Vacation with My Father

Vacation with My Father

Everybody else on Victory Chimes is on deck savoring tame waves and the sun, calling out to seals who peek up, then disappear under the surface.

Victory Chimes

A bushy-bearded crew member just sent me below, not by command but by speculating that an island in the distance might be “Hell’s Half Acre,” which was one of my father’s favorite expressions. I sit outside the galley and stare at his life: a yellowing 8½” by 11” sheet of lined paper; Dad’s printing in pencil, his unmistakable all-capitals hand strangely shifting to lowercase for each h, d, and g.

Children. Grandchildren. Births and weights. Marriages and divorce. Graduations. Navy service. Jobs, first to last. Residence after residence.

Dad’s slender memoir is a stowaway in my leather man purse. Wife Kathy and I are sailing on Maine’s last surviving three-masted schooner from the great windjammer generation of the early 1900s. While she scans sea and sky for osprey and porpoises, I perch at the end of a long table in the salon and wonder why I decided to bring Denny Coleman along with me on vacation.

Dad has been gone for over five years, and his comings and goings, his beers and stories come to me through lines like “AMERICAN METER 3 SEPT. 46 – 15 NOV. 82.” He sat on the couch and cried for two days after new owners hauled him in and said he could run a drill press or retire. No, he couldn’t bump back to his job in the tool room, as he had been promised. Forget the years and handshakes.

How many times can one man’s length of days withstand being folded and unfolded? Dad’s record has diamond gaps down the middle, like the Shroud of Turin. It’s so vulnerable that somebody, maybe the author himself, put it in a plastic sleeve.

On what date did Dad sit down at the kitchen table, prop open his memory and make a list with no title, only an incomplete first line, “GRAd 28th MAY 1944”? He would never forget, I suppose, that he was a Wesleyville Bulldog.

I imagine him pulling the paper from his wallet and printing one last entry, my son’s birth in a disciplined strand of caps: MICAH WALTER COLEMAN – 1/18/92 – 8# 6OZ.

What am I supposed to do with my father’s fading table of contents? It doesn’t belong in the trash. Until I figure out why he kept such a determined record and why the names and dates put a lump in my throat, I’ll hold it gently, like an artifact that even loving care can’t keep from someday going to pieces.

Early this morning Kathy told me that we were anchored by Hell’s Half Acre and might be able to ride the yawl boat Enoch over for a visit.

Alas, we made for Stonington instead. It would have been nice to tell my siblings that I visited the locale Dad so often referenced, generally in annoyance. “Don’t take I-90 to Buffalo,” he might have said. “They’ve got road work all over Hell’s Half Acre.”

One of the things I loved most about my father was his use of language. Your nose was a snot locker, your hands meat hooks, your hind end a fan-danny. When he wanted you to calm down, he said, “Take it ease, disease.” Another father might have said “kiddo” or “pal,” but my dad preferred what I always heard as “Bubba Louie.” My older brother Ed tells me that Dad was saying, “Babalu Aye,” from a rambunctious Ricky Ricardo song?

When Dad wanted to let you know you were really on the wrong track, he puckered up and practically sang, “Oooh, nooo nooo hell nooo.”

Dad’s lingo, the way he leaned into his phrases, captured the man at his best: clowning around, amiable, a good sort. On board this schooner, he would be on deck cracking cans of Schlitz and “batting the breeze” with new friends. Closing my eyes, I call to mind his forearm tattoo, a fading heart with a gaudy MOTHER banner unfurled across it. I pass my hand over his wavy gray hair, as I did standing over the coffin.

Picturing my father is still easy. His voice, its rising and falling, is familiar, too, but exact words come back to me only unbidden, as if they have a will of their own.

I should have made a list like Dad did, but he hated forgetfulness more than I do. He kept everything—tools, utility bills, scrapbooks—in good order. “Coly,” as his work friends called him, didn’t misplace things.

