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Waters

20 Jul

The helicopter came out of the sky, pushing water and sand before it.  Three friends had swum out into the waves but only two had come back.  A line was forming.  Pulling off my shirt and kicking off my shoes, I joined, wading out into the water and taking a stranger’s hand.  Others moved past, extending our reach into deeper waters.  And then, on a whistle from the beach, I began to move with the others, shuffling along the sandy bottom, hoping my feet were not the first to touch flesh.

“Over here!” A shout from farther out.  And then rescue workers running from the beach, splashing through the waves, huddling for a moment, then quickly moving back to land.

I cannot remember if we were urged to leave, or if we just instinctively knew we were no longer needed, but as I headed back to our cottage I saw the medics working on the young man, his body gray as the water they’d pulled him from.  Wrapping him in blankets, they ducked their heads as the helicopter reared into the sky.  Then, lifting together, they moved toward the waiting ambulance.

Sixteen years old, father gone and my aunt dying across the road, I turned and headed back to our final days together.

* * *

The water is warm this year, and Heath can’t get enough of it.  At dusk we wade in.  Hidden by clouds, the sunset is not spectacular, but it’s doing its best working with a gentler palette.  Pastels rather than oils.  To the north, stripped of its catwalk and fenced off for renovation, the pier is a line on the water, its lighthouse and pierhead stark against the sky, the excavator, surrounded by supplies, shadowed and sleeping.   To the south, high and bright, the moon lights the sky and dapples the water.

Having started in the shallows, Heath pushes into deeper water, far beyond where he’s gone before.  I’m out here with him, chest deep, and though it’s relatively calm, there is a swell, and when the waves wash up toward my head there is a giddy moment when I lose my feet and have to struggle, gently, to regain control.

“Heath, do you feel that?”

“Yeah.”

“Well I can swim, you can’t.  If that was a little bit stronger we’d be in trouble.”

“I know, ” he says.  But he doesn’t.

“Come on,” I say, “let’s head back in a bit.”

“No.”

“No?”

It takes me a moment, thrown by the outright defiance.  But then I see what’s drawing him.  The buoy, a little farther out, marking the end of safe water.

I wait, rising and falling.  Then I say, “I’ve never been out this far.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  I’ve never touched that buoy.”  I pause. “You should go first.”

“Really?”

“Yep.”

And he does.  Lunging forward three or four steps, up to his neck now, and grabbing hold.  I come up behind him and touch it as well.

“You did it,” I say.  He’s quiet, so I am too.  The water’s still warm, but a breeze has picked up and the air’s cool.  Dark now, the moon’s light is a path on the water, dancing gold that leads straight to us.

“Come on,” I say.  “Let’s head back in.”

“No,” he says, turning away, moving toward shallower water.

I glance up to the parking lot.  The tractor is out, brightly lit, clearing away the sand.

“I’m not sure what time the park closes.  They’ll be shooing us out soon.”

He hesitates, then continues on, saying, “Look, why don’t you walk along the beach and I’ll stay in the water until I get down to the car.”

Which seems fair, so I do, wading ashore, finding my shirt, and then following his shadow as it moves through the water.

* * *

On our way back to New York, we stop in my hometown for a small reunion.  A sunny afternoon with my mom and her friends, who are, without fail, striking in the grace with which they have aged.

My old friend Terri stops by. It’s been almost thirty years but, surprisingly, this matters not at all.  Talking of our lives simply reminds me what friendship used to be.  It was everything.  And despite all the time that has passed, we are little changed.  Certainly, we are every minute of our ages, but we are also still sixteen.  When we hug, I don’t want to let her go.

Driving away that afternoon, the sun low over the fields, the kids quiet in the back, miles from lake or sea, I think about waters.  Those we come from, those we return to, and all the people, arm in arm, who see us through this life.

Kindred

3 Jun

 

This is what I remember.

Dave’s Robin, I’m Batman.

The candy store with Aunt Barb.  Pop, candy, gliders and parachutes.

Breaking down just shy of Mackinac.  Fan belt on a Sunday.  Sitting under a tree while Dad waits for the mechanic to get home from church.  Dave curled up in Mom’s lap.  The wind in their hair.

