Archive for the ‘Childhood’ Category

Uprising, 50 Years Gone

July 22nd, 2017

I was sure I’d written here on the 1967 Plainfield, NJ, riots, a.k.a. rebellion or uprising. Apparently not. There are a few FB mentions in my feed and those of others from that place and time.

For reference, consider the bare-bones Wikipedia entry. Maybe a local pair’s recollection. There’s also Peter Dreier’s piece that appeared in The Nation. I as well as everyone I know from there disagree with his claims of racial animus, but hey…

A search will yield many links for that summer’s violence, also in Newark, Cambridge MD and beyond. There’s even a “Kerner Commission” report.

Truth be told, Plainfield was not a city many could have pegged for a race riot. Newark, sure; Low levels of integration and long-time hostility. Plainfield was well integrated (the high school of roughly 2000 students was half black). The races socialized during and after school. The sports teams were real teams and low personal conflict.

Maybe the housing concentration should have made the possibility more obvious. Many black families lived between Front Street and Seventh. When the trouble started, it was there, which became know as the riot zone. That’s where the stores that people looted and even burned were. It was where the National Guard went rampaging in surely unconstitutional searched for over 100 stolen semi-automatic rifles stolen nearby. They went into apartments of friends and ripped the rooms apart, terrifying and brutalizing the residents.

My family lived in low-rise apartments on the other side of the high school. Had it not been for my mother’s job, I might have been in the majority of local students with no real contact with the riots.

As it was though, Wanda Ball, my mother, was the exec at the Plainfield Red Cross Chapter. A small detail is that her offices were inside the riot zone. More to the point, it was her job to help  as needed. She also figured out how they could do that.

That’s how I met Milt Campbell. One of the country’s all-time great athletes, Olympic decathlon gold medalist (and national and state champion in numerous sports, including mine, swimming), he had left a racist America to play football in Canada and live in peace with his white wife. He returned to help his hometown when he learned of the trouble.

I had graduated a year before. That summer, I worked as a life guard and swimming instructor at a swim club in a tony suburb above Plainfield (Brookhill in Watchung). It was somewhere between Leave It To Beaver and Mad Men with the hausfrau and privilege.

I had been a Red Cross volunteer from long before I could object. I built parade floats, stuffed mailings, ran office machinery, taught first aid and swimming and on and on. My mother knew how to harness her two kids.

Come the riots, my sister was off in college, but I had most of my day free, minus a shift at the swim club. There was work to be done.

She set immediately to getting donations of milk, water, food, diapers and such trucked to the chapter. Inside the policed zone, most stores were closed or looted. Plus the residents were forbidden by Guard and cops to be on the streets. So, the Red Cross station wagons that normally ferried the infirm and elderly became supply vehicles.

I started showing up at the club with one of the white wagons and a white bump hat (known to those who don’t know as a hardhat, but they are plastic). The club moms were horrified. The guy who taught their kids lifesaving and swimming left the club and headed into danger each afternoon. Many offered to, really insisted without effect, that I sleep over instead.

 I had grown up with Wanda heading to fires and other emergencies to offer assistance as needed. This was more of the same to me.

I was surprised though to find the famous Milt Campbell standing in the chapter parking lot ready for duty.

It turns out that the janitor had been a well-known professional softball player when that was a thing before WWII.  So this elderly, slight guy teamed up with the gigantic Campbell, and the two former breaststrokers on the high school team, Joel Blumert and me.

It must have been conical to see Milt on the truck moving two or four four-gallon cartons of milk or water from inside a truck to the bed. I would take one or two and move them down to Joel, who in turn would pass one at a time along to the janitor, Cecil, to put into a station wagon. As I recall, with each hand-off, the cartons dipped lower. We filled the wagons though.

Then I’d drive while a couple of us delivered the essentials to those who needed them.

Milt, Joel and I shared coaching of a great human, Victor Liske. We spoke if his inspiration. In fact, if you’d like a moving tribute, click on Milt’s acceptance speech as NJ athlete of the century. It’s good stuff all the way. The parts about Coach Liske start around 13:20.

Back to Plainfield, much to the surprise of the Brookhill families, helping out did not cost me my life. I never even needed the bump hat.

