The reason this blog isn’t as good as it could be – Spoiler Alert: it’s me

Many of the posts I write stem from something funny one of my kids said. With all the hilarious things they say (both intentionally and unintentionally), you’d think I’d have more than enough material to post quite often. And I would, if I could remember things.

Last week, Big Man and Buster had a hilarious conversation. It would have made for an excellent blog post. I remember it was hilarious, but I don’t remember anything they said. What’s more, I don’t even remember what they were talking about.

So why did I wait a week to try to write it down? I didn’t. I wanted to make something of it the very next day. Even then, I could not remember a single word either had said, or what topic they were discussing. All I knew was that they cracked me up, and probably would have cracked you up too, if their father had any kind of memory.

To be accurate, there are some things I do remember: the dates of a great many Civil War battles; lyrics to 1940s ballads; the Pythagorean Theorem and how to apply it.

Antietam (Sharpsburg, if you’re a Confederate): September 17, 1862. Just one of many dates locked in my memory.

On the other hand, there are lots of arguably more useful things I tend to forget: what my kid needs to take to school today; the coupons I have in my pocket at the grocery checkout; where I’m driving to – if it isn’t to or from work. Less important but still vexing: the plot of nearly every novel I’ve ever read.

When not traveling to work, I like a friend to drive me. Otherwise I will end up . . . at work.

Since I’m getting a little long in the tooth, you may naturally conclude that age is getting the better of me. While this is certainly true, it is not the cause of my forgetfulness. I’ve always been absent-minded. There is limited space for information in my brain. All the bits I try to stuff into that walnut shell compete with each other like rats in a crowed cage, inevitably killing each other off, until the sole survivor is the tune to a commercial jingle from 1975 – the winner and still champion!

So, the reason this blog doesn’t happen more often, and isn’t as sharp as it should be when it does happen, is me. Sure, those little comics who can’t be bothered to record their own jokes aren’t exactly helping, but the buck stops with the blog registrant.

I’m not one to write notes as things are happening; I noticed in school that when I took notes I ended up missing the important tidbits. I write too slowly to keep up and I’d end up missing all the punchlines.

The truly amazing thing is that I’ve managed to retain so much of their words to actually get what posts I have out of them. That must be some sort of redeeming quality. Or maybe, sometimes, they say things that are more important to me than where I’m driving to. Some days, their words are probably almost as important as that old TV commercial. Almost.

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Beyond memories: a father’s legacy

One day last summer, I was driving home with my iPod plugged in when Bobby Goldsboro’s version of Watching Scotty Grow cued up.

Watching Scotty Grow was the first record I ever owned, given to me by my parents when I was three or four. It’s the perfect anthem for any father and son, but I was sure that this was a song about me. The pride in the singer’s voice symbolized how my dad felt, watching his Scotty grow, and it made me happy whenever I played it on my Mickey Mouse record player.

The song sometimes gives me a brief, pleasant flashback, but never anything deeper than that. Not until last summer.

On that summer afternoon, I was in the midst of a difficult month. I was under a lot of stress and had too many things playing on my mind.

Any one of 5,000 songs might have come next, but it was Bobby Goldsboro. His words threw me back to my childhood harder than ever before.

I flashed back to the morning, four years after I wore out the grooves on my first record, when I woke up to a house filled with crying siblings. My mother sat my little brother and I down on the couch, an arm around each. “Last night, Daddy got very sick, and he died,” she told us. She said more, but that’s all I remember. The next thing I remember was lying on my bed, staring at the wall. I have no recollection of what an eight-year-old thinks at such a time. Maybe we’re not supposed to hang on to those thoughts.

My memories of him are faded and frayed around the edges. Comparing these dim memories to the people his children grew to be, I know there is a gap in them. I recall the man who walked fast toward serious business so that the farm work would be done before the day ran out. I was too young to appreciate the humor and subtle tenderness for his family that lay beneath.

It occurred to me that my father wasn’t much older than I am now, the night he went to sleep and never woke up. There is so much left to do with my children. I want them to know who their father is, beyond the two dimensions of knowledge that distant memories give. My father certainly wanted that too, but his wish was cut short.

