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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

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 46:

"Home Chatter 'Round the Tree"

This was originally Chapter 43 Part VI-B: Note: My original intention was to wrap up these chapters. But there's been a change of plans. I have had more time to write in the past three days than I've had in the past three months. I've also been on the phone talking with each of my siblings about this memorable first Christmas in the unfinished house. What was to be the final chapter (43) morphed into more than I first intended, and since my sibs are coming over today for New Years, this won't be done before the end of the year as I previously stated. Oh, well. Happy New Year!

When Mom and I came down from the attic to help Dave and Jim with the tree, our feet were uncomfortably cold. I had put on two pair of socks, but it was close to freezing in the attic, and we had been up there for nearly an hour. Mom turned a knob on the wall, pulled up a chair from the kitchen table, and put her slippered feet on the baseboard heater.

“Here, Tom. Scootch up a chair. This is what Jimmy and I do to warm up our feet. Isn’t it Jim?”

“You should’ve worn your boots up there, Mom.” He said with that toothless smile.

“What took you guys so long?” Dave asked. “We’ve got the tree together and half the lights on already. We’d have ‘em all on, but these three strings don’t work.

“We were looking for some things,” Mom said, rubbing her bare feet against each other. “Jupiter! My feet are like ice.”

“We could use these lights. They work,” Jim suggested. He had plugged in a string of big-bulb lights from an old shoe box. They were the different-colored night-light-size bulbs we used when we were little kids.

“No,” Mom said, “ You don’t mix those old kind of lights with the miniature lights. I’ll have to run to K-Mart and get some. (At that time, there was no Wal-Mart outside the greater Arkansas area. and though Target’s parent company had taken over Detroit’s J.L.Hudson’s chain in 1969, it would be another 12 years before a Target Store opened in Michigan. K-Mart was a Detroit-based chain that had sprung from the old S.S. Kresgee dime-store chain.)

“They look like Rudolph-nose lights,” said Jimmy.

“Don’t hold ‘em too long,” I said, “They get really hot.”

“Ouch! They are hot. Isn’t that dangerous?” He asked, unplugging the cord.

“Not really,” Mom said in defense of the old lights, “Unless you forgot to water your tree. If the tree got dry, then they could catch fire."

“Sheesh!" Dave gasped, "Talk about ruinin’ Christmas! You’d lose your gifts and your house.” (In 2007, Dave and his family would lose their home in a fire and spend Christmas in a temporary home. No, the fire was not caused by antique Christmas lights on a dry tree.)

"You don't hear 'bout it happening so much anymore what with miniature lights and fake trees. But it useta happened sometimes if folks forgot to water their tree.”

"It's a wonder it never happened to us," Dave said, "We'd keep the tree up so long the needles would be all over the living room by the time we dragged it out the door."

"I always hated to take down the tree," Mom sighed, "Still do."

“So why do we even keep those old lights?” I asked.

“Because they work,” Mom said, putting the chair back at the table and turning down the thermostat. "They might come back in style. Who knows? I guess I keep 'em because they remind me of Christmas at home."

"At home?" I asked, somehow knowing she was not talking about Roseville.

"You know...Mumma's house on Forest."

"But you said 'home" like you still lived there." I said.

"Did I?" she smiled. "I guess part of me does. Maybe somewhere deep inside always lives where you grew up. Everything else sort of stacks on top of that. Does that sound silly?"

"I don't think so. That's what I meant last night when I said this feels weird."

"I don't think it feels weird," Jimmy said. "I like it out here."

"I do, too," I quickly added. "This is home now. We're all here, and it's great to be home."

Jim smiled. Mom smiled. Dave was standing on a chair putting the top ornament on the tree, and didn't seem to hear. It did feel like home, sort of, but the feeling Mom was talking about was "stacked up" about fourteen years deep inside me, and this newer feeling was balancing precariously on top.

"Which reminds me,' Mom said, "I need to call Grandma. I told her I would when you two got home."
"That was after midnight," I said.
"I know, but she was worried. Anyway, Jimmy," she stuffed the big lights back in the box."We’ve had these lights since we lived on Lapeer—same time your Dad wired all these little ornaments into bunches like grapes. I have some new things—like these miniature lights from a few years ago—but I’d hate not mixing the new things in with these special things.”

I looked in the boxes opened around the room, and she was right. Most of her Christmas things dated back to the Fifties, when Mom and Dad were still in acquisition mode.

I should pause here to explain my terms: “Acquisition mode” refers to the first five to ten years of marriage, when couples shop garage sales and thrift shops, begging for bargains and hand-me-downs to fill the empty corners of their lives. Then come bunk-beds and a bigger home which prompts phase two of acquisition mode. During phase two, the couple can typically buy new or newer things and the home looks less eclectic with a range of frills reflecting household income. After their 25-year Anniversary, the couple begins “disbursement mode” by giving the things they want to upgrade to their college kids or married children who have just entered phase one of acquisition mode. It’s a cycle familiar to most middle-class families.

I mention these modes only to explain that Mom and Dad never really hit phase two. Many of the things at the time of their move from Roseville were from their first years of marriage. Grandma K’s couch had not survived the move to the basement, but her stove and refrigerator were in the new kitchen with the gingham curtains for doors. (That General Electric two-oven range is there to this day.)

It’s not that Mom did not want new things, but speaking of them with Dad merely prompted the promise that these things would come with their someday-finished house. To Mom’s credit, between occasional lapses of despair (now fully understood by every woman reading these chapters), she learned to put her dreams on hold and find nostalgic contentment in the things around her.

For instance, the only vacuum cleaner she had at this time was a half-century-old Hoover that her mother’s mother got during the Great Depression. We saw the exact model in the Henry Ford Museum and took a picture of mom laughing in front of it. The thing still works fine to this day. She told me the story behind that vacuum often through the years.

I set up mom’s record player in the corner out of the way, pulled the black vinyl disk of Mitch Miller from its cardboard sleeve, skewered it on the skinny post, and placed the needle on Side 2 , track #4. “Let it snow!” It was wishful thinking on my part, but just singing the song with Mom and Mitch was almost as magical as watching snow fall beyond the eye-level windows around us (if only it were).

By lunch time, the tree was done (except for the burnt-out lights). The nativity scene was arranged on the piano, the porcelain Santa mugs and Santa train were on the window sill with the old red felt stockings tacked into the Celotex below. There were lots of other decorations but not enough horizontal surfaces to put them all out. Mom made her choices and put the others back in the wooden crates.

“Where do you want this?” Dave asked, holding up the plastic mistletoe. (On Buckhannon, it always hung from the narrow arch that divided the living room from the hub-hall of the bedrooms.)

“Can we hang it from this arch?” Mom asked, referring to the beam between the kitchen and the tree in the corner.

“It’s a little low,” Dave shrugged, “but we can walk around it.”

“I remember when I had to jump my highest to touch that in Roseville,” I said, which prompted Jimmy to jump up and touch the red velvet ribbon that dangled from the round ball of leaves..

“That’s easy,” he smiled.

“I couldn’t do that ‘til I was about ten.” I said, not reminding him that this was about a foot lower than it was in Roseville. “You’re getting so big! Come on. Let’s carry these boxes back to the attic.”

Paul came home around four o’clock from his job at a nursing home in Fraser. It was a good job. [In fact, it was a great job considering it’s where he met Dee, a girl he would bring home to dinner for the family to meet in the summer of ’76.] Before he even took his coat off, he saw the tree in the far corner, and his shoulders went limp. He was dismayed.

“You guys did the tree without me?” [Paul is really into Christmas decorating.]

“I’m sorry, Paul,” Mom said, “You can still help ‘cause I’ve got to get some more lights to put on it.”

“You can’t put the lights on after the ornaments. We'll have to take 'em off on the dark spot."

"That's what I mean, Paul. It's really not done. I was going to run to K-Mart to get the lights ‘cause I got to pick up some other things, too, but maybe they’ll have some at Kroger. I’ve got to run there to get a couple things for supper.”

“You haven’t started supper yet?” Paul said ominously. “What time’s Dad coming home?”

“Same time as usual I suppose.”

There were few things that caused more frustration for Dad than coming home from a long day and an hour drive from Detroit and not having supper ready to eat when he came through the door. Paul looked at the stove. Looked around the kitchen, but didn’t say a word.

“Don’t, Paul. We’ve had a nice day. I’m only fixin’ spaghetti. Does that sound good to you guys? It won’t take long at all.”

“I like pahsketti,” Jim said, mispronouncing it as Mom often did.

“Pahsketti!” Mom laughed, “That’s what Pam next-door used to say. Remember? She was about your age, Jimmy, and she came up to the porch and said, ‘We’re havin’ Pahsketti tonight. What are you havin?’ and I said, ‘Pahsketti? What’s that?’ Them being Italian and all, I thought it was some sort of dish I didn’t know, but she said, ’You know—pahsketti—noodles, meat balls, and pahsketti sauce.’ And I said, ‘Oh, you mean spaghetti,’ But from then on, She and I always called it pahsketti—even in high school when you liked her, Tom. Gee, I miss them. They were such good neighbors.”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, “I never liked Pam.”

“Well, Maybe it was just a crush.” she said.

“We were just good friends.” I protested.

“Well, the two of you used to sit and talk on the porch for hours.”

“She talked about her boyfriend, John. And I talked about Linda.”

“Well, all I know is you two sure talked a lot your Junior Year. I thought you liked her. That was when she started comin’ over more often to help me with dinner.”

