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patterns of ink

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

Saturday, January 30, 2010

I'm a Grandpa!

First of all, allow me to introduce you all to my first grandchild, Nora Paige. Born at 1:43 PM, January 29, 2010. 7 lbs 9oz, 21 inches long. With lot's of dark hair. (Click on smaller photos to enlarge.)

That's her at about three hours old, wearing a cap to keep warm.

Good thing she had a cap because she was born on a very cold day. The temperature was in the upper teens on this eve of the first full moon of the year. Her mother was also born during a full moon. I'm no loony mystic, but I do know many veteran nurses who swear there are more baby's born during full moons.

I doubt it's statistically supported, I'm only saying that Nora and her Mom were born during a full moon, and when I stepped outside the building and saw that bright orb in the cold, clear sky, I remembered the night Em was born over twenty-five years ago.
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Julie and I consider it one of the most bonding times of our lives. We were living in Iowa at the time so neither of our parents were present in the hospital. We kept them posted, of course, and they came out to visit immediately, but the day of the birth itself was pretty much the two of us with the help of the fine hospital staff. Keith and Em chose to do the same in their experience yesterday. The difference is, nowadays, there are cell phones and Facebook to keep all the family members up to the minute. It was great.

We all kept busy doing our normal routine, and passing progress reports along just as if we had been in a waiting room. Then after Nora was born, and Keith and Em had a few hours with their baby as a new family, they called us and we rushed up to see Nora--and Em and Keith, too... but mostly Nora. Keith's parents and brother and sister-in-law joined us a few minutes later. It was a wonderful gathering. Lots of pictures; lots of video; lots of Facebook photoalbums in the making. (If you happen to know them, you can see many more pictures there.) That's Julie to the right and I don't know who that guy in the beard is.

I hope you don't mind me rambling on in this post. The truth is, I don't "facebook" and photos display better on a blog when they are wrapped in text, so I'm just providing text. You don't have to read it.

Back when Emily was born, I did not have a lap-top.(No one I knew had any form of a personal computer back then.) But it will probably not surprise you that I had a journal and wrote on-the-spot, real-time, anecdotal reports of what was happening through the day.

Don't worry, I was also doing my main job as Julie's Lamaze coach. I was a very attentive father-to-be, but even during labor there are long periods of "down time," and I passed mine writing in the journal (sort of like I found myself doing yesterday as I was waiting for the phone call as a grandpa-to-be).

[That's me getting misty as I hold Nora for the first time.]

And I will say that my children have enjoyed reading that journal through the years. In fact, Emily brought it home from their house just a couple weeks ago. I didn't know she had it, but she and Keith wanted to read it to get an idea of what was in store. So I'm glad I had that journal on hand when Emily was born.

You may recall I told you about Nora coming several months ago, and since then it's been a joy to watch her grow. I can see Nora's "born" face in this ultrasound. It was fun watching her mommy grow, too.

(She's always been a slender girl, and not much changed over the nine months. Her tummy looked sort of like a cocoon on a stick.)

Keith has been working hard, too. He's been painting from the basement to the upstairs nursery, which by the way is adorable. The cradle that Em bought at an antique sale (and stored in our garage for two years) is now set up in the little nook off their living room, and there's a portable crib in their bedroom. they are ready to go!

Aunt Kim, there at the left, came home from college in Chicago Thursday night just in time to see her new niece the next day. We have a picture of Kim and Em holding their little sister Natalie back in 1995. It looks very much like this snapshot.

Speaking of Natalie, here she is with Nora. She is fourteen, and just after this picture was taken she had to leave to go play in a varsity girls basketball game after which she was a cheerleader during the boys varsity game. Keith and his brothers and sisters (Nora's other aunts and uncle) are good athletes, and Em and Kim and Natalie all play volleyball. (In fact, they all wore the same uniform in high school.) I like that Aunt Natalie is an athlete and a cheerleader and a piano player, and judging by Nora's graceful fingers, she may follow in her footsteps.

So there you have it. There's my little girl Emily holding her little girl Nora. It's been just two and a half years since she was getting dressed for her wedding day and she and her husband took those wonderful pictures along the shore of Lake Michigan.
I love milestone days like weddings, but there's nothing more beautiful than a new mom.

Keith and Em are off to a great start as parents. They know what commitment is beginning with each other. (They were high school sweethearts who continued dating as they went to college to become teachers.)

They know that Nora's security through the years will come not from being adored and doted on, not from being the center of a child-centered home, but from being loved and nurtured by the two parents whose love made the home in the first place. And if God grants Nora brothers and sisters, they will know the same love and security.

Changing the subject slightly to previous posts: For over a year, I have been writing about some land and the home my own childhood family settled back in the late Sixties and Seventies. That project is pretty much done. I do have an epilogue to write for those chapters, but that will be on hold for a while. By the way, it may seem like I write mostly about things long past, but if you know my current life, you will see that those "old stories" tie directly to the present. For instance, back in 2007 when I was writing about my own parents' first year of marriage in Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe, those chapters were unfolding during my daughter's first year of marriage. There was a reason for that. I wanted Em to read it and to know that the life she and Keith had begun would not be perfect, but their experiences would draw them close and make the "for better or worse" part of their vows a stronger and stronger knot through time. Likewise, in Unsettled, when I write of my brother Jimmy being the one still at home when his siblings moved on, I am drawing parallels to my own Natalie, who is our caboose. In the concluding chapters of Unsettled, I have hinted at those intangible elements that gradually draw young people from the home they know to the home they hope to build--not from the ground up as my Dad did-- but from hand to hand and heart to heart as my parents also did, and as Julie and I and Keith's parents have tried to do for our children, and as Keith and Em will do for theirs.
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Enjoy the photos and links. It may be a while before I resume writing, but I will resume in time. (I know because I've tried to quit before.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Unsettled Chapter 52

Kathy's Christmas Surprise
(and a very important footnote)

Some Christmas days throughout my childhood stand out in my mind: the year I got my sled when I was four; the year Dave and I got our Pinocchio string puppets; the year the three of us boys got our BB guns [that's the picture of me pulling my Daisy from its box in 1966]; the year I got the bike tire and a Bible.

I remember those magical mornings, but for some reason the details of Christmas Day 1975 are sketchy in my mind. Perhaps it’s because Kathy wasn’t there and we were holding back some of the celebration until she arrived two days later. Perhaps it’s because of all the other "firsts" and adjustments swirling ‘round those first days in the house.

All I remember about that Christmas morning itself is one gift I got and another one that Jimmy got.

Paul gave me a Norelco triple-header electric razor. Being the “late bloomer” I’ve disclosed in previous chapters, it was good to know that by my sophomore year of college, I needed to use this new razor about two or three times a week. If I had a date on Friday, I’d shave on Thursday just to have a faint sign of some facial hair by the next evening. [I still have that Norelco shaver after nearly thirty-five years of light use. Light because at first I hardly needed it, and since 1994 I’ve worn a beard.]

While writing these closing chapters, I visited with my siblings to see what they remembered from this unique Christmas. I have a very photographic memory, but there are things that I forget until something “triggers” the memory. Sort of like the way I can finish reciting long Bible passages our old hymns once someone prompts me with the first few words. It was Jimmy who told me about his standing at the window and watching we leave that day I went to shovel snow (which brought back my recollection of coming home afterwards). He also reminded me that it was the Christmas of 1975 that he looked around the tree for the one thing he’d asked for and it wasn’t there. He knew things were tight that year, but as we were cleaning up the wrapping paper, he had a disappointed look that Dad had been waiting to see.

“Did you lose something, Jim.” Dad asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“Oh, I thought maybe you lost something in the paper.”

“No. I’m just helping pick it up.”

“Well, here let me take that to the trashcan for you.”

Dad took the handful of torn gift wrap to the large trashcan by the back door, then he stepped into the laundry room and wheeled Jimmy’s missing gift through the kitchen to the tree.

“Look what I found in the laundry room. Santa must have run out of room under the tree.”

Jimmy’s face lit up as he saw the three-speed “Sting Ray” bike. It had a metallic copper finish, high-rise handle bars, and the long square-edged seat (which he later explained was much racier looking than a plain “banana seat”).He had shown my parent this very bike months before at the store, and he had no questions as to how Santa managed to deliver so precisely the bike he had described in his letter to the North Pole.

