Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘family’

Why did Grandma die, doesn’t she love us anymore?”

When my mother was dying several years ago, we gathered for a week at her bedside, all eleven of us, her children, coming in from all parts of the country, also numerous grandchildren.

My mother’s body was shot, after living with cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and a host of other maladies, including my father who now had Alzheimer’s. She’d had enough; it was her time to go.

When I was growing up, we went on weekly picnics in the nice weather.  My mother loved to sing; she had a beautiful voice. She and my father, whose voice was not as exceptional, would lead us in the old songs that they grew up with. We would all sing around the fire at night and on all those drives to and from.

So, around my mother’s bed, we sang these same songs. When we got the words wrong she would jump in and help us. Then she died.

I missed when she passed out of her body and briefly burst into tears when one of my sisters said she was gone.

The next day I was hanging out with my nieces. Jana, a very vivacious eight year old, was very sad and angry.

“Why did Grandma die?” she asked. “Doesn’t she love us anymore?”

She could not understand why her grandma, who had held on until everyone had come in from Illinois, California, Connecticut, and Colorado, would abandon her. Jana sorely missed her.

I explained that Grandma’s body was all worn out, that it was very hard for her to stay alive when she was so old and so sick.

I said it was time for her to leave her body and go on to something else like a caterpillar in a chrysalis becomes a butterfly. “Would you want Grandma to stay the way she is, all sick and broken down, just because you don’t want her to go away?”

Jana’s face changed. Still serious, but now a little lighter, she asked, “Is Grandma a butterfly?”

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

My grandfather on my mother’s side (I never knew my other grandfather) was a grumpy, stern man. I can’t ever remember him smiling. Even his wedding picture looked grim. This manner, I always attributed to that famous Germanic humorlessness. As Robin Williams once said, “They killed off all the funny people.”

However, I came to realize that perhaps this brusque, unfriendly manner had its source in something else.

He grew up on a farm in Austria, about 25 miles outside of Vienna. Not far, as it turned out, from my grandmother, whom he met only after coming to this country. My grandparents spoke both German and Hungarian since their territory switched hands so many times in their youth. They acquired English later, here. They both came over on the boat after World War I. My grandfather had been conscripted and fought on the Eastern front on the German side. He was probably 18 at the time. He was captured by the Russians, who, not known for their hospitality towards their enemies, imprisoned him in Siberia for several years. He didn’t like to talk about it. I always pictured an interminable train ride across a bare, forbidding landscape, followed by a long internment in a snowy place far, far from home. I think all he ever said about it was that they cut down trees, and it was cold.

When my giant family (there were eventually 13 in all, including my parents) would visit, we would sleep on a pullout couch, a bed, and cots spread all over the dining/living room of their tiny one-story home.

During the day, my brothers and I would occupy ourselves with riding my parents old balloon-tired bikes, playing wiffleball in the yard, and our all-time favorite, pushing each other in my grandfather’s green wagon with the ball bearing wheels. It was amazingly fast, and steered easily, and we would careen around the tiny sidewalks that skirted his gardens of flowers and vegetables and wended the passageways through his perfectly manicured hedges. It was a blast and we would howl with delight. Grandpa, on the other hand, would yell at us to slow down and watch out for his borders and hedges that we were always crashing into. One time he caught me by the hair, and then shook me by the shoulders after we bashed into and made a serious dent in the front hedge.

In the evening, we would watch TV. My father, who always took over wherever we went, commandeered the recliner. The rest of us would be on the floor, dining room chairs or pullout couch.

One time we were watching a war movie about World War II. My father loved to watch these. He was a signalman in the Navy in the South Pacific during the latter part of the war. However, he was fortunate never to have seen any action.

“Grandpa, why don’t you sit down and watch TV with us?” My father said, with that magnanimous ‘your house is my house’ tone of his.

My grandfather refused, turned around, and headed back to the kitchen. As he left, he spoke in a typically grumpy tone, this time tinged with pain, “I’ve seen enough war.”

Read Full Post »

[This is the First Installment of a memorable hitchhiking trip I took in my twenties]

The Hitchhiker

I sat in the back of the speeding pickup surveying the desert in the direction the other hitchhiker was pointing. “There’s water in those mountains,” he said.

I wasn’t so sure. There wasn’t anything green as far as I could see. The truck was approaching a gas station where the guy wanted to be left off.

“You see this green part on the map? That means there’s water out there.”

I looked at the green areas that said National Forest on them and thought the guy would be lucky to find even a single plant in those mountains, let alone water. Those green spaces only meant it was national land.

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Yeah. I’ll be all right.” He waved to the driver to pull over.

I’d been weighing whether I should go with him. I had always wanted to learn to live off the land. That’s what the guy planned to do. He said he’d learned how to do it from a book by Chief Eagle Feather or somebody. I had read several of those types of books, but never expected the advice to actually work.

This was my first long trip where I was completely on my own. I’d done a lot of hitchhiking, like the summer I sold dictionaries in Oklahoma, but those were all short trips, I never had to sleep en route.