“Okay. You’re right I did kind of like her—kind of—but do you remember when that changed? It was your fault. You and Pam were sitting on the couch talking and I was in the bedroom changing after a shower. You didn’t even tell me she was in the house, and I came strolling out in my underwear—just my whitey-tighties—and there’s Pam sitting on the couch facin' my way and she looked right at me.”

“I forgot about that!” Mom laughed.

“I froze in my tracks. Then decided to act all normal—like a kid in the Sears catalog. I just nodded my chin up nonchalantly as if to say, “Hey, Pam, how's it goin'.” Then I stepped calmly into the bathroom , shut the door, and went silently berserk. I pace back and forth until I just grabbed the sink and squeezed it staring red-faced into the mirror—screaming inside my head at you.”

“At me?” Mom laughed, “What did I do?”

“It’s what you didn’t do!. You didn’t tell me Pam was in the house.”

“Well, you shouldna been walkin’ around in your underwear!” she laughed again.

“We all walked around in our underwear.” Dave added.

“No, Sir. Not Kathy and I. Just you boys and your dad. So it wasn’t my fault. I don’t know why you boys do that.

“It’s the same way in the dorms,” Dave said.

“But girls aren’t in the dorms,” I clarified.

“The only reason I don’t do it now, Paul said from the tree, “is because it’s so dad-blamed cold. I can’t believe you guys did the tree without me.”

“I’ll see if they have lights at Kroger.”

“I was humiliated…” I mumbled.

“I forgot all about that, Tom.” Mom said, looking in the freezer.

“I can go get the lights,” Paul offered.

“No, I need to get a couple things.” Mom said, filling her aluminum kettle with water.

“I stayed in the bathroom so long.” I continued.

“What all do you need, Mom?“

“Just spaghetti noodles, two jars of sauce, some hamburger, canned mushrooms, and a loaf of bread.”

“So basically everything. Dad’s coming home in an hour and you’ve got a pot of water…”

“Don’t, Paul.”

“Is anybody listening to this story,” I moaned, “I’m still in the bathroom.”

“I am,” smiled Jim. “How did you get out?”

“So I’m in there for so long doing nothing that I started worrying Pam might think ‘Man, he really had to go,’ which is worse than being seen in your underwear.

“She probably thought you were stinkin’ it up,” Dave added.

“You probably were stinkin’ it up,” Paul said, stepping toward the back door.

“I was just standing in there waiting for Mom to stop talkin’ and get her out of the house.”

"Waitin' for Mom to stop talkin'?" Paul and Dave said in unison.

"This story is gunna take longer than I got," Paul added.

“Thanks a lot," Mom said in mock offense (because she knew it was true), "I didn’t even know Tom was in the batheroom. My back was to him when you walked past. Where are ya goin’, Paul?”

“I’m goin’ to Kroger to get all those things, but I want to hear what happened.

“How long were you stuck in there?” Jimmy asked.

“Seemed like forever. When I finally opened the door a crack, the couch was empty." I turned to Mom, "You just left me in there, Mom.”

“See? I wasn't talkin' the whole time, but I didn’t think to get you out because I didn’t know you were in your underwear. Pam left way before you came out.”

“Well, how was I supposed to know?”

“So that’s it? That’s the end?” Paul asked. “I thought you were going to climb out the window or something.”

“What good would that do?”

“We useta climb out the windows all the time," he laughed.

"I know, but the bathroom was on the front of the house."

"True. I gotta go. Anything else, Mom?”

“Nope. That’s it.”

Paul stepped out the door.

“I couldn’t look at Pam for weeks,"I continued, "And even then I thought she was smirking at me, but she never said a word about it.”

“She used to come over and make my salad while I cooked the bahsketti.” Mom said. Suddenly Mom bolted for the door. “Paul! Paul! And a head of lettuce, two tomatoes, and some celery.” She shut the door, then opened it again. “And some butter. We’re out of butter.”

By the time Dad got home, Paul was re-stringing the dark part of the tree, Mom’s spaghetti was ready to serve, and we all sat down to supper.
To be continued...

Unsettled Chapter 45 "Familiar Rhythms"

This was origianally Part IV-A of chapteer 43.

There is a word that reoccurs in my writing because it so often shapes my understanding of things. It’s a common word, but for much of my life I couldn’t spell it. Six letters, two syllables, and not a vowel in sight. I’d move the six letters back and forth until they looked right, but even then I often got it wrong. This tango of letters was ironic because the word I’m talking about is… rhythm. (I know, I know, I said “not a vowel in sight,” but Y is pinch-hitter.) Then one day I noticed within those six letters is a kind of… rhythm...with an “h” in the middle of both halves. Ever since, I’ve not misspelled it. But enough about my accomplishments. There is an actual point to my introduction of this word before adding Part IV-B.

I should clarify that I’m not talking about the Fred Astaire kind of rhythm needed for song and dance.
I’m talking about the patterns of life kind of rhythm. Those that go unnoticed like breathing or are natural like the seasons or personal like haircuts. And most importantly those patterns we impose upon our lives, the ones meant to be shared such as meals, chores, worship, holidays, and traditions.

The Rhythm

Life is danced to rhythms
we soon forget are there.
The blink of eyes, the beat of hearts,
the breath and sigh of air
are lost to cycles of the sun
and pass with little care.
They slip our mind as measures
in time until we're unaware
we wake t’thm, walk t’thm,
work t’thm, talk t’thm,
laugh t’thm, cry t’thm,
live t’thm... die t’thm.
It becomes a most ungraceful dance
when we ignore the Hand that grants
the Grace and gently taps... the rhythm.

© Copyright 2007, TK, Patterns of Ink

When you think about it, rhythm is simply the relationship between specific moments and the continuum of time. In music, those moments are obvious because they are audible and sometimes make us tap our feet, but rhythm can play out in all of the senses. Waves lapping over your ankles at the water’s edge provide audible, visual, and tactile rhythm. The smell of coffee in the morning or a roast in the oven every Sunday after church are aromatic rhythms.

What has any of this got to do with the question of this last section of Unsettled: What makes a house a home? I’m getting there.

These sensory rhythms are somewhat universal like the smell of bread, but they become unique and tied to specific moments and places and people as a family lives under one roof. Over time the rhythms and pace become synchronized to various degrees. Never perfectly; rarely in unison; sometimes in harmony. But this ebb and flow is the essential essence of shared life. It gives meaning to familiar sights and sounds and smells and expectations we associate with home.

The rhythm of quiet expectation is a powerful thing. I don’t mean the big expectations of life—the new bike for Christmas or a promotion at work. I mean the thousands of daily unstated expectations that are routinely met through family interaction. We expect certain things of each other: courtesy, etiquette, company, favors, chores, and in this give and take there is a rhythm. For a child, sometimes the patterns are as soft as being tucked into bed at night, sometimes they're as stern as a properly applied spanking, and each pattern equally shows a parent's love. As we grow older, the expectations change.

Likewise there is rhytym in the expectations of our surroundings. We expect certain things upon entering the spaces we call home: sheet music in the piano bench, tools in the work bench, pictures on the wall, a thimble in the sewing drawer, and boots in the cubby-hole behind the back door. Basically the things about our homes that we could find blind-folded...these things are part of the sensory rhythm we call familiarity (a word derived, of course, from family). Each time these countless expectations are met, there is rhythm. Even finding certain things out-of-place can become a recognizable pattern—so much so that parents know which child's name to call first to correct the situation.

These familiar rhythms are not necessarily“right” or “wrong.” They can in fact be quirky. My wife’s grandmother saved used bread bags in the third kitchen drawer on the right. My mother saved folded paper grocery bags between the refrigerator and the wall. Every home is a blend of quirky patterns and rhythms that make it both unique and more familiar to those who know the quirks. In this respect, familiarity is simply the rhythm of finding things or people as you remember them to be.

Family rhythms are passed from generation to generation by observation and instruction, but the best form of "generational overlap" is story. Knowing the story behind a toaster, a roaster, a bucket of old tools, or even an antique vaccum sweeper...gives surprising insight to the lives that preceded our own. Each generation boasts of its desire for change, and change can be needed and good, but there is also a basic need for continuity in our lives. Stability is maintained by allowing the past to overlap with the present, not to prevent change, but to give change direction and perspective and to perpetuate the ideals that should never change.

Ideally, the rhythm of having needs met and meeting the needs of others becomes as natural as breathing. Unfortunately it's then that it goes unnoticed. But noticed or not, it fosters the unselfish interdependence and agápē love that is the tie that binds a marriage, a family, a home together from generation to generation. This can happen in a shack or a mansion, in a skyline apartment or a basement. But wherever it takes place, a rhythm of familiarity, meeting needs, and showing love generate that feeling of “home” and a sense of belonging.

I began that last paragraph with the word ideally because it is an ideal and not always a reality. Some homes have no rhythm, no continuity, no security, no “feeling of home.” Some people hunger for it but have no patterns upon which to make it true for the home they wish to build. Others scoff at the kind of home I attempt to portray in these chapters. Because the ideals have tarnished, they think no such place exists. Hollywood and TV have created an entire genre of dysfunctional family films and sit-coms as if to set lower "norms," to laugh at our brokenness, and to celebrate a collective rejection of the quaint but unattainable ideals of the past. Heaven help us.

My purpose in sharing the patterns of my childhood family is not to depict a perfect home for no such place exists. Wherever life and space are shared, there will be dissonant days, times when the rhythms clash, voices rise, paces change, and everyone is out of step or stepping out. Proverbs 10:12 says, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” I like the way it reads in The Message: “love pulls a quilt over the bickering." Ideally, Home is where that happens.

