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.
I got up this morning, made some coffee, and sat down to wrap up chapter 14, which should be done soon. (But the battery on my laptop died and something is wrong with the plug so I'll have to resume at the desktop later on.) Meanwhile, Julie began a morning aerobic workout in the family room with the help of Bob Harper (No, we are not "Biggest Loser" fans--never watch the show--but we like Bob Harper's friendly motivational workout on the cable fitness channel.) I joined her in that sweaty endeavor 'til our heart rates were high and the clothes were damp, and thankfully the session was over. Ahh....
During the "cool down" I stood with my arms on my hips looking out the patio window (photo one). That lump in the lower-left is a rock fountain covered with a tarp that is covered with a foot of snow. The little maple behind it has white miniature lights in it, but they're not on. They've been there since the evening "garden parties" we had for both Emily's and Kim's graduation open houses. We light them up whenever we have evening gatherings out back--those are many months away.
I noticed something else in this picture and went upstairs to the living room (or parlor, as I've called it past posts), and sure enough I noticed the same fact while looking at our yard from this angle. (Photo two: That's the camper in the far corner of our yard parked in front of the covered trampoline. The lamp is an heirloom from Mom's living room. Just beyond it is the winged-back recliner where I was writing when my battery died.) . So I went to the front porch to see it what I saw (or didn't see) was true there as well, and "Sure enough," I thought with my mouth pursed off to one side. It was true everywhere I looked.
I wasn't looking at the vacant lot (the only lot without a house on it in the whole development). I wasn't looking at the broken split-rail fence that adds a nice touch to the tree line and always reminds me of Robert Frost's "Mending Wall." I wasn't looking at the drooping antler on the grape-vine deer standing under the canopied bush. (Those deer have served us well for many years, but they may just have to go come spring.) . What I was looking for was something else. Something that for most of our life with children was always true whenever we had a foot of snow on the ground for a solid month.
Before Em was married, before Kim went off to Chicago, before little Nat grew up and became a cheerleader at school. Back when we were all at home after 4:00PM most nights. Back when we were all hoping that the next batch of falling snow would be enough to cancel school. What I was looking for was always there before, for twenty playful years or more, but now (thus far) it isn't so. How strange to be this deep in winter without footprints in the snow. . Chapter 14 coming...
I've written about "hope" before, about how it is a stronger word without an "s" on the end, for it's then that it becomes a form of faith, which as we know from this poem called "Faith" spans a divide not easy to cross. Here is a video that demonstrates the power of faith when hope has slipped our grip.
Reading these chapters, it would be easy to assume that my teen years were all about working with Dad on Saturdays. They weren’t, of course. During the same years in which we cleared the land, dug the well, built the barn and bridge and house, I went to school every day; went to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night; played weeknights in the neighborhood with friends; mowed the little lawn at what was our home for fourteen years; delivered various paper routes; held other odd jobs; went to camp each summer; sang in the choir, had girl friends; wrestled on the high school team and played basketball in our church league.
From 7th through 12th grade, Sunday through Friday life had almost nothing to do with the working with Dad, which is why those storied Saturdays stand out in my memory. Other than those Saturdays, our lives were much like all of our closest friends'. More frugal, perhaps, but we were somewhere in the middle of the vast middle class.
That first year of the land, Mom was as involved as she could be in our Saturday world. She came out to watch or help where she could for much of the day. She took pictures of our progress and was very excited about us living there. In many ways we all could see she shared Dad’s dream and admired his vision for the land. But that summer we dug the well, began a hard time for Mom. By then we had owned the land for nearly three years and still there was no sign of a house. The well we were now digging was, in fact, the first real confirmation that we would someday live on that spot.
This long chapter is an attempt to give just a glimpse of the private struggles the "woman at the well" was going through that summer. It is far too long for a blog. It could have been four separate posts, but then they would be in reverse order, and I really think they need to be read in sequence as a whole.
A little over a year ago (around the time this picture was taken), I asked my mother if she would mind my including some of this personal information in future stories. She thought about it and then said, "If you think it might help someone, I trust you."
So here goes...
Saturday Morning of the Sixth Crock
By now it was late-July, and on this Saturday Dad planned to sink the sixth of the seven crocks in the well. We’d missed a week of digging because Dave and I had gone to church camp, and rather than try to dig with only Paul to pull the bucket, Dad let Paul stay home to deliver the route (which had originally been his) while he went out to the property alone. He used that week to clear away the mounds of clay that had grown around the well. We'd made the piles one bucket-plop at a time until they stood shoulder high like giant crawfish holes down by the creek.
With the front-loader of the tractor, Dad scooped up the piles of sand and dirt and clay and hauled each load down to a low spot below the barn. The next week when we returned to continue digging the well, we hardly recognized the site it was so tidied up.
As was true on the Saturdays of the first five crocks, I had stayed home to do the paper route then planned to go out with Mom at lunch time.
After the last paper was slipped inside the screen door of a house on Huron Street, I peddled home as fast as I could. The empty Detroit News bag made its usual plinging music in my bike spokes which had worn the corners through over the years. When the bags were full, the music was a heavier tone that got slightly higher with each pound of paper delivered, and the light sound of empty canvas against spokes was truly music to my ears. But as I turned into our driveway, real music was coming from inside the house.
At first all I heard were the piano notes, and it struck me as odd that Mom was playing the piano in the middle of the day. (She most often played at night.). I leaned my bike against the inside wall of the garage, and stepped inside the back door and up the three steps to the kitchen. It was then I recognized the song and heard Mom singing:
Like the woman at the well I was seeking
For things that could not satisfy:
And then I heard my Savior speaking:
"Draw from my well that never shall run dry".
Fill my cup Lord, I lift it up, Lord!
Come and quench this thirsting of my soul;
read of heaven, Feed me till I want no more
Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole!
"Mom, we gotta go.” I interrupted.
"Just let me finish this song,” she said and went on singing. I dropped backwards onto the couch.
There are millions in this world who are craving
The pleasures earthly things afford;
But none can match the wondrous treasure
That I find in Jesus Christ my Lord.
Fill my cup Lord,I lift it up, Lord!
Come and quench this thirsting of my soul;
Bread of heaven, Feed me till I want no more
Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole!
Her fingers added a flourish at the end, her hands clasped at her chest, and she sighed, “I like that one.” (She ended nearly all of her songs at the piano with those four words, which I think is a pretty accurate translation of the word Amen.) Then she spun full toward me on the wooden piano bench without getting up.
"Now what were you saying.” she smiled. I was struck by the fact that she actually had to ask. Was she unaware of the time? The truth is... she was temporarily unaware of any earthly commitments, of any burdens or cares. She always got that way when she sang her hymns at the piano. So I said as if for the first time...
“We gotta get to the well. It’s almost lunch time. Where's Jimmy?”
.“He's napping. Let him sleep while I frost the cake and we can leave.”
“Frost the cake? Mom, we’re going to be late.”
“No, we won’t, and I want to surprise your Dad with it.
.“Is it your banana cake?”
