My mother, Chickie Ling, Jerome, Arizona, around 1920

Saturday, March 13, 2010

This One's for You, Billy

I couldn’t possibly be pregnant. I already had a perfectly good baby.

We were living in your grandfather’s house, sleeping in the guest room that shared a wall with Doc’s giant Magnavox TV, which he kept ratcheted up to about 1000 decibels because he was mostly deaf. On the other side of the other wall was Melissa’s crib, and outside our window was Henry, howling out his confusion and exasperation at being banned from the house. There was many a night I could be seen climbing out the window to throw something at the dog to hush him up without having to walk my nightgown-clad body past your grandfather in the den watching Johnnie Carson. Through it all, your father just continued to saw logs. To this day, I can’t for the life of me figure out how I could have possibly gotten pregnant, but pregnant I got.

Born on the thirteenth of March, exactly two years and ten days after Melissa, you were a sweet baby, cute though rather odd looking with your cone shaped head from being so big and perhaps stuck in the birth canal for a bit too long. You were also an easy baby. After just one night of sleeping in Melissa’s room (“Mama, the baby’s crying!”), we moved you into the living room of our tiny house, where you stayed until we finally enclosed the carport to accommodate Daddy’s office.

By the time we moved into the big house, you and Melissa were pretty much inseparable, going to Children’s Friend each weekday, playing outside in the afternoon and watching C.H.I.P.S. and Night Rider in the evening. I was your kindergarten teacher and it was during that time you buddied up with Chris (like a lawn) Moore and a couple more little scalawags with whom you remained friends throughout high school. I loved being your teacher and your mama at the same time. I thought you were just about the cleverest kindergartener ever to build a block tower and then knock it over.

I still remember the drawings you did as a little boy, airplanes with prodigious amounts of cloud-like smoke spewing from their innards, and little round cars, often with one flat tire, which I think had typically been shot out. I now look back and wonder if those gimpy automobiles offered a glimpse into your personality and view of life, as if you expected good things seldom to be perfect. That probably came from having Melissa as your big sister. Remember the time when you watched that scary movie and she materialized and startled you at the top of the stairs? You were so horrified that you refused to go upstairs by yourself for the longest time. Putting my picture in that locket and that locket around your grimy little neck was most likely my finest moment as a parent. No boogie people could have survived a gander at that face and you knew it.

Your earliest birthday parties were in tandem with Melissa’s, mainly because I was cheap and tired. I particularly remember those at Dry Lake Park and Burger King. However, your most memorable party, not counting those as a teenager I don’t even want to think about, had to have been the spend-the-night one when the partiers tried to turn over Dianne’s mini van just after dark and then flew the balsa wood airplanes in the front yard at four in the morning. Was that the same one where Molly sat naked on the dining table during the birthday-candle-blowing-out?

On the Molly topic, it was when Molly came along that your life changed and I began to catch a glimpse of the man (and father) you would become. After getting over your disappointment about not having a little brother, you and she developed a bond that remains to this day. Just as Melissa helped form you, you did the same for Molly.

Notice your hand here. You
are making sure Molly doesn't
fall off the porch.

Despite that good old Warner Robins tradition, you were never much interested in sports. You played Little League and were pretty good; however, soccer drove you nuts as those other little boys just ran all over everywhere and didn’t stay in their assigned positions. The idea of random shenanigans seldom got in the way of your logical thinking and that hasn’t changed.

In middle school, when you halfheartedly joined the football team, I remember going to a game and complaining to your coach that he wasn’t letting you play. He told me every time you got to the front of the line and it looked like you might actually have to go onto the field, you’d disappear to the back. Again, to your way of thinking, being on the team was enough, especially since you got to wear that great green uniform. Actually playing, on the other hand, could have lead to injury.

Speaking of uniforms and perhaps a different type of machismo, you didn't fare particularly well in the one ROTC class you took in high school either, the one you failed, partially because, on the one day you deigned to wear that uniform, you sported a t-shirt which offered the notion that one should Play Naked Lacrosse in bold letters under it.

To this day, you are one of the few heterosexual men I know who isn’t interested in sports, and, in fact, you appear to consider this to be a badge of honor. When you moved to Portland, you did join a kickball team, which you continue to enjoy, at least the beer drinking part of it. It did turn out, however, that playing in a co-ed league was mostly just a ruse for meeting women, and we have kickball (at least in part) to thank for Mary and Cami.

I recall once, when you were around fourteen, you told me that I needed to make you tougher. We were standing in the kitchen; I remember it well. I felt so sad, so insufficient, so unable to do what you'd asked of me. I couldn’t play golf or throw a ball or even pee standing up. But, you know, like most things, it turned out just the way it should. Even though neither of us had what it took to make you into the Incredible Hulk, you turned out to be tough in all the ways that are important. You are steadfast and kind and loving and funny, ready to make a joke when you sister is being wheeled into surgery, determined to be at her bedside when she returns. You are a partner to Mary and a wonderful father to Cami. You are your own person, content to be the basement guy, happy with your wires and connections, caretaker of drunks and fools. You were definitely born into the right family.

