about ten different places, but you never got to use it in a formal dining room--which is why you brought it home in the first place."

"You're right, but we never were very formal as it turned out. I'm still glad Dad got it for me. It was for my "someday dining room." You've got to have 'somedays' to hold on to. That's what hope is--even if it never happens. That's how it was with that table. We got a formica-and chrome table like everybody else and ate at it in the kitchen all those years. By the time I had a dining room, Jim was born [1968] and there were seven of us. So we got the maple colonial from Ethan Allen. It's just one of those things. Who'da guessed?

Your kids are growing up and getting married and going off to school. You're old enough to see how life works, Tom. It's a blur--a vapor--and that's why I'm glad you like to write. I can tell stories, but I can't write 'em down."

"Well, I couldn't have written this without you telling it all those years and answering all these questions for months on the phone. But what you were saying is true. The older I get the more I see that families stories are less about what did occur... and more about the million things that didn't occur to us at the time. I think of that whenever I see that old table."

"I haven't seen it in years, Tom. Where is it?" Mom asked.

"It's right where we used it last. Remember?"

"Is it still there after all these years?"

"Yep. It's still there, Mom. I'll have Bob take some pictures."


And what became of the Duncan Phyfe? If you’ve read this far, you’ve earned the right to know. One more chapter to go, an epilogue of sorts, before we wrap this up for a belated Christmas present.

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 24

Virg and Bev

They would only skate a few more times that winter, but whenever it snowed, Mom called home to ask if the lights were on at Palmer just to picture it. It's good to have a place to go--if only in your mind--when life begins to twirl too fast.

It was now December, and though this year had already brought many changes, the most abrupt were yet to come.

Dad worked out a deal with their landlord that if they moved out of the "no baby" apartment by December 15th, they could get their entire deposit back. So just ten days before Christmas, Mom and Dad were hauling the few things they from White to Wells Street.

The Duncan Phyfe dinette that blocked the archway had been there three weeks to the day when Dad and a friend carried it back down the stairs to a borrowed pick-up truck—no walking behind the Ford this time. They packed it between the sofa with the spring that came through the center cushion and the mattress of the bed that fell those months before. The Firestone refrigerator and a few other pieces would require a second trip, but it was an easy mile-and-a half move just past Lapeer Avenue toward the river.

This friend that helped Dad move was Virgil Palmer—no he was not related to the namesake of Palmer Park. Everyone called him Virg (as in “on the verge of…”). He worked with Dad at Bell Telephone. Mom had first met Virg in the receiving line at their wedding. Dad had tacked a wedding invitation up on the bulletin board at the dispatch building. They had properly invited all the men at work that Dad knew well, but he tacked an extra invitation on the board as more of an announcement—a way to explain the twinkle in his eye the days before and after his one-week disappearance for the honeymoon.

Dad was surprised that Virg actually showed up because of the invitation on the bulletin board. He was married but came alone since his wife didn't know either Don or Bev. (That would soon change.) Virg was a heavy smoker and his throaty laugh rang out in that little Methodist church as they chatted in the receiving line. It was the kind of laugh that did not adapt to settings. It bubbled up from deep within, gained a raspy edge in his throat, then pulsated out into the air like the song of a handsaw cutting wood. It was the same laugh whether he was standing in the cold beside his Bell truck or elbow to elbow with strangers at a wedding. It wasn’t rude. It was just Virg, and you couldn’t help but like him.

Little did Mom know when she met her husband’s friend that that laugh and vigorous handshake would become an integral part of their life. Not only did Virg help them move from White to Wells Street, but he and his wife, who name was also Bev, began spending more and more time with Dad and Mom after that move.

The friendships of early-married life often begin with existing prenuptial friends and siblings. Gradually new friends enter the scene. If the wife makes a new married friend, the two husbands are forced into social settings and may or may not become friends themselves. This was how it worked for most of my father’s married life… BUT in the case of Don and Virg and the two Bevs, it was the other way around. The wives were along for the ride at first.

It seemed the only thing they had in common was the fact that they were both very pregnant. The two women were quite the pair, waddling together wherever they went. One day when Mrs. Palmer was full term Mom and Dad saw the Palmers from a distance on the sidewalk in front of Sperry’s. Mom began shouting “Hey, Virg and Bev! We’re over here. Virg and Bev!” But they didn’t hear her so she said it louder, “Virg and Bev!”