Amy coming home for the first time.  Dad holding her in the air. Her giggles.

Crawling all over me as I try read.

The time she stopped breathing.

David falling off his bike on the way to Quik-Pik.  Scratched watch and scraped hands.  So angry, because now Mom will find out.

A thimble-full of soda, Dad’s popcorn and Carol Burnett.  Sitting in our pajamas, laughing on the floor beside him.

Blood through the hands that rush Amy inside.

“Don’t pick her up! Don’t pick her up!”  But he does.

The cast on her leg.

The weight of it.

The scar that wraps all the way around.

Years later, making her up, pale and bloody.  Walking her to the neighbors.  “I think something’s wrong.”

Scouring the beach with Dave for butts.  Kools.  You get them wet and a number appears.  If it’s smaller than 32, you win.

Smoking corn silk on the back porch with our corn cob pipes.  Earlier attempts at rolling our own had not gone well.  We used toilet paper.  Singed eyebrows, burnt bangs.

Yanking a perch out of the water so hard it flies, wrapping round and round the catwalk.

All the toys under his bed.  Unopened and untouched.

Terry (and David).

The endless games of bedroom basketball.

Chewing with their mouths open, smacking away.

Amy disgusted beyond belief.

Which was the point.

All of us holding out the army surplus parachute when Rod takes off, running like hell as the boat guns it, then sitting down hard as the harness takes his legs out from under him and he bounces across the beach and into the lake for a face full of water before finally, finally lifting to the sky.  Swinging wildly from side to side, he’s almost makes it.

Terry with a golf club.  Just a kid.  But we run for our lives.

Swapping his empty glass for David’s full one.  Repeatedly.  Dave never catching on.

Barb’s funeral and David disappearing.  Karen finding him, walking him through it.

His swim across the lake.  Me rowing beside him.

Our walks through the woods.

Staying with Amy and her roommate when I move to Chicago.  Robbing the same apartment months later when he stiffs her on rent. A camera.  Some cassettes.  Back when cassettes were worth stealing.

Her dating a drummer.  Me pretending it’s OK.

Leaving David at Connolly Station and running back to Moore Street to get the best price on Toblerone, because when you’re in Dublin and you can’t walk, that’s what’s important.

Genoa, lost for a while, then finding the restaurant.  Tasting both pesto and gnocchi for the very first time.

Separating the next day so he can rush back to London to catch his plane home.

Such a long way to go all by himself.

Driving out from Chicago on the weekends.  Breakfast with Dave at the Village Kitchen.  I order the Z:  2 Hot Cakes, 2 eggs, toast, hash browns, and choice of meat.  For a while, those weekends are home.

Canoeing before his wedding.  Salmon racing through shallow water.

The deer I see the morning after.  Standing in the mist.

Moving us to New York.  Getting that couch up the stairs.

Blue blazers, khakis and the walk to Khardomah.

My wife holding up her phone so Amy, too pregnant to fly, can hear the sounds of her little brother getting married.

The closeness.  And the laughter.

Like nothing else.

But the storm’s coming across the lake, and the wind’s whipping the curtains as thunder rolls out of the west.  In the darkness, visible in flashes,  David is asleep in the bed next to me and Amy’s on the cot against the wall.  Terry’s down the hall with Mom and Dad, but the thunder will have to get much louder before I run through the darkness to join them.  Aunt Barb’s by the stairs, Gram’s across the hall and Aunt Pat’s one room farther along.  All of them asleep, but near.  So I cuddle in and close my eyes, and never once imagine it will be any other way.

 

 

 

 

Wayward

11 Nov

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A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a DS’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity – you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.  

This kind of stuff is advanced US citizenship.  – David Foster Wallace

What if what you do to survive kills the things you love? — Bruce Springsteen

Earl Stressman, the son of German immigrants, worked at a creamery and did construction around Grand Rapids, Michigan, living in rundown houses, fixing them up, and then moving his family on once they sold.  His wife, Gladys, whose roots run too deep into the tangled terrain of Appalachia to even begin to unravel, ran a series of small coffee shops with her six daughters to help make ends meet.  The fourth of these, my mother got her high school diploma and was married a year later.