Finally, since I do usually think of you in one of those t-shirts you still wear (and wear and wear), my final word on the Billy-factor will have to be that you are like one of your shirts: typically unconventional, occasionally tacky, and often spouting something outlandish. But, oh, what a comfort you are.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Don't Move Pat. He Got Run Over by a Fire Truck

Difficulty and Delight in Soliciting Family History

This was written about ten years ago. Of all the people in the story, only three of us are still living. For those who have passed on, including the dog, their voices have been silenced and their stories are no longer available to us.

It's Thanksgiving morning and I drive the sixty miles to the retirement home where my eighty-four-year-old mother lives. We, together, then travel another one hundred forty miles to the town where she gave birth to my brother and me. We go there to share the holiday with my father's sisters and their husbands. We will retrace our steps this afternoon so that we can sleep in our own beds tonight.
This assemblage is all that is left of my parents' generation in my small family, and the planning has been fraught with angst and last minute changes of heart. My mother has been sick and has recently fallen. She commits, is then ambivalent, finally deciding to attend at the last minute, afraid that she will miss what may be her last visit with the group intact. My father had three sisters, all still going strong, the baby being a mere eighty-three. The two who married have husbands who, God willing, will soon attain the age of ninety. Although small in number and now in stature, they are intrepid souls, each placing one resolute foot before the other as another holiday season rolls around at breakneck speed. At my callow age, I am the only one who drives with any impunity so it makes sense for me to deliver my mother.

I have a hidden agenda. Although I am happy (and sad) to see my aging relatives, aware that these gatherings have a limited future, I am here for information. I want the scoop and time is of the essence.

I have only recently become interested in oral history, in family lore, too late to ask my father. Having talked my poor mother mute with requests for stories of her childhood, I am moving in for the kill on my only link to my patriarchal side. My quarry are unsuspecting as they masticate their Chex Mix and drink their Bloody Mary's, their thoughts centered on survival issues like social security, high prices and poor service.

I point to an old family portrait, hoping to spark a natural segue. As we all gather in a corner trying to look, I become confused and a bit claustrophobic. "Who is that?" "I don't know." "That's Granddaddy." "Which Granddaddy?" Adding to the befuddlement is the family penchant for reusing names. "That's Susie." "Which Susie?" "Is that me?" "No, you weren't even born yet." The people in the portrait gaze stolidly back at me, unmoved by my distress, people who, although still unnamed, look disconcertingly very much like us.
I haven't yet mentioned my objective for the day, nor have I produced the tape recorder. We have had some discussion about my digital camera, the consensus being that, with its preview and deletion capabilities, it is a good thing. That is until I mention that it works best when affiliated with a computer.

As we gather at the table, I get up the nerve to mention that I am interested in hearing the stories of my aunts' childhoods. My middle aunt, the one hosting our feast, says, with some vigor, "I have always said, if someone wanted to write stories, we have stories!" But before I can get my tape recorder out from under my chair, the talk turns to which aunt made the salad and is the meat cooked to everyone's taste. The uncles are contentedly eating, dabbing at their mouths, passing the bread. Thinking it might not be nice or smart to try to control the dinner conversation, I decide to hold off until dessert.

As we choose between rum cake and pecan pie, I lay the tape recorder on the table. It looks out of place on the snowy cloth, the black plastic defiling the aura of the autumnal centerpiece. My mother smiles encouragingly at my aunts, glad it is they for whom the recorder records and not she. They utter a collective sigh, as if steeling themselves for something they just can't seem to escape. Resorting to form, my middle aunt attempts to get things started, asserting, a bit protectively, that they had a wonderful father and a great childhood even though they were motherless and poor. My oldest aunt, the one who never married, looks vague and says that she can't remember much. The baby says that she just isn't good at telling stories. I ask specific questions, just trying to get the players straight. I learn that, after the death of their mother, an aunt and her son came to live with them. The son, their cousin, was like another brother to them and my daddy was glad to have an additional boy, a compatriot, in the house. After a few more helpful facts but no real stories, the talk turns to contemporary matters and we finish our meal by lining up to talk on the phone to my brother who is eight hundred miles away. I put away the tape recorder, pondering when I can schedule a return trip to talk to my father's sisters individually.

Making our way back to the den for coffee, I can tell my mother is tired and I think of the long drive ahead. It's time to take our leave. In gathering up my paraphernalia, I deposit the scorned tape recorder in the bottom of my bag. Before adding the digital camera, I show my youngest aunt the picture of my Labrador Retriever I'd taken just before leaving home, a practice shot to make sure the battery was charged and the disk had space for the family pictures I would surely take. As we begin heading toward the door in a sluggish throng, my aunt says, "I remember that we had animals. I had a dog named Diddiebycha (as in Did he bite ya?) and George" (her brother and my father) "had a cat named Black Cat Kitty." My middle aunt says, "I remember that too. George also had a big dog named Fritz. And Earle" (the cousin) "had a bulldog named Pat." A look of amusement settling around her eyes, she asks my other two aunts, "Do you remember the time George came home and found Pat in his bed with a note from Earl that said, 'Don't move Pat. He got run over by a fire truck.'" They nod, smiling, their faces rapt.

