Archive for October, 2020
Mine was to walk hand-in-hand through a snowstorm with the woman I loved. For almost 40years, nothing close to this happened: Not the right snow, not the right woman.
By late 1977, Linda and I had been bouncing off each other for a few months. “Dating” didn’t really exist in the late 1970s for divorced parents in their thirties living in the artistic underbelly of Philadelphia. I was in love with Linda, had been since September, following an incomprehensible experience I’ll talk about another time. We went to the art museum, to orchestra concerts, traded dinners that included my daughters Morgan and Erin and her son Ben.
I had met her the year before when I moved into the room she was vacating in a massive Italianate West Philadelphia twin that served as a commune (3311 Baring St., about which you will hear much more). We didn’t register on each other initially, but later I took to dropping by her apartment a few blocks away: She wasn’t at all sure what to make of me at first, and later admitted to hiding from me when I’d come by to sit silent as a log.
Linda was laser-focused on her acting with an excellent repertory theater downtown – no pay, of course. I was part-time maintenance man at my daughters’ private school in the suburbs – close to no pay.
When December rolled around (the second straight year of horrendously cold winters), I asked her if she would join me for Christmas at my brother Rod’s. No, she said, she couldn’t make that kind of presentation-commitment when she didn’t love me, or didn’t think she loved me. So I offered New Year’s instead. That, somehow, was OK (a distinction I fully understood).
Rod and his absurdly wonderful wife Ginny lived in a mid-19th century millhand’s house, one of a row of three at the equally absurd intersection of Possum Hollow and Rose Valley Roads. (I never write that address without an ear-to-ear grin.) The house had two-foot-thick stuccoed stone walls and heavy Italian roof files that slid off and smashed under winter snow loads.
By another of the ridiculously lucky coincidences that fall on me like old tiles, Rod’s place was half a mile from Pendle Hill, the Quaker community that had drawn Linda and her first husband east from Kansas 15 years earlier. Linda offered to give me a tour of Pendle Hill on the way to Rod’s from the train station. (Over time, we learned that the house Linda and Rusty had lived in at Pendle Hill had once been owned by Ginny’s grandfather.)
It was overcast, as it had been all day, when the SEPTA commuter train pulled into tiny Wallingford station. As our boots touched the steps to the platform, the first snowflake fell. I know such things don’t happen, but it did – exactly like that. Hand in hand (glove in glove) we wandered through the falling snow, visiting Linda’s past at Pendle Hill, then mine at Rod and Ginny’s, where I’d spent nearly every holiday over the past decade.
Ah me, ah me, if things could always be that good….
Actually, they got better.
Ten days later, as I was washing dinner dishes in the Baring St. kitchen, Linda called and invited me to join in a second dinner at her place, along with some of her theater crowd.
More food? More Linda? My god.
Seated at her round table, I felt vastly out of place, as I often do. Linda was paying particular attention to Tom, one of the younger actors, and I wondered why in holy hell she wanted me there.
I decided to leave early, but Linda stopped with me in the vestibule to talk. And then … somehow … we grew into each other. Technically, we were making out, but I wouldn’t give it a limiting term.
An hour later, she called and asked me to spend the night.
I ran the seven blocks to her place making strange meeping noises, something a cat might release if stepped on by a large dog. Was that the best night of my life? Yes. I don’t pretend that I fully remember the what of it, but I clearly remember the how, the overwhelming intensity, the sense of having reached beyond.
Linda moved back to the commune to be with me, and we lived together for two and a half years before getting married. I celebrate January 10, the night of her call, as our true anniversary. And the first snow of every year reopens that magical doorway.
Linda and I became as close to a single being as I think is possible. But marriage? she wanted it, I resisted. It wasn’t a matter of my lack of commitment – just that “marriage,” to this worn-down ’60s sorta radical, meant another meaningless ritual. I was sick of religion, of gussied-up ceremony, of everything that forced observance into a mold.
But one day it struck me: If “getting married” had no real meaning, then so did “not getting married.” What the hell, mehitabel. And I was tired of trying to figure how to introduce Linda – she wasn’t my “girlfriend,” and “significant other” may be the most repulsive term ever coined for your heartfelt companion.
