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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

Monday, March 29, 2010

Epilogue F-1 "The Meaning of 'Breadwinner'"

These epilogue chapters have been added to the end of the story only to explain how the house was finally completed. They span wonderful years of family living. Jim got his engineering degree from Oakland University and began working at General Dynamics in 1992. In 1993, he married his college sweetheart, Heather. It took a while, but all five kids were now married and life was unfolding as it has from the beginning of time. Lots of grandchildren being born and spending unforgettable days at Grandpa and Grandma's house in the woods.

During all of those years, Dad had plenty of projects to keep him busy. When we came to visit in the summer of 1994, Dad had just taken down a huge ash tree that stood in front of the house. [This photo is actually an oak he brought down the winter before. I can't find the pictures from that summer.]

The ash was healthy, but it was in the way of where he hoped to put a circle driveway that looped up from the main drive which he had made from cement slabs of I-94.
Explain that, Tom. What do you mean "slabs of I-94"? Well, one day Dad was driving home from work in Detroit, and not far from his exit at 23 Mile Road, they were tearing up a mile of Interstate 94.

Dad noticed that they were doing so by jack-hammering the pavement into long rectangles, about three feet by nine feet in size, and loading them onto trucks. He pulled over and asked the truck driver where he was taking the slabs, and they said to a land fill. Dad laughed and asked if they would bring the slabs to his place and dump them back by the barn. The man laughed back, but agreed, and just like that Dad had tons of long, irregular concrete slabs (roughly in the shape of Indiana) delivered free of charge.

Why would a man want tons of concrete from I-94 on his property? Mom asked the same question when she saw the trucks arriving.

We should all know by now that Dad always had his reasons. Why let all that solid flat concrete go to waste in a landfill when we had been in need of flat concrete for years?  For as long as we had owned the property, the long driveway was a dirt two-track that was a muddy mess each spring after the thaw. In the months ahead, one by one, Dad took his old John Deere front-loader and backhoe and inlaid each slab in the driveway like gemstones in a bracelet. When he was done, the long, winding driveway was still a two-track, but now it was a concrete two-track. Don't get me wrong, it was not suitable for roller-skating, but the days of mud in the driveway were gone. (He also used the slabs to rebuild the bridge over the creek as I mentioned in Chapter 8. The cement-slab driveway was actually put in place around 1985, and now nine years later, Dad was felling a huge ash tree to clear the path for the circle drive to the front porch.

From the trunk of the ash tree, Dad intended to hew two beams that would connect the garage to the house and serve as the main supports for the breezeway.

You may be thinking: Isn't that a lot of work, Tom, hewing beams from a big ol' log? Yes. It is a tremendous amount of work--kind of like making a jigsaw driveway out of an interstate--and the average person building a breezeway would not dream of adding "(1) Hew beams from log" to list of things to do before starting the project, but that is the way Dad was; that's why it took so long to finish the house; that's why we all marveled at his ingenuity and Mom's patience.

The circle drive, breezeway, and white trim of the house will come in Epilogue F-2. Here I must digress or we will never know how those finishing touches were possible. Here I must change the subject abruptly to talk about what it means to be a breadwinner.

Dad had been hired at Bell Telephone in Port Huron a year or so after graduating from high school in the winter of 1948. It was a time when students with enough credits could graduate a semester ahead of their class. It was a time when young men were in a hurry to move on to adulthood, get a job with a life-long empolyer, save a nest-egg, get married, build a home, have lots of kids, and hopefully move up in the company or business. It was a different time.

(The following paragraphs are generalizations, but I share them mainly to contrast the meaning of “breadwinner” from 1950 to 2010.)

Today young men and women typically talk about their futures in terms of what they think they might “major in” and at what college they hope to major in it. Half-way through college, they change their major (as I did) and then many of them graduate with a degree but no job. In many cases they’re still not sure what they want to do for a living and they are reluctant to earn their keep doing something “below them,” so they hold out (weeks, months, years) for some position that will look good on their resume, while at the same time avoiding entry-level jobs that would at least put some money in their pockets. In other words, after spending tens of thousands of dollars at college (enjoying life away from parents but in most cases still counting on their pocketbook), they move back home to save some bucks while they figure out which employer is most worthy of their boundless skills and energy.