Home is a hearth for the buoyant and the broken heart. It is where the vow "for better or for worse" plays out. It is where the dust settles, where our offenses and foibles are treated the way my mom treated spots on a tablecloth. We did our best to prevent them, to undo them, and forgive the cause, but sometimes the shadow remained. Mom would simply cover the spot with a serving plate, and we gathered ‘round the table, joined hands to pray, and passed the food to the right.

The next chapter will be added here before the New Year. Thanks for sticking with this story this year and for reading this final post in installments. It has been written with continued input from all of my siblings over this Christmas Break. They are all coming to my house Thursday for New Years.

Unsettled Chapter 44: "Mom's Attic"

This was originally Parts 3 of Chapter 43

Christmas 1975:

“Are you awake?” The question came first as part of a dream, and the dream was in the house in Roseville. I was in my room, and Jimmy was talking to me from the bunk below as he had done the two years before I left for college. “Are you awake?” The little voice said again. My eyes opened to a semi-darkened space and slowly focused on the staples holding the insulation to a joist just above me. Where was I?

“Are you awake?” Jimmy said, standing on the mattress below and holding to the upper bed rail beside my shoulder.

“Hi, Jimmy. Yep, I’m awake. What time is it?” Where is everyone?”

“It’s breakfast time. Dad and Paul are gone to work, and Mom’s made Cream of Wheat. But she said not to wake you if you were sleeping.”

“No. I’m not sleeping. I want to get up.”

I hopped down to the cold cement floor and hugged Jimmy back and forth in my arms. “It’s good to see you, Jimmy. You’re getting so big.”

“It’s good to see you, too.” He said with a smile that was missing a tooth.

“Hey, when did you lose your tooth?”

“I don’t know. A while ago. The new one’s comin’ in. See?”

“I see it. But it wasn’t gone last time I saw you.”

“It must have been right after you left cuz it was gone by school pictures. My picture looks stupid.”

“You don’t look stupid. I think it looks cool. Did you know that I had both of my front two teeth out for over a year. You know that song “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth”? Well, that was me when I was your age. Both at the same time, but they came in eventually.” I pulled on my pants and shirt. “ Let’s go eat.”

“Dave’s already out here.”

“Man! This floor’s cold.”

“That’s why I wear slippers,” Jimmy said, holding up one foot to show them.

“Well, I don’t have any slippers. Let me go get my socks. I’ll be right there.”

I stepped back to my suitcase, grabbed two pair of socks, and paused outside the four-foot opening in our Celotex cell, and looked at space in the morning light. The temporary main room was roughly 14-by-30’ and a strange configuration of very familiar things. Walking past the piano, I knuckle-rolled the three black notes (#F,#G,#A, which was the beginning of the only song Dad knew on the piano) and stepped around the corner to the kitchen table.

Mom was beside herself at breakfast, flitting from sink to stove to table with a big smile, clutching her robe shut with her free hand. It was the same ugly robe she had worn through the years, the one I’ve said served as an apron in the morning so she didn’t ruin her good one, which we never saw her wear. Every now and then, she’d stop what she was doing, turn to the table and say, “Gee, it’s good to have you two home.”

After breakfast, we went up to the attic for the tree and boxes of Christmas decorations. At the top of the main staircase, an unfinished door with a window in it closed off the heated basement from the unheated upstairs.

“Like the new door?” Jimmy asked. “We just put it in with the attic windows.”

A key to the door hung on a nail in the Celotex wall. Jimmy unlocked the door, and hung the key back on the nail.

“Why do you lock the door?” I asked.

“Because Dad says anybody could bust through these walls up here if they wanted to get in.”

“It’s just Celotex and tar paper,” Dave added. “ You could put your fist right through it.”

I didn’t know what to expect on the other side of the door. I was hoping to see walls ready for paint, floors ready for carpet, but when we stepped into what would someday be the kitchen eating area, boards of various lengths leaned on the outside walls. They couldn’t lean on the inside walls because they were still open studs. The only obstruction from seeing the entire floor in one glance through the maze of vertical 2-by-4s was the brick wall in the middle of the house. In the room that would be the living room, Dad’s Delta radial-arm-saw was sitting in front of a huge picture window surrounded by drifts of unswept sawdust.

Mom came bounding up the stairs. She had lagged behind to put on her winter coat over her robe, and when she saw us standing at the base of the attic stairs, the look on my face must have been very easy to read.

“He’s doing the best he can,” Mom said.

“What? I didn’t say anything,” I said.

“I see he’s got the sub-floor down,” Dave said, “that wasn’t there before. And there's insulation on all the outside walls.”

"Dad says that helps keep the downstairs heat inside, but it's so cold up here I've got goose-bumps," Mom said, closing her coat tight.

“I guess I thought we were further along since we moved in and all,” I said, conscious of the fact that I was using the pronoun “we” even though Dave and I hadn’t been there to help.

“It’s been hard, Tom. Everything takes so long. This picture window here took two Saturdays. I wanted him to buy one ready-made, but your Dad made this all himself. He’s making all the molding and millwork himself with the router. Be sure to tell him you noticed.” Mom rounded the stairway up to the attic. He got the banister for these stairs. Wait ‘til you see it. It’s beautiful.”

“It’s over there against the wall,” Jimmy said, pointing.

“Why would you put the banister up before the walls are done?” I asked.

“Well, this wall is done,” Mom pointed out. [I hadn’t noticed but the stairway wall was finished first to keep the heat downstairs.] “Your Dad got me the banister early for Christmas because he knows how much I wanted it.”

It may sound strange to hear of a man giving his wife a banister for Christmas, but it was the beginning of many years where light fixtures and other features of the next phase of the house were given “as presents.” It was Dad’s way of stoking anticipation when Mom was feeling low about living in the basement. Almost all of the nicest features of the house were purchased months and in some cases years before they were needed.

“I’m surprised Dad hasn’t swept this saw dust,” I said, not meaning to kibitz, “We always used to sweep up before we left on Saturday.”

“I think it’s because we never leave now,” Jimmy said, not realizing what a profound statement it was. When we worked all those Saturdays for seven years, there was a sense of closure when we wrapped up and drove home. Tidying up and putting all the tools away was a natural end of a perfect day in Dad’s book. But now, as Jim guessed without even thinking, the days didn’t seem to end; he was always stepping in and out of whatever work was waiting for him upstairs.

We had gone to the attic to get the Christmas things, but we got sidetracked by all that met our eyes there.

When you live in a house for a long time, there are storage spaces that take on a life of their own, and in those spaces a sort of “dating system” naturally evolves with older things being on the bottom or in the corners hardest to reach. Those corners of attics or craw-spaces or cubby holes, can go years without being disturbed, and that was true in Roseville. But in a very short time, Mom’s attic became a depository of all such things. It was the first time in her life that she had over 500 square feet of open unaccounted-for space with its own stairway.

The things taken to the attic during the move were in no particular order other than lighter things being stacked on top of heavier things. The attic was a distillation of my parent’s lifetime to that point. Not so much vintage wine as molasses, dark and thick and delicious in small doses or if mixed with other things.

Mom’s cedar chest, which had always been at the foot of her bed was at the far wall at the top of the stairs, but it could not be opened without moving stacks of hat boxes and shoe boxes filled with anything but shoes. Beside it, leaning on the hip-walls were layers of framed things waiting to be hung again. Funny that I paid almost no attention to these things as a child, but seeing them up there, I could remember where each of them had hung in the other house.

We stepped beyond the center of the room, where the chimney that was not yet built would someday be, and saw the treasure-chest toy box of our youth. It was now filled with old linens and woolen blankets, and the toys that had been inside were divvied-up by name in boxes stacked around the room . Things too big for boxes were stashed here and there. Toys I hadn’t seen in years must have been found in the final archeological dig in the Roseville basement. Kathy’s dolls were stacked like cord wood in a small metal crib beside Mom’s old cabinet sewing machine. In open boxes were countless Halloween costumes we had all worn as kids which now only Jimmy could fit into. Molded masks of Popeye and Casper the Friendly Ghost and all the wigs that Mom had ruined through the years lay on top of who knows what below.

“And here are the boxes I told you about,” Mom announced, “These are all marked with your names. Things from your room and closet at home…I mean at the other house…you know what I mean.”

I opened one box, and amongst the rubble were souvenir pennants, basketball and bowling trophies, nick-nacks, rocks, yo-yos, my sketchbook, my first Bible, and my old patched-up wrestling shoes.

“Thanks, Mom.” I said, “If I’da known we were moving, I would have done this myself. It must have been a lot of work getting all this up here.”

“Especially this,” Dave said with a laugh. He had wandered ahead to the far corner and found the big wooden box Dad made for our camping tent.

“It must have been murder luggin’ that beast up two flights of stairs.”

“You should’ve seen Paul and your Dad,” Mom said, “But Dad didn’t want to keep it in the barn for fear of mice. So there it is.”

Behind it were stacked boxes of Dad’s deer-hunting things, and to the right of that pile was the big box that held the bristly Christmas tree from Sears that we voted on as a family years before. We had always enjoyed the ritual of picking out a real tree on a lot, but when fake trees became popular in our neighborhood, we kids thought they were cool, which in and of itself had little sway with Dad. But he did the math and figured a fake tree would pay for itself in four or five years. We were now well into the pay-off period. Stacked on and around the tree box in half a dozen wooden fruit crates were all the decorations Mom had collected through the years. This was the purpose of our trip to the attic, and we began carrying things down to the basement.