Finally, Bev Palmer shushed her, and with a red face she waddled up to mom and whispered loudly, “If you’re going to shout it—at least shout ‘Bev and Virg’ instead of Virgin Bev. I mean, look at me for Pete’s sake, and here you are yelling ‘Virgin Bev!’ It sounds blasphemous!” It had never occurred to Mom how the names sounded together, but from then on, she discreetly used Bev’s name first when she called to them in public—and she was equally discreet as she told this story with a laugh to everyone they met for years to come.

Now back to that week in December, 1951.

[This chapter was written on the 28th, but it post-dated and added later in sequence before chapter 25. I decided that it was essential to introduce Virg and Bev before the epilogue.]

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 23

Are The Lights on at Palmer?

Like many of the northern states and provinces, Michigan is a showcase for all four seasons. Springs are lush; summer days are warm and long; autumn runs the hills in melancholy splendor; and winter brings hope of a white Christmas. But before that grand and frosty entrance, there's the empty in-between when trees are bare, skies are gray, and people huddle in winter coats with collars up and everything in place but snow, the consolation of the cold.

During those in-between days, there are two kinds of people: those who wish they lived where it was warm and those who look to the sky for snow. My mom and dad were in the latter group, and one by one, we children joined them there.

To this day, my mother gets goose-bumps at the very thought of snow, and when it actually begins to fall she is beside herself with glee, looking out each window with dramatic sighs and smiles. And once the snow begins to “stick,” she runs to the phone to call those who know the meaning of this magically mystic question: “Are the lights on at Palmer?”

It’s a question she grew up hearing on the phone more than sixty years ago when she lived on Forest and Riverview and could look north one block to see the lights at Palmer Park.

The ice rink itself cannot be seen from there. It's in a deep flat basin surrounded by sparse but sprawling trees. The ice is shaped roughly like a large Christmas stocking with the heel of the sock on the corner of Gratiot Avenue and Garfield, and at the toe of the stocking was a small shelter where skaters could gather to tighten laces or get warm around a pot-belly stove. (The old building has long-since been replaced by a nice facility.) On the far crest of the hill is a playground and picnic area, but the park is most beautiful when the basin is flooded and frozen and the surrounding hills are white and all the lights around the rink are glowing in the falling snow.

It was when the snowy night was perfect for ice skating that Mom’s friends would call and shout into the phone, “Are the lights on at Palmer?” Mom would run to the street to look. They were most often on during weekends, but week nights, if the lights were not on, it meant the ice was freshly "re-flooded" or not yet shoveled for skating.

But if the lights were on, it meant there was good ice, and music playing in the night, and the pot-belly stove in the Skate House was ready to warm your hands and seat. The news would spread from friend to friend, and soon they were all bundled up, laced tight, and twirling on the ice, and the whole scene looked like a giant jostled snow-globe.

The winter before, Mom was still at home when that first snow fell and the phone began to ring; this year, she was married and living a few miles away, when the snow began to fall the Friday evening after they brought home the Duncan Phyfe. Mom’s voice was bubbling over when she phoned home and ask the question for the first time.

“Are the lights on at Palmer?”
“Yes,” her mother replied with a laugh, “You’re the third to call. I wish you were here to answer the phone. It's starting to aggravate your dad. Everybody’s going skating. I told ‘em they could all come over for hot chocolate afterwards.”

And just like that the tradition changed from Mom taking the calls to making the call. It did not occur to her at the time that this ritual had become a tradition. But what else do you call it when that single question is passed on to your children and your children's children who heard it all their lives, and who even now call home to ask as the first snow falls, "Are the lights on at Palmer?" (though no one we know has lived near the park for more than thirty years).

But that night the question was not a tradition--it was asked in earnest, and Mom was giddy to hear the answer!

“Don, the lights are on at Palmer. Let’s go! We've got to stop by Mumma's to get my skates.”
“Are you sure you can skate… I mean what would Dr. Licker say?”
“He said I could still do anything I was comfortable doing. I’ll be fine. I almost never fall, and you’ll be right there with me if I do. Let’s go.”
"If you're up to it, I'm game. I sharpened my skates last week."

