What I do believe is an adage that has grown trite with wear: Everybody has a story. Manners were expected in my childhood, but not so much the patient peeling back of other people’s layers to understand behavior and find compassion. Continue reading
Category Archives: Memory
What Time Feels Like in Its Passing
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.
Oniontown Pastoral: Afternoon of the Gladdened Heart
Oniontown Pastoral: Afternoon of the Gladdened Heart
If my blessing had a face, it would belong to a three-year-old as yet unpunished by disappointment. Time ages us all, but it’s toil that paints pale bruises under our eyes and sculpts wrinkles and jowls. Anyway, the darling cheeks of my blessing would be smeared with grass and mud. A mother would lick her thumb and go after the mess, but the child would twist loose before the job was done.
This is for the best. What catches my aging breath isn’t in the child’s face alone, but in the anointing of sweat, dirt and spit. And especially in what once annoyed me, but now returns as longing: Being pulled close by my mother, looked at with what only ancient Greek fully captures, agape, and gently tended.
The blessing was simple: Kathy and John Coleman’s grandsons, six and four, played in our muddy backyard. They filled milk jugs from the hose and made a pond behind our garage. Given enough time, they would have built a moat. As Cole and Killian troweled new layers of crud on their skin and jeans, son-in-law Matt and son Micah sunk posts in for a fence, and pregnant daughter Elena and Kathy kept an eye on the boys and talked. I sat on the steps, mindful of the sun. The shepherd’s pie I had labored over bubbled in the oven.
My efforts, I confess, were fortified by a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon. Having skipped lunch, I wasn’t drunk, but my heart was gladdened. In this condition, I watched with outsized pleasure Cole and Killian, whom Kathy and I hadn’t seen much during the Coronavirus pandemic, lose themselves in the possibilities and wonder of their grandparents’ yard. For good or ill, we adults had decided to loosen the restrictions within our family.
Many grandparents live far away from their grandchildren, an arrangement that would dig a ditch down the middle of our lives. As the weeks wore on, we saw the boys from six feet away. We didn’t hold their hands or kiss them on top of the head or pick them up. Kathy got weepy when the subject of being separated from Cole and Killian came up and crossed her arms in a hug that came up empty.
If having grandchildren were worship, then those boys perching on my lap and leaning into my chest would be Holy Communion. I never take for granted being Pop next to my wife’s Grandma Daffy and the good fortune of our adult children choosing to reside nearby.
So the blessing was mostly this: Peace in the family, laughter in the yard, grandsons who come near again. Every once in a while a gathering of minutes is so right as to seem otherworldly. Friend Jodi told me about a day long ago when she and her brother were fishing on calm water. Leaning back in his seat and looking at the sky, he said, “I feel sorry for anybody that’s not us right now.”
That’s one way of putting it—grace tells the seconds to hush and mercy is perfect air passing over your arms and face.
Man, was I happy. Who knows why, then, my late father joined me on the steps? He would have rolled his eyes at my glass of red restorative. He was a Schlitz man, not an alcoholic, but in leisure hours he could dent a case.
50 years ago I sat with Dad on Grandma and Grandpa Miller’s porch steps. No talk. The beers had gone down quickly, and Mom was mad that he had gotten a fat tongue before family dinner. He stared somewhere far off, beyond Horton Avenue. Dad was in the dog house for good reason, but I’ll never forget how licked he was. My parents weren’t made for each other, that’s all. Sad time stretched out in front of him–and Mom, too, I know–long loveless summers of little but getting by.
It was strange, but lovely, to recall my father’s saddened heart while the great-grandsons he never met ran carefree “in the sun that is young once only.” My unmerited joy rested Dad’s defeat on its shoulder and was the sweeter for it. Maybe this is why I thought of him. That could easily have been me decades ago, slack jawed and dazed on the in-laws’ steps, a son keeping vigil. Lucky is what I am.
The face of gladness is young, fresh with promise, but it’s not real without the streaks of earth and blades of grass. That’s how I know it belongs to me.
Oniontown Pastoral: Boy, Could That Kid Jump!
Oniontown Pastoral: Boy, Could That Kid Jump!
This was almost 50 years ago. We were playing baseball on Wagner Avenue, home plate and bases drawn onto the pavement with chalk.
