I dropped wife Kathy off at work at 7:00 this morning. She’s an oncology nurse navigator, shepherding patients through treatment, prognosis, hope and mortal dread. She wants to cry. She comes home spent. Her work is of first importance. Continue reading
A Sable Cloud Turns Forth Her Silver Lining
U-turn and detour. Limbo and leap. Bob and weave. This is my life, and the seasons ahead may bring shrug and chuckle as well as shimmy and shuffle. The joyful dynamic I sway to is occasioned by two realities: family and writing. As a husband, father and grandfather, I embrace delays, entreaties and ambushes as opportunities to help, love and be a good sport. As a writer I know that most of my worthy subjects resemble stumbling blocks.
I say resemble because one man’s annoyance is another’s delight and stumbling blocks because my truth is partly physical. My wife of 39 years is a purveyor of beauty. It’s out my window overlooking the backyard: sunflowers, young spaghetti squash hanging from improvised latticework, wildflowers planted just for me, other splashes of color I can’t name. Eye pleasing, yes, but it’s also an obstacle course. I can’t walk in any direction on our humble estate without maneuvering around, over or under something.
Robust leaves shining with dew bow across the path between me and my writing hut. Frequently I belly up to the desk with my person and clothing damp.
On days I drive to Oniontown for church work, climbing into the car reminds me to lose weight. Coneflowers and daisies tap my hamstrings as I suck in my torso to skirt the side-view mirror.
Oh, but before reaching the car, I hum “Limbo Rock” and duck the clothesline. Then to open our underachieving gate, two carabiners must be released. The mechanism still works, but not well enough to keep foxhound Sherlock Holmes from escaping.
Which reminds me, the K-9 has taken to joining Kathy and me in bed after years of occupying the living room couch. Seldom does he curl into a ball, though. To find a comfortable position I have to accommodate his lanky legs—four furry baseball bats. He’s a nocturnal real estate hog.
In short, if you see me crossing the backyard or trying to sleep, I’ll be moving like Carmen Miranda, minus the fruit basket turban.
Meanwhile, I have myriad errands. About every other week, Kathy will call shortly after I’ve dropped her off at work. My beloved is a virtuoso of forgetting necessities: briefcase, purse, satchel, glasses, cell phone, approved nursing shoes, etc. I drive 15 minutes home, park, shimmy past flowers, disengage carabiners, low-bridge the clothesline, secure the vital item, then do the whole business in reverse. Not infrequently, what Kathy requires is not where she says it is. This is where “good sport” comes in. No God in heaven or on earth can divine the object’s hiding place. When we downsized residences eight years ago, the remote garage door opener at the new place promptly disappeared. Of course, there was only one. Eighteen months later, a bemused yelp from the basement heralded its return. Kathy had slipped the remote into one of her gardening boots, where the poor innocent endured exile.
When Kathy does remember her wares, daughter Elena may well have designs on my agenda—like this morning. Back in 1634 John Milton prophesied my 8:45 to 9:30 in his poem “Comus”: “Was I deceived? Or did a sable cloud turn forth her silver lining in the night?” Whether by genetics or conditioning, I fly directly through clouds to claim silver linings. Elena’s plea would not be ignored. Was I by chance in the car? Could I watch the boys (Cole, 8; Killian, 6; Gavin, 2) while she hurried to the store? If so, her errand would take 20 minutes. If not, an hour or so—sneakers, car seats, selective listening, attitudes, armed rebellion, etc.
Recognizing the blessed intersection of family and writing, I made a U-turn. “Be there in a few.” A moment’s backstory explains my motivation. When Cole and Killian were born, they came to my rescue. They brought me a love I didn’t know existed during a dark stretch of road. Kathy’s love for me abides, patient and kind, more generous than St. Paul would dare to describe. And now Gavin smiles and reaches out, rests his head against my gray chest. As Abraham said, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
I’m not one for self-flagellation, but truth is truth. I never deserved two boys chattering and climbing into my lap. My gladness had runneth over before the third, Gavin, arrived, but now I see that goodness and mercy sometimes follow those who have no right to their ministrations.
And this is what I’ve been weaving toward. Elena thanked me for babysitting, but neither she nor the boys realized it was they who cared for me, they who made straight my path by asking me to swerve. Therefore, foliage standing in the way brings flowers close to my eyes. Changed itineraries take me to my boys and give me a chance to kiss Kathy goodbye again. And I write the whole business over and over, often forgetting that where I’m heading is almost never where I need most to go.