As they walked toward the park, they heard the faint music coming from the loudspeaker on the skate house. The following were among the "new Christmas hits" that have since become timeless traditional favorites that will forever remind us of Christmases past: Winter Wonderland was not new. It had come out in the 30's, but many of its recorded versions were new. Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" was not yet ten years old. He recorded "I'll be Home for Christmas" in the middle of WWII [this is a recent cover of the song], and his Melekalikimaka with the Andrews Sisters came out after the war in 1950. [Hawaii did not become the 50th state until 1959.] "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was six years old. "The Christmas Song" was five years old. "I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas" was four years old. "Let it Snow" was three years old. Gene Autry's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was two years old, and his "Frosty the Snow Man" came out in1950, along with "Baby It's Cold Outside," Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," "Blue Christmas"--not by Elvis but Earnest Tubb, and one of Mom's favorites, "Silver Bells." "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" had just been written and recorded that year (1951).

Mom and Dad were excellent “pairs” skaters, but that night they took it slow. Dad did all the backward moves. Most of the time they stood and talked with friends they hadn't seen it seemed for ages. It was just like old times to gather in that snow-globe, surrounded by all the familiar shapes of dimly-lit houses.

When it was time to go, they climbed the hill toward Forest, and held each other's shoulders as they put on their skate guards. Then holding hands, they walked under a canopy of bare tree limbs toward what was still for Mom the only place on earth that felt like home.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 22

The "Title" Chapter

“Isn’t this fun!” Mom said, turning on the radio and the heater. “At least the car is still warm from me driving it. They’ve started playing Christmas music on some of the stations.”

“Seems kind of early for that,” Dad said.

“It's not all Christmas music. They just started mixing some songs in with the regular ones. I love it!”

"I guess I'll feel more like Christmas music once we get some snow."

"I can't wait for snow and ice skating. It's been cold enough for ice. They’re flooding Palmer Park this week."

"They usually do about now."

Mom turned the dial and stopped when an announcer said, “And here’s that new Meredith Willson hit sung by Perry Como.”

“Oh, Don, have you heard this one? It’s just came out.” She turned it up and began singing along with “It’s beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas.” [Perry released it first, then Bing. The Youtube clip is from a few years after the 1951 recording.]

Mom and Dad’s apartment was at 1427 White Street. The Duncan Phyfe was near Union and 8th Street. By the time the song was over, Dad was backing into the driveway on Union.

“You stay here. This won’t take long.” ........[Dad's '39 Ford was not as nice as the one above.]

“Well, can’t I look at it before we buy it?”
“Honey, this was supposed to be a surprise. I only told you about it because of the chairs. Trust me. You’ll like it, but if you get talking with these people, we’ll never get home before dark. Just keep the car running and slide over here to my seat.”

Dad knew that once Mom started visiting with strangers, she'd begin pointing out everybody they knew in common, and stand there forever, chatting like old friends. It happened wherever Mom went. He lacked this gift and loved it about her, but when time was of the essence he kindly kept her at a distance from people.
Dad opened the large trunk of the Ford and used his arms to measure its height and depth. “Hmmmm…” he thought, “This is not going to work.” If the table did fit in sideways, the drop leaf would give him nothing to hold. Lengthwise, with the dropped leaves inside the fenders, less than half of the table would fit in.

“We knew you’d be back,” the woman said, opening the door, “Is that the little lady in the car?” She waved at Mom, and Mom waved back.

“She'd get out, but the table’s kind of a surprise.”

The lady held open the back door as the two men carried the table to the waiting trunk.

"I don’t think it’s going to fit in there,” warned the man.

“I knew it wouldn't, but I'm hoping we can rest the front half in, and then I’ll just hold the legs like a wheelbarrow and walk behind." The table clunked against the raised trunk door. The back two pedestal legs had nothing to rest on until Dad grabbed hold of them.

“Are you sure about this?” the man asked.

“Yeah, this is no problem. It’s just a few blocks,” Dad said with his chin resting firmly on the top edge of the table and his arms stretched straight down to the curved legs that fit perfectly in his gloved hands.

“Aren’t we forgetting something,” smiled the man.

“Oh, yeah.” Laughed Dad, “Can you hold these legs while I get my wallet and remind Bev what we're doing?”

They switched positions. Dad put his gloves in his coat pockets, turned his back toward Mom and tried to hand the man a five.

“Just give it to the wife. My hands are full.”

“Oh, yeah, Sorry. Here you go, Ma’am. Thanks so much. She’s going to love it.” He motioned for Mom to roll down the window. “We’re just going to idle down 8th to Chestnut past White Park to 14th. Just take ‘er slow. Don't touch the gas. Just let it idle. Put it in first gear and put your foot on the brake until I say.

