Reckoning a New Name

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.

Gramp before jowls and probably younger than I am now

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.

A new friend?

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.”

Killian and Pop: if my jowls become saddlebags, I have a way to hide them.

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Dreaming My Way into an Old Lady House

In the early 1970s writer May Sarton moved from her beloved home in Nelson, New Hampshire, to The House by the Sea (her journal of those days). Like some lucky pilgrims, Sarton had ample time to make her move. “I had two years in which to dream myself into the change,” she writes, “sell Nelson, and pull up roots.”

Kathy and I are in the process of dreaming ourselves not into a spacious home on the coast of Maine, but into a 1,000 square foot house on Erie, Pennsylvania’s east side. Our zip code will go up six digits, but our space will shrink by over half. Downsizing, we’re calling it. We closed on the place a few days ago, but we’ve been picturing what will go where and what will disappear. Kathy is lobbying for an ambitious kitchen remodel; I’m smiling at the corner on the enclosed front porch where my desk and prayer/meditation chair will squat; both of us are imagining.

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A little light in the hallway–just enough

Last evening I said, “You know, we’re going to have to get used to the loss of space and no upstairs.” Kathy agreed, and as I’ve wandered about, distances seem abbreviated. I’m not concerned, though. The rooms are already endearing themselves to me, mainly because I see signs of the former owners everywhere. I’m guessing the husband and wife–the latter perhaps passing recently, the former having departed some years ago–were my parents age, born in the 1920s, shaped by the Great Depression and forged by World War II. Admittedly, all of this is guesswork.

I’ve been calling our new home, which the former owners purchased in 1949, an old lady house. She and her husband could easily have been curmudgeonly and strange, but signs of their thrift and good stewardship have me thinking they were upright folk. He–I’ll name him Ernest–nailed lids to the basement studs and kept screws and nuts in jars twisted secure. He also recycled cabinets, lining them up and keeping, what, half-used cans of paint and turpentine inside. One door near Ernest’s workbench was set up for a padlock, and a mirror strategically angled so he could see who was coming down the steps makes me wonder if he liked to keep a bottle of Gibson’s 8 handy for a secret pick-me-up on boring afternoons.

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Is this what Ernest kept locked up?

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Ernest didn’t have to venture more than five feet from his workbench if the “great whiskey” got to be too much for him.

She–Arlouine, let’s say–kept the well-worn carpets vacuumed. Grab bars in the bathroom suggest she tried to stay in her home as long as possible? But eventually raised toilet seats don’t help much. I imagine her, thin and brittle with iron gray hair, propped up in a nursing home bed, staring into the distance. Was she a fearful soul? I ask only because of something odd left behind in a hall closet.

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Sacred water in profane hands

So Arlouine was Roman Catholic. (We Lutherans don’t go in for Holy Water, our idea being that God has blessed that life source far above our poor power to add or detract.) For a couple days I laughed at the idea of Holy Water in a spray bottle, but Starbucks friend Sean, also a Catholic, gave me a compassionate nudge, probably without realizing it. I don’t remember his exact waords, but when I showed him the photograph he acknowledged the old practice of keeping Holy Water around the house. His take was kind, though, along the lines of “sometimes you’ll try anything that might help.” Point taken. Our fears hide in plain sight, like cobwebs near the ceiling or rust in the medicine cabinet; a spray of blessed water can do no harm.

Arlouine and Ernest’s bedrooms have tile that is so ugly it’s kind of charming.

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I’m not sure what all those tile plants are, but they look to be in pain.

Besides the Holy Water, the best find in the old lady house is the newspaper under the tile. I lifted up a corner to be sure the floors are hardwood–yes!–and found The Erie Daily Times (Night Final) dated November 8, 1949. My own parents’ firstborn, Cathy, was not yet a year old. Mom and Dad are both gone now, and my sister can retire any time she is ready.

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37-cent matinee

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Okay, so skinny depictions of women aren’t exactly new.

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Liquors, a Hammond, and Hazel Lowry’s smooth vocals: 1949 Erie, Pennsylvania, at its most refined

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Captain von Trapp’s first fiancé? I’m not going to lie: I’m frightened.

Oh, Arlouine and Ernest! You put that paper down sixty-five years ago, a prudent layer between the tile and wood. I’ll grant you, there’s no pressing need to update that flooring. Of course, Kathy and I will refinish the hardwood, probably put down a faux Persian rug, something tasteful. If I’m the one who slices your old drab leaves down to trash-bag size with a drywall blade, part of me won’t be happy.

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Possibly more thermometers than electrical outlets in our new home; maybe Kathy and I will keep this one to remind us of Arlouine, Ernest, and all those who have sailed on to glory.

I believe your way is for the best and will try to remember it as I dream my way into your home: Be sure to finish those leftovers. Put that old metal table in the basement and fold laundry on it. Don’t pull up perfectly good tile. And–I confess it makes sense–keep Holy Water in a spray bottle. A mist is more than enough.

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Tabernacle for the Holy Water; all woodwork in the house is like this