I’m not judging these situations; each case is unique and sometimes moving home makes perfect sense—especially for young women. But trust me, as a person who interviews college graduates annually, I would advise that a good worker finds work even in difficult times. A resume that reflects a willingness to earn one’s keep even when overqualified looks far better than a two-year unemployed search for the perfect career path.

In Dad’s day, it was different. The vast majority of young women took whatever jobs were open to them with the hope of someday quitting them to get married to a “breadwinner” who could support her and a growing brood of offspring. The vast majority of young men did not go to college; they stepped from the 12th grade into the realities of earning their own keep. Some went into the service; some started on the path of getting their own farm; but most young employees sought jobs that rewarded hard work and loyalty.

The utility companies were such a place. Dad’s brother jack had found what would be his life-long job at Detroit Edison. Dad applied to both Edison and Bell, Bell called him for an interview first, and offered him a job just days before Edison called him for what was probably a better position, but he had already said “yes” to Bell, and though he had not yet begun work, he felt it was the honorable thing to keep his word. Today, many would disagree with that, but it is the way Dad felt about such matters.

In Dad’s day, jobs were distinguished by whether or not they “had a future,” meaning: was it the kind of business or company that hires people at an entry level and grooms them to keep moving up to better-paying jobs with greater responsibilities, promoting and promoting its most promising employees until the Peter Principle kicks in.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines [the Peter Principle] as "The theory that employees within an organization will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent." ... "In a hierarchically structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their level of incompetence," or, as Dr. Peters Principal explained more simply, "The cream rises until it sours."

This is not to say that all people who climb the corporate ladder are incompetent upon retirement. As I understand the principle, it is cautionary in nature: “Think long and hard before promoting a person from duties they do exceedingly well to a new position with different expectations—especially if the new duties involve working with people rather than things.”

In Dad’s case at Bell, he began by installing phones and moved up to linesman, and knowing what you know of my father from these chapters, it is safe to say that he enjoyed his work. It was interesting, and each assignment held a new challenge (like the time he was sent to install an extension phone in the basement of a funeral home, and the mortician (who knew Dad’s family well enough to play a joke on him) turned out all but a small light at the far side of the room, and put himself on an empty table under a sheet about five feet from the wall where Dad had to mount the phone. You can pretty much tell the rest of that story yourself. I will only say that whenever Dad told it, he took pride in adding that he did not need to change his pants when it was over.

In that sense, Dad literally started at “basement” level with Bell, climbed up the corporate ladder to the top of poles, and then moved on from there in Bell, steadily working his way up in the company. It was a Bell promotion that moved our family from our first unfinished dream house on Atkins Road to the little finished house in Roseville. From that temporary house (we lived there 14 years), he spent his spare time settling some land on which to build their second dream home. And all the while, Dad continued to rise in the Bell system.

I can’t think of anything Dad was “incompetent” at, but I think he would say that the Peter Principle did kick in—sort of. I think he would say it happened when Bell moved him from hands-on problem-solving assignments to a desk position in management. For a few years, he was over scores of younger workers who now did the tasks he used to do. He was not incompetent in this managerial role, but he was often frustrated at the chronic poor work habits of those he oversaw. The work ethic had changed from the early Fifties to late Seventies. In all his time with Bell, he had a pattern of never being late and never leaving work early. He hadn’t taken a “sick day” since a bad bout of poison ivy in 1960. Needless to say, the dozens of workers now reporting to him were of a different generation, one that felt the employer owed the employees rather than the other way around. That was what Dad disliked about his years in management, and shortly after the federal government broke up the Bell system’s so-called monopoly, he jumped at a chance to move on to a new frontier with his life-long employer.

He and three other cohorts were recruited to become part of a new branch of Bell called Datech, it was hands-on, brain-engaged work in a whole new technology that used words now common but then new like “digital” and “fiber optics.” Dad enjoyed that work and stayed in the Datech division through 1984, when, after thirty-five years of steady employment, he was offered early retirement with two-years severance and benefits (not to mention an additional half-year in “banked” sick days. He was fifty-four years old with no debt and enough investment income to maintain their frugal lifestyle indefinitely. Not many people can say that.

For about a year, Dad enjoyed the casual pace of retirement. He had plenty of time to put around the house and property, and even took in plenty of “handy-man” work that generated extra spending money. Then in 1985, he got a phone call out of the blue from one of the Datech buddies who also took early retirement. The man had gotten a call from a company Dad had never heard of called EDS (Electronic Data Systems) founded by a man he had also never heard of, Ross Perot.