Our childhood Christmas lists were always written in the form of a letter to Santa which Dad delivered to the North Pole on his annual deer hunting trip to the Upper Peninsula. We never questioned that the North Pole is another 2,500 miles from the U.P. We only knew Dad was “close” to it and made sure Santa got our letters. [FYI:I just googled the question “How far is the North Pole from Detroit?” and got this smarty-pants answer.]

Santa’s accuracy was especially impressive in 1975 since Dad had not gone deer hunting because of the move to the house, which by the way, did not yet have a chimney. The chimney was built the next fall so Dad could start heating the house with wood. But let’s face it, seven-year-old kids don’t want to think too hard about the many questions surrounding Santa’s methods or existence. They’re just glad to know he’s on the job.

Jimmy got on the bike, peddled it about twenty feet back to the laundry room, got off, turned it around and rode it back toward the tree. He did that about three times and then just stood straddling the crossbar for several minutes smiling. (The trouble with getting a bike for Christmas when there’s nearly a foot of snow on the ground outside is that you pretty much have to sit on it and pretend until spring.)

As we were fixing breakfast, Jimmy was still sitting on his bike across the room near the tree, pretending to be steering it down some winding path.

Dad whispered to Mom, “I should’ve brought the bike out sooner. I felt like a heel watching him look around the room like that. I wanted it to be a surprise, but I waited too long.”

“He was trying to act so happy with his other things,” Mom sighed, “But that sad smile when we started cleaning up made me feel awful.”

“Oh, well,” I said, “Look at him now.”

We all looked at Jim and smiled.

“What?” he said.

“Do you like it?” Dad asked.

“It’s the exact one I wanted,” he smiled, and then his eyes again looked down that winding path in his mind.

That's about all I remember from Christmas Day, but come Saturday morning, we had to figure out where Kathy and Jack were going to sleep. The upstairs was freezing; the back bedroom was occupied with Dad and Mom and Jim; the makeshift bunk room we’d made for us boys was already full, but outside the entrance to our room was the only open part of the basement floor. It was about 12-by-12 feet. We brought down Kathy’s bed and mattress from the attic and put it together right there in the open. The rest of us had to literally walk around the bed to get out to the main living area of the basement. It was not ideal, but as Mom said, “It was cozy.”

Finally, the whole family would be together, all under one roof—way under the roof, in fact… clear down in the basement, but that didn’t matter. Finally, we would all be home.

Kathy and Jack arrived in time for dinner. We were setting the table when they stepped through the back door, and we all greeted them in the entry way, exchanging hugs and taking coats and suitcases to the foot of their bed. Mom apologized for the lack of privacy when they saw their bed in the middle of the room. “Hey, a bed is a bed!” Jack laughed.

For a while, the eight of us seemed huddle close, like people round a fire, joining in a mix of endless chatter and laughter as we stood around Kathy who was sitting on the edge of her bed. There was no fire, of course, no fireplace, no Ben Frankly stove, but there was a kind of warmth in that circle as we caught up on each other’s news, and followed Mom’s lead into the kitchen for supper. Dad said grace, and as we began passing the food, Kathy explained that she was not hungry. She had been sick more than once during their trip that day. In fact, she had been sick nearly every morning for the past several weeks. Her eyes brimmed as she took a deep breath and told us all the news.

“I’m gunna be and uncle?” Paul gasped.

“You are?” Jim pondered.

“Well so are you,” Dave laughed.

“I’m too young to be an uncle.”

“When are you due!” I asked.

“June, late June.” Kathy smiled, wiping tears from her cheeks. She was very happy, the tears were simply the culmination of having kept it a surprise ‘til then. There is both joy and apprehension in a pregnancy, especially one’s first, and those feelings often show themselves in tears. We boys kept asking all sorts of questions and acting like uncles-in-waiting when we suddenly noticed that Dad and Mom were just smiling at us, taking this news with a calmness that gave away the fact that they were in on the secret from the start. Kathy had called home to tell them in November, when the morning sickness began, and she needed Mom’s reassurance about the slightest things she felt each day.

The remaining days of that Christmas Break are a blur. I only remember the strange closeness of our quarters at bedtime and odd details like seeing Kathy get out of the bed outside our doorway to go throw up in the bathroom. Uncle-to-be or not, Paul found our new sleeping arrangements so claustrophobic that he began spending his nights upstairs in what would someday be Jim's room. There was no sheetrock on the walls, no door, no heat. He just put his mattress on the floor and slept in two sleeping bags under a quilt. One night he slept with a glass of water beside him and it was frozen when he woke in the morning. He was basically camping up there. Dave did go to Florida, and the trip to Detroit Metro Airport had a silver lining. It prompted the idea that Kathy should fly back to South Carolina rather than take that long drive home. This put her mind at ease. She was an elementary teacher, and the thought of starting second semester the day after that long trip back to their little upstairs apartment had been quite a worry.

The week after New Years, the house was back to just Dad, Mom, Paul, and Jimmy, with Mom being home alone most of the time.

I wasn’t there, but years later Mom told me that she continued to struggle with her depression and feelings of isolation the rest of that winter. Dad’s progress on the house was steady but seemingly uneventful to Mom who found herself making fewer and fewer trips upstairs while Dad was working. In addition to all the other causes of her feelings, those things I’ve mentioned in previous chapters, she was now going to be a grandmother. She was thrilled about that, but this was not how she had imagined it would be. Her daughter was far away. The grandchild would be far away. This bitter-sweet fact draped over her joy like the sheet that covered the new dining room light in its box upstairs. It was hard to fully enjoy the thought of what would someday be.

Mom still found solace at the piano and in the hymns and choruses she loved. One of them she especially enjoyed during this time in our family’s life was written by John W. Peterson" "I'm Not Alone." I haven’t heard it in decades, but I cannot sing it in my head without hearing Mom’s voice at the piano.

I’m not alone, while walking on life’s pathway,
I have a friend who walks along with me;
I’m not alone altho’ I’m often lonely,
My Lord divine is by me constantly.
So when the storm and trial assail me,
And earthly friendships fail me,
I’ll sing and smile o’er ev’ry mile
Till I reach my heavenly home;
And, so, I, journey o’er hill and valley
I’m not alone: my Savior walks with me.
So when the storm and trial assail me,
And earthly friendships fail me,
I’ll sing and smile o’er ev’ry mile
Till I reach my heavenly home;
And, so, I, journey o’er hill and valley
I’m not alone: my Savior walks with me.


It was in those drab days of April when all the snow is gone and earth begins to thaw but bare trees show no buds of what spring has in store...it was in those empty days that Mom and Dad got news that changed their life and nearly every unwritten chapter of those unsettled years out in the woods.

Jack and Kathy were moving home. Neither of them wanted to start the parenthood chapters of their life so far away. Home is where they wanted to be. A home of their own near home that is. Where that was, they didn’t know. Where they’d work they didn’t know. Kathy planned to take at least one year off once the baby came. Jack was working full-time but there was good work to be found in Michigan so why not get a job up there?

When they called to share the news, they didn’t want to impose, but they needed to start making plans and they wondered...just wondered...if it would be alright if they lived there in the basement until they found a place of their own. It would only be for a few weeks right before the baby was due, but they wanted to make sure it was okay with Mom and Dad.

“Okay? Okay? Of course it’s Okay!” Mom was beside herself. “That’ll be no trouble at all!”

“No trouble at all,” Dad laughed, “Your bed is right where you left it.”

To be continued....
The final chapters of Unsettled will be in epilogue form. Think of it as the little “here’s how things turned out” updates that are sometimes inserted in the end credits of a movie. I have reasons for wanting to share more about these chapters from my life, reasons to tell briefly of the many happy years we spent upstairs in the decades to come, reasons to close the gap between that Christmas of 1975 and where we are today as a family.

I will do that someday, but for now I will be ending this long string of chapters, because where I am today, this very day, even as I type is where my parents were in 1976. They would become grandparents on June 25th when my niece Aimee came into this world. Today, January 29th, Julie and I are going to be first-time grandparents. I stayed home with my other daughter who came home from Chicago last night just for this event. We are expecting the call at any time, telling us the good news. This writing of Chapter 52 has been my way of pacing the floor, waiting for that call. And once it comes, I know my thoughts will rightly be very much in the present. I’ll share the news and some pictures here in the days ahead. Gotta go...the phone is ringing! I think this is it....

