Thursday, June 28, 2012

Fickleness of Youth

My childhood was pretty sweet. Simple. Pure. Sure, our families had their issues and we had bad things happen to us, but for the most part, we could go where we want and our parents could be fairly certain we’d come home safely.

I must have been about seven or eight when my mom started letting me ride my bike alone downtown to the library and to the stores along Main Street to shop. The trip was over a mile each way. It was years yet before the library situation would get me into trouble. We still had a real live soda fountain downtown when I was growing up, where they served up the best ever root beer float or you could get a soda, which we called pop, with the exotic flavor called Cherry Coke.

On Wednesdays, the Cedar Bulletin would publish its swap paper and we’d race to grab the coupon inside for a double feature Saturday, popcorn, and small soda for 35 cents. I was all over that.

I had a little obsession with monsters from the movies due to my weekly watching of “Chuck Acri's Creature Feature.” I loved Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, and even Three Stooges whenever they met up with the Wolfman. Vincent Price was a god. My dad was pretty pissed one day when he learned I’d traded his vintage 1940 softball to Jordy Schaeffer for a stack of Monster magazines.

On one of my trips downtown, I discovered the “five and dime” as we called Harrison’s, had a basement. In the basement lay all kind of wondrous things for kids like me, including monster model kits. They cost about $1.45 as I remember, which was a small fortune for a kid like me. Time did not diminish my desire; I had decided it must be mine.

So, I did what every entrepreneurial kid would do, I set up a Kool-Aid stand. And broke out the gumball machine. My mom bought a bag of 100 gumballs for 50 cents or so, and I sold them for a penny apiece. The Kool-Aid was 3 cents. We set up across from Lookout Park (which I liked later in my life for a number of other reasons) for the good traffic. I think it cost more in sugar than we got in profit, but days and days and days and days of work and after consuming so much Kool-Aid I never wanted to see any ever again, I had 160 pennies or so (once I split the money with my various business partners).

I raced down on my bike and trotted down the stairs to the basement treasures. I scooped up my prize and paid for it and raced home. I was giddy—it was finally mine. I put the kit together in about 10 minutes. I stood back, looked at it, and sighed.

I heard the kids yelling in the distance outside. Abandoning my new love as quickly as it had wrapped itself around my heart, I ran out to play with my friends.

He who dies with the most toys is, nonetheless, still dead. ~ Unknown

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

He Looked Down Upon Me and Laughed

In the little town of Vinton, Iowa, just down the road a spell from the big state mental hospital, and home to of the best popcorn fields in the world, there sat a little tarpaper shack, where the weeds grew unchecked between the cracks of the neglected tar and gravel street, down near the railroad tracks.

The house sat right up against the street, with two lop-sided, rotting wooden stairs leading to the front door. The yard was huge and full of all types of Iowa wildflowers and a large, meticulously tended vegetable garden. In the back was an old outhouse that eventually became the garden shed. The entire house was probably 700 square feet. The floors sloped and waved and jutted from 70 years of settling and warping. The bare floor was sprinkled liberally with simple hand-made throw rugs to keep the chill of an Iowa winter at bay.

The house had that aged, musty smell yet was invariably spotless. Long-faded wallpaper with patterns out-of-date by the 1920s covered each wall. The kitchen was the largest of the rooms and obviously the most used. Under the simple kitchen table was a small rope with a knot in the end that served as the handle to lift up the cellar door. Once open, stairs led perilously down several rickety stairs to the tiny, pungent, dank, dark, dirt room where the year’s food supply, culled from the bountiful garden, were stored.

The living room was small—with a coal burning stove eventually replaced by an electric heating stove. A short couch lined one wall, and directly in front of the couch; facing the same direction as the couch, sat the one comfortable chair in which a woman sat for much of her day watching the small black & white television at the other end of the room. Hanging above the television, a small, lonely picture of Jesus looked down upon the room, surveying the every thought, word, and deed of generations.