 

 

Donate and Die

June 15th, 2017

They say I killed old man Blue. That was a bit of my family’s sardonic wit, WWII-era version.

Truth be told, the venerable John Rinehart Blue did die (thrombosis) shortly after I wangled a donation from him, allegedly his first to anyone outside of his beloved Presbyterian Church. As a teen, hearing my great-uncle and others repeatedly taunt me about his death was mildly worrisome. I remain unconvinced of the cause-and-effect here.

In adult perspective, he was only old man in contrast to my youth. I see that he died just short of 60, not 100 nor 90. He came from a famous family, including a Civil War hero father. He had been a state rep (delegate) for several terms, superintendent of the state school for the deaf and blind for two decades, and owner of the Ben Franklin five-and-dime. He was born, raised, did his business and died in Romney, WV.

He was also well known as a skinflint.

I was as sincere and naive as anyone outside a mental institution. I was not deterred when it came time to canvass for donations for the awards at the first town swim meet for kids at the local Firemen’s Pool.

Young Bum

My maternal grandmother, Mable, was highly skilled at what became known post-Vonnegut as Catch 22 arts. My sister and I lived with our grandparents in Romney many consecutive summers. While we resented her no-win situations, we had to admire the elegance of some.

Pic Note: From historichampshire.org and without any claims. This is the store being torn down, late 1990s.

We became the help. There was a lot of make-work, like hand dusting each banister member every day, also daily using a watering can for repeated trips to the whole-porch planters of those damned petunias. I still despise petunias. Oh, yes, and regular ladder work with newspapers and ammonia to shine the windows.

Granddad worked nights at the B&O yard and enjoyed whole-day labor in his massive gardens. Here was the Catch-22 catalyst. As the girl, my sister was to be cleaning lady at Mable’s whim.

I got the no-win position.

  1. Stay to help her and I was a sissy and unworthy.
  2. Go to garden and I disrespected her and my sister.

The salvation was when the local volunteer fire department opened a town pool. It was a steady-income fundraiser for them and a boon to us. For a pittance (I think a quarter), we could vacate our servitude. Sure, Mable could complain we didn’t do enough work at her house, but we were not there to catch the guilt tripping.

We were simply bums. That was OK by us. We lounged with our friends, swam, read, and just enjoyed summer.

The Infamous Trophy

As a pool regular, I agreed to career along Main Street to ask business owners for contributions. The ideal was $15 for a trophy.

Of course, I had heard Mr. Blue did not give anything to anyone..except his church. I went in his store anyway. Perhaps my innocence and sincerity disarmed him. Regardless of cause, I left the store with $15.

Shortly afterwards, he died. Hence, the ribbing. Parting with the donation was more than he could stand, and such. Ha ha, I suppose.

 

Cloth Buddies

April 12th, 2017

It may mean anthropomorphizing garments and binkies. It seems to run on the male side of my family.

Two of my three sons were very attached to their baby blankets. I ended up salvaging them by first patching each, and then by cutting down and re-hemming the sturdiest surviving parts. One son, it turns out, really liked the satin binding; he could be diverted with a satin slip.

Pic Note: This is a fair-use image retrieved from wikipedia.

I can relate for myself. I don’t fetishize individual garments or cloth objects. Yet, I am very fond of wear-softened cotton or silk shirts. Alas, I have had to admit that I have worn out yet another favorite shirt.

This one is a maroon cotton long sleeved one (almost all my shirts are long-sleeved and cotton). The collar and cuffs are clearly worn, showing white threads. Sigh.

I have also come to a tipping point with three Woodrich animal-print cotton shirts. There was a moose one, hunting dogs, and bears. I have had these for years. wear them equally and they are wearing out simultaneously.

Woodrich has long ago removed these from production. They make a bastardized version, very heavy, very thick chamois cotton. I have a couple of those in good shape; they really are too hot and bulky to ever bring the comfort and joy of the previous versions.

This seems to make many women including my wife somewhat disdainful. Women tend to have more and more diverse clothes from men. Women are thus more comfortable tossing garments that show wear. They are also far less willing than I to darn and otherwise patch a shirt.

Like my sons, I enjoy a soft piece of cloth. More than just nice to touch, it seems that the shirts and I have been through a lot together. That’s where the weird anthropomorphizing comes it. It’s almost animistic. I can’t say that my soft shirt has a soul, but it sure is pleasant to wear.