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UPDATE: That phone call was indeed THE call as the post above this one indicates. I added the thoughts below at a later date:
There is always a risk of adding literal pictures to a song for Youtube clip; it can weaken a lyric that really needs no help to convey meaning. There are several images in the following clip that, in my opinion, do not enhance the song. Please ignore those and listen to the words. On the other hand, there are some images that artistically show the kind of despair and isolation my mother sometimes felt during these years of our life. As a child, and even as a teen, I didn’t notice her struggle. I only knew that she sang at the piano a lot, sometimes for hours at a time. She would wipe her eyes and blow her nose and turn the page. If we walked in, she’d just smile through the silent tears. Sometimes we’d stand and sing with her for a while. This was one of her favorites:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Unsettled Chapter 51

A Wish Came with the Snow

It was the kind of snow
that sneaks in quietly after dark,
falls soft and silent through the night,
and blankets everything in sight
by early morning's light.

Everyone was still asleep, but I had gotten up to use the bathroom and stood amazed at the kitchen window. There in the basement with the windows at ground-level, it was easy to see that the snow was about ten inches deep.
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“Finally some snow,” I said to no one, “ We’ll have a white Christmas after all.” I had goose-bumps from the cold floor to begin with and now I had goose-bumps on my goose-bumps just thinking about the snow, all of which heightened the sensation that woke me in the first place.

The small bathroom was in the farthest corner of the basement, between the back door and the laundry room, and it was rare to have it to yourself without someone else wanting in. This was one of the advantages of rising early and gave a more literal meaning to the “wee hours of the morning.” That one bathroom was so small that the door, which opened in, blocked off everything but the sink. To close the door, we had to step past it and squeeze between it and the shower wall. Once we were in that spot there was no real need to close the door because Dad had put a flange on the hinge-slot to prevent seeing through the crack. This way, the door could stay open when someone was taking a shower and the room got much less steamy. Mom reminded us regularly that the door should otherwise be shut for short visits from the five men in her family, but we mostly forgot. So I was a bit startled when I heard a knock on the open door beside me. It was Jimmy.

“Did you see the snow?” he whispered.
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I squeezed around the open door, “I did. Isn’t it cool!” I smiled, grabbing my snorkel coat from the wall rack behind the back door. "What are you doin’ up?”
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“Same thing you’re doin’,” he smiled, closing the door. "You didn't flush."
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"Saves water," I said through the door, "Shoot, when we were your age we'd all three go at the same time and have sword fights." (The need for solo use of the toilet was just a small reminder of how different Jimmy's life was from his older brothers.)
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“Why are you getting your coat?” he asked, still inside the bathroom.
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“I want to go upstairs and see the snow from there.”
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“Aren’t you going to get dressed?”
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“I’m not staying up there long. I just want to see the snow.
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“Wait up. I want to go with you.”
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I heard running water in the little white bathroom sink, and opened the door to wash my hands.
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“You didn't flush AND forgot to wash your hands?” he scolded.
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“I didn’t forget, you shut the door on me.” I laughed.
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“Mom says to shut the door,” he reminded.
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“I know, but that’s only when there’s people out here not just us guys.”
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“You look funny in that coat with no pants on,” Jim laughed.
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My bare legs stuck out from under my coat like two sticks from a pop-sickle wrapper. I helped Jim put on his coat over his pajamas, and we quietly went upstairs.

For seven winters, we had seen snow draped around those hills and trees, but never from behind the windows of a house. Our home was far from finished, but for the first time I fully appreciated the place Dad picked to put it and the way he set it at an angle from the road. Each window in the main living area had a unique view of the woods now flocked in snow. Only from the smaller bedroom windows could you see the road and neighboring houses in the distance.
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“I think I’ll go shovel the walk,” I told Jim.
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“Don’t you think you should put some pants on?” he asked.
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“That might be a good idea. Is the shovel out in the barn.”
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“No, it’s under the stairs. Dad brought it in last month.”
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I locked the upstairs door behind us, and followed him down the stairs. Sure enough, under the stairway, where the well was covered by its wooden lid, the snow shovel leaned against the wall, waiting for its first use since the winter before. I scarfed down some breakfast, put on two layers of pants and shirts, and stepped out the back door. (To this day, I do not mind shoveling snow. It's exhilarating. I own a snow-blower, but unless the snow is heavy or deep, I can clear our driveway faster with a shovel. I cut a center swath, and then push the snow off both directions in a sort of herringbone pattern. Takes five minutes tops.)
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Just outside the backdoor of the house is a 4-by-8 slab that meets a thirty foot sidewalk which curves around the corner knoll and up to a larger cement slab (where we parked our cars before we built the garage). Back then, this was the only exposed concrete on the entire fourteen acre property, and I was done shoveling it in no time. The temperature was still in the low twenties making it a relatively dry snow, not good packing, and each shovel-full was easy to lift and toss to the side. It was when I stood looking at my work that I got an idea.

The day before, when I had called Brenda, I’d mentioned to her that Dave had broken the news to my folks about going down to Florida. The rest of the phone call was filled with hint after hint about me flying to Maryland to do visit her at the end of Christmas Break. I didn’t want to explain how Mom wasn’t crazy about the idea of Dave going, so I just said I didn’t have enough money for the airfare. But I confess, by the end of the call, it did sound like a wonderful idea, and we sort of worked it out. We'd try to arrange a ride back to campus with some mutual friends. It would work just like Dave’s plans… if only I had the money. At the end of the call, she said again, “Try to find a way.” And doubting there would be a way, I simply said, “We’ll see.”
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And there I stood with a snow shovel in my hands and a whole day ahead of me.

Past the barn, over the bridge, through the woods, and beyond the east end of our property line, a huge subdivision had gone in a few years before. Rows and rows of mid-sized homes, that brought a steady stream of trespassing kids who seemed forever bent on clogging up the creek with sticks and logs. Worse yet, the parents of these kids would sometimes come with saw or ax to poach a Christmas tree from our land. [When we bought the land there was not one pine tree on the entire spread, but that first year (1968), Dad bought several hundred conifers from the Michigan DNR. It was a special re-forestation program, and we got the six-inch trees for little or nothing, and Dad planted them in groves all around the property. About half of them were eaten by rabbits and deer the first winter, but scores of them had survived and grown into trees barely big enough to fill a corner, and people from the subdivision, who knew nothing of the area before they’d moved there, would come on our land and cut them down as if they were free for the taking.] Dad was not fond of the subdivision, and we spent little time along that lot line, but the idea I had to earn my airfair would take me in that direction.

I went back in the house to get a drink of water and tell Jimmy where I was going. While I was shoveling our walk, the rest of the family had gotten up, and Mom was starting some Cream of Wheat on the stove.

“I didn’t know you guys were up.”
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Dad looked up from the silverware box, “Thanks for shoveling the walk,”
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“Yes, Poochi-Kaloochi, thanks for doing the walk,” Mom chirped.
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Poochi-Kaloochi was a pet name Mom used for any of her children whenever she was in a child-like state of happiness caused by simple things like new snow just when she was afraid we wouldn’t have a white Christmas! Another thing she said when she was in these fleeting states of glee was “All around the pig’s hind end is pork.” We asked her to explain that expression, hoping it has some hidden meaning such is true with Mairzy Doats, but she told us her grandmother used to say it whenever she was cooking ham, and somehow just saying those eight words fast always made her smile. It was equally nonsensical when she called one of us Poochi-Kaloochi, but we just learned to play along and hope it never happened in front of our friends.