Oniontown Pastoral: Too Late Smart, Too Soon Old
Driving from Erie to Oniontown and back a few times per week, I have lots of time on my hands. I listen to podcasts that help me prepare sermons. Over my nearly seven years as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, I’ve spent hundreds of hours on audiobooks, mostly biographies of United States Presidents. A month ago I met my goal of covering all of them—provided they are safely under the sod. When my brain needs to rest, Jussi Bjorling or Bach or Elizabeth Cotton takes the dashboard stage. Now and then, it’s just silence.
The common denominator is listening, which leads to thinking, even when James Buchanan is messing the country up before Lincoln takes the oath or Cotton strums her gentle guitar left-handed, upside down. My ears are open, mouth is usually shut, mind flirts with this idea or that and heart often migrates to my sleeve.
The other day, when the only sounds were the engine’s mumble and tires sighing on the road, longing came over me. Of all the exegesis, literature and music I take in and treasure, what I want to hear most is silent as soil.
I miss my Mom. I miss my Dad. Grandparents and aunts and uncles, too. But miss is a milquetoast word. My belly had the blues and my eyeballs were heavy. Dear God, let me ask them questions and receive their stories.
When folks say they have no regrets, I keep my own counsel. Regrets? You better believe I have them. A full accounting will have to wait for another day.
As retirement inches toward me, I realize in my blood, bones and tears how much I love my late elders and how starved I am for their company. Three or four decades ago it never occurred to me what a sacred use of time it would have been to sit close to, say, my mother or my Aunt Mart in their last years and gather the fullness of their lives up into embrace. But something always seemed pressing—a pleasure to chase down, a duty to meet. If only I had known that the biographies I needed far more than Andrews Jackson or Johnson were Grandmas Miller and Coleman. And if Uncle Kenny were alive, I’d have bottles of Koehler Lager on ice and a pack of Lucky Strikes at the ready. He and I would clink those glass bombers, and I’d gladly sit still for what he’d have to say.
Fortunately, my regret comes without recrimination. A parishioner of mine passed along to me a great saying one of his elders told him: “Too late smart. Too soon old.” Back when the voices I incline my ear toward in memory were talking, I had better things to do. That’s the sad truth. I know too much about human frailty and foolishness to punish myself. Anyway, those lovely faces—all the more dear to me for their wrinkles and jowls—would say, “Oh, John, don’t you worry.”
They’d probably also encourage me to relax, for heaven’s sake. I’m trying. For one thing, wise and vigilant advice from childhood no longer works for me: I now talk to strangers.
People asking, “How you doing?” don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. My recent responses are as follows: “Vertical,” “I think I’ll pull through,” or “Any better I’d be twins.” That last one is stolen, but I can’t remember from where.
Strangers having a casual conversation in public had better keep their voices down when I’m near. Just yesterday wife Kathy and I were in a toiletries store, and two young women were teasing a third that she thrusts her hip to one side when shifting her weight—like she was trying to look glamorous or cool or whatever. It was all in fun. After paying, I stopped and said to the glam girl, “You know, they’re just jealous because they didn’t go to finishing school.” A moment’s repartee ensued, which granted us the healthy exercise of laughter.
Best of all, during a recent heat wave, the dew point was 73 degrees, which is considered miserable. I was walking to my car and spotted a couple older than I making slow progress toward the store. They looked to be slogging under water, the man leaning hard on his walker.
“So, is it hot enough for you?” I said. Not exactly original but it earned a response.
The guy kept on walking, but looked over his shoulder at me: “No! In fact, I’m going home to put on a sweater.”
I thought immediately, “Lord, he sounds just like Dad.” For a minute the late Denny Coleman was near, and my soul felt light all the way home.
So it’s like this, toots. You’re slowing down, and neither one of us will live forever. While you are still of sound mind and top side of the sod, receive this message from your son-in-law. Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: Going Visiting My career in visitation began over 50 years ago with Mrs. Gillespie, who lived across the backyard. Johnny’s perch was a red metal step stool beside the kitchen counter. His usual was strawberry Nesquik. Who knows, … Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: When Kathy Walks Away Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come. (William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116) Out of an abundance of caution, that was the reason, I suppose. The Colemans of … Continue reading
What Time Feels Like in Its Passing
Nothing has changed. Not much anyway. So why did a recent email from my brother throw me off stride?
“We finally decided to sell our condo,” Ed writes. “Now that Delta [Airlines] has pulled out of Erie, the convenience is outweighed by the cost. We have to fly into Buffalo anyways, and that just happens to be where Andrea and the boys are.”