I perk up at the splendid story, wishing that I could dislodge the recorder from the bottom of my bag, but I'm afraid of breaking the spell. As they continue, I find that Pat survived being run over by the fire truck and my daddy endured the indignity of having a dog appropriate his bed. As if this were not enough, as if this story wasn't worth the trip and putting my poor relatives through a stressful and strange holiday get-together, my oldest aunt, the one who earlier couldn't remember, the one who never married, stands up, grasps a chair arm to gain her balance and announces with some surprise and a great deal of enthusiasm, "I had a goat!"

As we pass through the back door, sharing hugs and promises of future occasions, I am reminded why family is so important and why it's worth the time and energy to make these trips. I'm also reinforced in my sometimes misguided attempts to hear the stories of my antecedents and to share those stories with my own children. Although we have learned about the era of my father's youth in our history books, we know little about what it was like to live in that time in a family torn apart by illness and economic decline in a small town in South Georgia. We need to learn all we can about a certain motherless family, which happens to be our family, which was presided over by an overwhelmed father who loved his children and allowed them pets, including an injured bulldog in a boy's bed and a goat for a little girl who would never marry.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

To Melissa

On the occasion of your thirty-fifth birthday,

You were my first big hope, a miracle I couldn't engineer all by myself. After months of trying and failing, the planets aligned, the perfect swimmer met the ready egg, and you were conceived. I still have the little piece of paper that says "gravindex positive, " a folded memento your grandfather's nurse handed me the day I knew it was true. Back then, there were no magic sticks to wet on in the privacy of your own bathroom; people had to make an appointment to find out. Daddy and I were lucky your grandfather was a doctor and we could get in quickly for a test. We were living in Greenville at the time so we must have traveled back to Warner Robins, with you as our secret, to keep the process all in the family.

I still remember the peppermint flavor of that summer as peppermints were what I used to stave off the nausea. I also recall looking at myself in the full-length mirror you took to Oregon years later. I stood sideways and sucked in my stomach and saw and felt the hard knot that was you. I wonder now at not being able to foresee that the mirror which afforded me my first look at you would one day accompany you to the place that would steal you away from me.

We called you Boogie as we watched you, already a member of the Allman Brothers Fan Club, grow in my belly. We named you after the song that was a reminder of the music your daddy loved so much, and something I, in turn, loved about him .

From the very beginning, you were your own little person, often inwardly focused, occasionally cranky (if you can imagine that) . Your need to create happened early on as we all recall your waking us up in the middle of the night asking where the scissors were. You accepted your siblings with resolve and some affection, taking on the mantle of oldest while still maintaining an air of being above it all, as if the promise had been that you would be the only one.

As a child, I remember your best friends as being boys, but what I'm recalling is most likely just that one summer, the summer of Greg and Sonny. You three were like a cyclone pulsating through the neighborhood, all grime and no homework. Some days, I couldn't tell you apart. You looked and smelled exactly the same.

When you became a teenager, with the height of your cock-a-doodle bangs signifying your mood, social endeavors dictated your days and nights but you still managed to do well in school and stay out of trouble (mostly). We had some issues with the car, the curfew, and that big party, but I could still count on you to snuggle up and ask me to scratch your back, and to put your big old feet in my lap when we watched television. Because you were my first teenager, I had to try to figure out how to continue to mother you after you thought it was no longer necessary. I still remember the times you were late enough for me to be scanning the driveway, mentally writing your very sad obituary, and I certainly haven't forgotten the rope and rubber gloves you used for climbing in and out of your second-story bedroom window.

It was while you were in college I began to realize how like my mother you are: intelligent, intense, and ready to travel to places I'd be afraid to go. The summer you and Molly Mitchell spent working in Yellowstone must have been a mighty one as it ended up changing your life. When you later told me you wanted to move to Oregon, I thought of it as a great adventure, never dreaming it would become your future (and to a great extent, mine).

Now you are a wife, a mother, a worker, a driver, a sewer, a maker, a coaxer, a car-seat buckler, and a cinematographer, but, thanks to Trevor, not a cook. You are also still a daughter to your daddy and me, and a sister to Billy and Molly, and a friend to those who are worthy of the relationship. I realized a couple of Christmases ago that you'd already bypassed me to become the family matriarch, making sure events happen with all the necessary ingredients, while the rest of us stumble around mouthing exhortations about what we would have done if we'd just had the time, the money, or if you had simply reminded us.

Being a mother yourself, I know you now understand what you mean to me. I can't imagine my life without you, and Miles and Georgia would tell you the same if they just had the words. We are talking one big deal, reciprocal, co-dependent relationship here.

And so, one heart supports new hearts, life goes on, and the family endures in spite of itself.