“Yep.” she said, fully understanding the magic of that fact as she stepped into the kitchen.
“Well, that's a different story," I mumbled to an empty room, "He won’t care if we’re a little late.”
I stretched out on the couch with my head on the arm rest and stared up at the ceiling. It was not a particularly comfortable couch. We'd gotten it from my Grandma K's when she moved from her house to live with my Aunt Betty. It had hard, deeply-embroidered fabric [seen in photo here] that left imprints in your cheek if you happened to fall asleep face down. Lying there, I remembered the time a few years before (before Jimmy was born) when I’d been sick and stayed home from school. I spent the whole day in that very spot....
I’d thrown up in the middle of the night before. Worse yet, I hadn’t made it the ten steps to the bathroom, which put the mess right in the middle of the hardwood floor in our bedroom between the “homework” desk and the doorway. Only Mom had woken up.
“Couldn’t you have held it to the toilet?” she said, blotting the floor with old towels.
“It just happened, but at least I didn't do it on the carpet. That would be worse.”
“True, but I’ll have to go over this again with hot sudsy water so you just go sit on the floor there by the toilet ‘til I’m through.”
“I don’t think I have to throw up anymore.”
“Just stay there ‘til you’re sure.” she winced, holding the wad of putrid towels far in front of her.
I didn’t throw up again, and actually went back to sleep until morning, but Mom recommended that I not go to school. Dad, who had missed all the action in the night, was less certain I was sick He came in, sat on the side of my bed and began his fatherly diagnosis. He was good at it. The inquiry included lots of caring questions but always ended with one asked in earnest:
“If they were giving out $10 bills today just for going to school, would you go?” .
If the answer was “yes,” he’d suggest that maybe we weren’t that sick. But this day I had said, “I’d go get the ten bucks, but then I’d have to go puke in the bathroom. Would they let me keep the money if I made it to lunch time?” Dad just stroked my head and told me to stay home.
I understand why parents want to make sure a kid is really sick when school is on the line. Let’s face it, there are worse ways to spend a day than stretched out on a couch with Vicks VapoRub on your chest and a glass of Vernors within reach. We never had pop in our house except for medicinal purposes. (I take that back: If we had company for New Year’s Eve, Dad would go out and buy two wooden cases of “Towne Club” pop, but typically, there was never any pop in our house.)
Vernors is a strong ginger ale that people either love or hate. I love it to this day, and I think it all started when I was a kid and Mom swore it could “settle a stomach.” I don’t know about that, but having a bottle of it assigned to you was one of the perks of being sick in our home.
One of the other perks of being sick enough to miss school was getting to watch "Bill Kennedy at the Movies” just after lunch. (Bill Kennedy was a local B-movie star who’d come back to Detroit to host an old movie show.)
That day I'd been sick, Mom and I got interested in some old film noir flick about a pretty mom with a son about my age. I don’t remember what the title was, but in this movie, the mom was a flirt prone to “cheating on” her husband.
I had only just learned the facts of life myself and barely knew what “cheating” really meant, and though the film skipped the details, it was clearly implied that she was cheating all the way, which of course led to jealousy, rage, divorce, heartache, and in short a sad ending. I felt especially bad for the woman's son who watched it all unfold.
“The End” came up on the screen, and what was about to happen is the only reason I remember the moment. I sighed and said without thinking, “I’m glad I don’t have a pretty mom.” Yes, I said that. I said it as though offering happy consolation to the lady who'd cleaned up my puke the night before.
Mom's jaw dropped, “Well thanks a lot.”
“No. I don’t mean it like that," attempting to spit the foot out of my mouth, "You‘re pretty, Mom. I mean THAT kind of pretty.”
“And just what kind of pretty is THAT?” she asked.
“Not your kind of pretty. THAT kind of pretty. Where the lady acted like pretty was the most important thing to be.”
“Go on…I’m listening…” She strung me along.
“That woman acted like--you know, flirting with all those men, and kissing them and stuff. You know…THAT kind of pretty. You’re just pretty."
“Just pretty, eh. The kind of pretty men don’t notice. Is that what you mean?”
“No. Dad noticed. That’s the kind of pretty a mom should be--pretty for the dad but not other men. THAT lady acted like... like...well, a sex-pot [to use one of Mom's pet terms for such women]. She always had to have men looking at her. Look how she walked, Mom. She wiggled and you know it.”
“You noticed that, eh… that she wiggled when she walked.” (I did notice, but I'll also confess that I was at that age where the mechanics of sexual behavior could be observed with no impact.)
“Noticed? Mom, if her skirt was any tighter, she'da had to hop. And her sweaters--good night! It looked like she was smuggling torpedoes. Pretty ladies who dress to be stare at--that's not good, and look what happened in the movie. That wouldn't have happened if she looked the way moms are supposed to look. So THAT’s the kind of pretty I’m glad you’re not. But that doesn't mean you're not the good kind of pretty....”
“Okay. You talked yourself out of that one.” she smiled and took my empty Vernors glass to the kitchen.
That was a close one. I said what I had to say, but the truth of the matter is: Like most of the kids I knew, I did not think of my mom in terms of being pretty. Not in the Hollywood sense, but it didn't matter. Most kids just want a mom to be a mom. I'm not talking about little kids, the ones who wake up with a hug every morning and say, "You're the beautifulest Mom in the whole wide world." Kids say that when they mean it in the purest sense, before their understanding of beauty is distorted by culture. Eventually, most kids stop telling their moms that, and they mistakenly assume that moms no longer need to hear it.
We need to study this picture from Chapter 9-B again. That was Christmas Sunday, 1969. Dad took the picture. Paul is in the back because he was not quite ready for church. We all cleaned up pretty good, and Mom looks great there holding "Jimmer" (as we called him at the time). The great thing about snapshots is they allow us to sort the good from the less presentable things in life. We did not always look like this. [This was taken six months before we dug the well. See the "Fill My Cup Lord" music on the piano? It was left out as if part of the room decor for over a year.]
With all due respect and unconditional love for my mom, the truth of the matter is: right about this time she was just starting that "frumpy" stage in life that most mothers of the "Baby Boom" went through around age 40.
Let's start with the hats. By the late Sixties, the fashionable habit of women wearing hats was passing. I’m not talking about the hats people wear when playing in the snow. I’m talking about millinery products made by milliners. Department stores had “hat departments” with works of felt and feather and fur interspersed with oval mirrors so ladies could see which fuzzy concoction suited their face or dress or mood. (Yes, mood. A cartoon I remember from the time showed a woman boasting to a man, “Whenever I’m ‘down in the dumps’ I get myself a new hat. To which the man replies, “I wondered where you got those things.”)
From hats to wigs: About the time hats went out of style and we thought Mom would stop putting strange things on her head, "fashion wigs" came in vogue. The same store shelves were filled with nothing but wigs on rows of wig-heads. Eventually, Mom had two or three styrofoam wig-heads of her own, each sporting a different style.