Well, it seems this Ross Perot guy had sold a controlling interest of his Texas-based company to General Motors for $2.4 billion, but he promised to continue overseeing the company until the new owner's three EDS sites were built in the Detroit area. Perot was a no-nonsense billionare who liked things done right. EDS was a young company with mostly young intelligent MIT-types who knew everything the books and teachers taught them, but they lacked field experience.

Perot wanted to re-employ some of those veteran Bell /Datech guys that had been put to pasture. Dad had no intentions of ending retirement, but from the very first call, he was impressed with what he heard. At an interview shortly thereafter, he and his buddy met Mr. H. Ross Perot himself. He had a quirky grin and a good handshake. The first thing he said to dad was, "Like the crew cut."

Turns out, Perot was also a navy man who had never let his hair grow since leaving the service. He was born the same year as Dad (a month later), and the more Dad learned of this guy and his work ethic, the more he was flattered to be asked to help get these installations done. Dad spent the next five years overseeing the hard-wiring of those three EDS plants. At the completion of each project, Ross Perot was at the celebration banquet--He greeted Dad with the same quirky smile and firm handshake each time. Over Spring Break 1990, we came home to visit and Dad arranged for me to shadow him at work. It was the coolest place I'd ever seen. We had to use I.D. cards to go from room to room. He was proud to introduce me to all the young men who worked with him. He was not their boss. Technically he was a full-time, on-site consultant. He liked the arrangement. At the end of that day, he told me he could get me into EDS--if I wanted to move back to Michigan from Iowa that was--no pressure. He just wanted to mention it. (I'll tell you more about that in Epilogue F-2.)

We all know Ross Perot from his other mark on history, but that 1992 presidential run happened after Dad had retired from EDS. Neither Dad nor Mom nor any of us kids voted for Perot, and it's quite likely that his third-party run, which garnered 19,741,065 votes, is what put Bill Clinton in the White House. In looking back on it, Perot's political views and prophecies make more sense now than they did then. He warned about what would happen to the American economy if we didn't get our heads out of the sand, but let's face it... he was quirky.

Anyway, I say all that to say that Dad retired twice. Once from Bell and once from EDS. He stayed with Perot's outfit exactly five years to qualify for their retirement benefits. Because EDS was a young company, Dad was among the first to retire from there, and they had quite a send off. Among many other speeches and honors, they gave him a brand new aluminum canoe with a gold plate commemorating his years of service on the bow. We took that canoe down the creek many times with Dad. It was the perfect retirement gift.

Even more perfect, in Dad's eyes, was being able to squirrel away a big chunk of the best pay of his life. It came at a good time just as Jim was entering college, but much of it was "gravy" since he had already planned on living off of his Bell retirement . . . . We kids knew nothing of Dad and Mom's finances, of course. Dad was always very private that way. We learned these things later.

Which brings us back to that ash tree in the summer of 1994.
Continued and concluded in Epilogue F-2

Saturday, March 27, 2010

This Grandpa Stuff is Hard Work!

We were babysitting Nora during a March Madness basketball game last week, and I fell asleep in the recliner with her on my chest and Kippy sleeping in the valley of my legs (a favorite place of his). If it seems like I'm writing less lately...I am, but I do have Epilogue F half done so it should be posted soon.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Unsettled Epilogue E-2

"The Weight of Waiting" Continued

In the summer of 1993, we took our first family vacation to a destination other than Julie's or my parents. We spent a week with some friends in California. Our trip included Tijuana, Mexico; San Diego; LA; San Francisco and all points in between. While in San Jose, we went to the legendary Winchester house, home of the widow whose husband's famous Winchester Rifle won the West and amassed a huge fortune. The story goes that the widow was afraid of all the ghosts of people (primarily Native Americans) who had lost their lives because of her husband's handiwork. She believed that the only thing that kept the ghosts at bay was the sound of hammers and saws in the ever-growing mansion. That's why Mrs. Winchester hired full-time crews to work around the clock for years, adding more and more rooms to the Victorian labyrinth. The construction continued for decades until the widow died. 

The sprawling maze is now a tourist attraction, and as my family and I walked through it, I didn't think of rifles or ghosts or how the West was won. I thought about how my mother must have felt all those years in our house in the woods, with the constant sound of hammer and saw in some remote place beyond her sight.