The woman, who lived to somewhere between 99 and 101 years old, depending on who you took as authority on such things, was tall and lean. Her dress was always immaculately ironed. Her hair was white as pure driven snow, and was always covered by a hairnet. When she spoke, her voice warbled and rasped from too many years of use. Age and gravity had some interesting repercussions. Her face was very, very long, reminding me of a tired old Bloodhound with wrinkles on top of wrinkles. Her earlobes had somehow managed to extend nearly to her shoulders, and her breasts, well, she was never one to bother with such frills as a bra…she was old, let’s leave it at that. Whenever I saw her, a particular Girl Scout song would pop into my head, “Do your ears hang low, do they wobble to and fro, can you time them in a knot, can you tie them in a bow, can you throw them over your shoulder like a continental soldier, do your ears hang low?”

As a child, I paid little heed to her, and as my conversation wasn’t very interesting to her, we never made a connection. I probably spoke a total of 10 words to her my entire life. She visited freely with her son and grandson (my grandfather and father), but my sister and I were left to our own devices playing on most visits at the back of the house in the tiny closet-sized bedroom, with an ancient erector set and tinker toys. All I really knew is she spent over 65 years a widow, raising her kids the hardscrabble way, but most of it was spent alone in that little house, taking care of her business.

Our last visit came when I was about 20, on leave from Germany. Her hearing was nearly shot and her eyesight failing. My father pulled up a straight chair to be near her. She sat in her chair, facing the same direction we faced sitting on the couch behind her—which was always so odd to me—looking at the back of her head. My senses dulled as I listened vaguely to them speaking. Finally, out of the blue, she said, “Lori, where are you?” I snapped out of the daydream state I invariably slipped into, thinking, “Wow, she is actually speaking to me.”

I reached forward and gently and lovingly placed my hand on her arm, feeling suddenly quite warm and sentimental, sure she was asking because she could neither hear nor see me from her current vantage point, and said, “I’m right here Great Grandma.” Perhaps at last, we'd make a connection!  And, then she sighed heavily, and I swore I heard Jesus laughing as he looked down upon me.  She said, “No GOD DAMN IT, where are you in Germany? Larry, what is wrong with the girl?”

Copyright,  2008

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Boy's Life, A Girl's Life

This is posted for those who may not know my kids, who have been the center of my universe for 19, 19, and 21 years respectively.  The last two, twins, landed bumpily into the world.  I'll be talking about them more, but here is how I met them in my post from 2008.

He was born yellow and came out crying and stayed that way for a long time. Jaundice, colic, and a little problem with his heart and lungs figuring out the proper beat to life. He spent his first five weeks in neonatal intensive care unit, starting out in the safety of the very back of the big room full of tiny little fragile dreams and futures full of questions.  

His bottom was clothed in a diaper so small it fit comfortably on a Cabbage Patch doll. He sat nameless and without visitors, except for the volunteer grandmothers who came by and sat in the rocking chair and wrapped him lovingly in a quilt, rocking him and cooing him to give his rigid body, racked with pain, some comfort. To give him a sense of belonging to the world he had not chosen, and entered far too soon.  

For months he had laid safely inside the body of his birthmother, instinctively shielding from harm the other delicate and even smaller form growing there. The scarily tiny girl was covered with a fine dark hair who  if you happened to get a mere glimpse of, you might think she rather resembled a baby monkey clinging tenaciously to her tenuous existence. Like a good big brother, he came out three minutes ahead of her just to make sure all would be well for her.

Eventually, after weeks passed and no one came to visit, the nurses named them Jason and Janey. Just to have something to call them as they poked and prodded them, restarted their breathing, inserted tubes, and soothed the crying. Day by day, their strength grew and they moved closer and closer to the double-wide swinging doors that led from NICU to the rest of the hospital. It was a right of passage. They would survive. 