Like the attic, these boxes were a subset of our family history. The nativity set we played with when Mom wasn’t looking. The sooty brass chimes that spun from the heat of candles. Ornaments made in elementary school. Popsicle-stick frames with our school photos glued inside. Old ornaments from the Fifties, still in their feeble cardboard-grid boxes. A small box of a thousand tarnished hooks hopelessly tangled in used tinsel and lumped together in one wad from which we shook loose hooks as needed. The wad had grown so over the years that it was still a sizable mass when every bulb was hung.

Mom stayed up in the attic as we carried things down. When I went back up to get her, she was in another corner opening and closing unmarked boxes.

“What are you looking for? We’re ready to start down there.”

“I’m just lookin’, Tom. Just lookin’. I still don’t know where half my things are. It’s awful.”

She saw her Westinghouse roaster on its stand. It had been a wedding gift. The stand was a small cabinet with a clock on the front, but the clock had stopped back in the Fifties with the hands resting at 4:05.

“Help me remember where this roaster is. We’ll need it for the Turkey Thursday.”

“Well, why don’t I take it down now,” I offered.

“’Cause I haven’t anyplace to put it, Tom.”

“I can take the stand down, too.”

“No. Just leave it here and we’ll get it that morning. Somewhere up here is the nice table cloth I want to use Christmas, but I can’t find it.”

“Is it in the toy box?”

“No, I looked there.”

“Is it in your cedar chest?”

“I don’t think so but maybe. Seems like I put it in a box. I hate this, Tom. I think I’m losin’ my mind!”

“Well, it’s gotta be up here—the tablecloth not your mind.” I laughed.

“You think it’s funny, but I’m not kiddin’, Tom. It’s been awful. I’m tellin’ ya, I just about had a nervous breakdown when we came out here.”

“Don’t kid like that, Mom.”

“I shouldna said anything.”

“We’ve been waiting to move out here. I only wish it would’ve been sooner.”

“I shouldna said anything. Don’t get me wrong, Tom. I love it when we’re all here. Like this week once Kate gets home. But honestly, Tom. I was alone every day at first, and one day I just roamed around the woods hoping nobody’d come along and see me crying like some crazy lady from the nut house.”

I smiled at what I thought was hyperbole. Mom had a way of making us kids laugh at her most tragic confessions, and in a strange way it made her feel better when we did. Only in the company of her children did she joke about these things, and because she joked it took us years to know she wasn’t joking. Years later I better understood the nature of her struggles, and even then Mom had a bizarre gift of finding humor in the retelling of them once they were behind her.

On the floor beside the roaster stand was Mom’s old brown and white portable record player.

“Hey, we need to bring this downstairs for some Christmas music. Where are your albums. I could use some Mitch Miller and the Gang.”

“There up here somewhere. I haven’t had time to get any of this stuff out. See that’s what I mean, Tom. It’s awful.”

“It’s not awful. We’ll find ‘em.” I said opening boxes randomly. “There’s no hurry.”

“See, Tom. Just hearing you say it like that, I feel better.”

“It’s true, Mom. This will all work out.”

I opened a box and right on top was a tablecloth.

“Is this the one you’re lookin’ for?”

“Yes, Where did you find it?”

I thought it was obvious that I had just pulled it out of a box, but she had not been watching. She was on her knees, trying to look behind some small crates. She stood and opened the tablecloth a few folds.

“This is the one that fits when all the table leafs are in. We’ve only used it a few times and there’s just a couple spots on it, but I put the serving dishes on 'em and we’re fine.”

“See. Things are better already,” I smiled. “But are you sure we’ll need all the leafs? I thought Kathy wasn’t coming home until after Christmas.”

“Yep. She's sad about that, but they need to be at Jack's folks since he was here last year. She was cryin' on the phone, but don't tell Jack that. It's just the way it is now." She took a deep breath and her eyes drifted off. Then she forced a smile and said, "But when they get here, We’ll need the leaf in for every meal. We'll pretend it's Christmas again when they open their presents under the tree.”

“You mean the tree Dave and Jim are waiting for us to put up?”

“Jupiter! How long have we been up here?”

“We’re fine, but we do need to get going.”

“Okay, but I’m looking for my Christmas albums. Help me move this trunk, Tom. I think I see them behind it.”

And sure enough, there they were. Mitch Miller in a Santa cap was right on top. Dave’s old Alvin and the Chipmunks album was under that. I picked up the whole stack, grabbed the record player, and Mom followed me, clutching the table cloth to her chest as if it were some treasured thing.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Unsettled 43: "What Makes a House a Home?"

Christmas 1975: "Coming Home to a Different House"

This was originally a very long post in more than five parts. I thought it would be the last chapter, but I changed my mind around New Years. consider "What Makes a House a Home?" the sub-title of the closing chapters of "Unsettled." Part III became Chapter 44; and IV-A became Chapter 45; and Part B became Chapter 46, and so on.

Part I

Dave and I lived in different dorms my freshman year (we’d forgotten to request otherwise), but the next year we signed up to live in the same dorm room, and it worked out fine. Our contact with home was the same routine we’d established years before. We’d go to the pay-phone on our hall, make a collect call home to my uncle, Dad declined the charges and then dialed the number of our phone booth. It was a trick that Bell workers considered a guilt-free perk.

On a Sunday in October, the phone call included some news Dave and I hadn’t expected. We knew it would someday happen. We had, after all, been working hard for three years to bring it about. We just didn't know it would happen that fall while we were away at school. Dad asked us to put the phone up to both of our ears, which was a little unusual. Then he told us as if it were not a life-changing announcement that they sold the house in Roseville and were moving out to the property. Hearing the news, Dave and I both made the same quizzical look.

“Is the house done?” I asked without thinking. (I always thought that the house would just suddenly be finished as if by elves at night, and mistakenly thought that Dad would not move in before it was done.)

“No,” Mom whispered, while at the same time Dad said,

“Not yet, but it’s warm and dry. What else do we really need?”

“Cool,” Dave said, nonchalantly, and the news seemed to have no impact on him.

“When do you move?” I asked.

“We’re already taking a car-load of stuff out every night, but we’ve got ‘til the end of the month,” Dad said.

“This month? October?” I asked.

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” he continued, while Mom interrupted

“Don’t worry, Tom. I’m packing up your room in boxes and everything’ll be marked.”

“We’re putting each kid's boxes up in the attic for now. Then you can unpack them in your room later,” Dad continued.

“I can’t wait ‘til you’re all home for Christmas,” Mom chirped, trying her best to sound upbeat.

“Me, too,” I said blankly.

I don’t recall the rest of that Sunday morning phone call. I was stunned.

When I left two months before, I did not know it was the last time I’d step from that house. I don’t know that knowing would have changed anything. I don’t know if the me at age 19 would have done what the me at 50 would do. The me at 50 would have looked around the place; would’ve touched the things on the window sill in my room; would've sat at that kitchen table with the burned spot and watched Mom make a meal; would’ve run my fingers over the thousand dart-holes in the furnace room door; would’ve shouted one last time down the laundry chute; would’ve climbed one last time on the roof of the garage to look at the stars at night; would’ve gotten up early that last day home to sit on the slab porch where we boys spent so many summer mornings trying to think of things to do. I don’t know if the me at 19 would have done all that because so many significant things did not occur to me at the time…but the me at 50 would have done all that and more—well, maybe not the garage roof part—but my point is: I never closed the book on the place I’d lived since kindergarten. When I was packing up for first semester, I should’ve been boxing up my room.

Years later, I learned why the move happened so unceremoniously in October. A family friend at church, who had been married a few years, approached Dad about buying our house in Roseville. They needed a place before winter. He had a nice down-payment and was willing to pay the rest on a “land contract” direct to Dad. No banks involved. The house had been paid off for years, which made the business part of the transition as simple as some paper and a handshake. The untimely move infused some needed cash-flow into the “building fund” for the house and created a new source of monthly income to keep the sawdust fresh in a year when a wedding, a funeral, and tuition for three made pennies tighter than ever.

Though Dad hadn’t planned on moving quite that soon, he had planned on living in the basement. Do you remember back in chapter 36 when Dad explained the shower and the kitchen down there? That was all part of the plan: build a self-contained basement and live there while finishing the upstairs—sort of like what we had done on Atkins Road (except at that time, the first four kids were only ages 8,7,6, and 4). It seems reasonable to assume that living in a house while building it would help get ‘er done all the quicker. That was the theory.

The reality was that Dad left for his Bell office in Detroit before it was light and got home just after dark. All day, Jimmy was at school, Paul was at work, and Mom was alone in a basement in a house in the woods in the middle of nowhere. (The area is now called Chesterfield Township.). Don't get me wrong, it is a very nice walk-out basement as basements go with garden-level windows in a beautiful setting, but my Mom was three things at heart: a mother, a wife, and a friend to countless people, and all three roles were sophocating. In stead of feeling like she was looking out garden-level windows, she felt buried neck deep.

She was a mother-of-five but now three of the five children were gone.

She was a friend and people-person to whom human interaction was as natural as a cricket’s chirp. Mom was a talker. She found it as easy to visit with the stranger at the grocery store who had the same brand of stewed tomatoes in her cart as she did with Kay next-door while hanging laundry on the line. Mom had adapted to suburban life. She grew to love the very closeness that made Dad want to live out in the woods away from it all.

Out at the new house, Dad put up a clothes line, because he knew Mom liked line-dried things, but the few times she used it that first fall made her miss Kay next door, and at that time there were no other house in sight, much less a neighbor that she could talk to. Worse yet, every phone call she made from the new house was long-distance and showed up on the monthly bill. Mom had a network of close friends who were all making supper at the same time. For years their casual conversations added laughter to the sound of pots and pans and the smell of potatoes boiling over. Now every minute showed up on a bill, which meant no more carefree chats over a pot of goulash or hamburger gravy.