That’s when my grown-man blubbering began. I struggled against the tears as I considered the terrible fate of leaving children with only faded memories. I’m not sure if I wept over my own fears or for my father’s reality. Both, probably.

I’ve never wondered who I am, nor felt the need to go in search of myself. Perhaps this means I knew my father better than I remember. When I walk with a purposeful gait because things need doing, I am my father’s son. So too, when I laugh with my boys.

I composed myself before going into the house. I didn’t want my family see me like this. It would be better to spend this day smiling and laughing with them than crying over past events and future fears we couldn’t do much to change.

There are things, beyond memories, that a father gives his children. Sometimes, it takes the children many years to realize them. Lucky kids are given the capacity to always keep growing. I like to think my father is someplace where he can see how lucky I was – he and God watching Scotty grow.

the walk

On this Father’s Day, I wish all dads plenty more time to watch their children grow. 

Once there was a mother

 

I picked these for you

A country bumpkin bouquet. I gave lots of these to my mom when I was a child.

 

We read a lot about strong women these days – usually some mover and shaker who challenged perceptions to become the CEO of a mega corporation. These modern power players get profiled, but strong women have been around for ages. Mother’s Day reminds me of one.

My mother was modern in some ways, but old fashioned in others. She was an RN, who gave up nursing to live on a dairy farm with my father. They had eight children, of which I was the seventh.

When I was eight, our barn burned down, killing the majority of our herd. Two months later, my father had a heart attack and died. My mother could not dwell upon her grief at having suddenly lost the love of her life. She was left with children ranging from kindergarten to college. She found a job at a nursing home and rented out the corn fields to neighboring farms.

When my father died, my greatest fear became losing my mother. As I aged, my great fear slid to the back of my mind. It was always there, but everyday concerns pressed it to the back. One minute, high school girls were confounding me; the next, I was trying to figure out where to go to college. My mother let me sink or swim with the girls on my own, but she had something to say about college.

She walked eight different tight ropes, balancing between steering us to become productive members of society and giving us freedom to be who we wanted to be. By the time her last child reached adulthood, she had earned a life of ease.

She didn’t get it.

I was 22, and living on the opposite side of the country, when my mother told me she had cancer. She said it calmly; it was just another hurdle to overcome. Everything would turn out all right.

I moved back home. Everything was not turning out all right. Treatment seemed ineffective. She got thinner and weaker. Sometimes, she asked my help in walking. I, or rather my old fear, chafed at this. She had to fight harder; she was giving up too easily. For almost a year I pestered her to eat more, walk more, do everything that hurt, because she was trending in the wrong direction and I couldn’t deal with it.

One morning, my mother woke up in excruciating pain. She was admitted to the hospital. A few days later I got a phone call from Hospice. They wanted to arrange for a nurse to come home with my mother. I hit the roof. Hospice was for hopeless cases. We hadn’t given up hope. I hadn’t. My fear wouldn’t let me. I told them what they could do with their nurse.

Exactly one week after we’d taken my mother back to the hospital, the hospital called. The message was simple: Come quick. Things had taken a sharp turn for the worse overnight. It was an hour drive. I wiped my face the entire time.

Walking into the hospital room I stared my greatest fear in the face. All my hope had been pretend. I was running from fear, and the running was over.

Lying in the bed was the shell of everything my mother had once been. Even that shell was fading.

Throughout the day, my siblings trickled in, one by one. As each of them came through the door, I relived, in their faces, that first moment when I had come in. A new wave of pain came with every one of them.

The last, my brother, needed a ride from the airport. I volunteered to get him. When we got back to the hospital, I didn’t follow him into the room. I couldn’t watch that face again, the one I had worn in the morning, and had seen so many times throughout the day. I waited in the hall.

A minute later, my sister came out. “Mom died about five minutes ago,” she told me. My brother had missed her by a few minutes. So had I. I felt bad for him, but not for myself. I had already been there for as much of the end as I needed. Damn the end.