Ed and wife Debby have retired to Las Vegas. No use paying taxes and condominium fees for a perch in our hometown when Buffalo, 90 minutes away, is where they want to be.
But Ed’s real estate transaction means that I’m the last Coleman left in Erie. My sisters both live in North Carolina. Mom died in 1998, Dad in 2012. Wife Kathy and I have two adult children and three grandsons in Erie, so our calendars overfloweth with blessings. Still, now that nobody from my birth family lives within an easy drive, one ventricle of my heart is pumping sighs.
This season’s emotional valley has been a long time coming. The Coleman family’s migration into glory and geographical retreat from Pennsylvania is of a piece with my past slipping away.
In the old neighborhood, Twin Kiss is a vacant lot. Joe Ettwein no longer survives to repair my cars. Gary’s Variety is a parking lot. I learned to make change there from the best boss ever. Russ’ Diner recently died of COVID-19, as did my beloved Jack Frost Donuts. Armand’s Pizzeria was actually the first to go, leveled for a convenience store. “OK, bout 10-12 minutes,” the muscular, mustachioed proprietor said in staccato when I ordered a large with cheese and pepperoni. The crust was thin, the sauce sweet.
Passing the dusty ghost of my alma mater, Erie East High, I can see German teacher Miss McMahon’s high ceiling and hardwood floor protected by layers of lacquer against the soles of spirited, randy teenagers. What apartments those classrooms would have made.
OK, uncle, the razing of East and Armand’s and the rest must be tolerated, but I’ll let myself wallow over Wagner Avenue, where I was raised.
The closer I get to 60—11 days away now, but who’s counting—the more often I turn right at the intersection I crossed for a 25-cent chocolate and vanilla “twin kiss” cone. Three blocks to the south stands home, surrounded by Farnsworths, Clarks, Newcamps and Snells.
Mr. and Mrs. Andrews lived next door. The wiry mister, a foundry worker, came home filthy, his cheeks whiskery, his lip bulging with Copenhagen. The missus’ frizzy hair gave her the countenance of a startled cartoon woman. But their house and garden were just so.
On my last Wagner run I was floored to see that fire had blown through the Andrews’ windows. The edifice remains. The picture I pulled over to take doesn’t capture my sensation in the moment that Mickey and Marcella went up in smoke with their home. In fact, they died two days apart in 2005 and shared an obituary.
My home was untouched, but with the two shade maples out on the tree lawn chopped down, the place was damaged in the eyes of the boy who came and went with a slam of the screen door.
I couldn’t help myself. Starting at our driveway, I paced off the yards to the corner. Almost 50 years ago, a handsome kid used the hollow of his mother’s hairspray cap as a tee. He sent the football over the telephone wire, jogged after it and kicked again. Again. And another as dusk turned to night.
But just how long was his furthest kick? I faced the wire, guessed 20-25 yards, and breathed. My treeless house looked like a man who had shaved off a beard he’d worn forever.
Presiding over the avenue of my personal best, this grandfather realized he could never match that 14-year-old who was so painfully awkward with the girls. I cracked open. Wind swirled in the hollow of my chest. I’ll never taste another Armand’s pizza. My brother has a buyer. One Coleman is left standing in Erie.
I’m as happy now as ever, honest, but what I wouldn’t give to kick that football one more time, to fetch it for another try. Let a chilly rain sting my face. Let the ball disappear into the darkness. I don’t need light to know that it’s good.
The kid inches toward the horizon. Being called “Pop” is perfect, but I miss Johnny. So I wave to him. He really puts his leg into one, watches it soar, then turns toward me. What a sweet boy. If only I could put my arm around his shoulder and pull him in close, as if father to son.
This is what time feels like in its passing.
A Meditation on God’s Will
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. (From a prayer by Thomas Merton)
These opening words of a prayer written by Trappist monk Thomas Merton evoke in me a mirror moment. Yes, the mirror is a cliché worn threadbare, but stay with me. I’ll wager most thoughtful people occasionally stare at their reflections—not out of vanity, but ontological wonder.
If you’re my age, your skin is slowly disappearing behind crow’s feet and spots. Maybe a spare chin is descending. Or you have half-moons like pale bruises under your eyes.
Years, of course, are beside the point. Your pupils and mine are curious. “Who am I?” we sigh. “What am I about?”
We don’t linger for long, though. No answers are forthcoming. Our questions retire with us each night, but never leave.