Marriage comes in more sizes and shapes than you generally see portrayed. Most would likely view Linda’s and my “ceremony” as off-the-wall; we found it then – and find it now – not only delightful but the epitome of who we are, of how we gather the world.
Neither of us wanted a wedding associated with a church. For a civil ceremony in Philly, you could select a judge from the city’s roster and ask him/her to legalize your life. We chose Lynn Abraham, the feisty Jewish momma who later served almost two decades as the city’s DA. I’d been her fan since the days when she headed the Philly redevelopment authority and regularly shafted bullyboy-mayor Frank Rizzo.
Linda delved into European folk traditions to design wedding blouses for each of us. Hers was sky blue with a crocheted lace insert. For mine, to a muslin sheath she attached a collar she’d embroidered – golden Celtic knots that fused into a flaming dragon’s head at sternum level. We looked like no other couple who had ever gotten married. Oh, we were glad.
We spiffed and polished our three combined stepkids – my Morgan 10, her Ben and my Erin 8 – and towed them downtown, wondering what a City Hall wedding would be like: What sort of pomp and ceremony or laissez-faire joinery would be involved?
We took our place in a small courtroom, along with a complement of minor officials and other couples waiting to be spliced. Within minutes, Judge Abraham entered, regally attired in … a brilliant floral dress.
She sat behind the low judge’s bench and called for the first case. Escorted by a bailiff, in walked a sad-sack fellow adorned in a grey shirt and a pair of handcuffs. After some quiet chiding, Judge Abraham shook her finger at him and announced: “I told you if you violated your parole I’d send you to jail. You violated your parole and I’m sending you to jail.” The prisoner exited, sadder still.
After a couple more minor cases came time for the marriages. Only then did Abraham don her black judicial robe, which left me touched, though I can’t say just what it signified – this transformation from flowered dress of justice to official robe of life-altering ceremony.
We were scheduled for the first wedding slot, but I suddenly realized that the quarter I’d dropped in the parking meter down the block was about to expire. We existed so close to monetary oblivion that a simple parking ticket could be our undoing. So I apologized and loped out to save our financial buns.
From Linda I learned that in my absence an Hispanic couple took our place. An interpreter provided translations to the obviously dithered groom. The translator rendered “Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife” into Spanish – silence. He repeated. The silence repeated. In exasperation, the groom’s mother expostulated, “Si, o no! Si o no!”
“Ah – si, si.”
Our turn. Abraham seemed delighted that we’d brought along our brood of younguns. She smiled throughout the standard rigmarole. When she intoned “for richer or for poorer,” Linda and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. Abraham waved her hand: “Oh just say it, it’s only words.” I did, and Linda and I were officially united.
No other event in my life more thoroughly delighted me than that absurd and deeply, deeply human morning.
Outside, rounding the southeast corner of City Hall’s marble immensity, we stumped along, a recognized family, to a celebratory snack at the Market St. McDonald’s, conveniently located between the Apollo adult movie theater and Going Out of Business Inc. (the actual name!).
Along the way, Erin seemed (even for her) unusually grumpy. Why, I enquired. “Well, Linda isn’t my favorite person in the whole world, you know.” Those words put an end to her gloom – maybe because Linda was and remains one of Erin’s favorite people in the whole world.
Back home, we arranged our own brand of reception: a potluck, with the guests supplying the meal. Karen and Wesley brought an immense ham that could have fed the Mongol hordes. That’s the only item I specifically recall, but I know we ate as few have eaten since Adam and Eve shared their first fig.
Upstairs, Linda and her female friends danced tribally to Olatunji’s “Drums of Passion”.
Some view marriage as an irrevocable commitment, no matter what. My parents were married for 37 years, each of those years a disaster. My own first marriage often felt like a slow ride to the guillotine.
Not long ago, two couples joined us for dinner at our place up here in the mountains. Each of us six individuals, it turned out, had been partner in a calamitous first marriage, yet our three second-time fusions had, if not cured all ills, raised life from barely bearable to long-range satisfaction.
All of us should be entitled to the correction of at least one major mistake. Neither this life nor the afterlife can pay a reward for misery.