During the wig years, Mom quit going to the beauty shop. Dad had put it all to paper and figured they were actually saving money each month Mom was willing to pull on a “hair style.” It was a win-win for while, but the problem with these $14.95 wigs (purchased at E.J. Korvette in Roseville) was they were made of who-knows-what synthetic fibers, and they could not stand up to the slightest heat that came from mom’s stove or oven.
One day I walked through the little kitchen as Mom was making supper. She turned to ask me something, and I saw that all the hair around her face was completely singed and shriveled up against her forehead.
“Mom, your wig is melting!” I gasped.
“I know,” she said, “but that's okay. This is my cooking wig. I singed it last month.”
“Your cooking wig? Why don’t you just not wear one?”
“Because my hair’s a mess underneath it.”
“It can’t look worse than that thing, Mom.”
She walked around the corner to the big mirror over the couch in the living room and leaned toward it.
“I guess it has melted more than it was when I put it on,” she laughed, and went right back to cooking supper.
Before we sat down to eat, she switched out the melted wig for a good one. The trouble with her system was that, over time, she lost track of which wig she had on and one by one all but her newest looked like they'd come from a fire sale. Mom saw the humor in this. More than once she'd accidentally wear a bad wig to the store, and I'd see her joking with a cashier about how she melted her wig, and the stranger would laugh right along with her. She had a sort of Lucile Ballsense of humor that helped her build a huge network of friends wherever she went.
Something else was going on the years before and after that photo.
I don't want to overstate what I'm about to share, but something more serious than melted wigs was going on. It started years before Jimmy was born. Mom began showing early signs of what today would be called an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). It was not extreme in the spectrum of such issues, but it did affect her appearance. I hinted at in Chapter 3 "The Places We Pick," which was a deliberate play on words. If you look closely at the picture, you'll see marks on Mom's legs. Most of those were superficial scars from months before, but some of them were "current" scabs covered over with make-up. There were also some on her arms and back, any place her hands could reach. (Sometimes I helped her dab make-up on the ones she couldn't see.)
Everyone who knew Mom at the time seemed to accepted this peculiar behavior unaware that it was a symptom of something that could become more serious. We could not Google "skin picking" back then. Not knowing much about it, we minimized it politely. Her closest friends might say, "Bev, you're doing it," and then she'd smile and stop. Or Dad would sometimes whisper "Don't pick, Bev," and then go on with whatever he was saying. Mom's purse typically hid a few old hankies that looked like tiny wadded up Japanese flags. In time, she quit doing it, but she would look back at pictures from those years, shake her head and say, "I'm so glad God brought me through that. I was a mess."
One day I was transplanting a tree with Dad (I may have been 10 at the time), We were using a shovel and a pick-ax. I held up the pick and joked, "Hey, Dad, we should give this pick to Mom so she has a pick to pick with." Dad didn't laugh. He just shook his head and said, "Never make fun of your mother, Tom." The mild rebuke stung. I look back sadly at my childish nonchalance and hope not to convey the slightest hint of it here.
Deciding to share this fact about my mother has given me pause, but sharing what she told me decades later, is the reason this chapter has taken so long to write. It is also this yet-untold fact that Mom thought might be of help to someone else if I ever chose to include it in a story. I have really struggled about whether or not I should, but I will do the best I can.
What made Mom so nervous that she'd start picking? She had a theory. In another story I've written from Mom's childhood I tried to explain in a loving way that her father was an alcoholic. Because of that, Mom had successfully sworn off any use of alcohol in her life. She and Dad were total abstainers. This remained true for life. I have done the same. It's now popular to call alcoholism a disease, I'm no expert, but I think it's more accurate to say some people have a genetic disposition toward depression, "escapism," or addictive behaviors. It's possible for a person to swear off a bad choice of a previous generation while the causal disposition is still passed along. In other words, "issues" can come in other forms and, if not alcohol, other "bottles" can be involved.
Years before this photo, my mother's doctor did something thousands of doctors did at the time: a patient came in complaining that after keeping up with four little children all day long, she was exhausted. And the doctor had just the thing to give women the energy to be both a good mom and a good wife. These pills had different names and dosages, but they had one thing in common that doctors seemed to overlook. They were addictive, and should not be used for extended periods of time. In spite of this, thousands of doctors handed them out like candy to millions of moms in the Fifties and Sixties. My mother was one of them for about a decade, and she wanted to "un-join" the club.
.In the late Sixties, just after the hippies brought "the drug scene" to the headlines, Mom became under conviction about the pills her doctor had been prescribing for years, and one day she just quit taking them. ["Under conviction" is Evangelical Christian jargon for feeling guilty enough about something to think it's God's way of telling you to quit it.] Mom had many Christian friends who had no idea she had this issue. She was sure they would not approve, and she herself hated that she needed "help from a bottle." How is this any different than my father's problem? she argued with herself. My faith should be able to see me through this. I'll just trust God and quit.
[I can think of several ways this was different than her father's alcoholism, but I'm sharing her thoughts not mine.]
.I wish I could say it was one of those miracle decisions you hear about on those religious TV channels that most viewers watch in disbelief. I wish I could say everything was fine from that day forward... but I can't. It was the beginning of a long journey, which became a sub-plot of these chapters in our life. I only know this in looking back, it didn't occur to us at the time. (Most of life itself doesn't occur to us at the time.) Eventually, she accepted that our bodies are "fearfully and wonderfully made" and in this fallen world they sometimes need help to stay in balance.
You can't be on prescribed addictive pills for ten years and then just quit without having some side effects. Mom was no exception. I'm not sure she could prove cause and effect, but it was during these failed attempts to go cold turkey that Mom's "picking" became more noticeable. And as socially embarrassing as that habit was, it was not the most serious issue she faced.
We'll need to go back to the couch to see what I'm talking about. You know--the couch--the couch I was resting on while Mom went to frost the banana cake that day in 1970....
"Did you fall asleep, Tom?"
"Huh," I grunted, sitting up on the couch.
"I thought you dozed off. I'll be right back. I need to take this cup of sugar next door to Kay. What were you thinking about?"
"That day in 5th grade when I stayed home from school and we watched that movie about that "flirty" mother and her son. Remember?"
"Who was in it? What was the title?"
"I don't know, but you don't remember it?"
"I remember you being sick but I don't remember a movie."
I was relieved to know she'd forgotten that I said I was glad I didn't have a pretty mom, but I knew her going next door when we were already late for getting to the well was a bad idea.
"Mom, let me take the cup of sugar. If you take it, you'll be over there another half hour."
."Okay. Just tell her that I found the bag of sugar after I came and borrowed this."
"You lost a whole bag of sugar? Where'd you find it?"
"In the milk chute," she laughed.
Mom's explanation raised no question from Mrs. Janette next door (Mom called her Kay, but we were never allowed to call adults by their first name.) She simply took the cup and said, "I knew she'd find it somewhere. Tell your mom 'Any time.'" She knew my mother well.
The first Domino to fall
When I went back in the house, Mom was standing in the hall, staring in my sister Kathy's bedroom at the neatly stacked clothes on her bed. (Kathy was at the church practicing the next day's song with her trio.)