Three years before his passing, Dad stood in the hallway of his Florida condominium, staring at framed photographs of his children and saying our names.

“I do this every day,” he confessed, aware his mind was giving out. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“Idiot light.” That was something else my father said. This gem came to me after Kathy and I left Victory Chimes and were making our way south through Maine. Only an idiot would need a dashboard light to tell him to check the oil.

That’s how on the ball Denny Coleman was, but dementia turned remembering anything into a shell game. He even forgot being a Bulldog. One bright afternoon I took him for a drive down Willow Street. “Hey, Dad,” I said, “that’s where you went to high school.”

He barely glanced up. “If you say so,” he mumbled, looking back down at his Velcro sneakers.

In his last year my father faught to retrieve himself. Each time he saw me coming his way at the nursing home, he reached out to me as if he were about to drown.

Only back home again can I name what was caught in my chest on Victory Chimes. Dad believed I could take him by the hand and lead him out of Hell’s Half Acre. The best I could do was remind him that his mother was long dead and his wife’s name was Mary.

“Yes, Mary,” he once said. “She’s my favorite.”

Now at my desk, I slide a biography free from its plastic sleeve and hold it close. One crease gives way. Another will, too, at the lightest touch.

No matter. Whether we like it or not, time will fold and unfold our pages of births, loves and labors until they go to pieces.

This truth ought to smother me, but it doesn’t. I feel a sure and certain hope: Eternal Love cradles all that we have ever been.

Nothing is lost, no happy home, no wandering, no fleeting peace, no devastation. I’m going to frame Dad’s shroud to help me remember.

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Oniontown Pastoral #10: Mom, Please Tell Me About the Glammazombies

Oniontown Pastoral #10: Mom, Please Tell Me About the Glammazombies

IMG_4284My drive from Erie to St. John’s in Oniontown is never wasted. If nothing else, thoughts wander, graze and lie around with other sympathetic thoughts.

Halfway to church the other day, a tongue-in-cheek remark returned to me: “Your kids grow up and move out just as they start to get interesting.” I forget where I heard this and, in fact, disagree, but the ideas started moving.

I was remembering my mother and listening to Glenn Miller. No sniffles or tight throat, just a speculation: “By the time children want to listen to their parents, it’s too late. Mom and Dad are gone.”

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Dolores Miller

“A String of Pearls” made me think of Mom’s 1944 high school yearbook, which notes that her favorite song was “Sunday, Monday, or Always.” Crosby and Sinatra covered it, but Mom liked a version by Gene Parlette, who worked the Erie region back then.

In my imagination, Mom went to a dance, before my dad came along. Who was her date? She wore the dress from her graduation photograph, dark with bone-white lace. “I want you near every day in the year.” Was that the line of lyrics that spoke to her, Parlette singing and conducting his band? Did she dance, a bit awkward?

Then, with “Moonlight Serenade,” wonders came along.

“What was it like at home when you were growing up? What kind of a mother was Gram? What about Gramp? Did you and Uncle Earl and Uncle Ed fight? What were your chores?”

“Tell me about your friends in high school? What did you do for fun? Did you date a lot?”

I wished Mom were in the passenger seat, filling in the picture I never troubled to ask about before she passed eighteen years ago. Comings and goings in this life aren’t cordial to the past and the hours it takes to welcome stories. Some miscellaneous task always seems pressing.

But as years gather round, so does longing. Here I am, then, fifty-five pretty soon, with my wonderment pressing like a deep hunger.

I can see Mom with three or four friends, sitting on a log, probably on a beach at Presque Isle. Maybe one of my sisters or brother still has the photograph in an old hat box. The girls, smiling and carefree, are dressed in white sweatshirts and khaki pants—slacks, Mom would have called them. On the back she wrote, “The Glammazombies.”

“Mom, please tell me about the Glammazombies. Where did you get that name?”

Why do my ears finally open up when the only response is a sweet, slow clarinet over a car’s speakers as it speeds by crops and cows?