The pine barrens of New Jersey are best known for the Jersey Devil and as the graveyard of minor mobsters residing in the tea-dark waters of its cedar bogs.
Tramping it with elder brothers Rod and Vic in my teens, I loved those cedar bogs. Deerflies swarmed around us and ripped small flesh from our forearms. I bottled the tea-dark water to make tea later.
Rod and I stomped through them time and again, thigh deep in springy, supporting yet squishy ooze. The first couple tromps were to check for snakes and amphibians. After that, it was because Rod would do anything to satisfy his ill-suited-to-the-real-world kid brother.
In case you haven’t been there, the pine barrens are a low-slung, down-to-the-earth, pretty much flat sandy bottom on which grow pines and stunted, spindly bushwhackery to which I could not give a name. Glancing down at your feet, you see undifferentiated not-much – just stuff, sticking out of the ubiquitous sand. The swamps and bogs interrupt, here and there.
The barrens are the northernmost outpost of southern plant growth, the southernmost outgrowth of northern. The eastern areas burn over regularly. There you can drive through a region of surreal dwarf pines, four feet high or less, that have adapted to release seeds only following a fire. Almost doll-like, they could be a child’s inquisition of reality. But they are way older than you or I. They have experienced. They know.
I have almost no sense of direction. Set me two feet off a trail, turned sideways, and I have no idea where I am. But I never felt lost in the pine barrens. Even without directions from my brothers, I knew where I was, though I don’t know quite what that means. When we’d get confused, I’d clamber up a pine, as far as I could go, to see where we were, yelp down and point out which way we should go.
We spent a lot of time – the three brothers together, or just Rod and me (sometimes with his wondrous wife, Ginny) – parading through cranberry bogs or into stinking, sulfurous quagmires from which Rod would wander, unconcerned, though small towns, leeches hanging off his back, bleeding him in quiet jubilation.
All our pine-barrens trips had to do with snakes. Our group approach to capture was to triangulate on a slithering beastie and charge. My favorite recollection is of Rod making the winning grasp of a black snake, which latched all fangs onto his thumb. He held up his bleeding hand, snake attached, yelling “I got it!”
Rod did not kill or keep these snakes. He measured and released them. The capture was enough in itself. Almost more than enough.
Rod’s whole life was enmeshed with snakes. He knew more about them than many of the world’s leading herpetologists. Yet I wouldn’t say he was obsessed. Obsession suggests internal misdirection, a perverse wackiness. With Rod it was something greater – a lasered focus from which he absorbed and retained every relevant detail.
He could identify anything that crawled. He knew that one water snake he’d collected (the one who gave birth to dozens of live young in our Hasting Ave. basement) was longer than the supposed world record. He never bothered to submit the claim.
This ruminal segment started as a reminiscence about place and time, but it’s sidetracked into a musing on Rod (14 years older than me) and, to a slightly lesser extent, Vic (12). I can’t say how to view us as a siblinged family – how we aligned with anything normally recognized as a working, nuclear familial group.
I doubt that three brothers could have been any closer than we were, yet, to the view of the outer world, less connected. Over the years, Vic and I talked on the phone now and then (he was by then a ship captain for Sun Oil and seldom home), mostly about stereo systems (then called hi-fi).
My internal connection with Rod was intense – but in what way? We’re taciturn people, we Davises, and none more taciturn that Rod, whose standard response to any written question, once he glommed onto email, was “OK.” We didn’t talk much, we spent our time thinking (or so I’d like to think). He kept the essentials of himself buried deep but denied the surface to no one. He lived a superlative life in any way that humanly matters.
I never openly extolled him during his life. I hope that doesn’t sound empty. I don’t think it was. He didn’t need it.
Rod kept me sane. Does it matter? Oh yes.
The ultimate Rod and Snakes story:
While he was sailing as a radio operator on Sun Oil tankers in the late 1940s, the ships would dock at Port Arthur, Texas (which later produced Janice Joplin but little else). On landing, Rod – who hated the ships and the job he undertook to support the family while my father was out of work – would duck off into the swamps and woods. He’d sometimes bring back coconuts (including one that, on opening, proved to have a soul as rotted as Ted Bundy’s).