Supper time was still "prime rate" business hours, and a few hours a day was exorbident. Even so, if Dad had it to do over again, he might consider that big phone bill money well spent, but hindsight is always hind. Which brings us to that third role.

Mom was a “home-body-house-wife.” The last “job-job” she had was at Star Oil in Port Huron back in 1951. Then we kids became her job. She did not mind being at home, and in fact, loved making it a place we all liked to be. In another set of chapters (Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe), I wrote of Mom's longing to recreate the feeling of home she’d left behind on her wedding night. The first place she felt she had succeeded at that was the house in Roseville. It looked just like the hundreds of houses around it, but it was finished and Mom made it a "homey" home for fourteen years. By contrast, her days in the unfinished basement of their “dream house” felt quite the opposite. She knew it was only temporary, but Dad considered the house in Roseville "temporary" so that was of little consolation. Her instincts to “feather the nest” were thwarted by the realities she saw at every turn.

The ceilings were the light brown printed kraft-paper of Owens-Corning insulation. The walls were soft fibrous brown panels with the yellow word Celotex printed repeatedly on them from floor to ceiling. There was no furnace. Dad planned to heat with wood, but the Ben Franklin stove was no yet in place. Baseboard electric heaters kept things comfortable with only the faintest whiff of ozone each time the came on. The floors were bare concrete. The only interior door in the entire house was on the basement bathroom. Jim’s bed was in the room with theirs, and Paul’s was out in the main room to the left. There were no closets. Clothes hung on poles Dad suspended from the open floor joists above. Dressers were out in plain view with the other furniture brought from Roseville. Mom’s kitchen cupboards were just what the word originally meant cup boards, shelves with no doors. Every pan, every can was there to see. Likewise, the entryway closet, the first thing seen upon stepping in the back door, was full of coats and shoes and boots, but the bi-fold door was not yet hung.

To Dad these were small matters. He saw no point in fixing up the downstairs when his goal was finishing the main floor so they could move out of the basement. To him, it was just like they were camping for a while. He joked and smiled about the clever rigged-up accommodations. That might have worked when they were in their twenties on Atkins Road, but they were now in their forties, and Mom found it harder and harder to smile when he did it.

The truth is, Mom had faced more change in the past five months than she was able to bear. Add to this the fact that she was beginning that “change of life” called menopause about which the men around her clueless. Had Kathy been home, it might have been different. Kathy had a way of helping Dad see things from a female point of view. Mom had the viewpoint but through the years had somehow lost her ability to express it. Kathy could have helped, but she was married and far away; Dave and I were also gone; Paul was busy working and dating his wife-to-be; Jimmy was only seven; and Dad was at Bell forty hours a week, on the road ten hours a week, and upstairs making sawdust in his other waking hours.
Mom was never more alone in her life, and one night, after a hard day in late November, she just broke down. I wasn’t there, but it was worse than anything we’d seen before—way beyond the power of a good cry. It was a struggle that was years in the mending, but an important first step happened that night. She did what most wives would’ve done in the first place and told Dad she couldn’t live like that another week.

Now I realize that most wives would have laid out much greater demands, now that she had Dad’s attention, but all Mom expressed that night was that she didn’t care if the basement was temporary; she’d lived with “temporary” for years in the past and knew the word meant nothing. Dad simply had to make the basement presentable. Christmas was coming. The kids would all be home, and she wanted tile on the floor; a closet door in the entry way; curtains on the windows; cupboard doors; some sort of room for the boys so the beds weren’t right out in the open; some rugs to warm up the cold floors.

“I don’t care about the upstairs right now, Don,” she cried,”This is where I have to live, and I can’t live like this. Kay says she’s going to drop by, but I don’t want her to see us living like this.”

“Okay, Bev...” Dad whispered, “We can do those things. Shoot, I can get most of that done in a week or two.”

“Then let’s get started. I mean it, Don!” Mom sobbed, “I can’t live like this.”

“I’m sorry, Bev.” Dad said, “Really, I am. Don’t cry. I didn’t think you wanted to get too comfortable down here. We can get all that done before the kids come home.”

“Let’s start with Curtains. So I don’t feel like people can see in.”

“There’s nobody out here to see in,” Dad joked, “But we can get curtains. It’ll help keep things warmer.”

“And it will make it look homier, Don. That’s what I’m talking about. I need it homier. Then let’s get some doors on the cupboards, and I want some real walls so I can hang some of my things, and…”

“Honey, you don’t want me to sheetrock these walls. That’ll take weeks and make a dusty mess of the whole place.”

“Well, we can at least hang some pictures so I can see something besides the word Celotex everywhere I look.”

“That’ll take a lot of pictures,” Dad said looking at the walls.

Mom laughed, and Dad laughed, and he knew there was hope behind this new honey-do list.

Part II

Though Dave and I lived in the same dorm room my sophomore year, we did not travel home together for the Christmas Break of 1975. He rode home with his friend Don E., and got home by bus. It was after midnight when my folks picked me up in Roseville. It was great to see them. Mom later told me that she had gained twenty pounds, but honestly, I didn’t notice. As we drove away from the bus, it felt strange not heading toward our house on Buckhannon. Instead, we got on I-94 and drove out to the property. I had never gone to the property so late at night. (I’d driven home from there this late many times before, but never had I driven there so late at night…and never had it been home.

“This feels weird,” I said, meaning no harm.

“Does it, Tom? Why?” Mom asked with concern.

“Not weird in a bad way. Just different.”

“I know what you mean,” Dad said, “I’ve taken the Ten Mile exit after work a couple of times and had to get right back on.”

“Did you, Don?” Mom asked. “You never told me that.”

“I never thought much about it,” Dad said.

“I don't have the tree up, Tom," Mom non sequitured , "but we've been doing a lot to make it cozy,”

“We’ve made a temporary room for you boys,” Dad added.

“Upstairs or downstairs?” I asked.

“Downstairs with us,” Mom chirped.

“You’d freeze upstairs,” Dad said, “I haven’t got the baseboard units in yet.”

“I don’t care where we sleep,” I said, “It’s just good to be home.”

“Does it feel like home, Tom?” Mom asked sincerely.

“Well, we’re not there yet, but yes, I feel like I’m home.”

“Do ya, Tom?” she asked again.

I said the words I knew Mom wanted to hear, but actually, it did feel weird just as I’d said a minute before. True, being in the car with Mom and Dad made me feel like I was home in that I was with them, but all the other intangible feelings and factors that define “being home” were a few miles in the other direction.

When we pulled into the two-track driveway on Sass Road, I began to open my door out of habit. Since 1968, we had to get out of the car to open the gate. It was nothing fancy, just a long, heavy log that we hefted off to the side as if it were a giant hand on a clock moving from nine to noon. But the car did not stop as it turned in, so I pulled the door shut.

“You noticed,” Dad laughed.

“No gate?” I said.

“No need for it now that we’re out here.” Dad said.

“Where did you put it?” I asked, always curious about such things.


“You cut it up?”

“What else would we do with it?” he asked.

It seemed to me that the gate had earned a better fate after all those years, but I didn’t want to sound ridiculously sentimental, so I didn’t reply.

“Haven’t got a chimney for the fireplace to burn it yet,” Dad said, looking at me in the rearview mirror, ”But we’ve got enough firewood cut already to last a few years.”

The headlights of the car wove to-and-fro across the trees that line the drive and then they fixed on the dark house, a shadow of black in the trees. I had half expected to see the windows softly lit, but from there in the driveway only the upstairs was visible and it was far from the days when lamps would light its windows. But as we rounded the corner to the back of the house, I saw the light by the back door, and to the left of it, the kitchen window glowed from a light over the sink.

I couldn’t help but smile as we stepped out of the car to the trunk. The air was cold, the kind of cold that wraps each spoken word in frost.

“What?” Mom asked.

“Nothing,” I said, then added, “It’s just kind of exciting that’s all.”

“Is it, Tom?” she asked, half surprised but happy to hear it.

“I was hoping we’d have snow,” I said grabbing one of my suitcases.

“Were ya, Tom?” Mom asked in the same affirming tone. These short questions were new to me at the time, but beginning then and throughout my adult life, my mother would sometimes ask short questions of confirmation like “Were ya, Tom?” They were not true questions in that they were meant only to underscore what had just been said because it was exactly what she wanted to hear. In this case, her face lit up because my hoping for snow meant things were still as they always were, that we still looked forward to—and were connected by—inexplicably simple things. She rattled on about her hopes for snow as the three of us carried my luggage to the back door of the house.

”Is Dave home yet?” I asked.

“He got home a few hours ago,” Mom said, “He’s already asleep in the bedroom. Just think: the three of yuz in one room again. You’re the top bunk over Dave.”

“Paul has to work in the morning,” Dad added, “So be quiet when you go in there.”

“Tick-tock-double-lock,” Mom said as Dad unlocked the door and the deadbolt. It was an expression I had never heard her say in Roseville where we never locked the house, but in the decades to come, she said it out loud nearly every time she locked or unlocked the house.

On the other side of the back door, looking up from the floor with his tail wagging was our Springer Spaniel, “Prop.” [His name was short for “Property” as explain in this old post]. He looked happy to see me, as if I had just been gone for a long walk. Dogs do not seem to reckon time, and their affections seem never to fade in our absence. He was not an inside dog, but when it got cold, Dad would let him sleep just inside the door.

“Hey, Prop!” I whispered, rubbing under his chin, and then I looked around. “Wow! This looks nice.”