She knew Kathy would be leaving for college in the fall--now just five weeks away. Dad knew it, too, but never allowed himself to think about it. And to us boys, the reality of how different life in our little house would be without a “big sister” would not sink in until her chair was empty at the supper table.
But Mom could not turn away from the thought of Kathy leaving. It was not just the fear of being the only female left in the house; it was the anticipated ache of knowing her little girl would be 700 miles away and the sudden shock of mid-life, that feeling you get when the neat years of your life seem to fall like a row of books while dusting and WHAM! the last book slams to the hardwood floor so loud it makes you jump.
Just when you think the bookends of life will hold everything in place, all the years begin to fall like giant dominoes just past your reach. It’s then you realize that life will never be linear again, never lined up in a row to reach for and hold at will. Too soon it's scattered here and there. Mom felt the books falling each time she saw Kathy laying college clothes out on her bed. She wasn’t packing yet, just taking inventory to know what outfits she would need to get from September to December someplace far from home.
"It’s so hard,” Kathy would sigh to no one at all, “It’s just four months, and yet I'll still need all my summer, fall and winter things. Spring things I can take at Christmas.”
Sometimes I’d hear her as I passed her room, and whisper in the door, “Who are you talking to?”
“Nobody,” she’d smile, “Just thinking out loud.”
After such, I’d go on my way without another thought. I was not in denial. Denial is a deliberate act as if to wish a thing away, but I can truly say the fact had not yet registered. To this day, I tend to avoid my fear of unknown change by not seeing it until the day it hits me straight on.
Mom was not able to defer dread. She not only dreaded the thing itself, but in her mind she saw billboards of dread growing larger and larger before the thing itself occurred. Seeing the first of her brood go off to college was one of those things. She cried a lot that summer, but not in front of Kathy, who had her own mixed feelings about leaving home.
The week before, I'd seen Mom sitting on the kitchen floor pulling out the Tupperware and pans in the lower corner cabinet, which was too deep for her reach. It was not an orderly process, and judging by the racket, I knew something was wrong. Suddenly she just burst out in tears.
“I can’t get 'em, Tom," she sobbed, "They're too far back.”
"Get what?" I asked.
"The pie tins--they're clear to the back!"
I crawled chest-deep into the cabinet to get the tins. It was a grimy unseen corner where less-used items toppled out of sight for months or years at a time. My eyes adjusted to see an abandoned mousetrap gathering dust in the dark. It was empty and un-set. I remembered the winter a few years before when we had the trouble with mice. With a little effort I could have reached it to get it out of there, "But why remind Mom of that? Just leave it." I told myself, but actually... I was afraid to touch it. I saw both pie tins and the biscuit tins, too, old round things with spinning tabs that looked like the big-hand on a clock for separating the biscuits (or oven fries) from the pan. Inching backward out the cabinet door, I handed her the biscuit pans first.
"Looky here..." I grunted, getting to my knees.
“Oh, you found my biscuit pans, too. Good. I'll make biscuits tonight." she sniffed and smiled.
And just that suddenly she was fine, which is how it typically went, and I thought nothing of either the tears or their stopping. Encountering and solving minor catastrophes with Mom was a normal part of our private world.
"If I ever do have a new kitchen," she sighed, "I want one of those Lazy-Susan things that brings the corner stuff right to the front.”
“You’ll have a new kitchen, Mom," I handed her the pie tins. "Dad says we’re pouring the foundation after the well's done, and once the foundation’s done, then the walls go up and then the roof and probably the kitchen will be the first room done after that.”
“Do you really think so, Tom? I feel like it will never happen, and then when I think of it will happen I get so skairt (Mom pronounced the word scared with a "t" at the end). I'll miss Kay. I like having a cup of sugar or a half-a-loaf of bread right next door. Who will I visit with out there? And what am I going to do out in the woods when all you kids are gone?”
“We won’t be gone, Mom.” I assured her, and just as I did not yet care to think about my sister leaving for college, I did not yet allow myself to do the math and see that Mom might just be right.
I didn’t know it at the time; I didn’t know it at age 20; nor yet at 30; I would be 35 before I’d learn of Mom’s secret but on-going battle with depression. Back then we never talked about such things. There were no TV commercials asking, “What does depression look like?” And other than the tears and the picking, Mom's sense of humor, Bible reading, songs at the piano, singing in the church choir, staying busy with five kids... her daily doing masked what she was going through in life. The fact that she was usually able to carry on illustrates both her strength and fact that, medically speaking, things could have been much worse. Her experience made her much more sensitive to the trials of others. I did not understand this until much later when I began writing and Mom trusted me with stories I hadn’t heard before. In looking back at them, it’s easy to see the dots and put it all together, but children know nothing of connecting dots--except in coloring books.
Kathy probably understood more than she let on, but I'm sorry to say we boys paid little more attention to Mom's bad days than we did her slightly burnt toast (the kind she’d scrape with a butter knife and put beside her own plate to avoid the conflict giving it to anyone else would cause). Mom’s bad days, bad weeks, bad months, mixed in with the good, and became “normal” to us all. I guess burnt toast is a good way to put it. Not so burnt you had to throw it out, just slightly blackened, scraped off in the sink, and put at the table... as if everything was fine.
That day as we drove out to the property to help sink the sixth crock, I kept pushing the buttons of the radio trying to find a good song. When this one came on, Mom brushed my hand aside.
"Don't turn it, Tom. I like this one..." .
To be continued next week: Unsettled Chapter 14 "The Afternoon of the Sixth Crock" or "A Man Came Through the Woods"
Don't you love the word caveat? I don't use it in writing often. Perhaps because it sounds so much like caviar, which cannot be said without putting on airs, but more likely because I rarely use a word I'm not sure how to spell. (And yes, I confess, I just looked up caveat and was right on the first try). But anyway... I thought it might be a good idea to post a caveat before Chapter 13-B.
Blogs are an interesting place to write about life for at least two reasons: They can be a journal (i.e. a place to think on paper (without the paper), but journals should never be confused with diaries. Journals are personal but public--written to be read by many. Whereas, a diary is very private--not meant for others' eyes (which, of course, is why they are so fascinating to read).
The other reason blogs are an interesting place to write about life is that they are always "in process." They are both active and interactive. Through comments and "counters" bloggers know that others have taken at least a passing interest in what they have to say.
"Art for art sake" is a fine concept, but if it were entirely true, paintings would be hung facing the wall and not the hall. Make no mistake, whether it's a painting or a page, the thought that others care to see it is rich reward. Thank you for reading here.
But the truth is, I have no idea who does read here at POI (other than some family and friends and a few dozen of you whom I've enjoyed meeting through this process). Because of this, I tend to be careful in my writing--careful not to say too much about my current shared life (e.g. job, family, etc. That's what Facebook is for. But never doubt that it's my current life that fills the gaps between posts here at POI.)
Likewise, I'm somewhat careful when writing stories about my past because it, too, is shared. My 98-year-old grandmother occasionally reads Patterns of Ink posts that friends print for her. Other relatives and my siblings read here, too. You get the idea: I try to be careful.