How he got bitten on the hand by a pygmy rattlesnake I’ve never been exactly clear. But it did not dissuade him from tucking the offender in his pocket and taking it onboard the tanker. Pygmies don’t have that much venom, so the bite would not be fatal (as Rod knew). He kept the snake in a cigar box in the radio room. But his hand, then his wrist, then his forearm swelled. He couldn’t keep his shirt sleeve buttoned.
What to do? He’d rather the captain not determine he was keeping a poisonous snake in a cigar box. (Years later, Rod told me, “It takes time for the venom to regenerate. I knew the snake couldn’t hurt anybody.”) So he shoved his right hand into his pants pocket when in the mess room or other public place. No one noticed his temporary deformity.
What happened to the pygmy rattler? Rod gave it to the Philly zoo.
“I wish somebody would take me out and shoot me.”
… while lying in his little narrow bed in his little narrow room in whichever rented house or apartment we were living at the time.
I was in my teens; he was retired and a decade and a half younger than I am now. It should have upset me. Somehow it didn’t.
Some marriages last and, like mine to Linda, enrich both the participants and the world. Others, like my parents’, destroy the perpetrators.
Dad hadn’t slept with Mom for many years (my mother confided that I was the accidental result of I forget which of them being drunk on the night of their last conjugal bliss – an interesting snippet of late-night news). Dad always chose the smallest room, where he’d devour a paperback mystery novel each evening. It was half a place of hiding, half pulling in the walls to shelter him.
He was an alcoholic, had been for decades, but my stupid asocial self didn’t know it. He didn’t swill from a bottle. He didn’t lurch, stagger, yell or throw things. He was a quiet drunk, saying almost nothing while seated at the dining table or sitting in a living room chair or lying all evening in his bed. Every couple years he would spend a week at a small downtown hotel which, he always noted, did not serve alcohol. I wondered why he was telling me this apparently inconsequential detail. He was drying out.
Whenever I showed him something I’d done in school, he’d say, invariably, “Very good, son.”
He’d wanted to be an architect but ended up selling pneumatic tools. At one point he’d headed a regional office for Ingersoll Rand but lost the job to drink (as near as I can tell) and was out of work during the early stages of World War II. Then he moved us to Philadelphia with a lower-level job at Chicago Pneumatic.
As local sales manager in Upper Darby, he had charge of the office car fleet, which he parked in front of our suburban house. While the rest of the country was scrounging gas rations during the war, Dad kept five company sedans in shape by driving them in turn – a green Dodge, a tan Chevy, one of those iconic blue ’40s Plymouth tanks, a beige something and one other.
Some time after the war he was out of work again, then temped for the 1950 census before becoming the country’s most honest and meticulous Naval contract inspector: He once refused a shipment of dustpans because they were formed from the wrong gauge steel. No doubt he was offered bribes, but I can tell you he reaped nothing. That was his last job before retiring.
The only traces of his artistic talent were occasional cartoon heads he’d draw in the margins of lined notepads – beautifully simple with bulbous noses and fine cross-hatching to represent five-o’clock shadow.
Dad died from a fire in his room while living his last years at my brother Rod’s. He hung on for a few days but, thankfully, not long. He had fallen asleep in his chair and his robe had drifted into the electric space heater. Rod heard him call and ran up to pull him out of the inferno, then brought him to the living room, where he sat with his skin peeling.
The one time I visited him at the hospital, he seemed to recognize me. When I called at Vic’s to say I was going to see him again, Vic’s wife, Margie, told me Dad was “gone.” I’d never heard the word used that way and it threw me: Gone? Where?
Dad had been sober for the last couple years. Rod, also alcoholic, had not, and I thought at first he was blasted at Dad’s funeral, shuffling and stumbling in a crooked clip-on bow tie. No, he was overwhelmed, ripped apart, feeling guilty beyond anything I can imagine.
Dad’s version of a skewed sense of humor came out in song parodies and oft-repeated bits of nonsense (some unique, some culturally inherited). It flourished most in the mornings and on weekends. A term of fondness for family members was “poodlefipper.” When he (or a politician) made a particularly bone-headed blunder, he’d refer to it as “wandering around like a lost fart in a hailstorm.”