"Do you have to work today, Paul?" I asked.
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“Yep. Tomorrow, too, but I get off at noon on Christmas Eve day.”
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“I’m not sure you’ll be able to get out the driveway,” I said.
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“I’m going to get out the tractor and plow to the road,” Dad said, “In fact, Bev, I’m going to do that now and eat later do Paul’s not late.”
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“What are you doing today?” I asked Dave.
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“I’ve got to go shopping for something before the weekend. Do you want to go?”
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“No, I think I’m going to walk back to the subdivision and shovel driveways.”
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“Awww...don’t do that, Tom. It’s too cold out there. Just stay in here where it’s cozy.”
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“Or we could build a snowman,” Jim suggested.
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“I thought of that Jimmy, but it’s not good-packing. I couldn’t even make a snowball. It’s too cold.
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“All the more reason to stay put,” Mom said again .
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“Now, Bev,” Dad chimed in, “If he wants to go earn some money, let him. Just don‘t wear out the shovel, Tom.” He laughed, then asked, “How much are you going to charge?”
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“I don’t know. Eight bucks maybe. Is that too high?”
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“You can start there. See what people say.”
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“Well, at least have some Cream of Wheat,” Mom insisted.
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“I already ate, Mom, and I’m getting hot standing here in all these clothes.”
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“How long will you be gone?” Jim asked.
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“I don’t know. Depends on how many people hire me. Send out Prop if I’m not home before dark. Just kidding…”
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And with that I took advantage of the corner bathroom one last time, stepped out the back door, and began the long walk through the woods with the shovel on my shoulder like a shotgun. It was a beautiful walk, and I hated to leave the trees and step into the subdivision.

When I got to the back yards that adjoined our land, I cut through one of them to the street, and from there I could see the houses that were still snowed in. Here and there, I saw others digging out their own driveways. There were no "snow blowers" in sight--perhaps because there was no sidewalk and the driveways were smaller than I'd remembered. I dropped my price to $7.00, and made my service even more irresistible by shoveling a swath to the front porch before knocking on the door. That path was free whether they hired me or not, but it showed a level of earnest desire to work, and the first three houses I approached hired me on the spot. One of them even gave me a Ten and told me to keep the change. At the fourth house, a man stepped out on the porch and told me to stop shoveling. I assured him the first path was free, but he told me he was going to do it himself. I wished him Merry Christmas and went on to the next house.

It took less than an hour to do each house, and by noon I had almost $50. As the day wore on, there were fewer and fewer driveways left to shovel, I had walked every street and cul-de-sac except the long entrance street that ran out to 23 Mile Road. There on the left was home with a double garage and a driveway wider than the others. I shoveled my path to the porch, and an older man came to the door.

“I saw you coming and was hoping you’d stop,” he said. “So how much do you charge?”
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“Well, you’re about twice as big as most of the other driveways. How ’bout Ten dollars and a glass of water? I‘ve been eating snow all day.”
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“Fair enough.” he laughed. And I shoveled his porch while he got the money and water.

It was the hardest driveway of the day. I was tired, and the snow had drifted high in front of his garage door. By the time I got to the street, I turned my back to the huge pile of snow I‘d made near his mailbox and just plopped backwards into the snow. It was something my brothers and I did when we shoveled the driveway in Roseville. The snow immediately forms into a “chair” like an icy bean bag, and it is surprisingly comfortable. In this particular pile, I had plopped back in a reclining position and just stared up at the sky. What I didn’t know is that the old man was watching from the window, and from his window it looked like I passed out. He threw on his coat and hat and shuffled in his house shoes down the slippery driveway

“Are you alright, young man?”
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“I’m fine,“ I said , sitting up in the snow chair, “Just taking a little rest.”
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“I thought that’s what you were doing, but then you didn’t move for so long I began to worry.”
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“No, I’m fine,” I said standing to my feet.
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“Can I get you some more water.”
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“No, thank you. I’m fine really. I’ve just been shoveling all day. But this was my last house. I’m done for the day.”
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“Yes, son, you’ve put in a long day, but it would be better to rest at home than in a snow pile.”
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I thanked him again and headed home. Poor guy thought I had croaked. He obviously had never felt the comfort of custom-fit snow chair. It was about four o’clock, I ached, but in my pocket was enough money for a one-way ticket to Maryland with some spending money to spare. Now all I had to do was figure out a way to tell Mom and Dad. It was pretty much the same conversation Dave had survived the day before. They would be a bit more surprised, I supposed, because I had never even hinted about taking such a trip. I was the cautious son, after all. I was the son who never “dated seriously,” convinced there was no point in it until I was old enough to do something about it. I had never uttered the words “I love you” to a girl, because I didn’t want the words to lose their meaning before I met “the one.” But like Dave said, it was just a visit; it’s not like he was getting married, and if that was true for Dave’s trip it would be far more true of mine. Sooner or later, a young man’s got to cut the ties to home, and while I had no desire to do that, little trips like this would help prepare me. It would be fun, a good thing.

These thoughts were racing through my mind, as I trudged through the woods, over the bridge at the creek, and past the barn toward the house, but it was then that something caught my eye. A silhouette in the kitchen window. At first, I could not tell who it was or which way it was facing. It might have been Mom just standing by the broom closet, but no… a little hand raised beside the dark shape and waved. Closer now, I could see that it was Jimmy watching me cross the open space between the barn and house. I made a huge waive with the shovel in my hand, and he waved a huge wave back and crossed to open the back door. Prop came out the door and met me.

“Finally!” Jim shouted with a smile.
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“I told you I’d be home before dark,” I said.
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“I thought you’d come home for lunch.” he said.
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“To be honest, I was working so hard I didn’t even notice.” I stepped through the door and smelled what I guessed was Spanish Rice, “But now that I smell that I’m starving.”
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“I was beginning to worry,” Mom said from the sink.
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“I was shoveling non-stop,” I said peeling off my sweaty layers of clothes.
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“Dad was worried, too. Jimmy why don’t you run upstairs and tell him Tom’s home and supper will be about a half hour.” When Jim went upstairs, Mom continued in a softer voice,
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“You should have seen Jimmy, Tom. He watched you walk away with that shovel, and all afternoon he kept looking out that window for you to come back.”
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“He did? It didn’t seem like I was gone that long. I just kept knocking and shoveling.”
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“Well, it was pretty sad,” Mom said, adding a palm-full of salt to the pot.
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“So how much did you make?” Jim asked stepping into the kitchen.
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“Enough,” I said vaguely.
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“How much is that?” he asked again.
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“Well let me put it this way. I haven’t counted it yet, but I know it’s more money than I’ve ever earned in one day. That’s for sure.”
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“Whatcha gunna do with it?” he smiled mischievously.
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“We’ll see,” I sighed, but the words sounded sadder than when I’d said them on the phone the day before.

The goal that had kept me shoveling all day seemed very far away, further than the back property line, further than all the driveways I’d cleared of snow, further than the state of Maryland. Looking down at Jim’s face, and remembering his wave from the window as I came through the woods, I knew I would not be buying any airplane ticket that Christmas. Such things would come in time but a time much further away.

The money in my pocket had been meant for one thing but would be spent in other ways: my share of the light fixture, some surprise gifts for my siblings, and for some carpet to put on the cold tile floor between the piano and the couch and the Christmas tree. It was not a fancy rug, just a large remnant I found on clearance, but it was just what that corner of the basement needed on Christmas morning when we sat down to open gifts.
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Coming in the days ahead. Chapter 52: "Kathy's Christmas Surprise" and the epilogue to these Unsettled Chapters. If there is a delay between now and the concluding posts, it may mean that I have become a Grandpa. The time is drawing nearer by the day if not the hour.
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UPDATE THURSDAY MORNING:
We got a call from Em and Keith, and as you can see from this picture (cut and pasted from their Facebook page) labor has begun They checked into the hospital this morning.This is exciting!
FRIDAY MORNING UPDATE:
Well, I'm still not quite a grandpa. Em's progress tapered off by dinner time. She hadn't eaten for about 24 hours so they allowed her to have some supper. She and Keith watched some TV and got a few hours of semi-sleep. Then this morning at 3:00 the contractions began again and things are progessing nicely now. Em called at 6:00 and gave us an update. Things are different than when Julie and I were going through this with her 25 years ago. =)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Unsettled Chapter 50-C

The Rhythms of Long-Distance

“May I be excused, please,” Dave asked, pushing back from the table.

It may seem strange that a twenty-one-year-old would make such a proper request in a laid-back family like ours. Especially considering we were eating on a vinyl table cloth in the basement of an unfinished house. We were not a formal family, but years before this time, when we were little kids, Dad had taken it upon himself to instill the same table manners he had grown up with. That way, when his mother came to visit us or if we ever had dinner at her house, he would not be embarrassed by our rough edges. Courtesy comes from the heart and manners from the head, but they are not mutually exclusive attributes.