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Good questions

The truth is, all my questions wander and graze. A few lucky ones rest in the sun, full and glad, but most remain hungry, needing more.

I take in longing when it visits, but sometimes lost conversations echo in my own breath. Sentences move silently past my lips into the empty space of the passenger seat.

“Mom, tell me what gave you joy. You loved being pregnant, I know that. But what were your dreams? Some of them came true, right? And you got hurt. What brought you to your knees?

“At least tell me about the Glammazombies. You looked so happy in that picture. Tell me about that day at the beach. And you couldn’t stand your own singing voice, but let me hear “Sunday, Monday, or Always.”

“One day long ago you sang to yourself, faintly. You had a lovely voice, Mom. I should have said so right away, but I was a kid and didn’t use words like lovely back then.”

Oniontown Pastoral #9: Kitchen Talk

Oniontown Pastoral #9: Kitchen Talk

IMG_3909Given the number of hours I spend at the stove, it’s inevitable that my best conversations with son Micah take place in the kitchen. Dad smashes garlic or micromanages an Alfredo sauce, and son shows up with revelations and mysteries.

He and I once rehearsed the Chinese words for you’re welcome so that he could answer an elderly immigrant’s thank you at work the next day.

One evening he sputtered a profanity-laced account of a cruelty he had witnessed in a grocery store parking lot. I realized at once that his words were intended as a lament, rough-hewn, but holy.

Micah’s latest beauty parked itself in the kitchen doorway, blocking my way: “Hey, Dad, have you ever felt like you needed a reason to cry?”

“No,” I almost said, “I keep plenty of reasons to cry on hand,” but decided to give my twenty-something some space.

His explanation turned toward the haunting Celtic music from a war film, Black Hawk Down. The Breton lyrics, which sound to English speakers like groans put to notes, choke him up. Is he drawn to listen because, who knows why, tears need to be released?

Since the one activity I spend more time on than cooking is navel-gazing, long, mind-numbing speculations about sadness are always in stock.

I kept my theorizing brief with Micah, and I’ll extend the same courtesy here.

We human beings never really get over anything. That’s the pith. Every death, breakup, failure and injury sleeps folded up in our cedar chest of memory. The teacher who said you would never amount to anything? The words are preserved as if on stationary and fade with the years, but no matter, you know them by heart. And the day you received the devastating phone call? That instant is a photograph waiting for the lid to open.

We live in layers. Today’s scorching goodbye invites every other parting to come along with it. And the current betrayal may sing a solo, but it’s backed up by a choir.

Every joy also has its lineage, but most of us are content to receive a moment’s gladness without interrogation. Who asks, “Why am I having such a great day?”

No. The question left standing belongs to my son. “Do you ever need a reason to cry?” Another way of posing it might be, “Why does each hurt in the chest beg to be aired now and then?”

I don’t know, but my days of stifling the truth are past, as is the impulse to name every lump in my throat.

IMG_4284Fortunately, men’s tears aren’t frowned upon anymore, though most of mine visit privately during my hour to and from pastor work at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania.

A mandolin plays or an oboe or a gravelly voice. The land offers its countenance. I might stop at Camp Perry for some farmer’s cheese and let its salt and cream grace the drive.

Always the weight in my sternum and fullness behind my eyes arrive of their own accord—and not terribly often. A sniffle, a damp cheek. The road blurs a little.

Who am I missing? What passing wants attention? What shadow of rejection has returned to make me small? I don’t ask anymore.

“Come in, whoever you are,” I think, maybe at a crescendo. “Find the air you need.”

By the time I get home, a cleansing has usually occurred. I’m happy to start supper, ready for more kitchen talk with Micah. My lungs are filled sails.

If each soul does have a chest—cedar or hope—mine has no lock. The contents come out and go back in, awakened by music they must recognize. After fifty-four years, I suppose they’re family.