“Here, Tom, give me your coat.” Mom said opening the bi-fold door of the closet.

“When did you tile the floor?” I asked.

“Oh, not long ago,” Dad said. “We’re not done yet. We did the bathroom, laundry room, this entry, and the kitchen but we’ve got the whole rest to do.”

“Looks nice,” I said stepping into the kitchen. “Wow! The ceiling is finished.”

“Just here in the kitchen,” Mom said. “We’re not doing the rest for a while. Do you like the curtains? They match the table cloth.”

She was not referring to the window curtains but rather to white and orange gingham curtains hung on the cabinets instead of doors. On the table was a vinyl tablecloth in a similar pattern.

“These are just ‘til we get doors,” Mom smiled.

“Well, I’m going to hit the hay,” Dad said abruptly, “I’ve got to go to work tomorrow. Then I’ve got Saturday and all next week off.” He gave me a hug and a firm squeeze and double pat on the back.

“Good to have you home, Tom. Don’t stay up late, Bev. It’s been a long week.”

“Good night, Dad.” I said, “I’m really tired, too.”

“I’ll not keep you up. I just wanted to show you what we've done so far.”

I walked into the next room and saw her piano against the “L” of the brick wall. At the top of the brick wall, where the corner meets the floor joists, there was a bird’s nest, which had been there since the spring after Dad built the wall.

“You kept the bird nest?” I whispered.

“That’s your dad’s idea,” Mom laughed. “He hated to take it down.” [That nest is now gone, but it’s worth noting that it remained there for about twelve years.]

“So where is the Christmas tree going?”

“Are you disappointed that it’s not up? I just haven’t been able to get in the spirit, Tom.”

“No I didn’t ask where it was. I asked where are we going to put it.”.

“Right there in the corner. I didn’t want to decorate it without you guys. You and Dave can bring it down from the attic tomorrow. Here’s you boy’s room. It’s not really a room. We just put up some more Celotex for some privacy.”

“Works for me,” I said yawning. ”’Night, Mom.”

We hugged, and she kissed me on both cheeks with a loud "Muh!," a thing she knew I hated, Then she slipped into the door opening in the back wall of the basement, which was their bedroom. I went to the bathroom, stumbled back into the make-shift room, and climbed up into the second bunk. In the darkness, somewhere to my left, I heard Paul’s voice say, “Welcome home, Butthead.” He always had a way with terms of endearment.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas from Kippy!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Unsettled 42: "Many Things About Tomorrow..."

When I returned home from college in June of 1975, the first order of business was finding a summer job. Our 50-50 arrangement with Mom and Dad to pay half of our college expenses was a tall order to achieve in just three months. It helped that Dave and I had jobs on campus, working “night clean-up.” Just after 11:00 PM, when the grounds and buildings were perfectly quiet, a band of shadows slipped out of the men’s dorms to various stations across campus and began cleaning windows, mopping floors, vacuuming carpets, and scrubbing toilets. It was minimum-wage work applied directly to our school bill, but it helped keep the summer portion of our 50% within reach. [It was also excellent training for young men—all of whom aspired to some profession other than custodial work, but having done it for a few years, I have found it equipped me with a proper respect for all levels of legitimate work and a willingness to take off my suit, roll up my sleeves, and do custodial tasks whenever needed.]

Likewise, that first summer job was also grunt work at minimum wage. I was mowing lawns for Shoreline Landscaping in Grosse Pointe.

In its day, Grosse Pointe was the most opulent collection of millionaire mansions in the greater Detroit area, and back in the seventies, all of the work now done primarily by hard-working Hispanic crews, was done by sweaty white men with a handful of sweaty white boys behind red Snapper lawnmowers. I was one of those boys.

We bagged the clippings, emptied the bags onto square lightweight tarps, gathered the four corners and carried them like Santa Clause to the back of a stake truck with high walls. I was low-man-on-the-totem-pole, which meant I had to ride around Gross Point on top of the grass clippings in the back of the truck, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I stood proudly, pressed against the front wall, facing the wind in my chariot like Ben Hur.

Then we’d pull up to another mansion, and I’d hop down like a servant boy, grab my tarp, start up my Snapper, and do it all again.

There’s nothing like the smell of mowed lawns and the taste of cold water from a garden hose. I liked that job. Funny thing about driving around all those mansions every day: It never once made me wish I lived in one, never once made me resent the little place we called home, never once made me question the dimensions of the house we were building out in the woods. I guess you could say I had something many people in mansions do not have: contentment. I suppose some readers expected me to say “my faith.” That is a good answer, too. But while faith is far more important than contentment, I know many people who have faith who somehow aren’t content.

So if there is one word to describe me that summer as I rode atop the grass clipping around Grosse Pointe and came home to our little house, it was content. I felt the same way when we were able to work with Dad on Saturdays. Dad had begun laying the exterior brick. Inside, the walls were still open studs. Dad had run wire to every light, every outlet, every wall switch. Exterior doors and windows were installed, but the house itself still looked very uninhabitable, and frankly, our thoughts were on other things until July. Big doin's going on at our house that June.

Life was good, but life was about to change in ways that could have been expected over time. In this case, however, the changes came one-after-the-other in just five months. Mom was not good at change, and by the fifth one, she was stuggling in ways I didn't begin to understand until years later.

The first was actually a joyous occasion: in late June, Kath and Jack got married. The wedding and reception were at our home church. Mom and Dad were very happy, of course, but the time of our children's weddings is also a time of many secret reflections. Things you don't talk about aloud. For Mom, it was also a personal loss to have her first-born and only daughter leave you in a house with five males and a dog.. Then six weeks later Kath and Jack moved to South Carolina where she had accepted a teaching position. She had just come home a year before and now she was gone again.

The third thing happened two weeks after Kathy moved: Mom’s father, my Grandpa Spencer, died after a long battle with leukemia. I’ve written about my grandpa before, and despite whatever shortcomings he may have had, he was a consistent and endearing character of affection in all of our lives, and his passing was the beginning of a hard time for Mom and Grandma.

In the days that Dave and I were packing to go back to school, Mom was at the piano more than usual. I’ve explained in detail before, back in chapter 13, that my mom fought off her private struggles with depression by sitting at the piano and singing her favorite hymns, verse by verse. Sometimes Dad and the rest of us would join her. [To this day, we siblings don’t sound bad harmonizing around a piano.] But mostly Mom sat and played alone as a form of therapy, and she did it a lot the week before we left for my sophomore year of college.

I was recently visiting the church Julie’s father pastors in Kansas, and in the morning service, Julie’s Aunt Kathryn began playing a hymn from the fifties that I hadn’t heard since those days when Mom sang it at our piano. I was in the middle of the first draft of this chapter, so you can imagine how hard it was for me to read the hymnal Julie and I were sharing. I just sort of mouthed the words, hoping no one would notice my eyes were dripping. Julie looked up at me, and knew without asking what was wrong... or right...or whatever....She just knew.
I don't know about tomorrow,
I just live from day to day.
I don't borrow from it's sunshine,
For it's skies may turn to gray.
I don't worry o'er the future,
For I know what Jesus said,
And today I'll walk beside Him,
For He knows what is ahead.
Many things about tomorrow,
I don't seem to understand;
But I know Who holds tomorrow,
And I know Who holds my hand.

I don't know about tomorrow,
It may bring me poverty;
But the One Who feeds the sparrow,
Is the One Who stands by me.
And the path that be my portion,
May be through the flame or flood,
But His presence goes before me,
And I'm covered with His blood.
Many things about tomorrow,
I don't seem to understand;
But I know Who holds tomorrow,
And I know Who holds my hand.

It's a song best heard on a piano in the other room with a woman's voice singing softly at first and then with more confidence at the refrain. I looked for such a recording on the many internet sites and found none close to Mom singing it; none had the earnest sound that comes when fear and faith entwine. But I did decide to include this clip because I know Mom would have sung along to it had she seen it on TV at the time.

I said there were five dramatic events that came one-after-the-other for my mother. I have only mentioned the first four (Kathy getting married; her moving away; Grandpa's death; Dave and I heading back to school 'til December). The next one occurred after Dave and I left, and it is the subject of the next chapter.
Coming Thursday: "Christmas 1975: What Makes a House a Home?"

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 41: "Sometimes Life Moves
in Fractured Bits of Time"

These chapters are not about my time at college so I’ll spare you those details, but I needed to explain that my change of locale in the summer of ’74 brings a shift in tone and pacing in these remaining chapters.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but once I went to college, my life at home began feeling like snapshots flipping past a pressing thumb--- or the photos in the antique Mutoscope I’d seen once in the old arcade pavilion at Cedar Point. (I doubt the pavilion is there anymore.)
You know the kind of picture machine I’m talking about with countless photographs attached to hub like cards in a huge Rolodex. You put in a penny, turn the crank, and the fractured images come to life.

Beginning with my college years, life seemed that way sometimes. Whenever I was home, I'd share pictures from college with my folks and they'd share pictures of what I missed while I was gone. And just like that, all the unshared bits of life were compressed into a shortened version of the time apart.
Photographs are good for that; they confirm the best of our otherwise uneventful existence, but we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that the “picture moments” are the highlights… when in fact, it is the other way around. It is the endless uneventful moments that are the framework for the fractured bits of time we call photographs; it is the dull-but-steady passing of days that connects months into years. As for pictures, the truest signs of life are in the background: the un-cleared table, the un-mowed lawn, the unmade bed, the toothbrush on the sink, the trashcan waiting to be emptied, and the countless other details we never think to take a picture of. But there they are in the background, hints of the uneventful patterns that secretly add their rhythms to the dailiness of days.