At any rate, very early on, we were taught to say, “Good morning” when we sat down to breakfast; “please and thank you” with every request at the table; and “May I be excused please” if we chose to leave the table before the rest of the family. All these years later, the courtesy was not strictly expected, but considering that meal's touchy conversation and surprise happy ending, Dave said the words without thinking.

“Don’t you want ice cream?” Mom asked.

“Not now. I was going to use the phone in your room to call Robin if that’s okay.”

“Just keep track of your time and give Mom the money for your minutes.” Dad reminded.

“I was thinking about calling Brenda today, too, if that’s okay.”

“Keep track of your minutes,” Dad said again.

“That reminds me, Don.” Mom said, “We have to call Kathy. I told her we would.”

"Yikes! I'm glad you said that," I blurted, "We need to talk to Kathy, too...in private...without you and Dad on the phone. It will only take a minute.?"

"Why don't we call Kathy now so I'm not holding up the show when I make my call," Dave suggested.

""You dial, Bev. I'll scoop. You might as well have some, Dave," Dad smiled and handed him a bowl.

Mom called Kathy with the phone that hung on the kitchen wall, passing it from person to person around the table as if she were there. After a few minutes of small talk and details about their coming home on Saturday, I reminded Mom and Dad that we needed to talk to Kathy alone for just a minute.

Dad and Mom played dumb, but they knew it was about our Christmas gift to them and were not surprised that, without her in the house, this matter had been left until four days before Christmas. Kathy told us our gift was already purchased. Mom had picked out a new light fixture to hang over the dining room table upstairs. Of course, this was the same maple table we had just eaten on, but during those first months in the basement, we were constantly thinking about the unfinished rooms upstairs. This Quoizel fixture would someday grace the dining room. It was upstairs still in it's box, covered by an old sheet and fine saw dust. It required some serious "chipping in" from each of us, but it was the simplest Christmas shopping we'd ever done.

After the table was cleared, Dave slipped back into the corner bedroom to use the other phone on Mom's night stand. About a half hour later, he came out with a smile. Things were all set, and the topic of his trip to Florida would not come up again until the next Sunday when he began packing. What my parents did not know is that the same conversation they had with Dave, was an idea not far from my own wishes for that Christmas, and that is the subject of Chapter 51.

But before proceeding onto Chapter 51, we need to take a moment to talk about “long distance.” In this day of immediate and “free” and constant long-distance communications between friends and loved ones around the world, the thought of “long distance” phone bills may be as difficult to grasp as the fact that gas was 44 cents a gallon in 1975.

In 1970, just five years before this chapter takes place, Bell Telephone went to great lengths to publicize the fact that customers could now dial direct from coast-to-coast for as little as 70 cents a minute. That was meaningless to me at the time because I never had a reason to make a long-distance call. I rarely used the phone except to call home for a ride after church events.

[Side note: The touch-tone phone was introduced around 1965, but it took many years before most people owned one. Our phone number in Roseville was 771-7095. When dialing it on a touch-tone phone, the tones sounded like the first seven notes of “Camptown Races” [i.e. Camptown ladies sing this song...]. After dialing my own number I couldn't help but sing, ‘’Doodah, Doodah.” Anyone standing nearby hadn't heard the seven notes and just looked at me strange. When we moved to the unfinished house, our number was changed to 725-6869, which suggested not tune whatsoever, and my "Doodah-Doodah" habit was soon broken.]

My need for "long-distance" communication dramatically increased once I was in college. When I was away at school, my need to "Reach out and touch someone" applied to my parents back home, but when I was home it applied to that special someone I was dating at school.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's, Bell Telephone actually launched one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history with the words "Reach out and touch someone." The ad campaign was not only promoting long-distance but also trying to soften AT&T’s image since the so-called monopoly was in a long anti-trust suit through much of the Seventies. The commercials were every bit as effective as the tear-jerker Hallmark commercials that came in the decades after them. Here are some links to the actual commercials:

The first "Reach out and touch someone" TV ad. "The day the bouquet ran away." The grandson telling Grandpa "I hit a real homerun." The grandpa reading a bedtime story over the phone. And the sad one about the son who called out of the blue. But the one that may have the most in common with the next chapter can be viewed on the screen below.


To fully understand the power of those old commercials and the vital role "long distance" played in our lives back then, young readers must imagine a world where there were no cell phones, no emails, no Skyping, no Facebook, no ichat, and no text messaging. If a guy wanted to communicate with his girl from miles away, he had two choices: he could write a letter or make a long-distance call.

Each long-distance call was itemized on the monthly bill, and in our house Dad put our initials beside our calls and we paid for them ourselves. A thirty-minute call during a weekday would cost over $20, but on the weekend it would only cost around $6. That’s why there was a pattern of calls on weekends. (In fact, I used to watch the second hand of my watch to know when a call started so I’d know when to hang up and not get charged for the extra minute. This had a way of preventing too much “gushy talk” at the end of my calls.) Because of these economic realities, getting a “surprise call” on a weeknight from someone you cared who “just wanted to hear your voice” was a pretty good sign that your girl was not sitting under the apple tree with anyone else but you.

Add to the "long-distance" mix the thrill of getting a letter in the mail from the person you couldn't afford to call as often as you wanted. The letter told you that they were spending their days in much the same way and that they took the time to write a five or six page letter complete with a dab of Heaven Scent or some other perfume that made the reading experience even more irresistible. Letters could be held; the choice of stationary said something; the penmanship said something; the doodles in the margins said something. Letters could be read again and again. And then to hear the voice on the weekend, the voice behind those handwritten words…. Well, I tell you, it is a dimension of the courtship process that cannot and should not be replaced by technology.

Communicating via endless “free minutes” and constant contact via the cell-phone in your pocket or the Mac on your lap may be efficient but it is also ephemeral. Oh, please, young readers who may be trudging through these chapters, be among those of your generation to revive the lost art of letter writing. Be a man or woman who knows the value and power of hand-written thoughts to someone far away (or otherwise not present as you write them). And may your letters help your children understand what it means to cherish someone and long to be with them in the purest sense of the word.

As I said, this was the beginning of a time in my life when letters and long-distance calls were a part of the rhythm of my remaining years at home.
More about that in Chapter 51.
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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Unsettled Chapter 50-B

"How to Spoil a Sunday Dinner" Part II

One of the unintended consequences of going to college 700 miles from home is that there’s a good chance you’ll begin dating someone who lives equally far away. Since the ultimate goal of dating is learning more about yourself and the kind of person you wish to spend your life with, this kind of dating can lead to a lifetime of travel and long-distance family ties.

Kathy’s husband was from New Jersey. Dave was dating someone from Florida (though his wife of 32 years is from Pennsylvania). In my freshman and sophomore years, I made friends from all compass directions and was dating a nice girl from Maryland at this time (though my wife of 30 years is from Kansas). Three of us kids married someone whose home was far from our own. We wouldn’t change a thing, but this is a reality one should consider when choosing an out-of-state college.

That first Sunday supper with all the boys home was in the kitchen by the mud-room. Mom’s new Ethan Allen table was safely protected under a large vinyl tablecloth. Our seating assignments around the table were exactly as they had been through the years in Roseville. The strange thing is: because the kitchen was laid-out almost the opposite way, this now put Dad at the working end of the table, by the stove and refrigerator while Mom sat at the the opposite end with her back to the walking space and window. About halfway through the meal, Mom said something that inadvertently opened the exact topic that was on Dave's mind.

“It was nice to meet John’s girlfriend. She seems like a nice girl.” She said.

“That’s the girl he went to visit last summer,” Dave said calmly.

“I know, but we didn’t get to meet her then. It’s nice to meet the girls your friends are dating.”

“Did you see Ted this morning?” Dave asked with a forkful of food.

“No, I didn’t where was he?”

“He’s visiting his girl friend but will be back in time for Christmas.”

“I would hope so. Please pass the salt, Jimmy. I don’t think kids should be away from home around the holidays.”

“Wait a minute. You just said it was nice to meet John’s girl. She’s away from home.”

“Well, that’s different.” Mom laughed, “She came here; John didn’t go there.”

Dave swallowed his food hard, “Think about what you’re saying, Mom.”

“I’m just kidding. Is Ted serious with this girl?”

“I don’t know about serious but he wanted to meet her parents and spend some time there,” Dave said, adding, “I think it’s a good idea.”