"Now?" Mom said nervously.

"Yes. You got it in first? Now keep your foot on the brake until I say. I’ll be walking behind you holding up the table like a wheelbarrow.”

“Tell her we ate at that table for twenty happy years,” interrupted the woman. Mom heard this and turned to thank her.

“It's beautiful! I can already tell!” shouted Mom over her shoulder, “Say do you know the Daltons around the corner on Chestnut?"

“Honey, not now. We’ve got to go.”

“Hell-O-o,” shouted the man with the table, “I’m still back here.”

“Sorry. Here. I’ve got it.” Said Dad, taking his place and resting his chin squarely on top of the table. “Thanks again. Alright, Bev. Take your foot off the brake and let out the clutch nice and slow.”

The car did not move. Mom had rolled the window up and didn’t hear Dad, but the lady motioned for her to go and the car began to roll down the driveway.

“You sure you’re alright?” asked the old man.

“It’s really not that heavy. Just a little awkward,” Dad said with his face turned sideways and the drawer pull pressing into in his cheek. As the Ford turned onto the street, Dad took one last glimpse at the couple. The lady was pinching her lower lip with worry as the man just shook his head and waved. Dad turned his head forward and rested his chin on the table top. This was slightly more comfortable but he could see only the sky, tree limbs, and street lights, which had not yet turned on.
He had never calculated it, but it was actually 7/10ths of a mile to their apartment. His breath rose up like smoke in the cold air. “It’s just a few blocks," he reminded himself, "We'll be home in no time." He smiled at his cleverness and began reciting his favorite lines of Edgar A. Guest, which had become his mantra for moments such as these:
Somebody said that it couldn't be done,
But he with a chuckle replied
That "maybe it couldn't," but he would be one
Who wouldn't say so till he'd tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn't be done, and he did it.
The rhythm of the Guest’s poem seemed to match the rhythm of the soles of his shoes slapping left-right-left-right on the pavement. As they turned from 8th onto Chestnut, it occurred to Dad that he had not put his gloves back on and his hands were already cold. "That's not good," he thought but smiled and skipped ahead to some other lines from the poem. This time, conserving his breath, he did not say them out loud.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.
He turned his head to the side in time to see 9th Street sign passing by. Two blocks down—only six more to go.
Inside the car, Mom had a unique disadvantage all her own. Because the trunk was up, she could see nothing out the back window. And with Dad walking in the center of the car, she could see nothing in the side mirror either. She kept her feet flat on the floor, and just idled ahead at a comfortable pace as the radio played in the background.
They passed the Dalton's house, and Mom began wondering who else she knew on Chestnut Street and hoped that none of them looked out their windows right now. She would be happy to show off the table once it was in their apartment, but she could only imagine how silly it looked sticking out the back of their clunky old Ford with Don walking behind it. She waved at perfect stranger on the corner of 10th Street to draw attention from the back of the car. The lady did not wave back. She just pointed at the car to make sure her children saw it and they all laughed. Seeing no cross traffic, Mom rolled through the stop sign at 10th Street. So far so good. Hold that thought.
There is something I must tell you while we pause to catch our breath in this story: There are no stop signs between 10th and 14th on Chestnut, and while it appears to be perfectly flat, there is in fact a slight change in elevation between 10th and 12th streets. One would never notice this change if simply walking or in a car listening to music, but there is in fact an unperceivable downhill grade.
If you reading this on the high-speed internet, [work with me here] read this paragraph and then open a second window to the following link. Don’t watch the clip now--just play the audio as background, because one of Mom's favorite sing-along songs from the Swing Era came on the radio. It is this Andrews Sister classic, “Hold Tight.” Once the song begins, come back and continue reading the story.
As I was saying the change in grade between 10th and 12th is barely perceptible from the INSIDE of a car, but if you are OUTSIDE of that car, walking behind it, holding a Duncan Phyfe table in both hands with your arms stretched downward as if glued to a heavy wheelbarrow, and if your chin is resting on the table top with your mouth open for air as if imitating a roasted pig with an apple in its teeth, and if your feet have been slapping the pavement in the same rhythm for three blocks…when the tempo of those slapping feet begins to pick up ever so slightly…YOU DO NOTICE IT.
“Bev. Slow down. You’re picking up speed.” Dad yelled into the dusk, but Mom was inside the car singing with the Andrews Sisters.
Hold tight, hold tight, a-hold tight, hold tight
Fododo-de-yacka saki
Want some sea food mama
Shrimps and rice they're very nice
I like oysters, lobsters too,
I like my tasty butter fish, fooo
When I come home late at night
I get my favorite dish, fish
Hold tight, hold tight, a-hold tight, hold tight
Fododo-de-yacka saki
Want some seafood mama.
She kept looking in the mirrors but could still see nothing wrong as she smiled as sang out loud:
I want some seafood Mama
Oh won't you give it to me
cause I'm as happy as can be
When the seafood comes to me
La-da-da La-da-da La-da-da
The car had been going between 3 and 5 MPH before 1oth Street. She was now going between 6 and 7 MPH. Next time you're driving a car, idle down a street and watch the speedometer. You can barely tell the difference between single-digit speeds from INSIDE the car. But next time you're on a treadmill. Up the speed from 4 to 7 MPH and jog like your pushing a loaded wheelbarrow. The difference is huge.
Dad had run track in high school, and as we know, his idea of a picnic was swimming to Canada and back. Dad was in excellent condition, but he was beginning to get out of breath. He couldn’t tell if he was truly winded from walking faster and faster or if he was in an early stage of PANIC knowing that he had absolutely no way of getting his wife’s attention.