As I said in Epilogue E-1, my sister's house could be seen from the picture window of Mom's unfinished living room. Once Kathy's house began to look finished from the outside and was waiting for carpet on the inside, the pressure for Dad to finish their own house became greater than ever.

The end of Dad's labors was in sight. The upstairs woodwork was trimmed in, the walls and ceilings were painted or papered, and Mom’s banister to the attic was in place, the curtains were hung, and the floors were ready for carpet. That's how things looked over Christmas Break 1980.
It was not until after the 1981 “Detroit Auto Show” in January that our house had carpeting. That is a strange way to remember when something happened, but like nearly all of the building materials in our house, our “new” carpeting had a story to tell. Technically it was not new; it was slightly used before it was installed. Slightly used carpeting? Allow me to explain.
Since the early 1900s, Detroit has hosted the world’s largest annual auto show. For nearly fifty years this event has been held in Cobo Center, which boasts a 700,000 square feet showroom. Back in 1981, many of the displayed cars were on carpeted platforms, and somehow Dad found out that after the last day of the show when the displays were torn down, they rolled up the slightly used carpet under all the new cars and sold it “as is” to people who would haul it away themselves.

Jack and Kathy and Mom and Dad were glad to get in on that Auto Show carpet deal. That's how it was so easy to remember when Mom's upstairs floors got done. Both her house and Kathy's were carpeted at the same time. To be honest, it wasn’t the highest grade of carpet, but the price was right.
After walking on cold tile downstairs for five years and staring at exposed sub-floor upstairs all that time, Mom was just happy to see carpet coming through the door. When the rolls were laid out flat in their designated rooms, there were hardly any signs of tire tracks or the traffic of thousands of people from all over the world—except in the piece for the living room. Unfortunately, there were some big spots on that carpet from what appeared to be a dripping oil pan on a brand new car. So Dad rolled that carpet back up in hopes of finding a way to reconfigure it in the rooms so that the spots would end up in a closet or cut off, but in fact, the roll ended up in the basement, and they bought a textured pile for the living room, dining room and hallway. (Dad was sorry that the other carpet didn’t work in those areas, but it made Mom happy to have that new carpet smell in the house, since it hadn’t come with the pieces from the auto show.)
Some time after the carpeting was installed, the furniture came for the living room and master bedroom. The other two bedrooms were furnished with things we had. Bathrooms were nicely decorated and inviting. A new small kitchen dinette set was put at the top of the basement stairs; Mom's Ethan Allen dining room table was put in the dining room. (Jack had to refinish the surface because all the fuzz from the vinyl table cloth that had been on it all those basement years had gotten imbedded into the varnish.) Dad had gotten Mom some Kitchen Aid appliances three Christmases before, but they had remained in their boxes for protection while the kitchen was built around them. Once the kitchen floor was installed (same time the carpet was laid), the fridge and stove came out of their boxes.

Wall decorations and pictures from the Roseville house were up in the attic, and some of them came down to the living area, but months before the move upstairs, Mom and Kathy had picked out new wall art that suited these new surroundings.

Gradually, that strange space that had smelled of saw-dust for so long, began to absorb the smells of living—wood burning in the living room stove, supper burning in the kitchen—I mean…supper cooking in the kitchen; banana bread baking while the snow fell outside the windows; coffee brewing in corner of the counter each morning. Eventually, when coming to visit over Christmas Breaks, Spring Breaks, or for vacations in the summer, the upstairs felt as much like home as the basement did through the waiting years.

You may be thinking: “Interesting story, Tom. Sad in some ways once you did the math for us. You say the carpet didn’t come until 1981, and your family first moved from Roseville in time for the Christmas of 1975, that means your Mom had to put up with living in the basement for over five years before moving upstairs. There aren't many wives in this world who would do that.”

Yep. It's true. I almost didn't include these years because in looking back on the story of the property, it is these years that we still find most difficult to explain. I guess what I'm saying is, through the decades that followed, each of the four daughters-in-law that joined the family would often look at Mom and marvel at her patience, knowing they would never have survived (or allowed) the same long wait if it had been asked of them.