Dad took a sip of water and joined in, “I think Ted has a good head on his shoulders. I’m glad to hear he’s found a nice girl.”

“She is a nice girl.” Dave assured, “She’ll probably come here next summer. The guy goes to the girl’s house first and then the next break the girl goes to his house.”

“Makes sense,” Dad said, stabbing another piece of beef and putting it on his plate.

Dave took a deep breath, looked at me, and said, “Remember last summer when I said I’d like to go visit Robin over Christmas?”

“Don’t, Dave,” Mom said. She did not mean ‘don’t go’ she meant ‘don’t talk about it.’ Dad shook his head, not at Dave’s question but at Mom’s illogical request not to talk about it; as if not talking about things makes them go away.

“You said, ‘We’ll see.’” Dave continued, “Well, I’m planning on doing that.” He turned to Mom, “But not until after Christmas.”

“There’s a difference between ‘We’ll see’ and “Go ahead. Right, Don?” Mom said.

“Well, yes, Bev. There’s a difference, but the fact is he did warn us and it seems to me that…”

“Don’t, Don. I don’t want to talk about this now. Kathy’s not home. The boys just got here. I don’t see why...”

“Mom, I’m not leaving until Monday—that’s a whole week away. I just brought it up now because you were talking about how nice it was to meet John’s girl. And Ted going now means he’ll be able to bring his girl to visit next summer. It’s really not that big a deal.”

“Well, maybe it’s not to you but it is to me. It’s bad enough you guys coming and going like you are.”

“Mom, I’m only gunna be gone five days sooner than I would’ve been.”

"You'll miss New Years," Mom said. "The church is havin' an all-night roller skating party."

Dave tilted his head and shrugged as if to say, "Life is about choices."

“How ya gettin’ back to school, Dave.” Dad asked.

“I’ll fly down to Jacksonville. Then we’ll drive back to campus with her and her brother.”

“Can you afford it without tapping into your tuition savings?” Dad asked.

"I've been working off campus. Yard work in Cleveland Park. Those people pay good."

"If you've got the money," Dad began, "I suppose..." but Mom interrupted.

“Don't get me wrong. I like that you've got a girl, Dave, and she's always real nice when we've talked on the phone, and I know you want to see her, and all that. I was thinking you'd do it next summer, and I won’t mind that because you’ll have three months but I’ve got all of you home less than three weeks as it is. Do her parents know you’re coming?”

“Of course, they know.”

“Well, I ‘ll bet her mother would feel the same way I do if she were leavin’ home to come up here.”

Paul spoke up, “You let me drive clear to New York to visit Shelby last year.”

“That was different. You live here, and it wasn’t Christmas. Dave and Tom are gone all school year.”

“There you go, Dave." Paul suggested, "Just quit college and you’re free to do what you want.”

“That’s not what I meant, Paul, and you know it. Don, say something…”

Dad had been cleaning his plate with a corner of bread, which he used like a sop and put in his mouth. He raised his eyebrows in thought as he slowly swallowed.

“I guess there’s nothing to say, Bev, except what's for desert? [Dad often said desert rather than dessert just to be funny.]

"Just ice cream. I haven't done my bakin' yet, but don't change the subject."

"I'm not changing the subject, but we can eat while we talk.... You’re how old, Dave?”

“Twenty-one.”

“That’s what I thought. Bev, what were we doin’ in December when I was twenty-one?”

“Whose side are you on, Don?”

“This isn’t about sides.” He looked at Dave and said, “The Christmas of 1951, I was twenty-one and your mother and I were about six weeks from our wedding day.”

“Things were different then, Don. You’d been workin’ full-time at Bell for three years by then. You had a car, a nest egg, and we’d been dating pert-near two years.”

“You’re right,” Dad nodded, “College adds four years to the whole thing. These years are to you fellas what high school was to my generation. So I do see what you're saying, Bev. Seems like they're still in high school to me, too, but the fact is he’s twenty-one.”

“I’m twenty-two,” Paul said, “So...You were married at my age?” Dad nodded.

“I’m not talking about getting married,” Dave gasped. “I’m just talking about a visit.”

“Things were different then...” Mom sighed.

"Mom, you say that like it was a century ago," Paul said, "That was only twenty-four years ago."
Mom took a deep breath and reached inside her sweater to the back of her arm, feeling her skin for some speck that didn't belong.

“Sounds like you’ve thought it out pretty good, Dave. If I were in your shoes, I’d do the same thing.” He looked at Mom and added, “Think of it that way, Bev. You would've wanted me to come visit."

"It's different..." she sighed.

"They’re not little boys anymore," Dad said.

“Well, I am,” said a small voice beside me. It was Jimmy. “I am,” he said again, “and I don’t even like girls yet.”

We all laughed, and Jimmy smiled up from his chair, glad that his first and only line had changed the mood of this conversation. But behind the smile, his eyes glistened from what I could tell were tears barely held back by his raised cheeks. Poor Jimmy. He was only seven, and most of the time he gave little thought to the age-gap between him and his siblings, but there it was, set out in unmistakable terms with the Sunday dinner. He’d been listening as he ate and was getting ready to side with Mom by saying “I don’t see why you have to go” when Dad said “They’re not little boys anymore.” To which, of course, he had to innocently object. He did not say “I am.” to be funny, but when the part about girls made us laugh, he smiled with those glistening eyes and considered the moment his secret consolation prize.
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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Unsettled Chapter 50-A

"How to Spoil a Sunday Dinner"

When all of us kids were still living at home in Roseville, we drove two cars to church. Not only was it tricky to get all seven of us in one car, but Mom and Dad had a completely different exit strategy once the organist gave the cue that we were now free to move about the aisles and visit after the service. By that time, if you include bus-driving time, Dad would have been at church for nearly four hours, and he was ready to smile politely to all his friends, get to his car, and head home. Mom, on the other hand, loved to visit after church and often stayed until there were only a few people left in the parking lot. Typically, some of us kids stayed with her for the same social reasons. Only once did this system backfire:

It was Easter Sunday, 1967. After the morning service, some friends and I went up in the church's small gymnasium to shoot some hoops for a few minutes. Dad thought I was staying with Mom. Mom didn’t stay as long as usual because of it being Easter, and when she didn’t see me in the halls, she assumed I went home with Dad. By the time I got to the parking lot and saw both cars gone, I knew I was in for it. But a man named Wayne Selby, (who was a New Tribes missionary to Columbia home on furlough) offered me a ride home. He and his family had been to our house for supper the week before, so I felt like I knew him, and he didn’t mind at all. Because he helped me solved my own mistake, I hoped my parents would just laugh it off.

As I sat in his car, I straightened a twist in my tie and saw a big brown stain seeping from the pocket of my good white shirt. We had hunted Easter baskets that morning (a tradition we never outgrew in our home), and on the way out my bedroom door, I had put some chocolate Easter eggs in my shirt pocket to eat at church. They were wrapped in tinfoil and stayed pretty firm through Sunday School, which was the last time I'd felt them. But when we started playing in the gym, the tinfoil was no match for my body heat and the chocolate oozed into a big blotch. It looked like I had tried to hide a scoop of ice-cream in my pocket—only it was much darker. Mr. Selby was kind enough to ignore the spot, as he walked me to our front door with his big lanky stride and southern drawl. He laughed as he explained to my Dad that it was no problem at all to drop me off, but I think he knew I was in Dutch.

Dad smiled and waved at the Selbys as they backed out of our driveway, but as soon as the door closed, the smile vanished and both he and Mom started yelling at me big time. Mom for the stain on my shirt and Dad for playing in the gym on Easter. They marched me to the boy's bedroom and kept the tirade going behind closed doors. Dad’s finger was poking my sternum so hard that Mom told him to stop, which only made Dad madder.

I don’t know how things were in your home growing up, but in my house, my mom had the power to get us into big trouble with Dad and then once he started letting us have it, she’d begin pleading on our behalf. Mom’s habit of pressing charges and then advocating for us boys was so common and so frustrating to Dad that he told her to leave the room. She did, and he just kept yelling and poking until he no longer had any logical thoughts to instill into my listening ears. It was perhaps the angriest I’d ever made Dad, and I held my tongue but secretly wondered why he was so mad. It had to be more than the ruined shirt.