For those reasons this felt like a lot bigger adventure than when I left home in Michigan.

I’d traveled to California the fall after graduating from Notre Dame. I’d worked a few summer jobs, cracked up my dad’s car, then made the trip with my brother, Bern, and a couple of his friends.

My dad had a long talk with me while we were driving down to Lansing to get the substitute car the insurance company had found to replace the one that I’d smashed.

“I know you want to go to California, but I’d rather you stayed here. There’s nothing special about California.”

I disagreed. There’s the mountains and the ocean, but he said I’d rarely see them since I had to make a living and the mountains were at least four hours away from the city, I didn’t have a car, and besides, Michigan had plenty of nice places to go.

I was unconvinced and undaunted until—”Larry, couldn’t you just stay for a while longer, just a year or two. Your mother and I need your help to support the family right now. I hate to ask you, but it won’t be for long.”

I felt my heart sink; I couldn’t say no if they needed me.

“All right.”

I said goodbye to my father, who was continuing on to Ohio for work. I returned to Spring Lake. I was the oldest son of 11 children, with five brothers and five sisters. I had an older sister, who was long gone from home. I was tired of the responsibility and weight of so many expectations. I wanted to be free, on my own.

The next day while speaking to my mother—a kind, round, long-enduring woman—I was depressed and angry that I was not going.

“How much of your stuff are you going to take? I’m not sure you’ll have room in John’s car.”

“I’m not going. I have to stay.”

“You’re not going? Why not, you’ve been planning this all year?”

“Dad said you need my help. I need to stay and help make money to support the family.”

“He said that?” she asked incredulously.

“He said he needs me to help make money for a while, that I can go later.” I had a tone of angry, yet hopeless, resignation in my voice as if I were used to having my dreams  grounded right before they were about to take off.

“You go,” she said. “He shouldn’t have asked you to stay. We’ll make it somehow. He had no business doing that. You go, Larry. We’ll be all right.”

“Really, you mean it?” I was so happy I could’ve kissed her, should have. I couldn’t believe my mother would take my side against my father. I couldn’t believe she would put my concerns above her own.

The pickup pulled to a stop next to the gas station. In the still, silent air I felt the hundred degree heat baking me and everything else. The scrawny hitchhiker got out and said goodbye. I waved to him as he fixed his pack. I looked in the direction he said he was going to go, across the flat, light-drenched sand towards the gray mountains at least five miles distant, carrying neither a water bottle, nor a sleeping bag.

Earlier, I had pulled out my salami, cheese, and bread. He looked starved.

“Want some?”

“No thanks, you go ahead.”

I cut a slice of salami with my army surplus jackknife and stuck it in my mouth even though I wasn’t hungry, “Are you sure?”

“I don’t want to eat up all your food.”

“I have plenty.”

“Well, maybe just a little bit.” He reached out and took the salami and the knife; he tentatively cut a slice and bit a dainty bite out of its circumference. Then as if something was awakened in his stomach, he popped the whole piece in his mouth, cut a larger piece and quickly devoured that. Then he took some cheese, then some French bread, a swig of water, more cheese, some salami, back to the bread, then a little more water at which time he looked up from this very focused meal.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a lot more in my pack. Why don’t you finish it, there’s too little to put back.”

He finished off the sausage, cheese, half the loaf and some more water. Then he handed back the knife, “Thanks,” and the bread, “I was pretty hungry. Haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

Earlier yet, that same day, when I had been dropped off in Baker, I found myself a good spot part way up the on ramp to the interstate.

I had a red pack with all my stuff—sleeping bag, jacket, clothes, food, map, a couple books, everything I thought I needed and could fit. I wore hiking boots and should’ve been wearing a hat. The sun was unavoidably bright and everywhere, but I was used to this searing California sun.

When I looked up from fixing my pack I realized I’d made a mistake. I should’ve stayed down near the entrance to the ramp, because now there was someone else standing there. This short skinny fellow in dirty, dark blue, work pants, no shirt, with a small, green, beaten up, army surplus pack at his feet—couldn’t have had much in it.

I was angry. I’d gotten there first! Now the scrawny bum was going to get the first ride. I felt superior and self-righteous about it. Here I was, all equipped and fully dressed, and this miscreant was going to get the ride. Way out here, I thought, it will take forever to wait for one ride, let alone two.

The scrawny guy waved, “Hey, you take the first ride, okay?”

“Okay.”

Not long after that the pickup stopped and told us both to hop in the back.

“Where you going?” I asked my fellow traveler.

That’s when he told me where he planned to live.

“In the desert? Why?”

“When I get so I can’t take living in the city anymore, I go to a place like this. One time it got so bad, I had to get out quick and decided to steal a car. And as long as I was gonna steal a car, it might as well be the best, so I stole a Pantera.”

“What happened?”

“I got caught and spent two years in prison.”

“Oh.”

“It was a big mistake.” He fell silent. I told him a little of my own story, but it paled in comparison. I was going to a friend’s wedding in Minneapolis. I was tired of my old routines, my job, a place that I shared with Bern and John. I needed an adventure; I needed to find out something.