I thought I should toss in a few of the things I remember of my father’s random repertoire. Weird and inexplicable, much of it, but I like it that way.
Here lie the collected oddities of Joseph Hill Rogers Davis, Sr.:
(Some of these show up in online searches, others not)
Well, well, well – How many wells make a river?
Jesus Christ almighty, A mouse ran up my nightie
A tutor who tootled the flute, Tried to tutor two tooters to toot (I’m sure there were followup lines)
Bi carbonate bi soda by gosh (ummm…)
Pity ’tis, ’tis true, Tis for sore feet. (takeoff on Hamlet?)
“How do you like your oysters?” “Raw, raw, raw!” (chanted as a sports cheer)
Okey dokey puddin’ ‘n’ okey
It isn’t the cough that carries you off, It’s the coffin they carry you off in.
I’m going crazy, do you want to go along?
Aphrodite in her nightie (said to Mom in her morning nightgown, mainly to piss her off)
Sound the Alamo! (boomed response to a loud sneeze or fart)
You never can tell by the bumpty-trell (totally mystifying)
If Dr. Jekyll died, where would Mr. Hyde? (I’d guess English music hall)
Jesus Christ … and Stonewall Jackson – two of the finest men who ever lived (not politically correct)
I’ll tell you a story of Jack Inorey, Now my story’s begun. I’ll tell you another about his brother, And now my story is done. (found versions online; I incorporated it into our local vaudeville show)
(sung) Oh hell, oh hell,
Oh Helen, I love you.
Your feet, your feet
Your features are divine (again, likely English music hall)
Gaius Julius Caesar
With his well-developed beezer
That they called his Roman sneezer
In the days that are no more.
Through the cuticle and cutus
He was stabbed by his friend Brutus…
He was sore. (Something he may – or may not – have picked up somewhere)
Why didn’t my father’s old-man requests for termination by bullet bother me?
For one thing, our family’s never been suicidal. We might think about it, but we’re not going to do it. We take what life dishes out with simple bad grace.
Still, I didn’t register it as a metaphor. I probably accepted it as a reasonable and accurate summation of a dead-end life for a man mentally confining himself to his bed after days of doing things he’d never wanted to do, being married to a woman he didn’t love (and perhaps no one could have loved), his two elder sons no longer at home to protect his sanity, speaking occasionally to a remaining child as insular and subdued as he.
How sad are such things? They’re as sad as your memory chooses to make them. But when you’re growing up, they’re just what is, like the bland, faded portraits of flowers on the walls; the framed drawing of a cockatoo in its oversized, stained matting; the white porcelain lion with one cracked leg that lived on the mantel.
[Though I don’t intend this ruminative ramble to be linear, I think I should introduce the main dramatis personae, because it’s more about people than events. My mother is a reasonable person-place to start, since she’s where I started.]
My brothers loved my father and hated my mother. I didn’t love or hate either parent. I seem to lack the biological imperative. In freshman French at Penn we read Camus’s L’Etranger, in which the protagonist gets into hot water because he’s going to bury his mother but doesn’t care about her. I didn’t know he had a problem; his response seemed perfectly natural to me.
Psychologists might view my estrangement as a result of my upbringing. In part… maybe. In greater part, it’s a personal – genetic? just peculiar? – deviation from the accepted pattern. I didn’t lack an ability to love them only because love was seldom shown to me. Someone else – someone more empathetic, more spiritual, less empirically insulated – might have reacted differently.
Mom and I listened to the radio together. A lot. This was in the late ’40s, early ’50s. We laughed our way through Jack Benny and Phil Harris every Sunday evening and enjoyed Tonto getting knocked senseless during each weekly episode of The Lone Ranger. We shared a skewed sense of humor. (Dad had one too, with a different skew.)
Mom wanted to be a writer, a journalist. Sometime in the ‘40s she took a journalism course downtown at the Junto, a learning site supposedly founded by Benjamin Franklin (in Philadelphia, anything original – except the cheesesteak – is credited to Benjamin Franklin). Instead, around 1950 she became a church secretary. (What did she believe in? I have no idea.) At least, part of her job included writing the church newsletter.