My Father, My Son (or Why I Needed Chuck Blaze)

My Father, My Son (or Why I Needed Chuck Blaze)

Beyond boilerplate human regard, Chuck Blaze doesn’t matter to me. The only reason I began what I promised myself would be fifteen minutes of investigation was trivial. For the last few years, an old photograph has been wandering my desk’s geography, from drawer to sort pile to, lately, a space all its own near a corner.

A man in a suit sits holding a beer and a smoke. My father, younger than both of my children are now, stands beside him, caught just as beer crosses his lips. I have a name only because my father printed it on the flip side.

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A quarter of an hour turned into half a day of research and didn’t reveal what I imagined. Turns out Chuck Blaze was a stranger I had to befriend before understanding why his photograph hasn’t yet ended up in a box somewhere.

Chuck Blaze’s given name was probably Theodore Charles Blazowski, but confirming that would take more time than I have to give. By the time he graduated from high school he at least used the handle Blaze.

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“Not spectacular, but steady”: nothing like being damned by faint praise.

I made a trip to the library to find an obituary, which was similarly anticlimactic as well as incomplete. ‘Chuck’ served in WWII, worked thirty-five years at the American Sterilizer Company, and obviously relished fraternal organizations. But between November 22, 1910 and the same day in 1987, a couple facts are omitted. His first marriage to Aili Nokari Blaze—a war bride?—is missing, as are the names of his three brothers, all Blazowskis. By odd coincidence, the aforementioned birth and death date is not only of historical significance (in 1963), but also my parents’ wedding anniversary (in 1947).

I could be wrong here and there, but odds are nobody will object. The payoff is I tracked down the 1929 yearbook for Central High School, which gave me an idea: Could I find my father’s 1944 edition of The Bulldog from Wesleyville High School? No luck. But what about my mother’s Academy yearbook from the same year? Dolores Miller. Bingo.

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Just as I recently learned that forsythia was her favorite flowering bush and “In the Garden (He Walks with Me)” was her favorite hymn, I found out in that moment that she liked “Sunday, Monday, or Always.” Gene Paulette was a local bandleader, but I listened to Bing Crosby’s version. Truthfully, eh.

As I looked at Mom’s senior picture, a beautiful, but surreal, truth settled in: that carefree face belonged not to a mother, but a daughter.

I wished to meet this teenage Dolly, to hear her laughter before life had its way with her. She knew much joy, but if only I could prevent her portion of suffering. Her smile, so unburdened, belonged to my very own child, and the longing to preserve it caught in my throat.

An utterly new compassion took hold of me, and I’ve since wondered if such emotional revelations visit when you have lots more miles behind you than ahead. My mother, my daughter.

And, of course, my father, my son. In my dad’s last year, he couldn’t remember whether I was his brother or cousin or son. He asked whether his mother was still alive. Not for decades. He wondered what became of an old friend, Connie Diehl, and after some digging around I could give him an answer he would immediately forget.

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My father and Chuck Blaze

Dad never mentioned Chuck Blaze, whose photograph I now have in hand. What’s on the horizon he’s scanning? If I were behind him in that doorway, I’d sling an arm over his shoulder and we’d talk. He had great times, but maybe I could say something to help when life went wrong. The beer would be frosty and delicious.

My God, I could just cry.

A Soul Message to My Regulars

Dear Regulars:

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Elena’s old teacher notes that some students can’t find Europe on a map. You never know what the Starbucks regulars will kibitz about. (Credit: Wikipedia)

So what else would I be doing at 8:21 on a Monday morning? I’m at Starbucks, surrounded by regulars: a couple of lawyers dressed for court; a retiree who by coincidence was daughter Elena’s social studies teacher; a young artist who sketches fairies and dragons and buzzes half her skull down to stubble; an engineer numbed by an online meeting; and a woman who pours out her life for children and grandchildren. I’ve talked to all of them, some more than others. They feel like beloved cousins. Such goodness in these folks.