I've been wrestling with this upcoming chapter for two reasons: First, because this Saturday marks one year since that Twilight Zone experience of flying back from Thailand just in time to spend two days with Mom before the family gathered 'round her to say our long good bye. And second, because I am protective of her memory, and I don't want to write about things that may be misunderstood or used to misrepresent her.
But I've reached the conclusion that in order to fully understand this or any story about my family--indeed, to fully understand the essence of "family" itself, all families everywhere--it's necessary that I share an unpleasant secret of sorts, something I didn't even know until long after that summer we dug the well.
Don't worry, I won't be "airing dirty laundry." I'm just sharing a slice of our life with Mom, something I've only hinted at in previous posts or poems. Something that anyone who truly knew my mother knew in real life and loved her just the same.
You may laugh or cry or both. I don’t know. It's a long chapter--a little rough, and I'm sure it will get tweaked for many days after I post it, but I wanted to add this caveat a day or two before I hit that orange "publish post" button on a chapter that has been very hard to write. . P.S.Three Nephew updates:Congratulations to my sister Kathy's son Ben, who reads here. Ben's wife Mary gave birth yesterday to their first child, a beautiful baby girl. I'm a "great uncle" again! On my nephew Geoff's Facebook page he writes about his recent birthday, "Other than not being happy I'm no longer a teenager, twenty is a pretty useless age." And last but not lease, my other nephew (also named Geoff) writes "I'm so glad Martin Luther King Jr. was born during the school year and not summer." See... I do write sometimes about my "current" life. Happy MLK/Pre-inauguration Day!
In your final address to the nation last night you said , “I will always be honored to carry a title that means more to me than any other: citizen of the United States of America.” But it is my honor to write these thoughts while you officially and exclusively hold the other title you have worn for eight years: thePresident of the United States.
A few hours ago you stepped aboard Marine One to spend your last weekend at Camp David. At the top of those steps you turned and waved at the crowd as you have done through the years, and I was pleased to see that in spite of the weight of your two terms, you still seem very comfortable in your own skin, and your smile still radiates from something deep within....
This Open Letter to President Bushcan be read in full at this site. It remains my post-November goal to avoid politics as much as possiple here at POI, but I did want to invite you to read a parting tribute to the man that prompted this and other thoughts today:
It is man--not time--that masks the truth. As the future ever-merges with the past, history sometimes reveals what historians failed to see.
There is a stand-alone chapter-story I wrote three years ago called "Mixed Milk" that really belongs in this "Unsettled" series. Had I been thinking I would have posted it for Christmas. When I print and bind these thoughts about the land and well and house to leave in our house for whomever lives there someday, I will include the "Mixed Milk" chapter. I've reason to mention it now...
Toward the end of that post you'll find this paragraph, which describes a picture you saw back in Chapter 9-b. Here is the paragraph and the picture, which we recently found:
"That year under the tree, we each got new leather shoes. We always mixed necessities in with our wants at Christmas. This was especially true during the mixed-milk years. In fact one of my favorite Christmas snapshots is of me sitting beside the tree in an undershirt with a new Bible in my right hand, a new bike tire in my left and those shoes somewhere in the wrapping paper in front of me. My mother says that picture makes her sad because I seem to be holding a bike tire with such satisfaction, but I had asked for the tire—it was on my list, just like the Bible and lots of other things I had unwrapped--and then to top it off... new shoes. The look on my face is one of genuine contentment." POI12-05
You'll notice that paragraph speaks of my mother in present tense because it was written when she was an active reader here at Patterns of Ink. But the actual reason I wanted to include these opening thoughts is so obscure that it requires further explanation about the phase of life in which my siblings and I now find ourselves.
As regular readers may recall, my sister and brothers and I have had "work days" in our family home, the house this Unsettled series is about (not the one in the photo). On those days we have met at the house to do the work that all surviving loved-ones eventually face, and I must say I have been encouraged by how the five of us have conducted this systematic sadness, this sorting of life, this closure of what's past and redefining of present. It has actually been a very meaningful time.
Because many of us have or will face this process, I'll share two ideas that helped make it so. First, we always work together or at least in pairs. And second, we try to defer to each other about the little "things" that can sometimes cause strife.
For instance, when it came to the hundreds of "priceless-but-not-costly things" that fill a house, my sister organized each room of the house as if for an estate sale, but rather than "buying" the objects, we each took turns (in a "rotation" of order that kept it fair) at picking things that had meaning to us. Once we got down to items that no longer had meaning to anyone, we left the objects there for a true estate sale (on a date yet to be determined). The process took hours, but it was a time of fellowship and reflection. Spread on the floor all around Mom's piano was her old sheet music. Each of us got to select "favorites" one at a time.
In this photo are two pieces of sheet music I picked that day: a first edition copy of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" and the song that is the subject of this post. If you look closely at this photo of our piano now and the photo above from Christmas 1969, you'll see the same copy of "Fill My Cup Lord" that is on Mom's piano behind me. I picked that music because I knew this chapter was coming. (I'd already alluded to it last summer in another story[2/3 down in that post].)
I have not heard this song in a church setting for many years. It was written by Richard Blanchard in 1953, but it reached its height of popularity in the late Sixties and Seventies, and like so many meaningful songs of that era, it's been shelved by the present generation.
It's possible that some readers here at POI know little about church music, so I'll just say that in addition to the great old hymns of the church, each generation is compelled to contribute new songs for believers to sing. These new songs ride up and down on waves of popularity over and below the steady line of the great hymns through the years, but unlike the hymns, they tend to be forgotten over time. (I could name dozens of other "church songs" that are even further back on the shelf, unsung for years.) In my case, for whatever reasons, I have not heard "Fill My Cup Lord" in a church setting for nearly two decades.
My children do not know this song, and I'm guessing neither do many of you. So for those unfamiliar with it, let me just say that it is based on the story in John 4 of the woman at the well whom Christ told He was the long-awaited Messiah. She was a woman who had been "looking for love in all the wrong places" so to speak. Christ told her of living water that satisfies eternal thirst. Just as Christ used a metaphor to capture that woman's imagination, Blanchard does so with ours, beginning his song with "Like the woman at the well, I was seeking for things that could not satisfy."
The links in this paragraph are not of the best quality, but I include them to demonstrate that "Fill My Cup Lord" was very popular and sung by vocalists and choirs of that time. It was sung by hundreds every week here in the states, and it's sung to this day in little churches all around the world. As a teen, I sang this song several times a month for many years. But how I remember it most, is hearing my mother singing it at her piano. To give an idea of how simple that sound was, I'll include this link of a piano playing it. (I wish it did not have the "midi" notes for the vocal part. Midi music has a way of making good music sound cheesy.) Chapter 13 was to be called "The Woman at the Well." It is not about the woman in the Bible but my Mom. I split the chapter into two parts. Part "A" explains the song so that when I mention it in part "B," you'll fully understand its meaning and why my mother sang it so often that summer when we dug the well.
