Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Memory of My Mother

  I cannot tell the exact date of this event. It comes to me as a dream or a fragment of a dream. I cannot even  tell you if it happened before Dad died or after. He is not a part of it and everything but this dislocated fragment is surrounded in a kind of fog.Mother

You had come to say goodbye at the bus station. I was frankly overwhelmed that you had made such an effort for me. Climbing onto the nearly empty Trail ways bus, I stare down at you. You are smoking a cigarette, one hand on your hip. Your usual pose. The mousy color of your hair. The strap of your bra is showing, I notice. Your oversized hips and your oversized glasses. You are looking up at me and I am waving back at you. Though I am less than a yard away,  you cannot see me. The reflective windows make it impossible for you to anything more than glare and abstraction. Still, you are studying the bus carefully while I am waving, ever more frantically.  The bus pulls away and you hesitantly hold up your hand and wave to the place you think I might be.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Story of A Practical Man

georgemorganMy father was a practical man.  He did not believe in risk-taking or gambling or trusting the fates or your luck.  Instead, he was devotee to moving slowly, thoughtfully, patiently and sticking to things, especially when they were soul-crushingly boring, exhausting or unrewarding. He felt that hard work purified the character. He believed in the middle of the road and safeguards and safety nets and insurance for insurance. My father’s life was a tribute to grim struggle, exact planning with low expectations. 

Here was a man who gave me loads of grief for quitting my first job at a Chinese restaurant with the line, “You can’t keep hopping from one job to another, you know. Think what it will look like on your applications. Think about  your future.” I had been a dishwasher.

This was a man that, (and I am not making this up) decided for my birthday one year to buy “the best pair of shoes I would ever own”- Boone Brand Shoes- the only dress shoes I have ever seen with steel toes. (I imagine that he figured that steel-toed shoes might save my feet in the case I was run over by a tank on the way to my Homecoming dance.) But, as if this wasn’t bad enough, in order to teach me the value of quality, he decided  that he would donate half of the price for the shoes. The other half would be up to me. So, in effect, he gave me for my birthday one steel-toed dress shoe, that was about as heavy as a VW.  I think I wore

them about four times and marched about with a resounding thud on any bottom step.

My father loved cars because, I came to think, cars were such complicated machines that no matter what you worried about, there was always something else that could break down. Something explodes- or merely snaps- under the hood, the driver grips the wheel but the vehicle spins violently, crashing past the guard rails and now hangs like a cocoon over the edge of a bridge with the muddy Missouri below.

Was there enough of this fluid or that fluid? enough air in the tires or fuses in the fuse box? A spare filled with air and checked regularly? Registration and inspection completed? Insurance paid up? After years of constant nagging about the thousand and one possibly-neglected items, I decided to turn the tables and “feign” worry about the car. I pretended to visibly fret about not having checked the depth of the tire tread with a penny that week, or some such nonsense. I really hammed it up. It was a kind of experiment. And to my surprised confirmation and amusement, he said, “Well, you can’t worry about everything. Take one day at a time.”

Years later, when I was old enough to listen, I learned more about my father’s early years.  Never from my father. He was not the kind of man to talk about intimate things. It embarrassed him for some reason, as if, by discussing the events of his past, he was trying to find excuses or sympathy.

According to the family legend, when my  grandmother went into labor with my father,  it became clear that something was not right. There was some kind of problem, protracted labor, I think. His family might as well have lived about 150 years ago. There was no car or truck, only a mule and a wagon. There was, of course, no gleaming hospital and maternity wards. Just a grumbling ancient doctor of dubious qualifications. 

My grandfather and the older sons, Fred and Frank, went off in a freezing rain to bring back the physician. Apparently, they found the doctor who managed to resolve the birthing problems easily enough. However, my grandfather, due to the freezing weather, had caught some kind of flu.  Within three days of my father’s birth, his father was dead. 