“Bev! Bev! Slow down!” he screamed with what breath he had. Dad now fully understood the importance of being able to swing his arms while walking, but his gate was beyond “walking” and approaching a jolting trot. Even if he could let go with one hand, the car itself was out of his reach. There was nothing to pound on.

“You can do this, Don,” he coached himself and tried to remember every foot race he had ever run. “Just keep calm and keep your stride,” he said turning his head to see the 12th Street sign go by in a blur. It was then he heard the faint sound of the Andrews Sisters coming from the inside of the car. “No wonder she can't hear me!” He screamed in his head.
Ho,ho,hold tight won't cha hold tight, Hold tight
Fododododo Yacka sacki
want some seafood Mama
Shrimpers a-hand ri-hice a-hare very nice...
Dad was now running as fast as he could behind the open jaws of a ’39 Ford, knowing that at any moment he could miss a beat or lose his grip and fall headlong into a pile of splintered Duncan Phyfe. 13th street passed. “She’ll have to brake to make the turn at 14th,” he thought. And sure enough, the brake lights came on but only to ease the corner. Catching a second wind, he screamed once more.
“Bev! Stop the car!” Then between breaths, he shouted each word by itself. “Bev… Stop... Stop!
Inside the car, Mom sang the last note with the trio and then faintly heard Dad yelling through the back seat. Instinctively, she stepped on the brake. The car lurched to a halt. Fortunately, Dad’s face was sideways while he was yelling and the soft part of his cheek slammed into drawer, which helped break the impact of his temple against the edge of the table. The pain went unnoticed. He was so happy that his feet had stop running. Still he could not let go of the table. Angry and out of breath, he had no energy to yell another word, which was very fortunate for Mom who came around the trunk lid to see this image for the first time.
[I'd like you to imagine this snapshot as I have many times through the years. Mom standing there with her hand on her mouth, her pregnant overcoat bulging, her feet in low boots with fur around the top. Dad holding a table by the legs with his face resting against the drawer, steam rising from his winter jacket. You may agree with me that it is suitable for a Norman Rockwell print or even a porcelain figurine. If I had such a piece of art, it would hold a place of honor in my home.]
Finally, Dad had enough breath to ask...
"Do you have any idea how fast you were going?"
"Don, I did not touch the gas. It was just idling like you said."
"Bev, I was running as fast as I could. One more block and it was over."
"Now I know I have seen you run way faster than I was going."
"Let me explain, Bev. I was not running. My head was not running, my arms were not running, my body was not running--only my legs were running and they were about to fall off." Mom's hand went to her mouth. "It's not funny, Bev."
"I'm not laughing," she mumbled. "I'm so sorry, Don. Here let me hold that while you rest."
"No. I'll be fine. Just give me another minute and help me put my gloves on."
"Oh, Don. Your hands must be freezing."
"Actually, I can't feel them." he muttered. "I don't know what I was thinking. I should've brought some rope. I should've had my glove on. I should've had you stop at each corner..."
"And I shouldn't have been singing with the radio..."
"Yeah--what was that all about? Here I am about to have my own personal train wreck and you're in there singing 'La-da-da, La-da-da.'"
"I'm sorry..." she was going to say more, but from the front of the car through the open door, came Gene Autry's classic tune. "Here comes Santa Clause." Mom's hand covered her mouth again. She could see in Don's eyes that he was approaching that fine line men cross when they’re almost ready to admit that their current predicament will someday strike them as funny, but this was clearly not yet the time to laugh. Recognizing “funny someday” moments while they’re fresh is the secret to marital bliss.
"I'm sorry, Honey. This isn't funny. I'll go turn it off."
"Let it play. I don't care." Dad said on an exhale and no hint of a smile. "I'm ready. Just roll down the window. Keep your foot lightly on the brake and pretend you're strolling along side the car. Go that slow."
"Got it. Slow. Like I'm strolling along side the car."
"Alright. Let's go. We're almost home."
The last two blocks were uneventful. Gene Autry's homespun voice echoed faintly off the passing houses as the strange silhouette of a car and man lumbered down the lane. One by one, the street lights flickered on as they rounded the last corner home.
With a steadying hand from Mom, Dad hefted the table upstairs, and put it in the archway between the kitchen and the living room. There was simply no place else to put it. He was standing on the far side and had to turn sideways to inch past it into the kitchen. He was about to say once again that this table was a bad idea, but he was silenced by the incredibly happily look on his wife's face.
Mom stood so as not to block the kitchen light that shone down on her Duncan Phyfe and smiled. "Thanks, Don." she whispered.
It was not until some time later, when the bedroom light was out and their heads were nestled in the dark, that Dad began to laugh and Mom joined in.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Hold Tight (from post above)