Five years after they moved upstairs, Jim graduated from high school and went off to college. It was a hard fall for Mom and Dad. Dad was about to take an early retirement from Bell, but was still full-time and building the garage on weekends. We helped him put the roof on it over the Christmas Break of 1986. Typically, roofs are shingled in warmer weather, but we were all home and Dad enjoyed the company and help. That's Jim at the right (age 18); Dad's in the middle in the red hood; and I'm at the left looking like Mario  (the Italian plumber featured in a Nintendo video game, which I had heard of but never seen at the time). 

Even when the garage was done, there was still no breezeway connecting it to the house, so we rarely used the side door. The front door on the spacious front porch did not yet have a sidewalk or the circle driveway. It just opened to the porch with no convenient way to get to the parked cars. Whenever we came home to visit, we parked on the big cement slap to the left of this picture, grabbed our suitcases, and walked around to the back door of the house

The garage was also done in used brick, but it was from a different source ten years after the brick for the house was hauled from Detroit RenCen site. (There were more white-faced bricks in the lot, but with all the landscaping, it is not easily noticed.)

For over a decade after the garage was finished, the back basement door remained the main entrance to the house. It was at that door or the top of the sidewalk where Mom and Dad's kids and grandkids said their "hellos" and "good byes" from Christmas 1975 through 1995. The white window trim, the breezeway, and the circle drive at the front door came after that. I'll explain how when I wrap up these years in Epilogue F.
Coming next weekend: "The Final Fifteen Years"

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Update after Grandma's Funeral

We spent two days in my hometown of Port Huron for my grandmother's visitation and funeral. There were many surreal aspects of each passing hour. I wrote once of the people in my parent's wedding pictures:

"It’s as if the photographer knew these weren’t just wedding pictures—especially in the group tableaus—it’s as if he knew…this was the cast party of the unfolding play that was our life before we lived. Each shot is in the old historic church that shares its name with the fort that once stood there..."

This is the church where those wedding pictures were taken; and that is where the offspring of that "cast of characters" met yesterday for my grandmother's funeral service. Most of us had not been inside the church for several decades. After the graveside service, we returned to the very same basement where Mom and Dad's wedding reception was nearly 60 years ago. We sat among the same support posts and the same doorways and banisters that were in the photos of that more festive occasion.

I had been in the church often as a small boy visiting my grandparents but not since writing Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe, a story that pretty much  begins in doorway of that church (just below picture crop). The thoughts of that story were swirling 'round my head all day. I'm thankful for getting to know my mother at a deeper level the year I wrote that with her help (just months before she passed away). Like I said, being in that place at the closing of an era (embodied in my grandmother) was nothing short of surreal in many wonderful ways.

Because Grandma lived to be nearly 99, there were many ironies including the fact that she outlived one of her daughters and son-in-law (my parents). But other than those two missing characters, it was like a reunion of sorts, and the service itself was characterized much more by laughter than tears. Grandma would have liked that. (Above photo was taken by a third-cousin whom I  met through this blog and yesterday in real life for the first time.)

Grandma was also a great-grandma and a great-great grandma to my granddaughter Nora and three other babies. But her grandchildren--that's me and my cousins--were pall-bearers, and also made up a choir per Grandma's long-standing request, to sing all four stanzas of "Oh, When the Saints Go Marching In."

[This photo is of the same choir more than 42 years ago at our grandparent's 40th Anniversary at a banquet hall in Sarnia, Ontario. (That's me looking at the camera with Jimmy to my left in Kathy's arms.)]

Imagine that same group four decades later singing from behind a casket in a little church yesterday. Believe me, there is only one reason fourteen middle-aged people (six of whom are over 50--if that's middle aged) would get up and sing that song: Grandma made us do it!

There were many humorous stories shared by us middle-aged grandchildren during the service (Mine were about her use of "Ohfurgosh!" whenever hearing some tragic news story followed by advice to never do whatever caused the story, and I ended with an anecdote about the last time I danced with her when she was 93. She was understandably winded from the dancing and laughing for several minutes. As I was helping her back into her wheelchair, I said, "Grandma, you're going to sleep well tonight," and she replied, "Tom, at my age, it's not the going to sleep you worry about--It's the waking up."). There were also meaningful insights shared and a good brief sermon. The only time I had to wipe my eyes was when my cousin Bob told us that for many years he has been calling Grandma on a weekly basis, and at the end of each call, he and Grandma would sing the opening lines of this classic song. He started to sing it then had to stop with a tearful smile. I knew exactly how he felt. Even typing of it now brings back the moment. So, Bob...this clip is for you.