And so, my father grew up fatherless, pampered by his older sisters and excessively beloved by his mother. They managed to survive only for the fact they had own the land they farmed. Selling whatever the chickens and the gardens might produce.  My father told me, maybe a hundred times, about being too ashamed to go to school because he had no shoes to wear. (To this, I would roll my eyes up like cheap window shades.)

Fred Uncle Fred became my father’s father. I have only seen photos of Fred. A dashingly handsome man with a genial smile and sparkling eyes. He made quite an impression in his military uniform when he was sent off to fight in World War II. My father was 15, when they received the news that Fred had fallen in the Battle of the Bulge, the last attempt by the Germans to hold the occupied lands of northern France.  The government brought his body back- he became a sad local hero for a week or so and some military representative gave my grandmother a triangular flag. She stored it away in a steamer truck in the barn along his his dashing uniform. And although his photo hung on the wall, in my aunt's home, I can't recall a time when Uncle Fred was ever mentioned.

That was how my father lost his two fathers and became such a practical man.

This American Life

This American Life (TAL) is a weekly hour-long radio program produced by Chicago Public Radio and hosted by Ira Glass. It is distributed by Public Radio International on PRI affiliate stations and is also available as a free weekly podcast. Primarily a journalistic non-fiction program, it has also featured essays, memoirs, field recordings, short fiction, and found footage.  http://www.thisamericanlife.org/

Each week's show loosely centers on a particular theme. The theme of the show is explored in several "acts", usually two to five. On occasion, an entire program will consist of a single act. A notable exception was the show "20 Acts in 60 Minutes", which broke the normal convention by presenting twenty acts in one hour. Each act is produced using a combination of staff and freelance contributors.

Here is a sample from the archive. It is called “Family Legend.”

http://audio.thisamericanlife.org/player/CPRadio_player.php?podcast=http://www.thisamericanlife.org/xmlfeeds/270.xml&proxyloc=http://audio.thisamericanlife.org/player/customproxy.php

To all my loyal but crazy fans,

I have finished my CELTA course and for this reason, I have not had much time for writing on the blog. The CELTA course finished on Dec. 19th and now I shall be embarking on a new adventure, which I will be telling you about in detail a bit later.  Suffice to say, my time in New York is coming to a close and, despite the year being full of horrendous turmoil, I shall be rather sad to say good bye.

1208snowbw The people of New York City are some of the most interesting and warmest people I have met. Conversations on a ferry. Amusing retorts by a busy policeman. And that distant look of sadness when they speak about September 11th, as if they had all lost a good friend.   The city itself has so much beauty and I could live here a lifetime and never get bored. 1183482661

Sometimes I wonder if the people of New York  realize how world-famous this city actually is. It can become a world in itself because it truly seems to have everything. 1183482637

I will miss this city but I will return for a visit as soon and as often as possible.

brooklyn

Friday, December 26, 2008

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Two Christmas Trees

A lighted Christmas tree with presents underneath. My mother, who was generally rather over-the-top even in the best of times, did not believe in frugality and understatement when it came to Christmas, and especially regarding the tree. The whole point of Christmas was to go overboard in as many ways as possible. Besides, winters could be so dreary and bland.

Our Christmas trees were always natural, sold from a supermarket parking lot- a process which involved as much haggling as the purchase of a used car.  Following this, our newly-adopted tree had to be  tied down onto the roof of our station wagon. This was as logistically involved as whaling. It took  all hands to get the evergreen into the house and cradled in the stand, turned this way and that to display its best side, like a fat lady in a bathing suit. (Two aspirins make it keep longer, my mother would remind us every year.) After that my father was sensible enough to leave my mother to it. His job was done.

Our family dog, Charlie, was a clever beast and somehow he understood that, although this was clearly a tree, it was not to be used for peeing as any other outdoor tree might be. How he figured that out I cannot imagine. However, the white blanket we used year to cover the stand never came up with any suspicious stains.