That’s why the idea occurred to me that maybe I should see if I could tag along with him. Maybe this was the person who could help me find that something out.

However, I wasn’t ready to take the chance that this fellow really knew what he was doing. It was too big a leap and besides that, I would miss seeing my friends, my old college friends.

After fixing his pack, the hitchhiker went into the gas station. It was one of those little huts with oil cans, maps, and bathrooms. As the pickup took off under the blazing sun, I watched to see the hitchhiker start across the expanse of sand and rock towards the mountains in the haze on the horizon. But by the time I lost sight of the gas station, the hitchhiker had not yet emerged.

He’s still a question mark to me. Sometimes I picture him at that rundown gas station, sometimes, haggard and dirty, scraping by in those desolate mountains.

My mind shifted to my own trip—to see my old college friends, good friends who had once save me when I was in crisis. Rick was getting married. Both he and Kelly had gone to grad school at the University of Minnesota. It had a good drama school. Kelly was studying history of the drama and Rick was focusing on directing.

There were a few other friends from Notre Dame there too. I wished I could’ve somehow gotten back in school. I had applied to the University of California at Irvine for admittance into the writing program, but had not heard back. I felt like my life was in Limbo. Kelly had written about the wedding, asking if I could come; Theo was going to be there too—the biggest hearted person I had ever met. Perhaps this was the opportunity that would make the difference.

Despite these warm thoughts, there was a certain despair looking out on the desert from the back of the speeding pickup. The barrenness sweeping to the horizon matched the barrenness of my prospects, but I hid that from myself beneath the excitement of the adventure of going somewhere new, on my own, moving at great speed through the middle of nowhere.

NEXT WEEK:

Las Vegas Welcome Wagon and a Ride from a Cowboy

Read Full Post »

Das Boot

My father was very proud of his boat. He was a very proud man—any chance he got, he would tell a story to brag about his kids or show off any advantage he had, like his boat.

 It wasn’t a new boat; he bought it used from a car dealer, who had it up on supports in the back of one of his showrooms in Fruitport.

 The boat originally cost $7,000, which was a lot of money back in 1966. Of course, the boat only cost us a few thousand, but my dad liked to brag that it was a ‘seven thousand dollar boat’. Anytime some child banged a Hatch too hard or kicked something by accident, he would yell, “Hey, would you watch what you’re doing, this is a $7,000 boat!”

 He liked to bring guests along on our outings on Lake Michigan, to show off his boat. One time a friend of his brought his wife and seven kids. There were about eight kids in our family at the time. So, counting the parents, there were 19 people on that 25 foot cabin cruiser.

 It was a windy, slightly overcast day. There were 3 foot waves on the lake and since my dad wanted to save fuel, we were at anchor 200 yards off a beach.

 The boat was doing some serious rocking. Little kids were crying in both families and, hence, being held. Even my dad picked up my littlest brother (eventually there would be a few more, he was shooting for an even dozen).

 He however, had little patience with crying. He became angry with my little brother and threw him a couple feet to my mother, then laughed to cover his behavior. His “friend” laughed with him a bit nervously. He was trying to go along with my father even though this made him feel even more uncomfortable—adding to the waves of sea sickness, crying, and vomiting that was going on around him.

 Two hundred yards was a long swim for me, even without the waves, but I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to escape the rocking of the boat, the children crying, the vomiting, and especially my dad’s behavior. I couldn’t bear it anymore.

 “Okay, but when I yell, you come back!” my dad said sternly.

 You didn’t cross my dad, no one did. He was a scary man. I wasn’t sure how well I’d do swimming to the beach or how it would be to swim back—perhaps harder—but I dove in anyway and headed for shore.

 I’m not a strong swimmer. Much of the energy I put out to swim goes into churning water.

 The green waves washed over me as I swam. The chop made it seem like I was making no progress at all, yet I kept churning away towards shore. I was becoming exhausted. With a hundred yards to go, I was starting to swallow water. I felt a little lightheaded. Each stroke began to seem harder and more futile. A foreboding that I might drown passed through me. I didn’t know how much longer I could fight the waves, and I still had a long way to go.

 Finally, I stopped fighting and relaxed into the possibility. Stopping the desperate thrashing, I let go. I didn’t sink, though. Instead, a sense of calm came over me and I began to make one easy stroke at a time. Soon I was on shore.

 After the heaving and upset of the boat and my near drowning in the choppy surf, the firm unmoving ground of the beach felt immensely secure and still. The fact that my dad might call me, at any second to make the return trip, seemed minor.

 I sat alone in the sand looking out at the great lake frothing under a deep blue sky with clouds piled on the horizon. The boat, with my father, brothers and sisters, mother and visitors bobbing in a sort of hell, seemed very small. And I was glad. Glad I was there, glad I was away from it all. I cared about them, but I had gotten away. For the moment I was safe, still, happy, and at peace.

Read Full Post »