Ralph Bell, the son of Welsh immigrants, worked nights at the Grand Rapids A&P warehouse while his wife, Merle, raised two daughters and a son.  Their house had two bedrooms and my dad slept on the couch.  Saving money from his paper route, he bought a car and went to community college, got a job with General Motors, married my mom and moved to Detroit.

Three hours across the state, Detroit didn’t seem much different from the world of my cousins back in Grand Rapids.  While aunts, uncles, and eventually cousins, took jobs with Steelcase, opened restaurants and drove trucks, my suburban neighbors worked their shifts at various auto plants, chauffeured for the Ford family, or ran their Dunkin’ Donuts.  My dad went to work in a suit and tie, but most collars were still solidly blue.

At Christmas we’d drive back across the state and celebrate with both families.  My mom and her sisters had six boys in two years, and as our ages tripped into double digits we formed a loose, mischievous pack, sneaking away from the gifts and the eggnog to hurl snowballs at the passing traffic on Plainfield Avenue.  The slam of ice on metal, the red flash of a brake light and we were off, kicking up snow and laughing as we ran, god’s own outlaws.

And then we grew up – jobs, military service, marriages, kids, divorces and death.  I got into the college by the skin of my teeth, left home and rarely got back to Grand Rapids.  But when we’d meet, however infrequently, those little boys were never far away — Gladys and Earl’s grandbabies, four generations off the boat and spoiling for mischief.

During my lifetime Detroit withered and died, and the consequences rippled across the state.  My childhood world faded along with the factory jobs and I miss it to this day.  But what I miss most is the humor, kindness, and unspoken love that wove its way down through the generations.  It’s the gift of those who brought us here, outsiders all, wanting the same things we do today – a safe home, good work and a family to love.  And while there’s no going back, if we’re lucky we can carry that gift forward in the people we love, and the lessons they teach.

My aunt Bonnie died this past winter.  She was something.  Queen of the realm with her cigarette and Diet Pepsi, she was irascible, opinionated, funny as hell, and as long she walked the earth I had a home, no questions asked.  Her passing leaves my mom the last of the Stressman girls, a loss she feels deeply.  We all do.  Prickly, raucous and outspoken, those six women didn’t always get along, but their love for each other was fierce, and the respect they earned unquestioned.

Bonnie’s family held a memorial service this summer, which was more like a family reunion, as she would have wanted.  My cousins’ band Tenderfoot played, marking the event as they have so many times throughout my life with the songs my family loves.  Some of my cousins were there, some of them weren’t.  But it was a blue-sky summer day and it was good to be together, as it always is.

I don’t know much these days.  I don’t know who we are, or why we do the things we do.  I don’t know.  Humor, love and kindness, that’s all I got.

But I’m haunted by those boys, running through the snow and laughing like hell, with the world before us as we disappear into the night.

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The Distance

6 Oct

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“It isn’t what’s left to do at the end, it’s the things left unfinished along the way.”                                                     — Deadwood, by Pete Dexter

Driving in darkness, I hug the road as it rises and falls through the night.  We plunge downward and as trees blow past, I am in a mountain pass, my mind creating walls that can’t possibly exist, for this is Wisconsin, and surely we are surrounded by farmland.  But the road tells a different story.  Veering right, my headlights glare off the window of a small cabin before sweeping back to the asphalt, trees, and the staccato white line I desperately try to follow. Tired, I flash my brights whenever possible, scanning for those little bounces of light along the roadside.  Because the deer are out there, and tonight they’re feeling lucky.

*     *     *

When we were kids, my siblings and I would occasionally find mom face down on the laundry room floor.  Familiar with the situation, we would stand around her.

“Mom?  Mom?  We know you’re joking mom. Mom?  Come on, mom, get up.”