String beans, snap beans…Boomer beans

March 7th, 2017

To anthropomorphize the flora, the huge maple in my grandparents’ backyard saw much. Granddad built that house by hand in the 1920s and the tree was already big. It became a host to the 7-year locusts that arrived when I was 5 and again at 12 and 19. Their translucent leavings were great sport and science and art.

You can peek behind my sister and me to see part of the massive maple’s trunk. We are between the BBQ and the picnic table Granddad added. We had just returned from being part of the Occupation Army in Japan. Our parents had divorced. She and I were jolly and good friends.

Under that tree there was no smithy but it was a neighborhood and family witness. Not the least of the events were vegetable related. Sure, we had hundreds of family and extended family gatherings there, but the bees were more frequent and memorable.

I can display my BY-CRACKY card here. My three sons did not grow up with my country trappings. The youngest is 23 and his cohort is far less likely to have cultivated beans. For many, the term string bean is only an insult for a skinny kid and not a thing. It’s like when they see a typewriter or an old computer keyboard with RETURN on one on the keys where Enter is now.  As millennials might say, “What does that even mean?”

Baskets of beans

Under that tree gathered conscripted labor (we kids), my Grandmother Mable’s sister Ann, Suzy Cunningham from across the yard, Mrs. Heinz from catercorner, and sometimes Mable’s brother’s families.

Mable and Granddad played a vegetable game. Come harvest and canning time, she’d say to him, “Bill, I could use a few beans (or peas or limas or whatever).” He and I grew his gardens. He called them diminutively patches. As his coworker, I knew they were an acre or more each — big.

A few beans meant several bushels. He and I bent to the task and the next day would deliver these. Mable would deliver the hands. Of course, they came for both the social aspect and a cut of the harvest.

Stringing and shucking

For you dazzling urbanites and young folk, know that green beans used to have inedible spines, those strings, hence string beans. To prepare them for cooking or canning, you’d hold the bean in one hand, snap the top with the other and peel the string the length of the bean, discarding the string.

In most situations, you’d also snap the bean into bit-sized pieces. Hence, snap bean.

For their part, lima beans and peas were hell on thumbs and definitely not the kids’ favorite. You’d need to squeeze the pod with both thumbs, pop it open, then run a finger the length of the pod to extract the goodies into a bowl. Repeat hundreds or thousands of times.

Adults got into a rhythm. There was lubricating iced tea, and gossip, and teasing, and family stories.

In the end, the women each left with a stock of beans or peas to enjoy, or an oral voucher for jars of the canned goods. We kids got meager offerings of Fudgsicles or maybe homemade ice cream. Our thumbs were red and sore. The gossip and family tales were less thrilling.

 

Granddad Broke His Leg

February 4th, 2017

A family horror story immediately came to mind when I saw the new object d’art in the main lobby of Boston’s South Station. If you loved trains growing up as I did and if you played with model-train sets, you’d recognize the coupling, even at 9 feet tall. It has special meeting to me.

My maternal grandfather, William Michael, worked the B&O for 48 years until they forced him to retire. He met one of these in a bad way in his early 50s.

Management lesson

As he told it, he knew better but was impatient. As he yard foreman in Cumberland, MD, he told his crew to climb up to the control wheels on top the cars to manually open the coupling when it would not connect two cars just by pushing them together. He didn’t wait when they couldn’t do it.

He took the little ladder up and was doing the work when he fell. As he did, the cars moved and the coupling linked…with him between, breaking his upper right leg in three or four places.

He found himself in his backyard for a couple of months with a cast from his waist down, on the broken side to his heel.

Lemonade

Meanwhile, my sister and I were kindergarten age and had recently returned from being part of the Occupation Army in Japan. Our parents had divorced and our father quickly remarried (a sordid tale for another time).

He and his new wife were stationed back in Fort Sill, OK, my sister and my birthplace. While our mother had full legal custody, she was trying to be a good scout and agreed when he requested that we spend the summer with them there.

That turned out to be a bad gesture. They decided at the end of the summer when he got orders to move to a base in Germany that they’d take my sister and me with them. So is the lesson never to trust an ex or that an officer is not necessarily an honorable gentleman?

