Category Archives: memory

Dad and Barbara

The dear dead ones

What kind of Christmas theme is this? The dear dead ones!

But isn’t it precisely this time of year we think of them when we’re gathered around the giving tree and seated at the groaning board?

Oh, we think, just one more chance to see them, hear them, touch them as gifts are exchanged and platters passed around the table. Just to listen, quietly, to what they might say at such a momentous time as this, the time of sharing and forgiving, when past wrongs and slights, real or imagined, are forgotten and forgiven, when the family coheres.

I think of James Joyce’s great story “The Dead,” in which the protagonist, Gabriel, presides over a Christmas gathering of family and friends, proud of his oratorical abilities. He makes a sentimental speech to great applause but, once back home, sees his wife, Greta, whom he desires, despondent and apart. Stirred by a song she heard at the party, she is thinking of a young boy she used to love, who died when he was just seventeen. Gabriel tries to be ironic with his wife, but his egotism is deflated. Then this final glorious paragraph:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

A time now, this holiday season, to be unironic in our relations, to look each other in the eye, listen eagerly to what the others say, and offer a toast to the living and the dead. What would they be saying, the dear dead ones, if they could? What would we say? Na zdrowie! my Polish father might say. To your health, brothers and sisters, and ours, as long as this enterprise shall last.

Birthday boy

Today is my birthday, which comes up like yours, willy nilly, every year.

This particular year, I have to admit to 68 years, which admission is a pleasure and privilege as I haven’t yet appeared in the obits in the morning newspaper. And am still more or less capable of hiking, biking, gardening, reading, writing, and being a good husband, occasionally, to Jennifer Jean, my good wife of all these amazing years.

Nevertheless, I am struck, as you are, by the passing of time, the impermanence of our time here on the green planet Earth. By the loss of our loved ones, the tenuousness of relations and connections.

Chair_ZeckboysI ran across this photo the other day taken in 2005, near Cherokee Village, Arkansas, where my mom and dad were retired for many years. Mom died in 1991, but here, in the big chair in front of the King Catfish restaurant, are (left to right) Gerry, my older brother; Dad, the goateed mini-god; and Greg, the younger, less wrinkled version of me.

Since 2005, Gerry has gotten divorced (from his wife of 40+ years); Dad has died (February 2008); and I have wrinkled and crinkled, acquired a hearing aid but no new wife,  thank the gods; a prostatectomy; a recurring case of bursitis; a number of delightfully smart and lively young Indian-American students (whom I tutor); and a Trek Madone carbon bike that I’ve ridden more than 60 miles at a time.

Next year, the gods willing, I will ride up to 75, then 100 miles at a time; continue to love my wife Jennifer truly, and my son Gabriel, his wife Heidi, and their daughter Ruby Mae, who have returned to Northwest Arkansas, to be with us and give us joy, this last summer; write the Great American Novel; cultivate my garden, in the Voltairean manner; and put off, for the time being anyway, my ascension into heaven.

How about you, friends? Where are you going? Are you seizing the day?

 

Centenarian stories

On 5 September 2015 my mother would have been 100 years old had she been living. Unfortunately for her sake, and ours, she died about 24 years ago at the age of 76 . We have dearly missed Mother, genius as she was of the happy hour, when we would gather, parents and children, and tell happy stories of the old days. In our telling, that is, the days were happy, or the telling was happy, even while telling of struggles and dissension. The tales that Mom loved especially were about her struggles with Grandpa, her husband’s father. Old Grandpa Tony was what my dad called “old school,” meaning that he had very fixed ideas about behavior proper to men and women among other things. And my mother’s behavior did not fit in with Grandpa’s idea of what a woman should be like and what she should act like. My mother’s smoking, especially, enraged Grandpa. He would fume, not with cigarette smoke but with his Yosemite Sam temper, about Mother’s smoking. He would mutter, only half under his breath, so that everyone could hear, including Mother, unflattering things about “that woman and her smoking!”

With such stories we would regale each other, reinforcing types  and stereotypes of the dramatis personae of our family. Yes , in our telling, Grandpa was either an old-school tyrant or villain, on the one hand, or a clown, on the other, whose behavior was so rustic and so boorish that all you could do was laugh at it, especially these many years later.

The clown stories included episodes of Grandfather’s cheapness. He was so cheap, or tight, that he saved everything, for reuse, from newspapers to old bottles to plastic bags. He and Grandma Gertie, children of the old school and the depression, were fervent early recyclers not for the sake of the environment but their pocketbook.

The most comical story, could be, was told by my brother-in-law Russell Murphy. When Russ and my sister Barbara were first married and had several small children and lived in the suburb of Richfield , Grandpa called them excitedly one night saying, “Hurry! Hurry! You must get here before they come!” Before who come? Russ wondered. But he and Barbara and all the kids piled in the car and trundled up to northeast Minneapolis, a half hour or so away, the Polish part of Minneapolis where Grandpa lived. As soon as they pulled up to the curb, Grandpa ran out calling excitedly, “Hurry! Hurry! They’re coming!” And when Russ asked, “Who are coming?,” Grandpa merely repeated, “Hurry! Hurry!” and took them through the frontyard and then the backyard to the alley, where the noise of the garbage truck was approaching. “Hurry! Hurry!” Grandpa repeated.

What they were hurrying for, It turns out, Is the loads of windfall apples under the trees on both sides of the alley. “Hurry!” Grandpa panted. “Or they’ll be gone!” For he knew a good deal when he saw it, son of the depression, grandson of desperation, and his zeitgeist was not in accord with that that of the booming ’50s and ’60s. When Russ and Barb got home with their apples, they discovered a dubious windfall — most of the fruit at least half rotten, much of it needing to be thrown away. For all their labor, both coming and going, gathering and preparing, they ended up with a measly few bottles of apple sauce or preserves.

The old immigrant America, quaking in its impecunious boots, desperate for a few free chances, vs. the booming native sons and daughters, with their spendthrift and profligate ways. C’est la vie, non? Here today, gone tomorrow. And no one was starving.

We would tell these stories, as I say, and laugh uproariously. The distance between them and us! The distance of time, place, and point of view! The hilarity of their rustic desperation!

Of course, the day would come, and has, when our heirs would laugh their tails off telling tales, tall and short, about our eccentricities and peccadilloes. How frightened we were and shrunken! How afraid of every shadow that blew!  Now that they knew what was what, and what was not, they could settle back to their drinks, their food, chewing the fat of this generous land and worrying no storytelling bones.