And still, she would remain motionless, to all appearances having suffered some sudden cardiac episode.  This would continue until someone’s voice took on an edge of panic, and then her body would begin to quiver, the movement growing ever more convulsive, until, finally, we’d realize she was laughing.  Releasing the sound as she got to her feet, she’d laugh so hard tears would come to her eyes.  And while down through the years this story has been met with universal horror, it’s always made me proud.  Even at a very young age, when it came to death, no babies we.

 *     *     *

Having eluded the deer, and found our hotel, we continue on the next morning, refreshed.  Unable to find a diner in downtown Janesville, we settle for a chain restaurant out by the highway, the kind of place where the portions are huge, but it seems they occasionally run soup through the coffee maker.

Chicago is Chicago.  Rain, road construction and the slow tide of humanity crawling down through the northwest suburbs, past the rusty overpasses and the neighborhoods of my youth.  Occasionally I miss it.  There’s no better place to make friends, and of course it gave me Amy.  But nevertheless, Chicago and I never warmed to each other.

Back on familiar ground, we fly.  The Skyway, Gary, and around the lake into Michigan.  That great gray swath of the world where the steel plants have been silenced but the smoke never seems to go away.  Cars, campers, exits and boats; a great world of motion that always seems to be going fishing.

And then we’re at Mom’s house.  A quick repacking, hiking boots and dirty clothes boxed up to be dropped in the mail, and off to the airport.  But even before I reach the counter, they tell me my flight has been canceled.  The storms, currently raging over Lake Michigan, have followed us all the way from South Dakota.  There will be no flight home tonight.

 *     *     *

When my father died I was not nearly so well prepared as I’d imagined.  It effected me in ways I still don’t understand.  I know it created a distance.  A safety zone, as it were, from the people I love.  My kids have chopped this down a bit by simply refusing to recognize it.  And Amy, trail-blazer that she is, has grown familiar with the terrain, and is willing to cross it when I cannot.  But my mom, my sister and my brothers are still out there, loved, but at the distance they were placed by a fourteen year old who could not bear another loss.  Each of us, in our ways, living these past 38 years with slowly mending hearts.

But we’re not alone.

From the unexpected death of Amy’s father, which started this journey, to friends along the way, and their stories of prairie wind, blinding snow, and the sudden loss of the people they’d thought to spend the rest of their lives with, we are not alone.  From the families of others, further back, buried beneath the mud of a collapsing dam, to the loved ones of those lost in the violence of a place and time that valued gold above human life, we are not alone.  And with the stories of a family who struggled, built a life, and died, leaving quiet houses, a few gravestones and the fields they worked, we are not alone.

*      *     *

You know when you drink a lot of coffee in the morning, and about an hour, hour and a half later you really need to go to the bathroom?  You know what that’s called?  Prostate cancer.  — Lesson from my mother

Our first days on the road, I was struck by her calm assurance.  Like a bird aloft in strong winds, her mind, of late, had seemed unable to settle and find rest.  But the woman beside me was different.  Seemingly free of worry, she was less a mother, and more a friend.  The comfort of her presence was palpable.  The ways in which we are alike, and the simple pleasures we share, brought days of quiet enjoyment.

But on our return the serenity slipped away.  When I pointed this out, she replied, “Well that’s normal.  To return home is to return to your worries.”  Which I understand, but can’t agree with.  Home is a refuge.  I struggle to make it so.  Where did I learn this if not from her?

*     *     *

It had rained, and the cabbie splashed along the quiet streets of my neighborhood.  He was chatty, which I enjoyed.  I love how easily people talk here.  If the best journeys bring you home, I was glad of his company these final few blocks.

He pulled up to the curb, and as I grabbed my bags I looked up at our house.  Not a worry in sight.

 *     *     *

A few weeks later, in response to something I posted on my wedding anniversary, my mother writes:  “I feel your love for each other when ever I am around you!”

Pleased, I think of Amy, and the gentle chaos that is our life; of Hallie, and the feeling I get when she sleeps across my chest, and of Heath, and how my love for him seems to never stop growing.   Then I write, “When it comes to love, I had two very good teachers.”  And, by just a bit, I feel the distance close.
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Alone Again (Naturally)

11 Jul

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Cigarettes and beer on a warm summer breeze. 