All tables are taken. The guy in my seat tries to pull the reigns on aging and negotiates with a temporarily bum shoulder. “Shoveling snow really did this to you? Do you need three ibuprofen or four?” “Make it four.”

As I sip a refill, the sun shines, then hides, then shines again. Breathing in and out, I think of you, whenever and wherever we inhabited each others’ days:

childhood

high school

college

graduate schools

seminary

old neighborhoods

and

jobs

grocery stores

coffee houses no longer

offices and waiting rooms

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Gilman Hall at Johns Hopkins: it’s been thirty years. Herb and Rosemary, hi! Armand and Lynda, I’ll see you on the other side, right? (Credit: Wikipedia)

You aren’t showing up all at once. No, I receive you one-by-one, gratefully. Caroline. Bill. Jeff. Nancy. A procession of Garys. Because I know others by your names, namesakes straggle in. Welcome, everyone.

Hello, Becky, sister of Steven from Diehl Elementary School. (She had her leg amputated below the knee, then later—I don’t remember how long—she died, ten or twelve. Cancer.) Look into the eyes of glory, Becky. Belly laugh with the other children.

You don’t have to walk among the quick to be one of my regulars.

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Hyacinths always remind me of you, Gram–the curls of your wig.

Grandma Miller, your fingers are folded back into knuckled wings! I see your hair curled like hyacinths and your swollen face, but I can’t hear your voice anymore. I was sixteen. If it is permitted, Gram, please be there to receive me.

Hi, Alice, a wealth of Johns (that sounds wrong in a couple of ways), an embarrassment of Marys, more Kathys than I know what to do with. Matthews and Marks.

Now a tangible Patty shows up to share my table. That’s fine. She brings other Ps with her. Pauls, Pegs, Phils, one Penelope, and a lone Poopsie.

So many Richards and Elizabeths!

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Why have you arrived here, Anne Frank? No matter. All kids’ faces are sweet in my eyes. All are welcome. (Credit: Wikimedia)

What’s this? Jesse? I never knew you, but here you are, a sweet obituary face. Those who love you still dream you in their arms–your dear smile alone tells me this. I wasn’t expecting to welcome strangers to this gathering, but my plans seldom work out. So come in, Jesse. Stand glad with me in this warm light. Thich Nhat Hanh, wake up and bow to me. I’m listening. Rise, Ann Frank. Find your way home, Nigerian school girls. All of you, join Patty and me at this table.

Oh, my Lord, friends I’ve never seen or held are asking to join me in this public grace–names beginning with S, N, R, D, K, C, M. The alphabet isn’t long enough, though, miraculously, there’s room at this table, in this column of sun, for all of you, my regulars of many initials.

I don’t want to pretend. During these coffees in this now constant light, you haven’t all arrived. But wherever you are, I’m waiting. If mornings and afternoons are bitter and twilight is fretful, I’ll sit with you in safety. And if you have too many blessings to carry, hand me a few. We’ll give thanks together and I’ll share what you’ve given with others and probably hang on to one for myself.

I love you, friends. Your faces—skin creased by decades or still fair, eyebrows raised in surprise, or cheeks flushed with excitement or trouble—are dear to me.

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This face, such as it is, welcomes you. Come share the light, rest a while.

If you haven’t visited today, don’t worry. You will soon. Meanwhile, know that whether this day is good enough to travel by its own steam or so lousy it refuses to budge, call on me for a visit. The shoulder pain has eased enough for me to put an arm around you.

We’ll be calm and glad. If clouds take over, so be it. Present to each other–just two or three gathered–we can shine anyway.

Peace and love,

John

Thanksgiving Letter to My Late Mother

Dear Mom:

November 8, 2014: your Christmas cactus is in full bloom. It may be my imagination, but every year the blossoms seem to show up a little earlier. We could now call your beloved old plant a Halloween cactus. How many holidays will pass before the pink flowers open up at Easter?