In my case, they’re light sleepers. Where am I going? What does the road ahead look like? When will it all end? And am I doing good in this world, helping more than hurting?
“Boy,” you’re thinking, “keeping company with Coleman sounds as pleasant as a picnic in a sleet storm.”
You’d be surprised. For me, Merton—known to his fellow monks as “Father Louis”—has liberated humanity by admitting truths about our earthly residency. “I have no idea.” “I do not see.” “I cannot know.”
Precisely. We know precious little. I’m barely fluent in the language of my own soul. Where am I headed? Why was I scheduled for an appointment on this planet?
And where will my road end? Thomas Merton died in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, after giving a lecture—twenty-seven years to the day after he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Clumsy with all manner of devices, he was electrocuted by a defective fan.
God could be accused of calling Father Louis to his eternal reward in a grim fashion, but you won’t hear the accusation coming from me. After the oddities, injustices and monstrosities I’ve witnessed, my chin simply won’t wag over matters far beyond my station. And whenever anybody so much as hints at discerning the Lord’s motives, I call “bullshit.”
Still, I’m not without sympathy. Folks who turn everything from finding lost keys to perishing in a flood to surviving a house fire into an act of God need patience, not criticism.
Existence is as frightening as it is beautiful. “God’s will,” for those who claim to understand it, is a nerve pill. To explain how life works is to solve the Divine Mystery and anesthetize our fears.
Sorry, the collective force of human anxiety and hubris can never tame the universe or peek behind God’s veil. Words like “faith” and “belief” are used in religious conversations for a reason. We “do not see.” We “cannot know.”
But Merton’s prayer doesn’t end with resignation. After admitting that he doesn’t know God’s will, he says, “But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.”
So what exactly does the monk know? That God will lead him “along right pathways,” but every how and why remain resolute secrets.
I’ve learned to receive such mysteries as blessings. The yoke of interpreting the inscrutable is broken. I “know nothing about” how God figures into each day’s hairpin curves. I don’t have to speculate about divine appearances along any wayfarer’s road, not even my own. Maybe most liberating of all, I’m under no obligation to prove that God exists or to justify the cross that has kept vigil over my prayers for going on twenty years.
I do pray an awful lot, sometimes with words, mostly with silence. More than anything else I’m an unfurled sail, waiting for a breeze of wisdom and compassion to set me on the right course.
Oniontown Pastoral: A Mercer Road Love Story
This past Tuesday was one for the books. The morning was fine. I worked in the church office until 12:30, then headed to the Stone Arch to pick up a lemon meringue pie I had ordered for an Erie neighbor who kept our sidewalk clear all winter while our own snow blower was laid up.
Since I was on that errand, it seemed foolish not to slide into a booth for a Reuben with extra thousand island and fries. On the way back to St. John’s Lutheran, wife Kathy’s 2006 Chevy HHR that goes by Bubba gradually lost steam and finally clattered to a halt right across Mercer Road from Frank Crash Auto Wrecking—one day after a new inspection.
The 89 degree humidity made sure I didn’t grin at the great gobs of irony. Friend Jodi was kind enough to fetch me back to church, where I chucked the pie in the refrigerator, waited for wife Kathy to return my call and sulked about every vehicle in my life betraying me. I had driven Bubba to Oniontown, after all, because my own 2006 Hyundai has the croup thanks to a failing fuel pump.
Long story short: Kathy’s work as a radiation therapy nurse and a sundry or two kept her in Erie until 7:00 p.m., which means she picked me up after dark, which also means she and I slouched in a borrowed mini-van with our lights shining on poor, comatose Bubba and beleaguered spirits waiting on word from AAA.
Actually I was managing okay. Kathy’s already challenging workday went an hour over, after which she had to scrounge a trustworthy vehicle and slog seventy miles south to schlep her husband home. My afternoon consisted of tasks handled at a stately pace in an air conditioned pastor’s study, a siesta and thirty minutes of silent prayer.
By the time Kathy picked me up and we reached Bubba, the quiet had reminded me that broken cars and endangered meringue are mosquitos hovering over a lifetime’s standing water. Most inconveniences are reduced to laughing matters, somewhere ages and ages hence.
Still, something about waiting on a berm, headlights glowing and darkness beyond, opens up your heart, if nothing else out of reverence for the hush of night accompanied only by gravel crunching under foot.
My heart received a blessing. I won’t lie, it wasn’t at the roadside, but as Kathy and I were at last rolling on Mercer Road toward Greenville.
