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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

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?"


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