After scrubbing for what seemed like hours and covering myself in crisp, sterile clothing, head cover, and mask, I walked into the large room full of the sounds of unsatisfied babies speaking in the only voice they had. I heard the voices of parents frantic with worry, voices full of resignation, and watched nurses who moved with determination from baby to baby, ensuring vitals were checked, tubes adjusted or feedings completed.
With trepidation, I looked into the first incubator and saw this furry little lump of sassiness. Her lower lip jutted out and I could see it written all over her face, “Oh yeah, says you!” She was scrawny, but she was a fighter. It was as though I could see through her to the future - she’d be okay somehow, no matter what. Her fingers were the tiniest things I’d ever seen. Her belly button stuck out a mile – a hernia, I was told. She had dark spots all over her back – Mongolian Spots, I was told. I saw bright, undeveloped eyes taking in all the fuzzy view she could. She made me smile.

I then looked down at this boy, with a deep yellow pallor and wearing a little yellow cap to match, mittens and boots, covered in a foster grandma’s homemade quilt. Much larger than his sister, he did not look pleased at all to be here, and less pleased to be disturbed. What I saw was a child who would need my help. This child would need more to find his way. He was me – he, like his breathing, would have its own erratic beat.

The doctor looked down and said, “These types of children can have any number of problems ranging from mild to severe, and we don’t know what that will mean. They could have brain damage, there is a possibility they will not develop fully, we don’t have a full health history, we don’t know much.” His academic uncertainty and the certainty in which he stated what he thought the obvious astounded me.

I picked each up and held them, terrified they might break from even my gentlest touch. In that moment, they picked me. I felt it.

They’d not take their first steps until 18 months. They’d not say their first words until months after most babies. Their fingers wouldn’t work right, movement was clumsy and uncoordinated. They couldn’t hold scissors like their preschool classmates or race around the playground. Their speech was impaired. Their eyesight was impaired. There would be epilepsy and Guillan Barre to deal with, setting them back even further. I would be told that if I was lucky, Em would maybe someday be able to wipe tables at McDonalds.

There would be good teachers and bad teachers. Fights with school systems to get the maximum special education services. Teachers to be reminded of educational goals and that I was there to make sure they remembered. Teachers who had trouble remembering they had the quiet, painfully shy students in their class. Teachers who would move mountains to stretch them even an inch more. Patience when they had gone as far as they could for the moment. Doctors to prod to advocate on their behalf. Appeals to be won, logistics to be resolved. The cruelty of children to be cried through.

Em (no longer Janey) and I were driving in the car after her IEP (special education plan) review on Thursday. I had just heard from all of her teachers that they love Em. No one tries harder, no one smiles more, and no one is sweeter—but the girl has an edge. I love an edge. Her progress is still very slow, but she makes progress every year. She gets along well with her classmates and the teachers. They all want a class full of Em’s. She has a wide range of friends, some of whom joined her for a birthday sleepover Saturday. It wasn’t always that way, she went years having no one to play with but her brothers. Her bright eyes still shine and that jutting lip is still present in moments, but more often, it’s replaced with a prize-winning smile and laughter that saves me from the sometimes dull rote of life. She’s funny and observant and loves sculpting and painting and reading and fuzzy puppies and small children. She’s loving and empathetic – her art teacher has a terrible class – and Friday, they made the teacher cry. Em related that she waited until after class and, as is her custom, helped her teacher clean her classroom, but not before giving her a hug and telling her everything would be okay. I almost cried, because I cry over everything. And, for Em, it will be okay.

The other night, I picked up J-Man (no longer Jason) at a party. I have never seen him so happy. Not ever. He was laughing and silly. Carefree. My boy finally found carefree. He’s trained himself to be a friend – despite his inclination to hold people at bay. His friends of many years hang together because, I think, they get that we all have our quirks. J-Man, despite his innate discomfort with people, has a longing to be part of what people have to offer and who will accept him for all that he is, just as he accepts them in the born-an-old-man way he has about him. I almost cried, but then, I cry over everything. He’s a writer, a thinker, a runner, a dreamer. He’s logical and pragmatic. He’s both contradictory and predictable. He’s still got his own beat.

This week they celebrate their 15th birthday. They stand tall, healthy, and beautiful. They have friends, they have dreams, they have their own vision of their life and how they are going to get there. They are survivors.
I keep remembering, even today, that it’s not all about me. Never was.