I probably won't be able to post the next chapter until Friday or so. In the meantime, please follow this link to read "Mixed Milk" (or listen to some of the other links above). If you have a few more minutes, watch the video below by CeCe Wynans. It's called "Alabaster Box" and is about a different woman in the Bible, equally in need as the woman at the well, which is perhaps why Wynans begins the medley with "Fill My Cup Lord."
Bending with the Wait (Thoughts from Holland Station)
when houses are dark
but for the little light
left on for flannel-wonderings
in the night,
I step into my untied boots
and out in the falling snow
to heft two heavy bags
in the back of the family wagon.
The streets and car are silent
but for the chatter of two girls,
dressed for the day but barely awake (best friends since junior high),
reliving highlights of their break and reveling in what lies ahead
(all the delights and some of the dread
behind curtain number two,
sometimes called second-semester).
A quick stop
for bagels and coffee
to take aboard the train,
then off again
through the silent rhythm and glow
of streetlights in the falling snow. (Driving with one hand,
heading south toward the station town,
I hold the cup just below my lip.
There is no finer smell
than coffee in the cold
before the first sip.)
A mile or so past Grand Haven's lights
the road is lined with towering pines,
flocked in the night’s fresh falling,
boughs bending with the weight
but holding tight.
Ten miles and then the sign: Train Station Next Right.
And there it is as if in a painting
from another time
before all else around
left trains behind.
The little brick station comes into view
with awning stretched like open arms
each way along the track.
Snow drapes from its eaves,
as if it were a raised curtain on a stage
where shadows of the past look on
at woolen hugs and mitted tugs
at overcoats to button up
and here and there a kissing pair
whose last good-byes
and frosted whispers hang in the air.
And right on time
comes the far-away moan,
a tone that, in and of itself, is
one of man’s unsung achievements.
(A train whistle in the distance
is to time
what church bells
are to eternity.
if such a song exists,
consists of well-placed notes
around such forgotten sounds.)
Louder and nearer
the whistle blows,
joined by clanging bells
at the nearby crossing,
'til rolling to a stop, there comes
a windowed wall with wheels.
Out steps the happy porter
whose smile and ready hands
tell me he clearly understands
the untold stories all around.
He lifts the spirits and the elbow
of each passenger who steps up
and disappears above.
One more hug.
“I love you, Dad!” she squeezes.
“I love you, Kim,” I whisper in her ear,
“Call us when you get there.”
The conductor helps her with her bag,
and likewise helps her friend.
Another smile at the top of the stair,
then gone and just in time.
The conductor cups his hand
(and relishes this moment
of the job he loves)
“All aboard!” he calls to the front,
leaning outward from his grip,
then, turning in, bounds two steps up
to beat the closing doors.
I took Kim and one of her dear friends who attends the same college in Chicago to the station early this morning. We had a very nice three-week break with her. She is enjoying school so much, and being just three or four hours away, the departure wasn't as sad as the ones I recall when I went back to school after Christmas. I've picked her up or dropped her off here before, but the setting always gets me. The whole thing went so smoothly and was so beautiful that verbal images kept flooding my mind as I drove away. So I stopped and scribbled the lines above on the back of the coffee shop placemat. (Do you ever just have to do that? I do. My family thinks I'm crazy--except maybe Kim who does the same things sometimes.)
I wish I had a good picture of Holland Station in the snow. The above photo was taken with a cell phone. It shows a train approaching 8th Street, but you can barely see the station. The post card here is more than a hundred years old (not of Holland Station). But for the "costumes" little has changed at such places.
Last week today I was very sick, but things are getting back to "normal" here at the house. We took down most Christmas decorations this morning (all but the village on the mantle). Next "Unsettled" chapter is on the way. Really!
Writer's Note: I'm sometimes curious if readers catch "ring-a-bell" phrases I use in writing. I like to include word combinations that can trigger greater images than the words themselves mean. In stanza three, lines 11 and 12 read "... woolen hugs and mitted tugs at overcoats to button up," I was hoping to suggest the song made famous by Helen Kane (aka Betty Boop). Here's a recording of it from 1929. The line makes sense, but if the reader even vaguely remembers that old song it helps invoke one of the eras when trains were a setting of affectionate farewells.
This past Saturday, I got zapped by a bug that put me in a full-body moan for almost 48 hours. It was about as sick as I've been in several years. Then almost as suddenly as it hit me, it went away in time for the first day back to school. I don't know if it was a virus or what, but I've heard other reports of it in our circles, so it's going around.
When it comes to our health, we don't want to "go viral." But when it comes to internet moments of fame, it's not always a bad thing.
As you know, "going viral" is a 21st Century cyber-space term referring to a video-clip that is so funny or shocking or clever or adorable or appalling that millions of people want to send it to a friend or post it on their personal site. This "desire to spread something" is really an interesting topic in and of itself, and much research has already begun on just why and how it happens.
We do know that bad news tends to spread faster than good news, but we can all be thankful that The Good News has never stopped spreading since that story broke.
[Side note: I've never had anything "go viral" at Patterns of Ink Youtube, but it has been amazing to track the interest in that Thailand trip. Other than this story about the hut(4,286 hits), it's the video with the bloodthat has gotten the most hits (3,354). (Followed by this one(3,300), which may be due to the song.]
Most things in life just don't muster enough immediate reaction to spread like... well, like a virus. And like viruses, it's hard to predict the next thing that will spread for our entertainment. But allow me to introduce you to a funny guy on Youtube who calls himself Uncle Jay. The post below was published in mid December and quickly received over 100,000 hits. That's good, but it does not qualify as "going viral."
Then on December 22, he posted this "Year-in-review singing episode" and hit gold. It DID go viral and is quickly approaching 7 MILLION hits since December 22. I don't know who Uncle Jay is or what his leanings are, but he doesn't seem to be as mean-spirited as many satirists, and I think most would agree after viewing some of his episodes at Uncle Jay's Youtube channel that he is a smart, funny, observer of current events and human nature who may just have a future in this new on-line gig he has launched. This is the episode that went viral...
Next "Unsettled" chapter coming later this week...
"The Bucket and the Blue Sky Above" Happy New Year! It's early Thursday morning--early if you consider I was up until 2:00 A.M. with my siblings who drove over to the west side of the state to celebrate with us (except Dave who went to PA to be spend New Year's with his wife Jane's family). I know most people will not be reading blogs for the next few days, but I have been so far behind in my writing that I want to post this "draft" that I've been writing the past few early mornings of Christmas Break while the family is still sleeping. It's long, but broken into three parts. So feel free to take it in small doses. I'm sure this draft will be revised in the days ahead (Who knows? I may remove the last part if I come to my senses and decide not to share such a silly "confession.")
Part I: Hard Work and Hunches
As mentioned previously, I’ve never heard-tell of the particular method my father imagined would work in digging our well. Nor did I at the time, realize how many untested assumptions held his idea together. I have seen other wells lined with cement crocks or brick, but those wells were first dug and then lined with the culverts (or with mortared brick or stone) in two separate stages, but Dad‘s idea required simultaneous digging and “lining." Here‘s how.