They sent a telegram to my mother, who was then staying near her family in the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Locale became important. It was before Internet highways and it was a couple of days’ drive, which she immediately planned upon receiving the shocking wire.

Despite his immobile, plaster-cast condition, Granddad was ready to help his daughter. They got into his car and headed to Southern OK. He somehow managed to operate the pedals and they took turns driving.

On arrival, they went into court as a local lawyer they had contacted arranged. Despite my stepmother and father doing their best marketing effort, apparently my sister and I were not at all convinced that we’d be “better off” with them overseas. The judge quickly ruled that our mother had full custody and that meant what it said. Done and done.

Backyard satori

With the melodrama resolved, the four of us headed back to Romney, still an intact family. So, what’s a crippled, healing railroader to do?

Years later I got the answer to that directly from him. We’d l long been buddies, I much more than any of the other grands. My sister and I spent summers with these grandparents and I worked his massive (one-acre) gardens with him.

We talked of pesky rabbits, his evolution from pesticides to organic, family, railroading, town history and on and on. However, I think I figured I knew more about him than I really did, just from seeing and hearing over the years.

Eventually in my late teens, I got to a seminal question — how could he remain so placid with such a nasty wife? My grandmother was mean and insulting to me, my sister and mother, my maternal aunt, her own sister who also lived in Romney, and of course her husband. She made some of us fume and others cry.

It had taken me years to ask myself the related question, why did he work into the night on the B&O, run his tailor and dry cleaning shop and even do volunteer work, then spend the summer days laboring in these gardens? I knew he gave away most of what he grew to the less fortunate, but why work so hard? That answer finally revealed itself — that got him away from his unpleasant wife, keeping the peace.

His answer to my underlying question of his attitude started with his usual beatific smile and soft words.

When he was in the backyard, hobbled in the massive cast, he remained his usual impatient, doer self. He read every book in the house and those people brought him, then magazines like Reader’s Digest and Life, which the got, plus the Romney and Cumberland newspapers.

Then he thought.

He said that one sunny afternoon, more than a thought came to him suddenly. He realized with his essence what mattered. If his wife for whatever reason struck out at so many, including him, that truly wasn’t important. He instantly shifted from as irritated as others. He transcended her nastiness and was out of reach.

In other words, amid the rose bushes, within sight of the 4 foot square goldfish pond, across the yard from the picnic table, brick BBQ and massive maple, he was enlightened. It wasn’t that he would no longer pay attention to her nasty words. They were no longer triggers.

He was sure he never would have arrived there without his broken leg and forced meditation. In the end, not a bad way to spend the summer, eh? Rescue your grandchildren and come to peace. What did you do last summer?

 

 

Stuffing, dressing and one vulgarity

December 26th, 2016

Back to yesterday and yesteryear, the stuff of stuffing emerges. Most of us, it seems, just know what is supposed to go in the roast bird. Our grannies or other family cooks did the perfect version — in our hazy memories. Anything different or less fails.

I too grew up with plugged up and trussed turkeys, ducks, chickens and geese. I am honestly indifferent to stuffing on my own and really prefer the control over the appearance, flavor and cooking times with an empty carcass. If you really want the best flavors and looks, cook a hollow bird.

However, do not delude yourself; holiday food fans want to see and smell (and in a perverted Proust madeleine moment) fully recall and relive stuffings of childhood. I advise acquiescing and producing the expected here. You can be creative with the rest of the bird and meal. At the least concentrate on a groaning board of beautiful, memorable appetizers.

Yesterday was the Christmas feast for a dozen. We did not go to mass on Christmas, rather massed for languid frivolity, gift and jest swapping and popping Christmas crackers.

As I prepared stuffing for the too-big turkey, I thought back to a Thanksgiving nearly 50 years ago in an alley in Cambridge, MA, with the grandiloquent address of King Place. It is a quarter block long, dead ended and perpetually shabby.

Oh, 10 or a dozen of us college types shared this narrow house of four tiny apartments in a brick building cheek to jowl with the next. We did not know each other except in pairs or small subgroups before moving there, but heck it was Thanksgiving away from family and friends. We’d make our own communal feast.