Original post: March 11, 2010:  "Stay By The Life Guard!"

I have often written of my Grandma Spencer, my mom's mom. We had plans to celebrate her 99th Birthday this July at Pine Grove Park in Port Huron. But it there is one thing I have learned from Grandma it's do not presume on the future, but make the most of each day God gives you.

Natalie took this picture last Thanksgiving.

My grandmother never drove a car or had a driver's license, but she always found ways to get around, always had friends who enjoyed her company. She's been to India, Jerusalem, Europe, Florida, California, to name a just few places far from home. But mostly she got around town. Until recent years, she walked nearly everywhere she went, and right up to the end she traveled by bus to get her hair done and to meet friends at the Palmer Park Rec Center to play cards once a week. All her life she lived in Port Huron. About 70 of her 99 years were spent in the same house on the corner of Forest and Riverview, just a block from Palmer Park and a couple blocks from Light House Park on Lake Huron.

When my brothers and I spent summer weeks there, we'd get pull our swim suits off the back porch railing, put them on in the front bedroom, and begin walking toward the beach. All the way down Riverview Street, Grandma would stand on the back porch by the swing and yell, "Stay by the life guard!"

She was afraid we'd start swimming at the public beach where it was safe then accidentally drift in the swift  hour-glass current of the lake there to the even swifter St. Clair River just south of it.  But we never did it accidentally. We'd go in at the old Dunn Paper Mill (nowhere near the life guard) and drift deliberately under the Blue Water Bridge (that goes to Canada). We'd pull out at the fishing shanties that used to line the river's edge by the Peerless Cement Plant and spend most of our day diving off the roofs of those old shanties. Then we'd weave the streets back to Riverview so it would look like we were returning from Light House Park. Blame it on Dad. He loved swimming in the cold swelling water in the shadow of that great bridge, and we felt the same way about it but never told Grandma. Consider this a confession of sorts...

My Aunt Jackie (Mom's sister) called last Saturday to say Grandma wasn't doing well. We've had close calls many times through recent decades, but Grandma always pulled through. This time, however, there was reason to believe her time was near. I talked to Grandma on the phone Tuesday night. At first, I wasn't sure what to say. I'd heard she played Bingo Sunday afternoon--even won a few games--but she didn't want to talk about that. She had some things she wanted to say. The kind of things a person says when there saying good-bye to those they love. The kind of things that makes you not want to hang up the phone, but just before I did she said, "I love you, Tom. I hope you never go through this. I ache all over. I'm wanting to go, ready to go, I hope I just go in my sleep. G'bye, Tom...for now." She'd never added the "for now" before. It was good to hear her say that.

My sister Kathy was with her when I called. She spent the night went home Wednesday afternoon when Uncle Dick arrived (Mom's brother, Grandma's son). About twenty-four hours later, around 1:40PM today, my Uncle Dick called me at work. He had just had lunch with Grandma. Yes, she did eat--even asked him for more salt and some sugar--then she dozed off. While she was sleeping, he went to the grocery store and got the call just a few minutes after leaving her. When I was in hospice with my mother two years ago, a nurse told me that sometimes folks wait 'till they're alone to let go.

It was a beautiful sunshiny day in Port Huron, but here where I am three-and-a-half hours west, it was dark and gloomy when I got the call. As I left the office the rain began.
Epilogue E-2 is in draft form, I'll post it soon unless more thoughts of Grandma fill my head between now and the funeral on Monday.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Unsettled Epilogue E-1: "The Weight of Waiting"

In July 1980, after my wedding in Kansas, my sister and her husband began a project that made my parents very happy. They were building a house, and better yet, they were building on a section of frontage within the 14-acre rectangle of our property. In time, they would become Mom and Dad's nearest neighbors.

In order to be fair, which was a very high value to Dad, especially in family matters, Dad had drawn up five lots along the frontage of our land so that each of us kids, if we so desired, would be able to settle there as Kathy and Jack had decided to do. The center lot was actually Mom and Dad's required frontage through which their own driveway led back to the house set deep in the woods.