To this day, walking the streets of New York, I’ll turn a corner and bam!  There it will be: that essence of summer 1972.  And I have to stop, because, for a moment, I am nine years old, sitting on the porch of our Lake Michigan cottage, holding my little Sears & Roebuck 9 volt transistor radio, listening to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally.”

It’s an odd song for a kid to fall in love with.  A father dies, a mother dies, a young man’s abandoned at the altar.  I believe suicide may be contemplated.  But none of this really matters.  Because it’s not the words so much as the gently loping beat, like the saunter of a sun-kissed girl walking along the sand, a melody with the quiet insistence of waves on a shore,  and that distinctly English melancholy of something beautiful coming to an end.

Cigarettes and beer.

It was a crazy summer.  My cousin Joni, sixteen and wild, had run away to California, only to turn up several weeks later, with a copy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue tucked beneath her newly unshaven armpits.  She would play “California” and then solemnly intone to whoever would listen, “It was just like that.”  She was so cool.

But even cooler was her friend Memphis.

First of all she was from Memphis.  Second of all she would take driftwood  and turn it into art, painting it with a big letter “M”, and clouds, and seagulls and stuff.

But mostly, she would talk to me.

We’d sit on the porch as the sun went down and the beachgoers across the street packed up for the day, and in her exotic southern accent she’d tell me stories.  Like how her sister had been home sick one time when she heard that her boyfriend, whose Camaro Z28 was the baddest car in all of Memphis, was stepping out on her.  How her sister had pulled on her bathrobe, tied a scarf over her rollers, and headed out in search of that Z28, and how, finding it parked outside a local burger joint, she had stopped the car, walked inside, and dropped her boyfriend’s date with a single punch.

And we would talk about girls.  She tried to get me to believe that the prettiest weren’t always the nicest, and that I should always give the less attractive girls a chance.  I didn’t really believe her, but I lied and told her that I had a crush on a girl who wasn’t very pretty at all.  She smiled.

And as the night settled in, and the rangers locked the gates and began their patrols, we watched the spotlight on their pickup sweep across the darkness, while the adults inside the cottage gathered around the big table, talking and laughing, playing cards.  The breeze lifted the hair from Memphis’ face and I stole a glance as she looked out across the water.  It was 80 miles to Milwaukee.  Too far to see.

 

Heath came to me last night as we were getting ready for bed.  Having mistakenly tried to eat ice cream from a frozen scoop, I am holding a bloody washcloth to my lips.

“Dad, can we go out on the porch and talk for a while?”  There’s an urgency in his face.  He’s afraid I’ll say no.

“Sure.” I mumble, getting some ice for my lip, which is beginning to swell.  “Go on out on the porch.  I’ll be right there.”

The fireflies have finally arrived, and as I join him they glimmer up and down the block.

“There’s one!” he shouts, jumping up and following it around the porch.  Fascinated by this little piece of light, he is every inch the nine-year old.  But soon he will be ten.  He borrowed my sandals for the first time this week.  Still puppyish, he is growing into his feet.

We talk about his first day at summer school, his new teacher, his friends.  When things go quiet he pushes for more.

“Is there anything else you want to tell me or anything you think I should know?”

Struggling to maintain the conversation, he leans on the professorial cadences he finds so comfortable.

“Dad.  Is there anything else you want to tell me or anything you think I should know?”

I laugh, because of course there’s too much.  And then, gently, I say “You know Heath, we don’t always have to talk.  We can just sit together and enjoy the evening.”

“I know, but I like to talk.”

So we do.

 

In a few weeks we will return to Lake Michigan, and a town that is in many ways unchanged.  But it won’t smell the same.  Most of my family are gone now, and sadly, they took their packets of Kools and their Pabst Blue Ribbon with them.

But, for my kids, there are two houses, a grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins galore, as well as porches, sunsets and the breeze off the water.

I heard years ago that Memphis had become a nurse.  I’m not sure where.  But I like to think she’s still out there, telling stories, painting driftwood, and giving sage advice to precocious lovelorn little boys.

Her hair was auburn.  She was sixteen.  I think of her every time I hear that song.

 

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