Then as now I was the primary cook. Our house consensus though included two essentials. First, we needed a sizable turkey, and second, it had to come from the oven extruding bread stuffing. Then democracy and family became obvious. We were all WASPy types, but our family and regional differences became pronounced. Each of us knew exactly what was necessary for a proper stuffing.

We had outlying votes for oysters, chestnuts and other favorites from other homes. We ended up agreeing as youth are wont on too many, just to make sure everyone would fork through to find the right bites. As I recall, in addition to the requisite cubed junk bread, stuffing stuff included celery onion, walnuts, prunes AND raisins, onion, poultry seasoning, pepper, salt, sausage and more and more.

I finished prep with far more than the turkey or any bird short of an ostrich could have held. Hence came the trays of patties, morphing from stuffing to dressing. My companion of the period loudly dubbed the patties buffalo turds. She was born in North Dakota, but more to the point, she was charming and attractive enough that she could and did get away with such vulgarities. I am sure to this day there are a few from the house who will refer to dressing patties that way.

We were all happy with our democratically derived stuffing and dressing.

Flash forward

Back to fewer than 24 hours ago, our Christmas feast benefited from that memory. I relented and decided to stuff the gigantic bird.

I’m not much for too easy and quick. Those result in bland or worse. I think Stop Top stuffing is more like wood wool, a.k.a. excelsior, than food. I fell back on childhood, King Place, restaurant, and previous stuffing goes. Still I was surprised as virtually all at the table went on about the stuffing.

  • The previous day, I cubed two family sized, thick sliced loaves of junk white bread into a huge bowl.
  • I added things that wouldn’t go bad, including 12 ounces of chopped walnuts, two teaspoons of kosher salt, a teaspoon of black pepper and a teaspoon of powdered sage. I mixed these and left the lid off for the cubes to harden up a little.
  • I cooked the turkey neck and giblets to death, removed the neck meat and minced everything. to this, I added a pound of smoked ham run through the food processor. These meats rested overnight in the fridge. Separately, two cups of turkey broth from giblet cooking cooled overnight.
  • I minced two medium onions, one long celery stalk, the celery core including the fine leaves, and a half cup of fresh parsley. Those too rested in the fridge.
  • Early in the morning, I ran about 12 ounces of rinsed baby bella mushrooms, stems included, through the food processor.
  • I got the broth from the fridge and microwaved a cup of golden raisins in it on high for two minutes. The idea was to pre-plump the raisins before stuffing the bird.
  • I heated a stick of unsalted butter and softened the onion mixture, and added the mushrooms.
  • All the ingredients went into the jammed bowl (I have some huge bowls) in the sink to permit an occasional errant lump. When all were squished by hand, I pressed as much as possible into the body and neck cavities of the dry-brined turkey. Six hours and one turning later, the bird received much praise.

To me, stuffing is merely a side dish. Yet, it got the level of compliment a well scrubbed, smelling and looking deb would have at the ball.

We should not overlook or deride simple pleasures. As one of Robert Frost’s poems concludes, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches. ”

 

 

Midtown, snow, long legs and a tree

December 22nd, 2016

Here in Boston, the light snow on Christmas week reminds me of Radio City Music Hall. A dear family friend, Evelyn Justice, took it on herself to guide my sister and me to our first Christmas spectacular there in 1963.

We waited in barricade queues, caught snowflakes on our coat sleeves and tongues, and grokked the Midtown essence of Christmas at Rockefeller Center. Yes, gigantic tree. Yes, ice skaters. Yes, a stage awash with long-legged Rockettes. Yes, a first-run movie.

Pic note: Public domain image by U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Gabriela Hurtado, 2006.

Evelyn was my biscuit lady. More on her here.

We’d known her as little ones in far Southern Virginia (Danville). We were delighted years later when we moved from rural Virginia (Chester) to New Jersey (Plainfield) to learn that she and hubby Rollins Justice (Justice to everyone) had moved there before us.

Evelyn was the kindest, most gracious, most empathetic human I’ve ever known. Of course, she’d be the one who wanted to take us to Radio City. I played chess too and she knew that two blocks away Brentano’s had a magnificent selection of boards and pieces.

She made even waiting on line fun, with jokes and stories of her childhood and things we didn’t remember about ourselves. We saw the wonderfully garish kick-dance show, kind of like Vegas showgirls, minus the decolletage and jiggling breasts. As I recall, they twirled mini-hula hoops that glowed under the lights around their calves and ankles. And the flick with Charade, starring the unnatural cervix lovely Audrey Hepburn.