It was a time when parents took the role of parenting very personally—sort of a "If you look bad we look bad" approach. That's why back then when kids got in trouble at school they were in even more trouble at home. (Nowadays, I'm told by other educational leaders, some parents' first reaction is to blame the school rather than think their child could possibly be in need of correction or self control.)

I think what happened that Sunday was both Mom and Dad were embarrassed. They were relatively new to the church. They had left their kid behind, and neither of them noticed I was gone until I stood on the porch with that stain oozing down my shirt. Eating candy in church, playing in the gym on Easter, inconveniencing a missionary... what kind of parents were they? I think that’s what all the yelling was about.

But hey, it seems like I’d heard in church about another boy about the same age whose parents left him behind at church. They weren’t bad parents, and he was the perfect child. His parents had to go all the way back to Jerusalem to get him. I wonder if he would have gotten in bigger trouble if he had melted Easter eggs all over his tunic. But I digress...

This incident came back to me as I began thinking about that first Sunday when we went to church as a family from the basement of the house. We now lived about fifteen miles from church (compared to three in Roseville). Because of the distance, we no longer took two cars to church. All six of us piled into the station wagon and walked into church together. We sat on the side of the auditorium closest to the parking lot (For years, we had sat on the other side.) And when the service was over, Dad stood patiently off to the side smiling and shaking hands, biding his time while the rest of us visited with our friends, many of whom were also home for college. A couple of them even had girl friends with them from out of state, and Mom—who was like a second mother to all of our friends—made a big to-do about each of them. This fact was not lost on my brother Dave, and it played in perfectly with some news he intended to share with Mom and Dad when we sat down for dinner after church.
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To be continued: Chapter 50-B coming late Friday night.

Post-Post: The Selbys became good friends of our family. Years later, Wayne was bit by an exotic spider of some sort down in Columbia, and it triggered a serious illness that forced his return to the states. He began pastoring a small country parish (ironically called Columbia Baptist Church) near Port Huron. In the summer of 1979, he hired me to be their summer intern “Youth Pastor.” My last Sunday in that role, I was asked to take the evening service. I was tempted to deliberately let some chocolate melt in my shirt before taking the pulpit, but decided against it. Nearly thirty years later, 2008, at another church in Port Huron, a family came up and re-introduced themselves to me. They knew me from the three months we shared in that little church back in 1979, and based only on that... had come to pay respects at my mother's funeral service.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Unsettled: Chapter 49

Sunday Patterns of My Past:
Pop-guns, Penance, and Pot Roast

It was Christmas Break 1975 and my first week of living in the basement of our unfinished home. Strange as it felt to be living on the land we'd worked for seven years and to be drinking an showering in the water from the well, I think the strangest thing about being home in this new home was that my sister Kathy was not there.

Kathy had married her college sweetheart the summer before, and since he had moved to the Detroit area to work the year before, he had spent that Christmas with us, which meant this Christmas they'd be with Jack’s folk’s in New Jersey. Christmas fell on Thursday that year, and Kath and Jack were driving home to Michigan Saturday morning, but there was a very good reason, I had to talk to her before then: we had no idea what we were giving Mom and Dad for Christmas. It was always Kathy who coordinated the collection of our money and did the shopping for us. With only four days left ‘til Christmas, we boys hadn’t a clue what we were doing without our sibling leader.

For as long as I could remember, Kathy was a second mother to us boys. She was now an elementary teacher by profession, but like so many women in that field, she had been “playing teacher” ever since she learned to talk.

When we were little kids, she’d gather the neighborhood into our garage for “school.” She even organized a library there where kids could check out books. This type of play only went so far with the boys in the neighborhood. Eventually, we’d all grab our pistols and holsters and pop-guns and start playing Cowboys and Indians. Or we’d use make-believe machine guns to weed out the Germans in the grass. [Interesting to note that during those years we were in a cold war with Russia, but our gun fights were based not on current events but on the Westerns and WWII movies we watched on TV.]

Every boy I knew was proficient in bio-ballistic-sound effects (i.e. making all manner of gun noises with our mouths). Kathy and her girl friends would sometimes leave her “school” and try to join the boys in battle, but they could not make the sound of a gun-shot if their lives depended on it.

Oh, they tried, but “Keeyoo-Keeyoo” was all they said, as if there were actual letters in the sounds we boys made. There were no letters, just the aggressive plosives and fricatives, the jack-hammer tongue trills and guttural echoes needed for single shots and ricochets, grenades and machine-gun fire. All the battle sounds of a Hollywood back lot would be flying with spit from behind our pursed lips and billowing cheeks, and then the girls would come along pointing finger-guns at us and saying “Keeyoo-Keeyoo.” We just laughed with scorn. There was no way we were playin’ dead to that silly sound. John Wayne never ducked from a gun that went “Keeyoo.”

There is much to be said about the natural differences between boys and girls at play, but I digress.... What I meant to say was that on Sundays, Kathy had a much better chance of keeping us in her pretend school in the garage. Why? Because Dad had a rule that we boys could never play with guns on Sunday. This did not reflect his political view on guns but his understanding of “to everything there is a season,” and on Sundays we were to study war no more. Which brings me to the point of this long chapter.

The following post may read like a rambling essay that does not belong with this closing section of my storyline. Chapter 50, however, takes place on the Sunday before Christmas 1975, and since the vast majority of these chapters take place on Saturdays, I wanted to discuss some of the Sunday patterns that had come and gone the decade before.

My family’s faith was not put on like the Sunday suits we wore. We were taught and still believe that our relationship with God must be the same all week. Faith is to be lived out, not put on. There’s nothing wrong with looking your best on Sunday, so long as you are equally worshipful in the garments and actions of each day. In that sense, our family's faith played out in Dad’s old shirts, Mom’s frumpy robe, and the layers of old clothes that kept us warm in winter.

Christ deliberately kept his gospel simple and common; he compared himself not to cathedrals but to crushed grapes and aromatic bread to be broken and shared.

That being said, there is still a place for the patterns of corporate faith, for traditions, sacraments, and rites based on teachings of scripture. Communion, for instance, is not so much a ritual as it is a time of remembrance and reflection on what it means to live in community with God and the sacrifice that made it possible.

Some of the patterns of my childhood church, however, were not rooted in scripture but had crept into common practice nonetheless. This does not make them wrong necessarily. For instance, driving busses to pick up kids for Sunday School was not “biblical” since busses did not exist in Bible times, but for several years our church used busses as a means of fulfilling Christ’s words “Let the little children come unto me.” During that time, my Dad drove a bus route for the church. In fact, Dave’s best friend, the one who drove him home from college, was a young man we first met as a kid on the bus with Dad. (Decades later, he also became Mom’s accountant.) Some time in the early Seventies, the busses broke down beyond repair and the church dropped its bus ministry.

The word gospel means “good news,” and the methods of spreading the news can change from century to century, decade to decade, without changing the truth of the gospel itself.

In the following paragraphs if I seem to be poking fun at some of my childhood “Sunday patterns,” I do so not with cynicism but with the kind of affection a grandchild should rightly show a grandmother who insists on wearing a hat to church. The relationship transcends the unshared ritual because the core foundation of faith is shared. Likewise, I smile at some of the patterns that my parents (or our church) imposed upon us while cherishing the faith that prompted them.

So here goes! Here are some of the things, in no particular order, that made Sundays predictable and formative for my childhood home.

We treated Sundays as the Sabbath (which, as we know, was originally the seventh day, Saturday). No matter how much work needed to be done around the house in Roseville or out at the property, we did not work on Sunday. It was a “day of rest”… sort of.

Our church pretty much ran us ragged on Sunday, beginning with Dad driving his “bus route.” Then he taught the high school boys Sunday School while Mom practiced with the choir; then came the worship service and sermon; then we hung around and talked 'til the halls were empty and went home to the most wonderful smell of roast beef, cooked with carrots in the gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans cooked in a mushroom-soup sauce with crispy onions on top. It was pretty much the same meal every Sunday, and if Mom ever suggested making something else we all moaned and made it clear that having the same thing every Sunday was perfectly fine with us. To this day I cannot smell a roast in the oven without feeling like a kid stepping through the front door after church.