“I’m Johnny Bench,” I hollered.
The other boys renamed themselves until Tommy was the only one left. He reached into his back pocket, thumbed through bubble gum cards and said, “I’m Tom Seaver.”
That’s how it was. My friends and I watched sports on television until we couldn’t contain ourselves, then ran outside to the stadium of our imaginations. We were both crowd and announcer. We cheered our home runs and cried out our alter egos after touchdowns. I can hear lanky Paul’s “Billy Joe DuPree” from the end zone, marked by a great maple in front of my house. He roared “Joe,” that one syllable so rambunctious and giddy that it still gives me a shot of adrenaline.
With a pause and deep breath I run the highlight reels from hundreds of pickup games with their line drives, swishes and spirals.
When nobody else could play, I shot hoops in a neighbor’s driveway. More often I grabbed a football and the cap to one of my mother’s hairspray cans to use for a tee and booted field goals over a telephone wire. For hours, as dusk eased toward darkness or sleet stung my cheeks, my name was Jan Stenerud, the Kansas City Chief who kicked soccer style before anyone else.
“Time let me hail and climb golden in the heydays of his eyes,” Dylan Thomas wrote of childhood in the poem “Fern Hill.” Wagner Avenue was the home field of my heydays, back when “I was green and carefree.”
I loved every win and loss, every bruise and dream. I loved Stenerud and Bench, “Sudden Sam” McDowell, Erie’s own Freddie Biletnikoff, LeRoy Kelly and “Pistol Pete” Maravich. And I especially loved John Havlicek.
I say “loved” advisedly. I never met these athletes, but they sprinted and shot through my seasons constantly. Their names alone revive my spirit.
So this morning when I read that John Havlicek died, “No!” came from down deep, involuntarily, not as lusty as lanky Paul’s “Joe” but plenty loud over a first cup of coffee.
I wasn’t yet four years old when Havlicek deflected a pass with five seconds left to preserve a Boston Celtics’ playoff victory. Even fans too young to remember the play have heard announcer Johnny Most’s legendary call. “Havlicek steals the ball!” he shouted. “Over to Sam Jones. Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans!”
Through the miracle of the Internet you can binge watch the 36-second clip, which is what I’ve been doing for hours. My favorite part is when Most says, “Johnny Havlicek.” I’d heard “Hondo” before, but never “Johnny,” a nickname that’s sweet to my ears.
“I’m Johnny Bench,” I once claimed, and that was half true. To grown ups in the old neighborhood, I was “Johnny Coleman.” Time was easy then, with folks visiting on front porches, nobody glancing at a wristwatch or smartphone. “Johnny” could be the title for a blessed chapter in my life.
In 2019 I’m “Pastor John” at St. John’s in Oniontown and “Pop” to my grandsons in Erie, but I never gave up being Johnny. I can’t pass a football field without sizing up the goalposts and wondering if my leg is as good as I recall. And I can tell instantly whether a basketball hoop is regulation. In high school I could dunk with two hands, the generous thighs my mother passed down to me perfect for jumping if not for nice-fitting blue jeans.
Between these sentences, my chin is parked on my knuckles. Hondo is gone. His teammate Jo Jo White, whose jumper had a hiccup I copied, and Hal Greer, who served up the ball that Havlicek famously stole, both died in 2018.
My heydays’ players are migrating into eternity. With each obituary I settle into the truth. The maple marking our end zone has been cut down. The neighbor’s garage looks lonely without the half-moon backboard and hoop. The wire I used for goalposts is there, though Mom’s hairspray caps are nowhere to be found.
To borrow from the poet, time lets us “play and be golden,” but it never breaks stride. The good news is, visiting the old Wagner Avenue behind closed eyes is more filled with gratitude each time I do it. I was lucky.
Johnny Coleman had a great leg, after all. And, boy, could that kid jump.
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.
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.
Oniontown Pastoral #10: Mom, Please Tell Me About the Glammazombies
Oniontown Pastoral #10: Mom, Please Tell Me About the Glammazombies
My 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.”
“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?
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
Given 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.
Fortunately, 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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:
coffee houses no longer
offices and waiting rooms
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.
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!
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.
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,
Thanksgiving Letter to My Late Mother
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?
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”