A Sable Cloud Turns Forth Her Silver Lining

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.

Sunflower leaves on the way to my writing hut

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.

I’m not a slight man, but there’s not as much room to maneuver as it seems.

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.

Duck the clothesline or bite it. Take your pick.
Our carabiner security system

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 a king-size bed, I get whatever Mr. Holmes can spare.

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.

Some turban! The way she dances is the way my life feels. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Kathy and Sherlock Holmes. They can take up all the space they want in my life.

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?”

Gavin. Worth a U-turn every last time.

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.

The hose always across my path–a stray comma.

Oniontown Pastoral: Too Late Smart, Too Soon Old

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.

My dad: Nice look.

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.

Grandpa Miller: I’d like to ask him, “Um, Gramp, what were you thinking?”

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.”

Aunt Mart: Does this look like an elder who would have 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.

My mother: Speaking of glam.

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.   

Oniontown Pastoral: One Morning Before Heading South

A guy who seems always to be at Country Fair didn’t look himself. He had lost a lot of weight and kept hiking up his drooping sweatpants. On this chilly morning, a red fleece blanket tied around his neck in cape fashion and a Pittsburgh Steelers stocking cap were his only warmth. Continue reading

Oniontown Pastoral: Trip to El Salvador, Part One

My drink finished, I notice the cool air on my arms and the silence, which is congested with circumstance, with the way things are, with roundabouts, blossoms and souls getting by on what they’ve got. That’s what we all do, I suppose. Continue reading

Oniontown Pastoral: The Orphan’s Question: Where Is Love?

This gallery contains 2 photos.

Oniontown Pastoral The Orphan’s Question: Where Is Love? Kathy’s breaths of sleep come and go. Awake at dawn, I’m in a high school choir concert 45 years ago, a musical’s lyrics forming behind my closed lips: Where is love? Does … Continue reading

Oniontown Pastoral: When Kathy Walks Away

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

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.

1929-2021

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. 

Mr. and Mrs. Andrews kept a nice house.

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.

The wire

A Letter to My Grandsons’ Mother

A Letter to My Grandsons’ Mother

August 4, 2021

Dear Elena:

You probably don’t need me to tell you any of this. On the other hand, it could be helpful to read what your best and most centered self already knows. Daily life on our convulsing, nervous planet shouts down the best messages we can give ourselves. So I’m here to whisper back.

For the record, then, I’m glad you called. In 45 minutes, I’ll sit in your van with the boys in Dr. Weber’s parking lot. You’re right, getting your bones cracked while Cole, Killian and Gavin whirl like maelstroms around the waiting room is a disaster in the making. And like I told you, the doctor’s office is five minutes away—nothing. 

But I have more to tell you this morning. What I’ll now say has been fermenting for weeks, but correspondence that isn’t urgent doesn’t always make it to paper. Though we don’t have an emergency, you and others who will read over your shoulder might find what follows medicinal, if slightly bitter. 

In case you’re not aware, you and Matt are raising children under duress. This is no exaggeration. No, bombs aren’t reducing your house to splinters and dust, as in some cursed lands. No, your comings and goings aren’t under Big Brother’s surveillance. You can speak as you wish without fear of ending up in the Gulag. 

Still, as comfortable and affluent as our material circumstances are at present, you face challenges that ought not be dismissed with a snort and “suck it up.”

When you and your brother were young, Mom and I had much less to fret over than you do. No pandemic was looming, with one wave crashing on the shore before another rolls back. We had few educational decisions to make. You and Micah went to public schools. Homeschooling and remote learning weren’t as common as they are now. And, by the way, the social and political climate in America is infinitely more venomous and vengeful than it was in the 1990s. 

You and Matt brought these into the world. You’ve got them. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Begin again: I’m back from Dr. Weber’s parking lot. When Pop feeds Gavin bits of hash browns and gets used by Cole and Killian as a bongo drum in an air conditioned mini van for 20 minutes, I call that a blessing.

I can still recognize blessings, Elena. Out my hut window, your mother’s sunflowers sway in the breeze as if to a hymn, descants over scores of blossoms near the ground—flowers I can’t name. Simple joy is what I now behold.

But hardly anything is simple anymore. Children’s carseats now have expiration dates. Tiny screens are here to stay, but they anesthetize little brains? How long is too long? And, panning the camera for a global look, our climate is, like parents right now, under duress. 

Ah, but millions of Americans believe that scientific findings are jokes being played on the gullible, which points to what may be the most disorienting fog you have to walk through. As a society, we no longer have a firm ground of accepted factual knowledge and agreed upon standards of personal conduct to stand upon.

Just now, a yellow finch flew across the backyard to a sunflower. You know, Mom pointed out to me yesterday that those bright birds have a flight path like a wave. It’s true. 

The trouble is, as civilization stands, a neighbor could claim that the two finches at this moment making waves and pecking at seeds are not finches, but vultures. The hyperbole is only slight.

The finches’ seeds of choice, grown by your mother.

So, my wondrous daughter—of whom I’m more proud than you can imagine—this is what you and Matt are up against. The words humans use to communicate flop about like fish on the sand because they no longer mean anything. Folks decide definitions by agenda or whim, dictionaries be damned. And statements that in your childhood would have been self-evident are now ridiculed with impunity.