At various times in the decades ahead, each of the children had opportunity to weigh the matter with their own spouse: Do we want to move back home, so to speak, and build our own house on the property? But as is true in any marriage "back home" may have a different meaning to the spouse who didn't grow up there. In our family's case, only Kathy and Jack made thoughts of such a move a reality.
Through the centuries, corners of large family farms, ranches, and woodlands were parceled off to sons and daughters, making it possible for generations to live within walking distance of each other. I’ve seen this in Iowa, Kansas, and other agrarian settings. But in post-industrial/post-modern America when a family’s location depends almost entirely on careers and job markets, building on "the family land" is actually a very complicated decision. Kathy was the only one of us whose future plans seemed stationary enough to settle on our settled land. Between the other four grown children, there have been more than a dozen major geographic relocations during adulthood (including stints in Texas, Arizona, South Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Iowa, to name just a few). Until recent years, there was typically a collective distance of 1,000-2,000 miles between my siblings homes and the homestead.
Today we all live within a short drive of one another and a short drive from the land. (I’m a few hours away in west Michigan; the others are in the Macomb/Oakland County area.) Each of us has different stories of how we came back to Michigan, but Kathy never left (other than that one year of teaching down south), and at the time of this writing, she and Jack still live on the land of these chapters.

A few weeks after returning home from my wedding, Dad took his yellow John Deere tractor and dug the basement of their house. [This is a picture of Dad and Kathy's daughter Aimee. The backhoe was not attached at the time. Double-click to enlarge.] Once the basement was dug, Kath and Jack took out a mortgage and sub-contracted the various phases of construction, which was scheduled for completion in May of 1981. From start to finish, it was a nine-month project.

This presented a bit of a dilemma for Dad: Seven years after pouring the foundation of the house, the main level was still not quite ready to move into. He and Mom and Jimmy were still living in the basement. From their front porch, Kathy's house would now be visible through the woods, and in a matter of months her daughter would be living in a finished and furnished home. Like Aesop's fable of The Tortoise and the Hare, it was very hard for Mom to watch the swift progress of contracted work compared to Dad's slow and steady work done in his spare time.

Dad could simply not bring himself to the point of paying others to do what he could do with greater satisfaction himself. He had excellent credit history. No problem there, but he also had a visceral avoidance of borrowing money (or anything for that matter). He had never mortgaged a house, and wasn't about to now. I have hinted at this in previous chapters (or other stories).  It was a generational thing, but it also reflects the difference between being 25 and 50. (It may have also been deeper than that: my father's dad had been less careful about debt, and he died unexpectedly at age 59.) I'm not saying Dad's plan was best. Many years later, in the winter of 1995, he expressed regret that he hadn't compromised his goal for Mom's sake. Contrary to the cliché, hindsight isn't always 20-20; sometimes it requires bifocals.

So there you have it,  the truth that I seriously considered not including in this epilogue: Dad and Mom and Jimmy were still living in the basement of their dream house the summer I was married. Yes, we moved into the house (the basement) in the fall of 1975, and they were still living downstairs five years later.

The upstairs was almost done. It lacked only carpeting and furniture. For more than a year, they were on the brink of moving upstairs, but Mom wisely refused to live on the main floor as they had lived below. "Don, I'm not moving up until it's really done, and I'm not taking any of this old furniture up there." She knew too well that Dad's ability to "make do" would easily continue in the rest of the house, and she longed for the time when she could have company over without making jokes about how they lived.

As was true of all the trials of my mother’s life, she found many ways to laugh about living in the basement, but as any woman reading this can imagine, there were also times when the weight of her waiting swept over her in waves of despair. Dad on the other hand, was still putting in full-time days at Bell an hour away in Detroit, and coming home tired but finding fulfillment in getting at least one more task done upstairs before going to bed. He still looked forward to Saturdays, not for recreation, but for a solid day in which to work uninterrupted. To Dad, the house had become a live-in, long-range task--almost a hobby, as had been all the other steps of settling the land.

This completely different perspective on the house was perhaps the greatest test of my parent's marital strength, and we kids watched and learned about the weight of waiting on Mom’s part and the perseverance required to set and achieve long-range goals on Dad’s part. Through the decades to follow, for each of us children, it was the durability of their love, the strength of the tie that binds for life, that served as a framework for all the other romantic notions we like to think are the secrets to a happy marriage. Tingly feelings and starry eyes may start the fire, but it takes work and faithfulness to keep it burning as feelings come and go. The love we observed in Mom and Dad's marriage had glimpses of romance and routine affection. These things were there at the beginning and became stronger toward the end, but the quality that defined their commitment to each other--the quality that perhaps explains the 148 uninterrupted years of their five children's marrieages--was durability. Romance is fine but only if the relationship endures:  A vase of roses is only safe if the table you put it on is solid.

