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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

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Location: Lake Michigan Shoreline, Midwest, United States

By Grace, I'm a follower of Christ; by day, I'm a school administrator; by night (and always) I'm a husband and father (and now a grandfather); and by week's end, I usually find myself writing in this space. Feel free to join in the dialogue.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 26 "Under Jim's Blanket"

It seems that no matter how much a summer held for us boys—no matter how much work; no matter how much play—there came that day when we crashed headlong into reality. You know the day; it happens to all kids everywhere: that day when the first dreaded "Back to School" sign springs up in a store window. Dave and I would be soaring blissfully along like two robins enjoying the wide outdoors and discovering a new place they've never been, dart toward the sunny reflection of their world in a big picture-window and—DOINK!- DOINK!— they're sent stunned and reeling back to earth.

"Back to School" signs were like that wall of unseen glass, and once the reality had rocked our bearings, it was hard to fly on toward Septemeber with carefree abandon.

It’s not that we hated school. We loved it. In fact Kathy and Dave and I all became life-long teachers. Let’s face it, there is magic in the promise of the first day of school, that wooden whiff of a just-sharpened #2 pencil and the smell of an unused pink eraser remind us there are pages to be written and mistakes that can sometimes be undone with only a shadow of regret.

In that sense, school is not-quite life—it’s preparation for life. School is a wonderful thing, but so is summer, and it is a love for both that keeps teachers ready to do what they do year after year.

In the summer of 1970, only my sister Kathy knew she wanted to be a teacher, a lower elementary teacher to be exact. It was something she knew with certainty since we were all little kids playing “Penalty Lady” in the garage. This was a made-up game where her three brothers along with some other neighborhood friends would sit in rows while she tried to teach us something, and she would create humane consequences for the trouble we managed to get into during her lesson. Kathy called the game “school,” but we boys created the more memorable name. We laugh at these memories now, because after nearly 100 collective years as educators (between Kathy, Dave, and me), we now fully understand the natural balance of ideas and consequences… but in that summer it was only Kathy who intended to be a teacher for the rest of her life. To do that, she had to go to college and had chosen one where some of her friends had already gone, which was 700 miles away.

And so it was that in those last two weeks of summer, after the tent had been put away and the slightly yellowed patch of grass beneath it had turned green again, after Dad with the help of our Uncle Bob had dropped a new transmission in the car Mom put in “Reverse” at 50 miles-per-hour; after the Back to School signs had done their damage…

Kathy’s room was a neatly stacked with boxes and suitcases and a laundry bag full of things that would not wrinkle. She was ready to leave for school.

Mom and Dad were driving her there and would stay for two days to get her “settled in.” The four boys were not going, but our good-byes would not be there at home.

Mom had made arrangements for Paul and Dave to stay at Grandma and Grandpa Spencer’s house, the same house where Mom was born in 1930 and lived in until the night before her wedding in 1951. But that house had only one spare room, and Mom thought it best that Jimmy and I stay with her sister, our Aunt Jackie and Uncle Neal, in Croswell about 45 minutes north of Port Huron.

Paul and Dave had it made. We had grown up treating Grandma’s house as our weekend home just a short walk from the beach at Lighthouse Park in the shadow of the Blue Water Bridge (The beach was a short walk from the literal shadow, but in any given day we swam at both the beach and the river beneath the bridge.)

Grandma's house had a covered back porch that faced Riverview Street, so named because three blocks away was the mouth of the St. Clair River. As we walked down the sloped pavement of that street, Grandma always stood on that porch shouting, “Stay by the life guard!” There was a palpable anxiety in her voice as she repeated the imperative over and over until we were out of sight. We, of course, waved and nodded each time she said it, but we never quite gave verbal promise to fulfill the impossible condition she imposed. We enjoyed swimming in both the river and Lake Huron. I can say with confidence, however, that we were never more than half-a-mile from that mysterious young man in sun glasses perched high in his stilted timbered bench.

That was the carefree life that Paul and Dave anticipated while Dad and Mom took Kathy down south.

My next three days, on the other hand, would be anything but carefree. It’s not that I did not love going to Aunt Jackie’s. We’d been spending either Christmas or Thanksgiving there for years. Croswell is a wonderful old town, and Uncle Neal’s floral shop was just a few blocks from the famous “Swinging Bridge” that spans the Black River. But while Paul and Dave were having fun in the sun, I was a fourteen-year-old in charge of his two-year-old brother.