Friday, December 07, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 21

The Only Catch

The classified ad that Mom had torn from the Times Herald had less than a dozen words and a phone number. “Good condition. Small mahogany Duncan Phyfe drop-leaf dinette table” and then, right in front of the price, was that word that signals a sure bargain: only.

The house was similar in age and size to the house in which their upstairs apartment was about ten eight blocks away. Dad pressed the doorbell twice, but the small button had been painted over many times and seemed stuck in place. Hearing no sound when he pushed it, he opened the screen and gently knocked on the door which immediately opened from inside, though only wide enough for an eye to peer through at him.

“Sorry. I didn’t think the door bell worked.”

“It works. Are you here about the Duncan Phyfe?” asked a voice.

“Yes. I called. I'm only looking for now—can't stay long.” Dad tried to sound half-interested to claim the upper hand as a buyer.

“Please go to the back door. My husband is in the mudroom.”
The closing door punctuated her words with a quiet thud.
“In the Mudroom?” Dad mumbled to himself, walking around back. “That doesn’t sound like a good place for a Duncan Phyfe.”

The back door was held open by a gray-haired man who beckoned Dad in with a smile. But for a few boxes, the mudroom was tidy and long since absent of any brooms and boots and crumpled coats that hinted at its name. There was also no sign of a table.

“It's right through here," the man said, "Don’t mind the mess. We’re in the middle of moving.”

Inside, his wife wove her way toward them through a maze of boxes with flaps woven shut. “Sorry I couldn’t open the door, but as you can see, the front room is stacked full.”

It’s funny how quickly perceptions can change. When Dad thought the lady was rude and the table was in a mudroom, his half-interest was easy to maintain, but seeing the couple standing there with warm smiles made him feel suddenly young and less confident. "Oh..." he stammered quickly taking off his hat, a custom he almost never forgot upon entering someone's home. Seeing the mahogany table, he stood there awkwardly as if waiting to be introduced.

“And here’s the Duncan Phyfe,” the lady sighed, dusting it off with her apron.

“Cute.” Dad said with a cough, almost choking on that little word. It’s not that the table was not cute—it was—but Dad almost never used the word “cute” and he had no idea it was in his mouth just waiting to jump out like that. Worse yet, the slip belied the disinterest he would need for dickering.

“It is a cute table,” the woman agreed, “but we just got a new Formica dinette set.” She pointed through the kitchen door to a small white table with a metal edge and chrome pedestal legs similar to those they had grown accustomed to.

“I've read about those new Formica tables. They can sure take a beating," Dad nodded. "About this one… Is this a real Duncan Phyfe?”