I’ve been to the center since, seen the shows and tree, and of course the skaters. They aren’t as magical without Evelyn. She died in 1997. She was swell.

Old coots, chaws and vegetable display

November 19th, 2016

The farmers’ co-op in Romney WV was integral to my childhood. It had been moribund, then closed after long-time manager Fred Judd had a dreadful fall from which he never really recovered.

Just this week, it’s reopening in a form I would not have recognized. It is now the Hampshire County Co-op & Market Place. It offers local artists’ work and fancy food. The promo on the town FB page includes, “PS: Eric Hott’s smoked bacon pieces dipped in dark chocolate will change your life forever!”

That’s not the way I knew it.

Next door to the co-op on South Marsham Street was my grandfather’s tailor/dry cleaning shop. Abutting that was the family house where I spent summers and holidays. For a peripatetic  lad and his sister, that town and that specific street were home. We moved every couple of years but Marsham Street was always there for us.

We could sit on the front porch (and did often) watching as rain storms sheeted down the mountains before us, first wetting the apple and peach orchards.

Two doors down was a playground inside the co-op. The manager, Carl, let us play. In the big room by the entrance were bins of seed. If a farmer or gardener needed just a few pounds of corn to plant, he could fill a bag using a tin ladle and weigh it out. Likewise, you could get 16-penny spikes loose.

We kids were fascinated with the offerings. We’d also bury a toy in the seeds and challenge each other in a primitive hide-and-seek.

For the big games, the warehouse was filled with 50- and 100-pound bags of seed, feed, flour and such. We’d hide, chase each other and play battle with pea shooters.

Back in the front was a pot-bellied stove, replete with one to six old men. Several were excellent at sitting on nail kegs across from the stove and accurately spitting a big drop maybe 10 feet into the teardrop openings of the stove grate.

They’d tell true tales or maybe lies about their farms and WWI times and such. Highlights included remarkable vegetables they grew, like a 14-inch long bean pods. As I recall McCaslan was the usual champion bean.

I loved the stories and characters who told them. The co-op was a social club for them and me.

Next time I’m in town, I’ll surely visit the artisinal food and art version. I am pretty sure there’ll  be no stove glowing red and certainly tno tobacco-spitting performances.

 

Urine and Mine

October 2nd, 2016

tallurinalsOf course, most women have no need or desire to visit men’s rooms. I doubt they ask XY counterparts for details on urinals.So they don’t know there are a wide variety, which have changed in style in my lifetime.

I write of one memorable, re-emergent style. For details and pix see Chris Higgin’s post.

Meanwhile for the women who have never toured the men’s john, the snap left shows a pair of the ones that impressed me as a lad. This happens to be in Stoddard’s in downtown Boston.

It’s an adventure in that the stairway is very steep, very long and very narrow. Not only do the runners bring food up and dishes down, but M and W facilities are there. It’s a true test of how sober you are.
newcenturywThis tall urinal style used to be real common, mostly in fancier places. I first saw them in the hotel build in my childhood hometown (not birthplace) in West Virginia. The hotel was called the New Century; it went up before WWI and lasted into the ’70s. (For the New Century Hotel, a hat tip to Historic Hampshire. It’s a trove of snaps and postal cards of the Romney area.)

Romney long had east-west traffic on Route 50, from D.C. to Cincinnati, as well as being on the B&O line. It also featured a must-stop-at restaurant, the Green Palm, loved by Duncan Hines among others. However, until the New Century, it was short on hotel rooms, relying more on guest houses.

As a child in the ’50s and early ’60s, I’d occasionally visit the hotel, either with my grandfather for a meal or a pop, or sometimes for a meal.

Oddly enough, the urinals stay in memory. They are very much unlike toilets, small wall versions, and certainly different from the metal troughs at fairgrounds. Instead, the New Century’s looked like a boy, had he interest in doing so, could have stepped in for a shower.

They were about the right size. I see that new versions tend to be up to 38 inches high. In memory, the New Century’s were bigger. Then again, I was wee (if you pardon).