The words came out without my having to decide on them first. Glancing over at my wife, who hadn’t eaten since breakfast, whose eyes were glazed with the enough-ness of the day, I said, “You know, I’d rather be with you right now than with any other wife on the best evening ever.” Then I took her hand—which comforts those staring down their mortality—and kissed it, as I always do.
Was I speaking the truth or just trying to be romantic? At 3:27 this morning, I lay awake on purpose, listened to Kathy breathe, and knew that my Mercer Road love story was honest to goodness.
When days are burdened by soul-testing challenges and generic bother, sleep is oasis and balm. Kathy’s slow, deep breaths, even the odd snuffle or two, gave me joy.
As always the morning would bring us fresh gladness and upset, but in the familiar darkness of home, I touched my wife’s hair, now unapologetically gray, kept glad vigil and reckoned blessings that turn a cracked engine block and a brand-spanking new car payment into trifles.
This evening we’ll start in on that lemon meringue pie that we couldn’t give to our neighbor, who, it turns out, is away on vacation.
As long as Kathy and I are together, that pie will taste great.
Reckoning a New Name
In Gramp’s senior years he acquired jowls. Earl Charles “Curly” Miller, my grandfather, was thin and remarkably bald. His stooped back and forward hips made his profile resemble a question mark. He wore a belt out of custom only, as his trousers rode high over the hillock of his belly.
For practical reasons, Gramp and I weren’t close. I was the youngest of his grandchildren, and the nine who preceded me knocked the play out of him. Also, he moved Gram from Pennsylvania to the dry heat of Arizona when I was under ten years old because of her severe arthritis.
Gramp passed in 1989, but he has been a frequent morning visitor lately. When the razor clears whiskers and foam from my cheeks, the past and future both look back at me: I’m getting jowls.
Did Gramp’s begin to show at fifty-five or am I outpacing him? This question, of course, has little to do with vanity and everything to do with aging. Season by season, I become more a grandfather and less John and Dad. The shift is glacial, but unmistakable. Even wife Kathy and grown children Elena and Micah join grandson Cole in calling me Pop. Killian is working on Mama and Dada, but he’ll chime in soon enough.
Last week, watching a squirrel nibble peanuts outside my den window, I remembered that changing names is a big deal. Abram and Sarai had to leave for the land that God would show them to become Abraham and Sarah. Jorge Mario Bergoglio had to pass through the Room of Tears before greeting the world as Pope Francis.
My new name has granted greater blessings than I had thought possible, but it has also brought on reckonings. Grandma Kathy and Pop are becoming family elders, the generation of jowls, crow’s feet and shuffles. Reflecting on this natural progression, I recognized an unflattering personal tendency: I’m kinder to the quick than to the dead.
Staring at the hungry squirrel’s pale auburn tail fluttering in the wind chill, I concluded that the living are works in progress, whereas the dead are finished. Stiff sentences roll off of my tongue easily when I don’t have to look the defendants in the eye.
Gramp, I must add, was a good sort. He took gentle care of Gram (let us name her, Dorothea Specht Miller) for decades, boiling syringes and giving shots. His achievement as a business executive was notable—paid cash for his fat Buicks. And as he sat outside his greenhouse, squirrels would take peanuts from his lips. I saw them nearly touch their noses to his neat mustache.
But he had flaws, no more or less than your standard, boilerplate soul. Still, without realizing it, I’ve been unduly hard on Gramp and other relatives gone on to glory.
As my own jowls grow, I name the transgressions of my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and am ashamed to say that my forgiveness has been lacking—as if it’s my place to forgive anybody for anything. This realization hasn’t kept me up at night, but I do repent (the Greek word is metanoia: to change one’s mind, to turn around).
Every family has trespasses that it keeps in one silent attic corner, covered in the dust of consequences and regret. One of my tasks in the years ahead will be to drag old sins out into the light and grant them my share of absolution.
Someday I’ll no longer be an elder, and this Pop’s length of days will await his children’s and grandchildren’s verdicts. I say these things now in part to ask them to be more sympathetic than I’ve been, to echo words my elders would probably like to pass along: “I made mistakes, but did my best. I still need your love.”
With luck I have plenty of years before me. By the time Cole and Killian are able to sit quietly, maybe I’ll have the neighborhood squirrels taking peanuts from my lips. That’s my goal, anyway.
“My Gramp fed squirrels the same way,” I’ll say. “He was a good man. I hope that’s how you’ll remember me.”