. (1) Place a single 4’-by-4’ concrete culvert (he called them crocks) exactly in the place you want a well (2) Climb inside the crock and begin digging out the ground from underneath it, allowing gravity to lower the crock perfectly into the ground. (3) Repeat these steps with seven stacked crocks until a well is nearly 30 feet deep (roughly the height of a telephone pole). Sounds simple, right? Dad thought so. [I wish we had family photographs from when we dug the well, but we don't. This photo looks remarkably like our setting in 1970, but our land has much bigger trees.]
To make sure the crocks slipped easily and evenly into the earth, we shoveled pea gravel around the outside edge of the crock which served as ball-bearings to sort of “roll” the crock into its earthen, vertical tunnel. The pea gravel later helped filter the water that would seep into the well. [Dad had a load of pea gravel delivered to the site, uniformly sifted pebbles the size of green peas. While it is true that we sometimes exercised the “fifth freedom” behind that pile of pebbles, the name had nothing to do with that fact and was spelled like the vegetable.]
This sort of work has no instructions, no blueprints, but relies instead on hard work and hunches. Like many of Dad’s projects, he told few people he was doing it. There were no permits, no “perk tests” (now required by law to dig a well for drinking water), and no outside advice. In fact, had Dad tried to get input from others, he would have been told not begin such a crazy idea because “it couldn’t be done.” Such thoughts never deterred Dad from doing something he was convinced would work, which is not to say he didn’t have to make a adjustments along the way.
The first thing Dad noticed was that the handle of his shovel was too long to provide leverage. It hit the side of the crock before the blade turned upward. So he took a cross-cut saw and lopped off a foot of the handle which allowed the full working motion of each cut and scoop of earth. [Strange, but of the all odd things in life I wish we’d kept for in and of themselves they tell a tale, I wish we had kept the lopped-off end of that shovel handle, a smooth foot of Ash with a rounded end and hole drilled through so as to hang from a nail on the barn wall. I’d like to have it on a shelf to hold as I tell this story, but I don’t know what became of it.] From that day on, the sawed-off well shovel simply leaned against the wall inside the barn door.
The second adjustment was building a makeshift scaffold to hold a rope-and-pulley over the well. Dad knew that he would eventually need to dig into a bucket that we boys would pull up, but he soon realized that throwing each shovel-full of dirt over the four-foot wall was a waste of motion, and lifting the 40-some pounds of dirt in the bucket was a waste of his energy. So from the start, he shoveled into a five gallon plastic bucket, which we pulled up with a rope, unhooked from the leash-clip, and dumped a few yards away.
That June day when we began the well (and I arrived after delivering Dave’s Detroit News route), they’d begun digging in the loose, sandy soil common to Michigan. Dad let Paul get in the crock and dig for a while in the morning (since he would be leaving after lunch), and that afternoon he let Dave and I each have a turn inside the crock, just to know what was involved, but most of the time Dad was inside digging. (In the weeks ahead, once a ladder was needed to get in and out of the well, Dad did all of the digging. Just why would not occur to us for a few more weeks.)
Once the first crock was at ground level, we rolled another identical crock to the spot, tipped it on its end atop the one in the ground so the molded top and bottom edges were “seated” together as cups and saucers do.
It was almost 4:00 O’clock. Dad was convinced we could sink another crock before heading home for supper. Time flies when you’re having fun! About five hours later, just after sunset, the second crock was flush to the ground. We covered the hole with a large wooden sign (left over from a building project at our church) and weighted it down with three cinder blocks.
It was not until I closed the log gate at the front entrance of our woods, that hunger occurred to me. Mom had supper waiting for us when we got home.
Part II: Beyond the Second Crock
The second week was the same routine. I stayed home to deliver the paper and joined the others when Mom, Jim, and I brought out lunch.
When they uncovered the well that morning, to Paul and Dave’s surprise (but not Dad‘s), the bottom crock was full of water.
“I knew we hit the water table last week. The dirt was getting wetter and wetter." Dad said with satisfaction, after all, this water was not a problem--it was the reason behind all the digging.
"And the buckets were getting heavier, too," Paul added.
"I'll bet they were. After today, it should fill almost to the top each week. We’ll have to pump it out first thing before we can put the ladder in.”
Dad had purchased a large electric pump for just this purpose, but he’d forgotten to put in in the wheelbarrow full of tools that morning. In the future, each morning began with the same routine: carry out the big extension ladder and "wheel" the pump and tools from the barn to the well in the wheelbarrow; have one of the boys unwind a long extension cord as they went from the barn to the site; pump out the water that filled the incomplete well each week; roll the next crock into place on top of the well; put the latter down the well; let Dad descended into the well; pull out the ladder (otherwise there was no room to work); put the sawed-off shovel in the bucket and tie a "sheep shank" knot around the handle to hold it upright as the bucket and shovel were lowered down to Dad.
From the second week when they sunk the third crock right up to the last week when the 7th crock was in place, that's how the mornings went. But never again would we sink two crocks in one day as we did on day one. In fact, each week brought new challenges of its own. Dad soon dug past the sandy soil and hit clay-- thick, heavy clay that could only be dug a half-a-shovel-full at a time. This clay was not only difficult to dig but also harder to empty from the bucket.
(As I said, I wish we had family pictures. You can tell this is not my brothers and me because, among other hints, we did not wear hard-hats. =) This picture also shows the form of the cement crocks, allowing them to "seat" as they were stacked.)
When I arrived after noon that second week, I saw that their morning labor had only sunk half of one crock. Because of the thick clay, it would take all afternoon to sink the other half. Sometimes Dad scooped buckets of seeping water up to make the digging easier. Because we were now working with wet dirt each week, Dad began wearing the vinyl "sweat suit" top Dave wore when he was trying to cut weight for a wrestling meet. It smelled like a shower curtain, but kept Dad mostly dry--but for his own sweat--all day long.
When we returned the third week the well was full of water. We pumped it out, rolled the fourth crock in place and began another day of digging. Dad hoped we'd make it through the band of clay and find soil that was easier to dig, but all morning long each bucket brought up only clay. Worse yet, when Dad dug well past the lower rim, leaving nothing to hold up the tons of concrete, they did not slide down into the hole as they had in the past. He kept digging beneath them further and further but they would not drop. This bothered Dad, because he was nearly 15 feet under ground level, and getting out required us lowering the heavy wooden ladder that hooked on the side of the well.
. "Give me the ladder," he hollered up to us, "I'll have to get the tractor and tap the top 'til she drops."
But just when the weight of the ladder -hooks hit the top of the well--SHLUNK!--the whole stack dropped with an earth-shaking wet thud to the bottom of the hole. We all stood in silence for a moment. It was not that we hadn't seen the stacked crocks drop before. We had. That was the how Dad's whole idea worked. We had just never had it drop nearly a foot when we least expected it.