I did warn you that this medicine was bitter, but there are other truths I have to share that are sweet.

Hear this: Since you were a child, your heart has flown in graceful waves like the yellow finch. At the same time, your soul is earnest, built on a stony foundation of wisdom, sincerity, bravery and compassion. You must understand that what I describe as if in a poem is the real you, the you who is raising our boys.

Lately you and Matt—he is a pretty good sort in his own right—have been struggling to decide on Cole’s schooling arrangements for the fall. You want to get it right, don’t you?

Rest easy, Elena. What matters most in however many years we’re granted is that we try. As a mother you try so hard that some days you ache inside, don’t you? Everybody who loves you sees this.

Take it from your old man, even the flowers and winged waves I watch between sentences aren’t as lovely as you brushing the hair from my grandsons’ foreheads or pulling one of them aside to whisper rather than shout, to tend them day by day as they grow into the men you dream they might be.

Yes, you are a mother whose light yields to no worldly darkness. Believe me.

Love,

Dad

Oniontown Pastoral: Supporting Cast at Grandma’s House

Oniontown Pastoral: Supporting Cast at Grandma’s House

When Cole and Killian arrived at Grandma Daffy’s house Saturday evening at 5:00, it was pouring down rain. Thunder and lightening were also in on the action, so the boys’ coveted dip in the splash pool seemed unlikely. 

Our seven-year-old redhead and five-year-old sandy-brown were sulking. Fortunately, bad moods are no match for my wife. In no time she had them shrieking in the basement play zone, having sold them on some alternative amusement. I was whipping up a pot of Pop’s Famous Mac and Cheese and a batch of curly dogs, a trick I stole from Jacques Pepin, who slices wieners so they turn into circles when fried.

In other words, the spell that Grandma Daffy casts on our grandsons was working its magic. As an aside, my beloved obviously does not share her given name with a cartoon duck.

Everybody knows that grandchildren claim the divine right to name their elders. Killian couldn’t manage Kathy, but Daffy worked. And she was the lucky one. Her counterpart should have been Grandma Janine, but the best Killian could do was “Dramamine.” How would you like to be known as a motion sickness prophylactic? And due to an unfathomable utterance by Cole, our son Micah goes by “Gak,” which is the phonetic spelling of “upchuck.” Poor Uncle Gak. 

Killian, Cole and Gavin, who will be joining Grandma Daffy’s Magic Queendom someday soon. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

But back to Grandma Daffy’s house. Nobody mentions that 402 Parkway Drive also belongs to Pop. No, when the subject of weeknight visits or sleepovers comes up, the venue is “Grandma Daffy’s.”

And it’s the truth. I’m the supporting cast for the queendom Kathy hath made, all aglow with virtuosity and improvisation. In the aforementioned basement, Kathy has a miniature, fully-appointed kitchen, where the wee chefs prepare gourmet meals. They also built a neighborhood out of cardboard appliance cartons and now hatch plots in their own row houses with secret entrances. A bit closer to heaven, our attic ceiling is lined with twinkly lights, so the boys can embark on make-believe adventures under the stars. 

My own cooking has to be four-star to compete with such attractions. Mac and cheese is a favorite. It’s salty, savory and rich enough that when adults partake, I insist that they schedule angioplasty before serving them dessert.

Cole was finishing his third helping of my heart-stopping starch on that rainy Saturday when Kathy pointed out the window and said, “Hey, guys, look!” 

The veil of clouds was rent in twain. The sun was out. Bellies full, the boys naturally ran out to trouble the chilly water. 

My favorite pool picture from 2020: Kathy made suds, Cole blasted himself in the face with the hose, while Killian looked on.

The moment Cole’s lower lip turned blue and quivered, intrepid Gram filled two plastic tubs with steamy tap water and dumped them into the pool. The placebo effect was in full force. I could have warmed the waves as much with a dirty look, but who cared? Cole was giddy, belly flopping and slipping down a stubby plastic sliding board.

Before long my character in this play was called on stage. I was made for the part. Killian stepped out of the pool and into a breeze, which got his teeth clattering. He fetched a towel from the deck railing, and I spun him into a cocoon, set him in my lap and surrounded him with big Pop arms.

For somebody who never was all on fire to have children, let alone grandchildren, I’m stunned time and again to discover that the highlight of this man’s sixth decade is when Grandma Daffy and I have the boys over for an evening or all night long. 

What the woman I now call “Daff” likes best is action—play in all of its gyrations and fascinations. What the man she calls “Pop” likes is when the boys lean into me as I read and tell stories. Best of all, I offer them a sustaining memory for when laps can no longer cradle them and assurances whispered into their ears won’t drive troubles away: Being embraced by a grandfather whose love alone could shelter them from a cold wind, but who doesn’t hesitate to use a beach towel warmed in the sun as well as a few kisses on top of their wet heads.

As if receiving a sacrament, I watch Daff give Cole and Killian a childhood that will leave her fingerprint on their souls. And with joy I await my cue and play my part, which is that of an extra. I look at their tender faces and think, “If for this moment alone I was born, I count this life a wonder. My portion of days runneth over.”    

A vase of flowers from Daff’s garden. She wrought the wonders, and the author arranged them.