All the ornaments and accessories, accumulated year after year and stored in the attic, had to be brought down and the operation would then began in earnest. And it was indeed quite an ordeal, one which my mother supervised and directed  like some allied commander. First came our crowning serenely-smiling angel who, over the years, became more more haggard and balding. Then came the strings of lights, both flashing and continuous, then the boa-like ropes of tinsel (usually silver or blue, but sometimes red and gold) then the countless ornaments, followed by the tufts of  fake silver icicles and lastly a heavy shroud of “angel hair” over the whole thing. 

(As children, we were strictly forbidden to touch the spun glass. I suppose my mother thought we might mistake it for cotton candy and try to eat a handful.)

When operation was done, the end result was a cross between a slumbering yeti in drag and a home-made wedding cake. Both impressive and slightly freakish. Without the lights, the thing was positively frightening. The moment came when, with great courage, my father told us all to stand back as he plugged the lights in. A moment of great tension. I guess my parents feared the string of lights would begin exploding, sending shards of colored glass into our eyes. That never happened, of course. The fourth of July and Christmas stayed well apart. 

But when the lights winked and shone through the illusionary circles of angel hair, and as the scent of the pine slowly filled the house, my mother would stand back and critically stare for a minute, a cigarette in hand, and then move on the next Christmas task. Usually, that meant finding the Burl Ives, Kitty Wells and Elvis Presley Christmas albums.

Our next door neighbors, the Statens, were, by contrast, very subdued as far as their Christmas trees. (Of course, even the Catholic Church in Rome was more subdued than our home.) This low-key approach to Christmas struck me as peculiar and suspicious, since Fay was extroverted in most other ways. Their tree was an artificial tree, a mere waist-high, all silver with a small collection of blue bells. Beneath the tree, she had a display light with a slowly turning disk that changed colors. And, of course, a small star on the top. And that was it. It resembled an ad from the Aluminum industry rather than a celebration of the holy days.

For them, the Christmas holiday was not a particularly happy time of year. It reminded them of family estrangements and unresolved conflicts, telephone calls that were secretly anticipated- but were never placed. There had been a son, Mike, from a previous marriage who had run away from home after some ugly scenes with his stepfather. I had met him only once or twice before he left for good when he was about 17, and he had seemed nice enough to me as a kid. I only recall him having very black hair and a thick moustache at such a young age. 

However, he had, according to my mother, been in and out of trouble with the law for years, got mixed up with the proverbial wrong crowd, and with drugs.  He would appear unexpectedly to ask for  money, making promises nobody believed. Always picking himself up from the ashes of his latest fiasco, always needing a bit more cash to start another new direction in his life. His appearance would inevitably set up a predictable series of events, divisions between stepfather and son, then between husband and wife, questions of loyalty, a mother's love and broken trusts. Silence and emptiness at Christmas time seemed preferable, I suppose. 

All that talk of closeness and  family and the songs about love and goodwill came to them as mocking jib, and an indirect and cruel judgment on their on their own family problems and their personal failings. Christmas would be replaced by his boozy twin sister, New Year's Eve and then the whole holiday bit would be done with, with only the barren vista of frozen January and arctic February to look out upon. As soon as that ordeal was over, their artifical tree would be put away, its duty done for another year.

Kubus, New York City

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Why I love Winters!

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Temperatures fell over the ice-coated Northeast on Saturday, as utility crews made only limited progress restoring power to more than a million homes and businesses after an ice storm struck the region last week.

Utilities in New Hampshire, the hardest-hit state, said it most likely would be Thursday or Friday — a week after the storm — before all power was restored.

“What is facing us is the apparent need to rebuild the entire infrastructure of some sections of the electrical delivery system,” said Martin Murray, a spokesman for Public Service Company of New Hampshire.

Crews across the region saw electric poles, wires and equipment destroyed.

The extent of damage was unclear because some roads were still impassable.

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS   Published: December 13, 2008

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