But our church also met on Sunday nights. So starting at 5:00PM, we had teen choir practice, followed by “Young Peoples” (catchy name for the one-hour gathering of teens); followed by the evening worship/sermon service; which once a quarter was followed by a Singspiration (three or more churches getting together to sing “people’s choice” hymns and choruses until about 9:00PM). Once a month, the “young people’s” group had what we called an afterglow: we all went to someone’s house for pizza and games like “Honey if you love me, Smile” or “Fruit Basket Upset.”

So that’s what I mean when I say we treated Sunday like a “day of rest” sort of. I will say that most of the time, especially as an older teen, I did not mind this hectic Sunday pace. There were 75-100 teens in our youth group. It was my closest social circle, and we enjoyed being together.

It was a Baptist church, and true to form there were many things we were expected not to do as Baptist. When we joined the church, I was in third grade. We had gone to our previous church every Sunday, but it was basically a "put on the tie, sit in the pew, and go home" kind of church. My parents were hungry for solid preaching and teaching from Scripture and we found it at our new church. So when they gradually learned of the “Baptist no-nos,” they thoughtfully adopted each expectation: No smoking, drinking, gambling/cards, movies, dancing, etc.

Already they did not smoke or drink so that was easy. They played cards occasionally with friends but had no problem throwing out the two or three decks in our house. Card games taht did not use "traditional decks" were allowed (e.g. Dutch Blitz, Uno, Rook, etc.) As for movies at the theater: Dad and Mom rarely “dated” to a movie and taking the whole family cost a small fortune, and Dad agreed with our pastor that most movies made at the time undermined or values, so we officially quit going to movies. (The last one we saw as a young family was Mary Poppins in 1964.)

Dad and Mom had enjoyed ball-room and square dancing since their dating years, but like most parents of the day, they bristled at the new “rock culture” and all the pelvic gyrations that went with it, so they followed the Baptist pattern of lumping all things together and agreed to no more dancing—no square dancing, no polkas, no waltzes—if it was a rhythmical response to the beat of music, a Baptist body was to hold still. What starts with a toe tap may tempt the legs to beging moving in 1-2-3,1-2-3 steps. With some reluctance, my parents did not dance in public for about twenty years.

For those who find that last "no no" sad, I’ll mention that they later re-thought their position on the subject and danced again on many occasions. It was a wonderful thing for us to see. But they still held strong views about the pit-falls of an "anything goes" approach to male-female interaction on the dance floor. They would cringe at what "clubbers" do today in the name of dance. A dog would be kicked from a leg for doing what now happens in some settings. But Dad and Mom, and their children by example, eventually learned to sort out the baby from the bathwater.

Speaking of bathwater.... There was one Baptist “no-no” that we as a family simply could not adhere to. This one was not universally held by all Baptist churches but strictly espoused by ours. One Sunday, my mother learned that our church was against “mixed bathing,” and my mother said, “Jupiter, when did they start doing that. We’re against it, too.” But her adamant response was because she thought “mixed bathing” referred to unmarried men and women taking baths together, and based on the few times her young husband had tried squeezing into a tub with her, she knew it would indeed be a risqué venture that had little to do with bathing.

A few weeks later, however, Mom bit her tongue when she learned that what our church meant by “mixed bathing” was “mixed swimming,” males and females sharing company at the beach or pool in nothing but bathing suits. Uh-oh, hold the phone, Mom and Dad had grown up in Port Huron, we practically lived on the beach in the summer time, both sides of their extended family loved the water. We were boaters, snorkelers, and SCUBA divers. Every Friday night of our first five winters in Roseville was spent at the pool of Detroit’s historic YMCA where Dad was a member. (In fact, Dad and his brother Bob taught SCUBA at the “Y.”) Frankly, there was no way we could take water and “mixed bathing” out of our lives without completely segregating from our extended family. Even swimming like the Amish, fully clothed, was not an option unless of course everyone else on the beach agreed to do the same. So the whole mixed bathing thing was our family secret, it went on just as it always had before we joined that dear fellowship of believers.

(In fairness to those who may hold to the no mixed swimming rule, it is the skimpy, immodest, head-turning, “hubba hubba” nature of the female body walking past male eyes on a beach that prompted this Baptist taboo. Speaking as a former Baptist teen that was often at the beach, I confess that the rule was not unfounded. The children’s chorus, “Oh, be careful little eyes what you see,” is as true as any of the great doctrinal hymns of the faith. Nuff said.)

Within all of these patterns of Sundays and taboos was another pattern unfamiliar to most denominations, but in our church, it happened after both the Sunday morning and evening services. It was called the invitation.

The invitation system had sprung from the sawdust trails of old-time revival meetings of the late 19th Century and carried over to much of the 20th Century. I am not condemning it as a form of spiritual confession or accountability, but I will say it was a method easily heightened by good intentions and emotions, which is probably why it has fallen from common practice in many churches.

In my boyhood church, the invitation was typically a dozen stanzas of “Just as I Am.” There were only six stanzas to that old hymn, but our pastor always found creative ways to keep the invitation going as long as he sensed someone still needed to respond. Sometimes he’d just start singing all six stanzas again from the first. Sometimes he’d simply say, “Let’s sing that last stanza once more, and if no one comes, we’ll not sing another.” Quite often no one walked the aisle, and true to his word, we would not sing another stanza, but he’d lean toward the mike and say, “We’re going to hum a stanza or two. (To his credit, we never whistled a stanza that I recall.) It was almost as if we were really singing “We won’t go until we get some.”

There was a stretch in my teen years when I was particularly susceptible to the persuasive powers of what my pastor said between the stanzas. If no one walked the aisle, the potential needs for penance seemed to work down from felonies to misdemeanors to minor offenses. And if still no one came, he’d say something like, “Maybe you missed having your devotions this week.” [“Devotions” referred to the pattern of having a daily “quiet time” for scripture reading, meditation, and prayer. This is an excellent habit for believers, but as the name implies it should be based upon love not guilt.] Sometimes if no one walked the aisle, the appeal became technically inescapable: “Maybe you had a bad thought this week.”

While it is true that Jesus often reminded his followers that our sinful nature is revealed in our thoughts if not our deeds, let’s face it, if every person who had a bad thought that week had walked to the front of the church, the floor would have collapsed. Most of the people in the church understood this fact and held their ground, but during these particular years, I could rarely escape the “bad thought” clause. I’d take a deep breath, slip past my friends in the pew, and walk down to the front of the church. I could hear the moans of those I passed who knew that my going forward just added at least two more stanzas to the invitation. There at the altar, my youth pastor met me with outstretched hand. His head leaned toward me for a quiet explanation of why I’d come. I'd tell him that I missed having devotions on Wednesday, but that was code for some other offense. It wasn’t a lie, I probably did miss a day of devotions, but it was typically an undisclosed less noble blotch that pulled me down the aisle.

Make no mistake, there were many times when my introspection, guilt, and desire for forgiveness was definitely prompted by His spirit, but forgiveness and fellowship does not require walking an aisle. I eventually realized I was treating life like a picture I was trying to draw. I mistakenly thought it had to be perfect and that it was in my power to make it so. Walking the aisle was my way of wadding up the drawing from the week before and starting over with a fresh sheet—this time making no mistakes. How naïve of me. If that were the Christian life, we would all be surrounded by paper-wads and not one useful picture of the gospel. Christ does not call his followers to perfection but to perseverance in spite of their imperfections. We do not start over when we fall; we rise and resume with the help of His steadfast hand. The picture we draw is not perfect, but it is made complete in Christ.

By 1975, we had been members of this Baptist church for over ten years, and when we moved out to the unfinished house on the property, we remained in that church well over ten more years. I have not been at a service there for over 25 years. In fact, in the mid-1990s, the building was sold and the much of the congregation relocated elsewhere. My brother and I drove by the building a few years ago. Inside now were strangers, but the outside looked pretty much the same, surrounded by the walks I felt obliged to shovel years before, and filled with memories of the people and patterns, quirks and all, that made it an extended part of home.

Why mention all this now? What has this to do with wrapping up this story of the house? Only this: the next chapter takes place on a Sunday, beginning with our coming home from church. There will be no mention of any of the above, but it would be a mistake for me to end these chapters about the rhythms that help make a house a home without giving a glimpse of the Sunday patterns that shaped the other six days through all these years.
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Chapter 50-A coming late Wednesday night

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