Mom did not merely glance at pictures; she studied them, and the unintended dimensions in the background of a few photographs often turned into long conversations on the couch. [Looking for a photo of Mom that goes with this thought. I hope to add it in the future.]

In previous chapters, I’ve shared how hard it was as one-by-one my siblings went off to college, but this time at the end of the summer of ’74, it was my turn to leave. I was looking forward to being “in school” with Dave again, but other than that I dreaded the thought of being so far from home just as Kathy was home with us again. [Kathy earned her degree in elementary education and came home to teach in my brother Jimmy’s school. In fact, she was his first-grade teacher. He called her Kathy at home, but Miss K___ at school just like the all other kids in the class. It was an interesting year in their lives, but since Kathy had missed out on much of Jimmy’s life up to that point, it was a wonderful way to make up for lost time. This was especially important considering Kathy was engaged to be married the next summer. More about that in chapter 42.]

Paul was also at home, still figuring out if he wanted to return to college or just stay home land a good job. [That good job came in the summer of 1976, Paul and I got summer jobs together at the Ford vinyl plant in Mt. Clemens. Come the end of August, I headed back to college, but for four summers straight I had that job at Ford. Paul, however, stayed on at Ford. In fact, he still works there to this day some thirty years later.]

Thoughts of home remained very much a part of my college-life. For instance, so ingrained in me was the experience of working with Dad that in my freshman speech class, I gave a persuasive speech on why a family should build their own house. Everyone else was “persuading” the audience on social issues or politics of the day—and in 1974, on the heels of Watergate and the strange non-elected presidency of Gerald R. Ford there were plenty of issues to talk about. But I chose to talk about the benefits of building your own house. My teacher (whom I just received a Christmas card from these 35 years later), said she had never heard that topic used for a persuasive speech. I got an “A.” But even better than the grade was the affirmation that Dad and Mom felt when they learned I had chosen that topic.
In looking back on it, that speech was a milestone of sorts. It was the first time that I had voluntarily chosen to identify myself so closely with the house and all those years of working with Dad. During the years of the actual work, my friends knew that my brothers and I typically had to work on Saturdays, but it was not something we chose to talk about the rest of the week. But being from home for the first time in my life changed those feelings. I felt it that first night on campus when Mom and Dad dropped Dave and me off in our different dorms.

My roommates would arrive the next day, but I was alone that first night, lying in bed with my head resting in a an old feather pillow I’d kept nearly all my life. I remember staring into the dark with tears rolling down my face into that old pillow. It was still damp when I woke up the next morning. Things got better. I had great roommates, made many new friends, dated a lot of nice girls once or twice then dated one or two girls a lot. Then dated just one for quite a while. College stuff. It was nice. But just below the surface of all the classes and activity was a longing to go home.
This feeling began to peak after Thanksgiving (which, at that college, was spent on campus). The dorm doors were decorated with lights; Christmas music was playing from every open door, and everyone was counting down the days ‘til Christmas Break.
In the song "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays" there's a word we never use: pine [2]. ("When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze..."). If ever I have pined in life, it was those days before Christmas when I longed for...yearned... to be home. I couldn’t wait to see my parents and have the seven of us together again; to just sit in that little house in Roseville in front of the tree or around the table; to hear Mom's Christmas albums on her little record player on the floor; to play ping-pong on the table downstairs, to worship again in our home church on Utica Road, to shovel snow from our driveway and the sidewalk between our blue spruce and Chinese Elm, to go out to the property and see Dad’s progress on the house, and to spend a few days with my brothers and Dad working out there as we had for so many years.
But here is an interesting thought. To my surprise, the longing to be home and all of my feelings connected to that word were completely attached to the small house on Buckhannon and not the house we had been building for three years. All of my memories of time spent at the property were positive--the trails, the sledding hill, the well, the barn, and even the house-in-progress were like old friend I wanted to see, but none of them as yet carried the feelings of home.
At first glance, the progress on the house was not noticeable, but Dad had done a ton of work while Dave and I were gone. My brother Paul and brother-in-law-to-be, Jack, helped when they could. The basement had been poured. (Though the cement trough extended through the windows, they still had to wheelbarrow the cement to the far corners. [I don’t think I’ve ever used the words though, trough and through in one sentence before—what a language!]) The basement window casings were in, and Dad had put in nearly all of the upstairs plumbing, but the interior walls were still open studs, and in that sense, the house looked pretty much the same with only the subtle changes--sort of the like the photos in a flip-book.
Coming Tuesday. Chapter 42: "Many Things about Tomorrow"
Coming Thursday. Chapter 43: "Christmas 1975: What Makes a House a Home?"

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Please Pray for This Former Student's Daughter


Note sent by way of the prayer page:

I watched the Dr. Phil show a couple weeks back, but Julie and I were praying even before that (based on the network of email and facebook friends that we share). I had a moment today to pause after a very hectic day (our school Christmas program is tonight), and I watched some of the other news stories and listened to the song and saw the pictures here. My eyes are blurred, and I am humbled to know that such a profound chapter in your life followed those we shared in simpler years at Walnut Ridge [the Iowa school where I taught/administrated for 18 years]. I still see you as one of my little spiders in the last scene of Charlotte's Web (1987). You were not much older than your Kate at the time. I also see you as the young lady who brought such a spark to my English class (and other classes) from 1991 to 1995. I know you don't get much snow in Arizona, but you remember the blizzards of Iowa. May you feel the countless arms around you in this storm and have a blessed Christmas. (Great idea by the way.)
Mr. K

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 40: "Now That I Can Laugh At!"

Once the walls were framed in, we added the attic floor and then the roof rafters. This phase of work moved much faster because we were not framing in doors, closets, and windows. (On the main floor there are fourteen door frames and about as many windows, but on the top floor there are only two windows and one door.) We even had time for some clowning as you can see by this picture Paul took of me just hanging around.

Once the rafters were done we put the roof planks in place, lapped the tar paper and began shingling.

I graduated from high school in June of 1974. We were still living in Roseville, but Mom brought my cap and gown out when she brought lunch and we took this picture. Notice the work boots. Nice. Real class.

Jimmy had a playmate named Mikey who lived across the street in Roseville. A couple weeks after that cap-and-gown snapshot, when we were shingling the roof, Mom brought Jim and Mikey out to the property to play trucks in the sand pile at the east end of the house. It was in that sand pile that the Tonka jeep from my own childhood was lost and ruined. We found it about ten years later when we were excavating for the garage. It was a block of rust with rubber wheels. By then I was married and Jim was a teenager.

"There's my old jeep," I said amazed."I wondered where this thing went after we moved out here."

"Oops!" Jim said with a smile. "I musta forgot to bring that in one day."

We both laughed.

[Sorry about skipping ahead in time like that. I know it happens often in these chapters, and I hope it isn't like looking at the back of cross-stitch picture, where the threads jump all over connecting things that, in the finished picture, to those who don't know what's behind it, share only a common color.]

Speaking of laughing... let's rewind back to 1974 again, the time of these pictures.

On one such occasion, when Jimmy and Mikey were playing together, they began attempting to tell me a series of jokes they'd heard but obviously didn't really understand. As an experiment in human psychology, I decided to laugh at each of Jimmy’s jokes and act like Mikey’s weren’t funny in the least.

Mikey began with “Why did the elephant have a suitcase?”

I answered: “I don’t know, Mikey. Why did the elephant have a suitcase?”

“Because he was going on a trip.”

I just looked at him without smiling. “Mikey, that’s isn’t funny at all. You didn’t tell it right. You’re supposed to say why did the elephant have a trunk... not a suitcase. You try it Jimmy."

So then Jimmy said “Why did the elephant have a trunk?”

And I said, “I don’t know Jimmy, Why did the elephant have a trunk?”

"Because he had a sore throat."

“Now that I can laugh at! He He He He! That is really funny, Jimmy. He He He He. He has a trunk because he has a sore throat.”

Mikey interrupted, “But he's supposed to have a trunk because he’s going on a trip. You know...a trunk, like a suitcase...but he has a trunk.”

“What’s funny about that? That’s not funny at all, Mikey. But the sore throat—now that I can laugh at! He He He He”

“I meant to say giraffe,” Jimmy said. “The giraffe had a sore throat.”

"Oh, my! That’s even funnier. Giraffe’s have such long necks. Good one, Jimmy!” I said with false flattery.

“But..." Mikey added. “Elephants do have trunks. You know...their nose.”

“Yes, but, Mikey, they can’t pack things for a trip in that kind of a trunk, can they? How much underwear can you put in an elephant's trunk?

"I don't know, Tom," he replied on cue, "How much underwear can you put in an elephant's trunk?"

"I'm not telling a joke, Mikey. This is serious. The answer is: Not very much. It's dangerous. He could suffocate. See what I mean? So that’s what makes it not funny. Tell me another joke, Jim.”

Jim had no idea where to take all this. He just strung elements from the conversation together and threw it out there in the breeze.

“Why did the giraffe go to the doctor?”

“I don’t know, Jim. Why did the giraffe go to the doctor?”

“Because the doctor had a suitcase and a trunk and a sore throat!”

“Now that I can laugh at! He He He He! That is really funny, Jimmy. He He He He. The doc had a suitcase and a trunk and a sore throat. All three! What could be funnier than that?”