During these years, Dad became an avid ping-pong player. For five years, the table was set up in our basement in Roseville, and it would become a focal point in our new basement for over a decade. When we were not playing (for hours at a time), we were having Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners around that green table (covered in white sheets to dress it up a bit). [That's my Schwinn Continental in the background. I still enjoy that bike thirty years later.]

The basement was never intended to be the main living space of the house, and Dad never intended to live in it for all those years. Actually, the rest of the house was well designed, but its functionality was based upon assumptions that were not yet in place: primarily, the missing features were the circle drive to the front door, and the breezeway and garage connected to the side door. Dad designed the breezeway to be the most-used entrance to the house for family; and the front door for guests. When he sketched the plans of the house in his journal, years before the foundation was poured, he envisioned that we’d pull into the attached garage, use the ample room and landings in the garage stairway for the place we’d kick off shoes and hang up coats, then step into the large inviting breezeway with the large windows and sliding doors, and views to the front and back woods. From there, we’d step into the kitchen stairway (or go downstairs to the right).

That was how the house would someday function, but the garage was not built until 1986, and the circle drive and breezeway didn’t come until…well, I’ll get to that part soon enough. For now, I only mean to say that for five years our family and guests had been parking their cars at the end of the sidewalk that leads to the back door, and that door—the basement door—had inadvertently become the main entrance to the house.

At times, the weight of this waiting was more than Mom could bear. As this story has hinted at many times, to Mom the “dream” part of whatever dream house, she and dad would build was the dream of raising her family there. That was true of the house on Atkins Road in 1960; and for her it was even true of the house they didn’t build in Roseville. That was definitely Dad’s intention, too, but he wanted it to be the kind of place he’d always wanted to raise his family. When he bought the property in 1968, he thought is would all come together sooner. He misjudged the pace of years as we all do in living them.

As I got older, I was more sensitive to Mom’s struggles. I’m not sure they were any different than before, but ironically when I lived at home, I simply overlooked them. It was when I married, and as Julie and I began feathering our own little nest (a very small house indeed) that I began to fully understand a woman’s need to make the walls and floors around her feel like home. In time, I better understood the weight of Mom’s wait. It was after a phone call with Mom during a time of discouragement about the house, that I wrote her a letter, a letter that I would find decades later, tucked in a drawer of her china hutch.

Dear Mom,
I know it seems as if you’ll never live upstairs, and sometimes it seems too late now that four of us are married and living someplace else. I know you always wanted it t be like Walton’s Mountain with all of us on the land and new house together before the growing up and marrying began. It just took a little longer that’s all; a little longer than we thought what with college and all. I feel bad about that. But you know that for as long as I can remember, you have been praying for our “life partners.” Remember how it used to bother me when you’d say, ‘I’m already praying for her—I don’t mean praying that you’ll find someone; I mean praying for the specific girl because she’s out their living and breathing right now. We just don’t know her yet, but I pray for her as if she’s a part of this family already because someday she will be. I pray for each of your life partners everyday that way.”

I used to hate to hear you say that because I wasn’t even thinking about marriage. I was at Burton [Junior High] when you first started telling me that, and I’d just smile and think you prayed about the strangest things in the strangest ways, but now here I am married (and Dave and Paul and Kathy, too) and pretty soon you’ll be moving upstairs to the finished house and it makes you sad because we’re not there. It took longer than we thought; that’s all. But think of it this way. This is going to be the house we all come home to; the house where all your grandkids will run around and play just like Aimee does now. Paul’s kids; Dave’s kids; my kids. Someday even Jimmy’s kids. We’ll all be home for holidays and summer weeks, and we’ll all be yelling Good Night from room to room just like we did before only there will be more of us. Someday we’ll be all over the place, and you and Dad will be playing with the grandkids on the attic stair behind the banister. Our kids will love that stairway just the same way we loved playing on Grandma Spencer’s stairway. It’s all going to be fine, Mom. You’ll see. It will be fine, Mom. It will be the place we all consider home. It already is.
To be continued in Epilogue E-2...

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