It was not the days with Jimmy that concerned me. He and I would often spend entire days playing together but never under these conditions. I had little experience at being away from home without family. I’d been to church camp twice—each time with Dave (and my friends Bob and Jeff), but that was about it. Worse yet, Jimmy had never been away from either Mom or Dad for more than a few hours, and when he was, Kathy was always there to be a second “mom.”

So you can imagine why our days were anything but carefree. I’ll spare the details beyond the first and most difficult night at Aunt Jackie's…

After supper, I was sitting in a wingback chair beside the empty fireplace with Jimmy in my lap. It was approaching his bedtime, but he was crying inconsolably. Aunt Jackie reached down to lend a motherly touch, but Jim was whimpering with homesickness and clinging to the only thing that felt like home, his brother.

“I want Mom,” he’d sob in his little voice. “I want Kathy.” His inhaled breath stammered and shook his whole body in my arms. “I want Dad,” he sighed.

These were not bratty demands but whispered supplications behind brimming eyes. It was his first taste of the grief that comes from separated love. I looked around the room at my aunt and uncle and cousins, sitting on the couch across the room, hopelessly watching the two of us in that chair. I did not have the nerve to tell them to leave and to just let us be alone, but when he repeated his “I want Mom. I want Kathy. I want Dad,” I whispered in his ear “So do I..” And the confession broke whatever veil was holding back my tears. Without thinking I pulled his blanket over both our heads.

It must have looked absurd, but under that blanket we cried together. I kept putting my finger to my lip to let him know it was okay to cry but best to do it quietly. Keep it all safe inside this secret place for just us two. I wiped his eyes with his flannel blanket, and wiped mine, too.

As our quiet sniffling continued, my nose was in need of a handkerchief, and then it happened. A snot bubble grew from my left nostril. Jimmy had never seen one before and it made him laugh and point at my face.

“What?” I said, not knowing the snob bubble was growing and shrinking with each breath.

“Bubble” he said.

It popped when I touched it, and Jimmy laughed again and held up the corner of his blanket. It was his favorite blanket, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Without the concern that under any other conditions would prohibit such an act, I wiped my nose and smiled, then wiped our eyes with a clean section.

There were twelve years between Jimmy and me, but never were we closer than that night in that chair. After listening for sounds beyond our cotton sanctuary and hearing none, we slowly pulled it from our heads. The room was empty, the hearth at our feet, that place where holiday gatherings flickered in a warm glow, was dark and swept free of any ash, but I stared into it 'til Jimmy fell asleep. My arm was soaked with the perspiration of his head, as I carried him down long hallway to our bed.


Anonymous quilly said...

I miss the days when a simple snot bubble could make the bad things in life just a little more bearable.

I know you don't often visit other blogs, but if you pop by mine today, you might find a pleasant surprise. (If you find Punny Monday, scroll on by to the post beneath it.)

1/6/09 3:06 AM  
Blogger .Tom Kapanka said...

I feel bad that it has been very hard writing here the past month and more true that I haven't been making my rounds to my bookmarked blogs (my bookmarks are on my laptop which is still being repaired). But I will try to find time this evening. And I thank you in advance for the surprise.

1/6/09 7:44 AM  
Blogger the walking man said...

There are times Tom I find myself a bit envious of your upbringing. By the age of two there was no lap to perch in and by the age of fourteen I had long learned to cry without noise or tears or snot bubbles.

3/6/09 3:06 PM  
Blogger .Tom Kapanka said...

I'll admit that when I wrote this late Sunday night and tweaked it early Sunday morning. The old feelings of sadness from that chair swept over me. I vividly remembered the heartache of not being able to help Jimmy feel better and then giving way to the very sense of abandonment he felt.

As you know, one of my motivations in writing here is to remind people of how things "can be." Life is not perfet, not always as we wish, but it is always better when we believe in the gift of life and giver of it.

There are good kinds of sad and sad kinds of sad. I'm touched by what you have said, but I do know you have learned how to grow in love in what was sometimes stony soil, and I hope it is of some encouragement to "relive" with me POI moments when sadness and joy sprang from the same source.

3/6/09 4:35 PM  

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