Mikey just stood there with a puzzled look on his face. The entire exchange made no sense. Both six-year-olds had blown their first joke, and Jim’s follow-ups were utter nonsense and unfunny. Yet, I split a gut with twisted glee to see how the two boys would interpret irrational responses to their feeble jokes. At that age, it seems, that the reward of getting a laugh is more important than understanding the essence of humor. But let’s be honest. What I was doing wasn’t really an experiment. It was just mean. I had poor Mikey so confused about telling jokes that I later feared I had completely ruined his sense of humor altogether.

That's Jimmy and Mikey sitting in the wall to what would someday be my parents’ master bedroom. (Notice one of Jimmy's cubes of bricks in the foreground.)

The good news is I visited with Mikey again sixteen years later at my parent’s 40th wedding anniversary. (Not far from the spot that picture was taken.) He was an officer in the Air Force. Jim was finishing college. The three of us talked for a while, and I asked if they remembered that day they told me jokes. They did, and we had a genuinely good laugh about it.

Moral? There’s never an excuse for mean-spirited pranks that mess with the mind of children, but it’s good to know that kids survive most of what life throws at them.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Unsettled 39: "Hitting the Nail"

In 1982, long after the story of these chapters, I was teaching in a high school in Muncie, Indiana. As an English teacher, it fell to me to also direct the school play, and that year’s production was Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take it with You. It was a smaller school, and “directing” the play really meant I was doing it all—including set design and construction. This was true throughout my career at other schools as well. While it is true that I did have some college courses in dramatic production, the bulk of the skills that made me uniquely qualified for this part of my job came from the years of building with Dad. I was comfortable with tools and confident that most construction challenges can be solved with resourceful ingenuity.

This is not true of all young men, as I first experienced while building that set in ’82. A senior guy stayed after school to help me build some set pieces. I had already framed in a short stairway and needed only the four tread-boards nailed into place, three nails at each end. I assigned that simple task to my likable apprentice, and moved on to another tasks. I returned a while later to see that half of the nails were bent over and pounded flat into the wood. I watched him for a moment as he tried to drive a nail into the short 2-by-10 treads. He tapped the point of the nail into the wood and then tried hitting it with all his might. The nail pinged off to the far end of the stage. He began another nail. This time with more success but his third strike bent the nail, and rather than pull it, he began beating it flat.

“These stupid nails!” he hollered.

“The nails?” I said with a smile, “You’re blaming the nails?”

“Well, it’s got to be the nails. The hammer is brand new.”

I laughed at his simple assessment of two of the three factors involved, but rather than mention his roll as the hammer operator, I stopped and showed him how to drive a nail; how to angle the opposing nails slightly toward each other so they work like a staple in the wood; how to set the nail a good inch or so with two good raps, and then let go with the fingers for the next three solid blows; how to hold the hammer for maximum leverage; how to make sure that the head of the hammer hits flush on the head of the nail to avoid bending it; and how to ease up on the final tap so as not to leave a hammer mark in the soft wood. It was something I had learned partly by instruction but mostly by observation. After demonstrating these things on the two remaining stair treads, I told him the following story:

In this picture, you can see Jimmy, Dad, Paul, and me hamming it up for a picture Mom was taking.

In the background is the brick wall (the penny is in the other side of that wall). To the left of the photo you see another framed in wall that would eventually separate the dining room from the bathroom.

Dad and I were working alone the day he and I framed in the bathroom. This chapter is about the second stud from the end of that bathroom wall (just to the left of Dad's head in the picture).

Most of the lumber in the house was from the school building we had salvaged two years before. Eventually, we got to use some new 2-by-4s, and it was then I noticed the huge difference between the new kiln-dried lumber and those that had aged a half-century in that old school. The older lumber was darker in color with a sort of honey patina from the aging sap, and just as sap petrifies into amber, old lumber is much harder than newly harvested wood. This means it is harder to mark with a pencil for cutting; harder to cut with saw; and harder to nail into place.

The most frustrating challenge we faced with the old wood, however, was finding the occasional board with a twist or a “bow” or a “wow” in it. I don’t know if there is an official distinction between a “bow” and a “wow," but Dad called it a “bow” when the 2-by-4 curved sideways like the boards in the bow of a boat (though he pronounced it bow like bow-and-arrow), but if the board was warped on edge, he called it a “wow.” Wows render a board useless in most cases because the wowed edge protrudes slightly beyond the plane of the wall or ceiling. A bow can be straightened with a fire block, but it’s best not to use a wowed board.

On occasion, we came across a stud with a slight twist in it, and Dad would simply straighten the twist while we nailed it in place. In most cases, it was forever cured, but on the day we were building the wall between the bathroom and the dining room, we came across a particularly stubborn twist.

We were building the walls on the floor of the house and then erecting them into place. When we got to the second to the last stud (near the inside corner), we encountered our twisted nemesis.

Dad pulled one of the five nails he held in his the corner of his mouth and drove one temporarily into the side of the stud to use as a cleat for his claw hammer, which he then pulled like a torque wrench against the twist of the wood. He looked like “the old man and the sea” pulling in a marlin [except, in this case, Santiago had the young Manolin with him in the boat].

I’d seen Dad straighten twists this way before, but this time it required much more effort. So he grabbed a spare hammer, added another cleat-nail and had me push on that hammer in the same direction he was pulling. It was a tough twist, and Dad was leaning back at a 45 degree angle to the floor, and I was leaning toward him at the same angle.

“Push, Tom.”

“I am,” I grunted.

“Holy Baldy! That twist is really in there. We’ve almost got it,” he said through his teeth. It was then that he realized that in the strange contortions we were both in, he had only his left hand free and I had only my right hand free. He pulled a nail from his teeth and held it in place with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand.

“Go ahead, Tom. You’ve got to drive it in. I can’t let go.”

“You want me to pound in the nail that you’re holding?” I asked.

“Come on, Tom. I can’t keep 'er here all day.”

I tapped the nail carefully in about an inch. Dad moved his fingers away, still pulling on his hammer with his right hand, and I pounded the nail home.

“We’re not done yet,” Dad strained. “She’s still pulling. If I let go, we’ll have to start all over again. It’ll take two or three nails to hold.”

Dad pulled another nail from his teeth and held it in place about two inches from the head of the first nail. A single bead of sweat slalomed through the short hairs at the temple of his crew cut, found its way out to the smooth skin, then followed a wrinkle to the corner of his eye. He twitched his head and tried to blink it away. It was a small thing, but the damp trail made it easier for a second drip of sweat to follow the same course, making him twitch and blink again.

“Whatcha waiting for—Christmas!” he growled. “Go ahead, Tom. Drive her in.”

Have you ever noticed that when you’re in a static isometric position your body starts to tremble a little from the strain? Dave and I used to see how long we could sit against a wall pretending there was a chair under us…after twenty minutes or so our thighs would just start shaking, and we’d collapse to the floor. Well, Dad and I were in a sort of isometric pose as we untwisted and held that 2-by-4. We were using muscles that almost never get worked, and we’d now been pulling in this marlin for about five minutes.

Between the sweat in his eyes and the strain in his arms, Dad was not holding the second nail as steadily as the first. Likewise, the hammer in my right hand was trembling a little. I felt weak as I tapped the nail. Now factor in the hardness of that old wood, and I was having a dickens of a time getting that nail started so Dad could let go of it.

“Come on, Tom. Hit the thing.”

“I’m trying,” I said, with another limp tap that barely sunk the tip of the nail.

“Don’t tap it. Hit it.” Dad said, quivering.

“It doesn’t want to go in. Is there a knot in the wood?”

“No, there’s no knot. You’re just hitting it like a girl. Hit the thing!”

I hit it harder but it was still not deep enough for Dad to let go of, and his frustration boiled over.

“Hit it!” he screamed, and with that, I rose the hammer high and brought it down with all my might.

In looking back on this moment, it seems unbelievable that in a matter of minutes two intelligent human beings had been beguiled into such a predicament by a 2-by-4. Even now, more than thirty-five years later, I shake my head and wince as I write these words. My eyes are tearing up at the thought of that descending hammer and the sound that followed—not the ringing steel-on-steel sound of hammer and nail. No, the nail I hit was of a softer sort. The sound was a softer thud, followed by muffled moan, as if the scream had been swallowed down Dad's throat. It was I who screamed aloud. I had hit Dad’s thumbnail. I don’t know how he managed to keep holding the nail I missed. Whenever I hit my own thumb, it loses the strength to function. But Dad spat out the remaining nail in his mouth, bit his lower lip, and kept holding the nail.

“Hit it, Tom. I’m not letting go until you drive it.”

“But, Dad…”

“Hit it, Tom!”

This second swing hit the steel nail squarely, sank it deep allowing Dad to let go, and I quickly drove it home. This time, the twisted board remained true when we let go of the levers. He then picked up the spat-out nail and pounded it in with vengeance to be sure the twist was fixed in place for all time.

“I’m sorry, Dad!” I whimpered, still much closer to tears than he was.

“It’s not your fault,” he said sucking hard on the bleeding thumb. “I’m going to lose that nail for sure,” he said, as if it par for the course.

We didn’t speak much for a while, but for the rest of that day, every time I re-lived that moment, I winced and apologized to him again.

His thumbnail was black the next day, and just as he’d predicted, the nail came off about three weeks later. It was not the first time he’d lost a nail. Back when he was building the house on Atkins Road, he smashed his thumb good and the pressure of the pent-up blood under it go so bad that he took his hand drill and drilled a little hole through the center of the nail to let out the blood. Mom used to get a chill up her spine when she told us about it.

To his credit, Dad held no hard feelings about me smashing his thumb. I think of that moment whenever I hit my own finger with a hammer. Never has someone else’s pain been so much my own. Even now, as I type, my thumb is beginning to throb.

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