She resented her scattered upbringing: kicked from one relative to another up and down the East Coast in the 1910s, castigated for her crossed eyes, no time left to develop friendships or stability. I think she saw my father as her intellectual inferior (wrong) and resented her professional limitation of being a woman (right). Her misery, which she kept from the outer world but which suffused her family relations, sprang in equal parts from her background and a personal darkness.
I too lived in a confusing number of places while young (though all in a small area). After WWII, we moved from South Ardmore in the rural Philly suburbs to a second-floor apartment at 3406 Baring St. in Powelton Village, a small Victorian neighborhood across the Schuylkill River from the art museum.
At that time there were only two colors acceptable (or known?) to paint your house in Philly: dark-chocolate brown or park-bench green. The drab, ill-kept Powelton Victorian houses, filthed with a half century of carbon from the trains passing the end of Baring St., seemed superbly ugly. (Yet they had mansard roofs! Where had I heard or read about mansard roofs that rendered them almost magical in my mind?)
Every two years or so Mom instigated our move from one rented house or apartment to another, all within Powelton. Each time, we would redecorate the new place before moving in – including complete reapplication of wallpaper and paint. Then “something” would make relocation mandatory. Possibly this was a reflection of her own turbulent childhood. As likely, she was looking for a sense of completion she never found, anywhere.
She had a minor obsession with sawing the legs off furniture. She lopped them off our china cabinet so it could be placed atop the dining-room bureau (similarly delimbed). But then we couldn’t open the top bureau drawer because of the pressure, so back down went the china cabinet, now oddly dwarfish.
Like humor, our joint interest in the Word – written or spoken – united Mom and me where our biological ties did not. I think she wanted me to be her literary surrogate. She encouraged my teen attempts to imitate Robert Benchley (his “essay” on curing hiccups is funnier than leprosy). Wherever I’ve half succeeded with writing is a belated gift to a woman whose mental acumen was never fully appreciated by her husband or her children.
And what was the impetus behind her material gifts to me – Christmas and birthday presents? She gave me a subscription to the Pogo comic book two years before the strip appeared in the papers. Where did she find it? How would she have realized it was the perfect gift?
Later, she presented me with the first Tom Lehrer album of whiplash satirical songs, filled with an irreverence otherwise foreign to ’50s America. How did she learn about Lehrer – no one I knew ever mentioned him. (Decades later I discovered that his first album could only be ordered directly from him – an underground mystery radiating from Cambridge, Mass.)
Around the same time she bought me short story collections by Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon, the most lush and wonderful fantasy/SF writers of the era. Again, how and where did she find them?
In short, there were sides to Mom that should have helped me love her. But didn’t.
I heard years later that she was physically abusive to my brothers Rod and Vic. With me it was psychological. She told me I had “no backbone,” and for years I slumped and scuttered: which was cause, which effect?
When I was five she found new, tiny dents in the living room coffee table that had “always” been there, in the way childhood furniture is eternal. She decided I’d caused the dents. Cornering me in our expansive Hastings Ave. entry hall, she relentlessly accused me until I admitted to having struck it repeatedly with a small metal hammer. I can still hazily envision myself holding that odd little hammer – I’ve never run across another like it – as I tap-tap-tapped the table. But did it actually happen? I don’t know.
Brainwashing: What an horrendous thing to do to a child.
She would read in bed and ask my father to fetch things for her. She said he liked to do it. Out to the kitchen and back he’d mutter under his breath in seething anger. More than once she told me, “We love each other but we don’t like each other.” Dad did not like her, did not love her. Each blamed the other for their getting married, as though it had been a mutual shotgun wedding.
During my last college summer working as a deckhand on Sun Oil tankers, Mom took up with a seedy Englishman after breaking off with my father, who had moved in with my eldest brother, Rod. Before the age of 60, she was mentally melting.
In our rented rowhouse on Mole St., near City Hall, Sir Bowel Movement sat and dribbled tears at the dinner table. I wanted to shove his face in his plate. Later, brother Vic found him in bed with Mom and threw him down the stairs. The bedroom floor was covered with urine-soaked sheets. Then she ran off with Brit Shit, somewhere down South.