“Why sure it is,” the man insisted, but his wife interrupted.

“Actually... that depends on what you mean by real. If you mean was it made a hundred years ago by Duncan Phyfe himself. No, Dear. That would be in a museum. This is only about twenty years old, but it’s what anybody means when they say Duncan Phyfe. It's a design. The legs and lines and drawer-pulls…”

Dad began looking under the table as she spoke. “It’s nice and solid... dove-tailed drawers. Can I look at the chairs, or are they packed up?”

“Chairs?” the man asked.

"Yes. How many are there?" Dad asked.

“I'm sure the ad said 'table only.'"

Dad pulled the wadded scrap from his pocket. The words “table only" were indeed followed by a period, and then came the price.
“You're right. I thought you were emphasizing the price.”

“If that price included chairs, I'd buy it from myself!” the man joked.

Dad tried to laugh politely, but it was strained through a tight smile. Feeling foolish, he scratched the back of his neck and thought to himself out loud, “So there are no chairs… just a table."

“We had four chairs, but they matched my daughter’s Duncan Phyfe so we left them at her place for when they put the leaves in at Thanksgiving… Sorry.”

“No. I’m sorry. If I'd only read the ad as you wrote it, I would've... Oh, well, thanks anyway.” He stepped toward the door and lightly by the brim flipped his hat back onto his head.

“Look, Son. You can always get some chairs later. You need a table and we need it gone. What if I said take it home today for…” he looked at his wife winked… “five bucks?” The wife nodded.

Dad looked at the table again and took off his hat. “Don't get me wrong. I can pay that right now... but I need to think about the chair situation. Can you hold it for thirty minutes?"

“Go.” the lady swished him out the back door. “Ask the wife. I’d want him to do the same if it were for me. We'll wait for you.”

Like most husbands of that time, Dad was a bit autocratic. It was not a natural thing for him to "ask the wife" about purchases, and in this case Dad wanted the table to be a surprise. He had intended to let Mom think he'd ignored her hint and dismissed the idea for lack of space. But this no-chairs thing changed all that. He envisioned her waking up Christmas morning to see the table with a big red bow. “Surprise! Here’s the Duncan Phyfe you wanted, Honey. Chairs? You didn’t say anything about chairs.” He smiled at the thought then shook his head. Christmas was no time for disappointment.

Mom was just getting pans out for dinner when she heard him coming up the stairs.

“Hi, Don. Don’t worry about being late. I’m running behind, too.” She sniffed a little, trying to hide her face.
"What's wrong, Bev."
"Mr. Kellerman told me I was done at Star Oil on December 21st..." she began to cry.
"I thought you were going to work at least through January."
"I never got to tell them that. He just told me today that they wanted to give me a month's notice."
"You're not due until April."
"I know. Will we have enough saved up?"
He held her in his arms and stroked the back of her head."We'll be fine. It's just a month sooner than we thought. I'll start working nights at the post office. I heard they were hiring for the holidays. We'll be alright, Bev. It may be for the best. You said last week that your dress buttons are catching on your desk."
"They do. I pulled one off today." They laughed. Dad looked at her stomach for the gap. "I already sewed it back on.... That's when it happened. I was on my hands and knees looking for the button, and Mr. Kellerman walked up and found it by the wastebasket. Then he said, 'Won't be long now, Bev—and oh, by the way, we think it's best if you finish up in December... so you can enjoy the holidays and get ready for that baby. Your last day will be Friday, the 21st."
"That's all he said? Was he pleasant like that or upset?"
"No. He just said it matter-of-fact and handed me the button."
She pulled the hanky from her neckline and blew her nose. Dad leaned back without completely letting go of her, and then to change the subject, he took the ad from his pocket and held it in front of her face.
“Does anything sort of jump out at you when you read this?”

“Oh, Don. You remembered! Don’t tell me. I want to be surprised.”

“You’d be surprised alright. Hypothetically speaking. If a person were to hypothetically purchase this table. Would you say it comes with or without chairs …hypothetically.”

“Without. It says right there— ‘Table only.’”

“So you knew when you tore out this ad that this table has no chairs—hypothetically…” he said blankly.

“Don. You said yourself we don’t have room for the table. Where on earth would be put the chairs?”

“Well..." he glanced around, "That's a good question, but what’s the point of having a Duncan Phyfe table if you can’t sit at it?”