Nowadays, fancy joints tend to use flushless urinals, basically large bowls smaller than a regular urinal. They don’t require or allow flushing, which seems great until you know that someone has regularly to drain them and replace the lighter-than-pee chemical that lets the urine pass through while deodorizing the bowl. (Yuck. A job no one should have to do.)

I bet some hipster restaurant ended up with the salvaged New Century tall urinals.

Failing the Mom

July 18th, 2016

wanda1While my mother, Wanda Lee Michael Ball, died almost 12 years ago, I continue to recall my times with her. Those are almost entirely happy and grateful. She raised my sister and me solo, did a damned good job of it, and balanced fun and moral and smart by example and word.

On occasion, I do have minor regrets though. I recall particularly how I failed her by turning down one request. Sure, she denied me this or that over the the years as well. Yet, as an old guy now myself, I am increasingly aware of the stresses and pains — interpersonal, intellectual, physical, emotional — that living and aging bring. I could have taken one for the team that afternoon.

In her mid-50s, she had a devil of a year. Even typing that, I snort at Wanda’s example. She was loath to swear or even euphemize. “Damn!” was extreme language for her. When she was angry or very disappointed, her strong language was typically, “For crying out loud in a bucket!” (full emphasis on bucket). A malefactor we might call a bastard or asshole would suffer her, “What a crumbum.”

To most of us her 1979 was a year from hell. It included:

  • She had finally found happiness and fulfillment with a lover, who was chased by his ex-wife’s lawyers and courts for new spousal and child support. He got his company to transfer him to Asia and safety.
  • Her own  company got sold to a much larger pharma who handed payouts to the entire sales staff. Thus she was jobless.
  • With her payout, she had to invest it in six months or lose much of it to taxes. That meant buying a house for her and her sister across the country a decade before she wanted to consider such.
  • She got a breast cancer diagnosis. Her doc wanted to aspirate the growths, but her nurse sister convinced her to get a second opinion in her pending new town of Santa Fe. The surgeon there saw the lymph cancers as well and scheduled her for a radical mastectomy.
  • As part of the treatment at the time, her doctors immediately stopped the heavy doses of hormones she was getting for a hard menopause. As a result, her personality changed and her always modulated and logical self became short-tempered and even occasionally irrational, in other words like most other adults her age.

Beaten up and beaten down in every way, she did cope. In Santa Fe without her friends and lover, without her career, without a breast, and on an on.

In many ways, I was there and helpful. I visited, I called, I sent her goody boxes (something she had always done for her children). I was swell to her until she asked one thing that choked me.

Her surgeon liked to tell the story of when he visited her with the post-mastectomy lady and a couple  of nurses a few days after the surgery. The woman showed with a suitcase of padded bras and prostheses. The nurses were there to observe and learn.

Wanda looked at the assembled crew and asked, “What are you doing here?” The woman said she was there to help with the recovery. The surgeon said that Wanda then stated very clearly, “I’m not sick. I just had cancer,” and shooed them out. She was definitely not interested in being fitted for an artificial breast.

You should know that she never identified strongly with her mammary glands. Hers were small. Her daughter’s large. They’d joke about it being obvious whose bras were hanging to dry.

She had cancer of both breast and lymph. The prognosis after successful surgery was death within five years. She went 25.

On one of my visits not too long after the surgery, but when she had healed as much as her body was going to, she asked and I faltered. I knew they had taken a big chunk of muscle as was the style in those years of mastectomy. When the two of us were on the living room couch, she asked in her previous style whether I wanted to see and feel where the breast had been.

I did not and she seemed truly disappointed. It was a ritual offering that I failed to accept.

Yes, yes, the idea of a son touching his mothers breast, rather where the breast used to be, sounds morally and sexually wrong. It really would not have been. It was a medical, anatomical thing. It was yet another of her healing mechanisms.

I should have bucked up and gone with it…for her. I couldn’t and didn’t.

Shortly after I was rereading one of my favorite poets, Frederick Nicklaus. In The Man Who Bit The Sun, one of his poems starts:

I remember a horse in Indiana;
it came from the fields, it ran alongside
the bus. I remember its reddish hide.

But believe me, I failed the fright of its eyes.

So here it was. My mother looked me straight in the face and asked for something pretty simple. I failed. I couldn’t do it.