When I returned home between my summer sailings, I found that she’d randomly sawed legs off several living room chairs and thrown almost everything I owned out the back window of my garret bedroom. Crazed with blind anger I crashed down all the furniture in her bedroom, including my favorite, a magnificent mahogany rolltop desk.
The neighbors, hearing the chaos, called the cops. When a cop knocked, I tried to slough the whole thing off, shrugging a lot, but he asked the right questions, looked at the mess upstairs and insisted I call my mother.
Odd that I had her number, wherever she was. On the phone she was plastered and sounded like Madame X from Nutcase Island. She and Lord Fartbody had plowed their car into a ditch somewhere. Then the cop talked to her. When he heard that she was non compos he let it go, spending time just talking me down. A damned decent, caring guy. A good cop.
As Mom slithered across the country she sent letters to me and to Rod. She had never before mentioned anything sexual. In one letter to me she included details on how to excite a woman by raking your nails down her back. I wish I’d kept those letters because… well, background is everything.
Next she wandered to San Francisco, a few months before I railroaded West for abortive grad work at Stanford. The Earl of Schmuck was gone (hopefully run over by something heavy).
In my Menlo Park dorm room I got a call from Stanford Medical that they were holding my mother. I found her wide-eyed, totally fucked mentally, somebody I didn’t know or understand. They declared her acceptable for release, though she couldn’t walk without me supporting her. Those bastards kicked her into the street because she couldn’t pay.
She had an apartment in Palo Alto. I maneuvered her there and became the guardian of a demented, crapped-up woman – me, who had never had a clue how to deal with the world. I don’t know where her rent came from: She claimed she had a boyfriend, of whom she was proud, a minor crook who robbed booze warehouses in San Francisco. I never met him, though one time she came home as disheveled as a street whore and said he’d beaten her. Did he exist?
I bicycled in those days, something I’d never done before (terrible sense of balance) and have not done since. I rode the local paths along dry washouts wondering if I should just plow myself off a cliff. I couldn’t keep this up. I called my brothers and mewled that I wanted to leave, to come back “home” (though nowhere I’d lived since age six was home).
Leave her flat, they said. Come back, forget her.
How wrong were they, how wrong was I? We left a decaying human being, our mother, to her own down-spiraling devices. Rod and Vic were protecting their simplistic little brother (age 22) by signing off on someone who had done them major wrong. Maybe all three of us lacked that biological-connector gene.
Mom was institutionalized in San Francisco. She sent almost coherent letters to me in Philadelphia. In a weird, half-assed way she was happy there. But, like every other medical motherfucker, they didn’t want to deal with her, so they shipped her back to Philly – to Byberry, the city’s huge, infamous nut-tank.
The move destroyed what was left of her. When I visited her at Byberry, she had aged 25 years in 18 months, grown chin whiskers, her face half evaporated, shuffling in hospital dunce slippers.
I never went back.
The surface-skimming doctors there credited her obliteration to a side effect of her recent-years dive into alcohol. No, it was the same dementia that had devoured her mother and grandmother at roughly the same age.
In the summer of 1963 I took my sole trip to Europe. When I arrived back, I found a postcard from Byberry lying on the puke-green dining room table telling me that my mother had died. I read the card and said, “Oh.”
When I think about it, that’s still my sole reaction.
She was cremated. At her request, Vic scattered her ashes in the ocean.
I’ve been reading collections of fairy tales, public-domain stuff you can get for free on your Kindle. One was a Norse bundle with a 70-page introduction working to prove that the taletellers had turned the gods of Valhalla into giants who wanted to eat Christians (can’t blame them).
Anyone who was whelped on Grimm’s knows the ubiquitous three sons, who loom even more prominent in the Norse collection. Generalized plot: The father or king – somebody in deep authority – sets a seemingly impossible goal such as rescuing a maiden imprisoned in the farthest room of an impregnable castle. The two elder sons, over-confident wingnuts, charge out blindly to do the deed and get killed/captured/lost, or just poop out.