“I've always wanted one for when we have company. For now we could use any ol’ chairs..." For an instant her eyes showed the weight of practical thought, but she blinked and shook it off with a gleeful smile. "Did you go look at it? What’s it like. Did you get it?”

“Bev, you can’t in one breath say you want to be surprised and in the next ask if I got it.”

“Forget the surprise part. Did you get it?”

“No…” he said, keeping his five-dollar secret behind a devilish smile, “...but we can go get it right now. He’s holding it for me.”

“Right now? Don’t we need to borrow a trailer or something?”

“There’s no time for that," he said, grabbing her coat from the closet. "These people are moving and want me to take it tonight. It’s only seven or eight blocks away. Button up. I'll need you to drive.”.
To be continued soon...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 20a

Fa-la-la-la-la... and All That Stuff

There are rural legends about how the Amish keep their life savings in Mason jars buried behind the buggy barn; and urban legends, too, about homeless "bag ladies" or bums whose true identity is discovered in death along with millions of dollars in a bank behind which they sometimes spent the night on the street.

Dirt farmer or Banker or bag lady? Things are not always as they appear.

In his own quiet way, my father was like that. Oh, he never slept in a dumpster, and he did not have a secret stash of millions, but he was willing to endure "dumpy" situations in order to "save up" enough money to rise above them.
I touched on this in Chapter11, when they bought the refrigerator.

From his first paycheck as a young, single wage earner, Dad began entertaining an idea: "What if I save up my own money and loan it to myself when I need it? What if I don't buy a better car, until I can pay cash for one, but then I pretend that the cash must be repaid to the 'bank.' If I can discipline myself to do this" he thought, "I'll always be ahead of the game. I can maintain a proverbial nest egg indefinitely."

It said of some people that money burns a hole in their pocket. With Dad, it sewed his pockets shut. He was no miser. Misers love money for money's sake. They get all they can and can all they get. But neither was he a tight wad. Tight wads hate spending money on others because it leaves less to spend on themselves. Dad was simply frugal. Scrimping and saving and "making do" had became, if not a way of life, a means to an end that brought genuine contentment.
Mom joined him in this venture but brought a sense of balance. As Dad focused on the "nest egg," Mom focused on feathering the nest.
Never did Dad's philosophy of personal finance cause more conflict than at Christmas time. Like all husbands, he wanted very much to make his wife happy with unexpected treasures under the tree (this later applied equally to his children). But he translated "'tis the season to be jolly" as "'tis the season to suspend fiscal restraint without throwing the family budget out the window." In other words, allow yourself to buy non-essential things but set a limit.
The idea of buying a Duncan Phyfe dining table when there was no dining room in their near future made no sense to Dad, but hey... it was Christmas. Fa-la-la-la-la... and all that stuff. Already Dad had learned that knowing what your wife wants for Christmas a month in advance--even if it makes no sense--is a far better thing than having no clue where to begin shopping.
After work on Monday, Dad called the man selling the Duncan Phyfe and asked if he could stop by to look at the table. Was Mom's wish about to come true?
Before we find out. I'd like to take a moment to remind us all of the importance of the word ONLY and how it can change the meaning of a sentence depending on where it is placed. Decades ago, when I was a high school English teacher, I used the following sentence (20b) to demonstrate versatility of this word.
(And, yes, this is relevant to the Chapter 21. =)


Only I hit him in the eye yesterday.
I only hit him in the eye yesterday.
I hit only him in the eye yesterday.
I hit him only in the eye yesterday.
I hit him in only the eye yesterday.
I hit him in the only eye yesterday.
I hit him in the eye only yesterday.
I hit him in the eye yesterday only.

1. Only I hit him in the eye yesterday.
(No one else hit him.)
2. I only hit him in the eye yesterday.
(So what’s the big deal—could’ve been worse.)
3. I hit only him in the eye yesterday.
(I could have hit those around him but didn’t.)
4. I hit him only in the eye yesterday.
(the eyeball itself, not around it.)
5. I hit him in only the eye yesterday.
(I chose not to hit him in the nose or mouth.)
6. I hit him in the only eye yesterday.
(He was dressed as a Cyclops.)
7. I hit him in the eye only yesterday.
(Ah, what a memory…seems like ages ago.)
8. I hit him in the eye yesterday only.
(I’ve not made a habit of it.)

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