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Your matriarch of Christmas cacti

You know, Mom, you’ve been gone sixteen years, and I always figured that the older I got, the less I would miss you. Actually, the opposite seems to be true. The heaviness in my throat in this moment is greater than when I wrote you last year. The reason is your great-grandson Cole. I imagine the deep gladness you would know in holding him, talking to him as I do, sitting quietly as the minutes pass, watching him in ceaseless motion. You would say the same thing as we do: “He’s so busy.”

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Your busy great-grandson in his Halloween costume–grrrr!

Most Sundays we have family dinner, Mom. I’m not sure why as your son I didn’t insist on this practice years ago, but I didn’t. I’m sorry. People who say that they have no regrets in life probably aren’t looking closely enough. Anyway, after we finished eating, Cole got fussy. Had you been there and not been burdened with arthritis, you would have picked him up and walked around the house, talking to him. I can see you telling your great-grandson about this and that. The decades glow and soften in my mind: there you are, my late mother holding my beloved grandson. It’s nice to see you.

But since you aren’t here—not really—and weren’t there after dinner to occupy Cole, I did. Our first stop was your Christmas cactus. I told him a little about the plant, but before I knew it I was telling him about you. Of course, I said you would love him like crazy and other things you would expect. But as he looked on momentary peace at your plant, I told him that when his mother was a toddler, you peeled grapes for her. Peeling grapes: that’s love. “Your great-grandma would do the same for you,” I said, imagining you putting bits of the pulp into his mouth.

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Was Cole looking at that glow in the center, Mom, the light of forever?

Next stop: the photograph of you in your wedding dress. “My gosh, Cole,” I said, “look at how beautiful your Great-Grandma Coleman was.” I was focused on you and Cole, but was also aware of somebody looking over my shoulder and saying, “Oh, yeah! She was beautiful.”

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You are younger here, Mom, than both of my children are now. It’s hard to make the years stay in the right order.

Tours with tired babies last only so long, so that was about it. Elena, Matt, and Cole packed up and headed home. Tomorrow being Sunday, we’ll go through the same ritual, and most likely I’ll use the spatula from home. No kidding, Mom, every time I pick it up, I remember you. Maybe I’ll show Cole, tell him it was yours.

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Still my favorite spatula

I wish you could be with us. We would sit at the dining room table and look at pictures. This afternoon I was missing you, so I went upstairs and pulled out some albums. Time passed. Two photographs held me up a while: one of Elena and one of Micah. I could see Cole in both of them.

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That’s Elena, Mom. I caught her, promise. That’s also Cole’s face.

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Here’s Micah, Mom, foreshadowing his nephew’s two front teeth and swagger.

I said before you were beautiful, but I’ve become suspicious of time, reluctant to accept its authority over us, covetous of eternity. More must await us beyond this lovely, troubled land, where early we toddle on fair-skinned, sausage legs and late travel tentatively, afraid of the fall that might crack our aching bones. There must be more because you deserve to hold this child, to kiss his promise of red hair—however this can happen in the Eternal Calm and Splendor.

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Kathy used to raise monarchs, Mom, and Elena used to wear them. Wish you could have seen.

So, Mom, I’ll correct myself: you are beautiful. I don’t visit your grave often, with its pound or two of ash and bone the required number of feet below. Better: I exchange this earthly chronology for one I compose myself. I close my eyes. Now, you pass your hands over my children’s cheeks as you did decades ago and speak to them gently. Cole sits on your lap. You bounce him and lean forward to look at his round face. Like the rest of us, you get lost there.

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Cole on pumpkin carving day. We would have rinsed him off and handed him to you.

As you and I sit together, I hold your hand, still the softest I’ve ever known. Since this is my time, your knuckles and joints don’t blossom with arthritis—no pain. I’m looking at your skin and veins, Mom, and kissing your hand. Your eyes are closed. You hear me say, “You live.”

Love,

John