Finally, the youngest son – the wastrel (in the Norse versions, he sits around all day with his feet in the fireplace ashes) – decides to continue the quest, in the face of general derision. He succeeds, in part through a fool’s fearlessness, in part through doing the unexpected, in largest part because he doesn’t give a damn about how things are supposed to be done or what will happen to him next.
In these translations from the Norse, the son’s name is always Boots.
I finished that collection and had an epiphany:
I am Boots.
I’m the youngest of three sons by some 13 years. While my elder brothers earned their bread through toil, and amassed enough moolah to meet old age with relative equanimity, I’ve blundered my way without a goal, with no clear idea of how one is supposed to exist in the world, not so much ignoring the rules as not letting them register.
Of course, the parallel is limited: I have not gained half a kingdom (the default Norse reward for offing a giant). More significantly, my elder brothers were neither over-confident or thoughtless.
So, rather than a sneer at elder recklessness, this entry of mine is a paean to my brothers, Rod and Vic, who saved my butt more times that I will ever know, who showered me with kindness, who protected me throughout all the years of my growth, despite my battle against morphing into an acceptable human being.
Indeed, if they had a fault, it was in protecting me too well. When my father died, they made all the arrangements, did all the paperwork. When my mother went nuts in California while I was doing grad work at Stanford, they saved me from the consequences. As I squelched through life, “no direction home,” working half time or less, bumping from one odd job to another, they never said a condemning word.
Rod and Vic both died in their 80s. They lived “good” lives in every sense of the word. But if my brothers never fit the fairytale stereotype, nonetheless…
I am still Boots – and still bootless.
For the last few years, I (Derek) have been emailing out what I call “ruminations” to a bunch of friends. For no good reason, I’ve decided to post them here, in no rational order, hopefully one a week. I’m already out of order because I posted one before I wrote this to describe what I’m more or less doing. So you get the idea: None of this will make coherent sense, I just feel like doing it.
Linda and I sit on the front porch on a late-summer evening, side by side on the old Voyager car seat that’s the most comfortable butt-nestler in the house, watching the sun go down. Invisible to all other houses in upstate Pennsylvania Sullivan County, we face west, tucked into the side of a wooded hill that rises quietly below and above to tell us all’s fine and decent.
The declining sun shines directly into our eyes, so we don straw hats, the brims canted low to filter the aggressive rays. The downslope of our trees and the upslope of a hill across the creek lie between us and the setting sun, which sheds a glory on the trees, on me, on life. It declines and incrementally disappears about 35 degrees above what would be the dead-ahead horizon. To the left (south), the hillside light withdraws slowly from the trees. It’s not a shimmer leaving, but a statement being sucked away, the sky reabsorbing what belongs to it and was lent for a few hours.
In its wake, the darkness nibbles up the hill with a sense of devourment. And I’m afraid. Not of anything. It’s a primal fear, laid against the unblemished glory of the dying sun. Sometimes I’m half falling asleep. When my eyes fly open, the slow darkening – the encroaching absence of light – has crept farther up the hillside. And I’m afraid. I nod off and waken. And I’m afraid. Not a big afraid, the little afraid that doesn’t require a reason.
In the city, the sunset often gouged me – my heart ripped out, the question of existence answered with a pitiful negative. Here, the afraid is a gentle sadness that holds the promise of tomorrow.
This evening, Leiao, our daughter Caitlin’s wondrous dog who lives with us, sits on a rock beside the porch, pretending we and the rest of the world do not exist (and why should we?). I talk to her regularly – josh, yordle, snicker and sing to her. Most often she pays no obvious attention, though I know she’s listening.
This evening, I say to her (as I often do), “Arf!” and a couple other stupid doggy things. She wiggles not an ear. Again I speak “Arf” – softer, more endearingly. She responds nowise. Then, in a conversational tone, I murmur, “Leiao, would you like to come up and spend some time with us?”
Without hesitation, she trots onto the porch and looks me in the eye. I’ve always known she was bright, but this is the first time I realize she can recognize syntax.
Between dogs and myself (sometimes a few yards, more often just a couple feet), I wonder what it means to be alive, especially at sunset.
Back inside, Linda asks me to stop getting blasted on foul, cheap whiskey sloshed into dying diet Pepsi. I toss the Pepsi. Much better.