"I guess I don't need the ladder after all," Dad laughed. It took the rest of the day to get the 4th crock to ground level. We left for home an hour sooner than usual, but Dad considered it a good stopping point and knew we would enjoy eating supper early (if you consider 8:00 P.M. early).
. Part III: The Bucket and the Blue Sky Above
The five gallon bucket was the plastic sort with a heavy wire handle--the kind drywall joint compound comes in that is then put to use in a hundred different ways for decades. These buckets are virtually indestructible as we would prove with this single bucket that made thousands of trips up and down the well hung from a hemp rope with a spring loaded “leash clip.”
The rope threaded through a pulley bolted to the 2-by-6 beam of Dad’s make-shift scaffold that stood like a giant saw-horse over the opening of the well. [It looked something like this drawing, except our well was lined with crocks as we went.]
From Dad's point of view, all he could see of the outside world was the bucket and the blue sky above.
Going down the well, the empty bucket sometimes bumped or scrapped along the smooth cement wall in drum-like thuds. Coming up the well, the bucket was heavy and silent and rose in the rhythm of the left-right pulling of our palms against the taught one-inch hemp.
If we pulled the rope evenly, the bucket ascended straight up the four-foot vertical “tunnel” without hitting the wall. That was the goal, and seeing how many times in a row we could raise the bucket full of dirt (or clay), quickly, smoothly, silently without scraping the wall was a sort of game we played all day. When we failed, if the load bumped Dad’s shoulder in its rise, for instance, and if the rhythm of our pulling hands gave energy to the swaying rope, the bucket would careen from wall to wall like a badly thrown bowling ball when “bumpers” are in the gutters of the lane. The first bump against a wall knocked the, but like the small amount of sand that flicks from the feet of children running past your blanket at the beach… it was an annoyance from which we tried to spare our father who stood vulnerably at the bottom of the well.
Far worse than allowing the full bucket to graze the wall was an event that happened only rarely (when you consider that each boy alternated turns at pulling and we pulled up the bucket hundreds of time each Saturday).
If the bucket happened to graze the wall at the exact moment in passing where the seam of two stacked crocks met, and if the seam had the slightest “lip” like the crack in a sidewalk where an unseen root has raised an edge not high enough to see but just enough to clip the toe of your shoe in its forward swing, just enough to break the rhythm of your stride and nearly trip you as you catch your fall and look back at the crack as you continue on so if anyone was watching they know you are not a clumsy oaf but rather they will know there is a hazard on the sidewalk and that any normal passer-by would trip at that part of the walk. And in case the onlooker is judging your gift of walking much like an Olympic figure skating judge, he will take into consideration that flaw in the sidewalk before holding up a score-card below and “8." With a shake of your head, you mumble not a curse (for the whole charade assumes someone is watching) but some gracious recommendation like, “They ought to fix that crack,” but you continue on your way with a lift of your head and half a smile so anyone watching will know that you are the sort of person not easily perturbed....
If the bucket happened to catch that kind of hidden seam-lip as it rose, it “tripped“ momentarily as the bottom of the bucket continued rising several inches while the top of the bucket negotiated the obstruction for only a split second in which it ceased moving upward, thereby tipping the bucket and spilling the upper inches of dirt down on Dad. This event was more annoying than a flick of beach sand from a passing foot. To Dad, this felt more like a child dumping a small bucket of sand on his head. And since he knew his only audience was the two or three faces of his sons peering over the brink of the upper crock of the well, his reactions were not always predictable. If it was early in the day and his spirits were still good, he’d holler up, “That’s alright. A little dirt never hurt anybody.”
But if were toward the end of a long day, and Dad was tired and cranky and pushing all of us far past a better selves, we never knew what we'd hear. One time as the dirt showered down, Dad's head hunched down in his shoulders, and he'd shouted, “Why do I feel like I’m working with the damn Three Stooges!”
My dad was not a "swearing man," but there is a point to why I did not edit that verbatum quotation. In order for the closing part of this chapter to make any sense at all, you must understand that on rare occasions in our otherwise strictly-Baptist lives, Dad let one or two pet words slip. I’ve never heard from his mouth the Lord's name or vulgar curse words, but when things were going badly, and his desire to be exemplary was wearing thing, the word “damn” or some variation would be put to dramatic use. When it happened, we sons never assumed the same liberty extended to us. We carried on as if we hadn't heard it but took it as a clue to shut up, get the job done, or get out of the way.
Unlike any other work we did with Dad, with each passing week of digging the well, our "boss" was further and further away from us as we “worked together,” and a strange thing began happening. There was a “disconnect” between the faces we showed him over the brink of the well and the faces we showed each other beyond the small circle of sky Dad could see when he looked or shouted up at us. Talking down the well to Dad we showed the respectful, caring faces he was accustomed to working with for years, but one step away from the well and he could not see us at all (nor hear a word we said), and we sometimes shared quite opposite reactions. Such are the sub-plots of life.
One particular late evening when Paul, Dave and I were tired and the unfortunate and rare bucket-lip spill had occurred, as the dirt was pouring down on Dad, he mumbled up some mild variation of his “three stooges” line. I replied with a “Sorry, Dad” down the well, then stepped back from the well and began singing a song to Dave and Paul that I’d been writing in my head for many weeks. It sputtered out with melody as if it were a brilliant spontaneous parody, but I‘d actually rehearsed it in my mind many times and saved if for just such a moment. (One of my unofficial roles as the youngest brother was "entertaining the troops" in times like these.)
We were a very musical family (and "musicals" were among the unbannished records we could have in the house). I've shared hints of it here, here, and here. To fully appreciate the humor, you may need to listen to the title song from the Camelot. We heard the Richard Burton Broadway rendition hundreds of times on Mom’s Camelot album at home. (It would be years before we saw the Richard Harris film version on TV.)
Only the first 1.5 minutes of the screen below pertains to this post.
Do you have that melody in your head? Okay, hit the pause button on the screen. Here goes…
I stepped away from the well to dump the bucket and began singing in a loud British accent from the scene when King Arthur explains Camelot to Guenevere. My parody was a play on the word Camelot.
It's true! It's true! My father’s made it clear.
His helpers must be perfect all the year.
A law was made a distant moon ago here:
especially in August when it’s hot.
There is a word Dad wishes we not hear: He says Damalot.
When you‘re pulling up the bucket full of dirt And it accidentally snags across that spot He’ll holler he’s not hurt But brushing off his shirt He’ll add Damalot!
Damalot! I know it sounds a bit bizarre,
But if he says Damalot...Damalot
That's how conditions are.
When you’re working with your father And you're dumb, And he hammers at a nail but hits his thumb He’ll swear that it’s a plot Stooges for sons he’s got And if you listen closely You might just hear… Dam...alot.
And with that I returned with the empty bucket and lowered it back down to Dad who was completely unaware at the levity at ground level above. The truth of the matter is Dad did not say damn a lot but for the sake of the song, I exaggerated.
If “Brevity is the soul of wit,” hyperbole is its shadow. (And since I sometimes seem to be a hopeless combination of the rambling Polonius and the melancholy Hamlet, I’ll end this chapter on that note.)