We went back inside and all gathered around the bed. All of her children – very different people as adults, but all devoted to the one who had raised them in their different molds. All of them equipped to make it on their own, without her, because of her.

A doctor came to talk to us. His single comment that I remember was this: “I’ve never seen anybody live so long with so much cancer in their body.”

The comment made me angry. I was angry at myself for having pushed her to fight harder when she was already fighting harder than I could imagine. I was angry at the doctors for not letting me know the enormity of the foe she’d been battling all along.

We made the necessary arrangements, then piled into cars to drive back to the house in which we’d been raised. I was still battling with my old fear and my new anger.

On the country road we traveled, we were stopped by a sight that was familiar to us all. A farmer’s fence was down and his cows were in the road. How many times, in the olden days, had our parents taken us young farm hands to round up our own cows who’d gotten out? It seemed like a message from them both. They were together again, and things were just how they used to be.

It was hard to be angry after that. My fear-come-true receded as well. I began to realize that I was strong enough to go on. To me, as to all of my siblings, she had given a piece of her strength. As much as we might want her help, we no longer needed it.

That was 23 years ago. I still miss her every day. But I miss her because of who she was and what she brought to our lives, not because of any old fears.

She made me face my biggest fear, and she gave me everything I needed to live past it.

Happy Mother’s Day to every Mom. May your children grow to appreciate the invisible things.

Memories in cardboard

When I started Kindergarten, we were introduced to the alphabet through a program that assigned the letters human traits. Hence, Mister M had a munching mouth. I think Mister T may have had tall teeth and Miss I might have suffered from some sort of uncontrollable itch. I don’t remember the characteristics of the other anthropomorphic letters, but I will always remember Mister M.

I didn’t like him then. I love him now.

Mr. M's munching mouth

He seemed like more of a serious individual when I was five.

I recall Mister M so well because he was the first letter-person we met. I’m pretty sure he was, although it seems like it would have made more sense to start with Miss A. Oh well, 1972 was confusing time for a lot of folks, and I’m sure there was a method to the madness in the way we were taught our MBCs.

Mister M’s image was presented to us on colorful placard. We practiced our M sounds for a little while, whereupon Mister M’s card was hung up on the wall, where we could all see and admire his glorious munching mouth and be inspired by it to bite each other in the legs.

When I got home from school after Mister M’s arrival, my mother asked me about him. “What does Mister M have?” she quizzed.

It must have been a long, stressful day of Kindergarten for me, because my response showed much more surliness than imagination. This was out of character for me, as my reputation indicated that my imaginativeness should nearly equal the level of my rotten disposition.

“Mister M don’t have nothing,” I said. “He’s just a piece of cardboard.”

I don’t remember this discussion. My mother told me about it when I was older. It is one of the few snapshots of my childhood, taken from the point of view of one of my parents, that I keep with me. There is no telling how many like snapshots are lost forever.

toy tractor

A boy and his tractor in the black and white days before Mr. M.

My parents have been gone for many years, and with them have gone most of the glimpses of my childhood wisecrackery. I never got the chance to talk to my father man to man, and I had far too few years of adult conversations with my mother.

That is why is write this blog.

It’s not the only reason, and it’s not even the main reason I had for starting. But it has become the primary reason over time. My boys won’t remember the majority of events chronicled here. They won’t see any of these happenings through their dad’s eyes.

When I’m gone, I want them to know how much I was amazed or tickled or made thoughtful by their childhood antics.

Yes, I could record these events without blogging them, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t get around to it. Blogging makes it a responsibility of sorts. It gives me deadlines for turning my memories into words before they slip between the fingers of my mind.

Like typical digital parents, we take tons of pictures of our kids. But pictures can lack context. There are some emotions that only a story can show. Sometimes a word is worth a thousand pictures.

Whatever happens tomorrow, I can be happy that my boys have this link to their yesterdays. I can’t give them everything I want them to have, but at least I know I’ve provided them with some treasures of their own making. If nothing else, they will always have a handful of their own Mister Ms.