His mother was at a night class. Grandma was tucking in her grandsons. The younger one was easy. He often would say, “I’m going to bed now,” falling asleep as his head hit the pillow. At times he would have nightmares, but generally was a quick and sound sleeper.
His brother, however, two years older, would stay up as long as possible, sometimes falling asleep with his book in hand.
Lately Grandma had noticed her older grandson withdrawing into his own world. He was a handsome child. He looked just like his absent father. While his brother always expressed whatever he felt and observed, the older boy kept thing within. She had learned to watch for the signs. He would “zone” as they say, seeming to be somewhere else. One could sense both visually and viscerally a deep sadness within him.
Tonight as Grandma tucked him in, he had no books and seemed lethargic.
“What’s wrong, honey?”
But Grandma knew better. After a few minutes the tears started falling down his cheeks.
“I miss my Dad.”
“Oh I know you do.”
She held him in her arms as he sobbed. Once he quieted a little she did her very best to help him past the trauma.
This was not the first times she had been called upon to comfort him. Knowing that it was not good practice to say bad things about a missing parent – even if it were true and well deserved! – when she had to confront this situation, she would say things like, “It’s not your fault, and I know your Daddy loves you.” Inside she would be gritting her teeth wanting to scalp this irresponsible male who reveled in the “seed planting” but did little for the care and cultivation of his product.
Grandma believed the Native Americans had the right idea when it came to the “children’s fire.” Protecting children was at the top on their list. When she saw the film, Testament, Jane Alexander’s last words burned into her brain: “They (the children) deserve better.” Being a divorced woman herself, she knew relationships don’t always work, and children pay a price. And while some espoused a return to “the good old days.” They weren’t always that good. No, it was all very complex; nothing was simple. But the children did deserve better.
Holding her older Grandson she started saying the usual things: “I know it’s hard for a seven-year-old to understand, but our Daddy does love you, and you have done nothing to make problems.”
Then something inside her started rolling, and it came out because her words were right on target. How could a seven-year-old understand? How could he believe his Daddy loved him when there had been no visits, no calls, no gifts for birthdays or other holidays? Of course the boy didn’t know that Daddy had not paid any child support for years, had kept his living arrangements hidden and worked only for cash under the table. When the mother had to go on aid for health care and pressed the issue, finally he was tracked down and hit with a “pay or else” summons.
The grandmother worked very hard not to let her anger come forth, but the roll was started and she let it out.
“I realize that you must wonder how Daddy could love y8ou when he doesn’t come see you or call you, but believe me kiddo, he does love you.”
That was the irony because she knew his father really did love him. The young man had shared with her many times in the first year of her grandson’s life, how his father had never been there for him and that he would never do that. He would be there for his son. The patterns we find ourselves in are hard to remove.
“But,” she continued, “when you get older you’ll understand this a lot better. And maybe now you need to try to look at who is there for you. Look at all the things your mom does for you and how Papa takes you fishing and plays with ou. And here I am. I could be traveling or doing something else, but it’s important to me to help out now. And your uncle and aunt, so many people are here. We all love you. I think there’s a lesson for you to learn here, but perhaps it’s something that you can’t understand till later. Loving someone means being there for them. It means sometimes having to be strict, like when Mom ground you or gets after you to pick up our stuff. As a child you think she’s mean, but later you’ll find out she was helping you to become responsible.”
The roll was really revving up now and Grandma knew her anger toward this boy’s father could get out of control if she didn’t watch it. He had calmed down considerably and was listening to her. His big dark blue eyes, reddened from the tears, stared up at her. It was probably at this point that Clare stepped in. All of a sudden, a new thought struck her.
“You know what honey? I feel sorry for your Daddy.”
Her grandson’s expression changed to one of shock. She went on to explain her words.
“Yes, I feel sorry for him because he really does love you, but he doesn’t have a clue as to what he’s missing by not calling or visiting. He’s missing the most important time in your life. Your soccer playing, your great report cards, meeting your friends, seeing you grow.”
Grandma looked into his dark blue eyes. She deicded it was time to move on and do what she could to inject some humor with one of her favorite games.
“And speaking of growing young man, I told you you can’t get taller than Grandma or I will have to put bricks on your head!”
Her grandson smiled and gave her a big hug.
“I’m okay now, Grandma. Thanks.”
Blowing a kiss, she left his room and headed downstairs to let the dogs out for their evening run. Standing outside on the patio she looked up into the heavenly sky and said a silent “thank you” to Clare.
Jo Ann sat down in Pat’s office to prepare to schedule dates to take her Master’s Exam. Pat liked her because she was also an aspiring writer and had studied with one of Pat’s old friends. Even more important she had asked to read Pat’s scripts. Now as she unpacked her bag, she pulled out the copies of the scripts and said, “You really have a knack for telling a story.” No one had ever said it that way before. While she had been encouraged to continue writing by a number of people, no one had put it just that way. As Pat reflected on Jo Ann’s comment later, she realized the roots of her ability. Just as Gertrude had been the role model for her in many areas, so had Joseph played a significant role in her life. In fact, the more she thought about it, she was reminded of her comments at the sixty-fifth wedding anniversary celebration where she talked about her parents as a perfectly matched couple each giving balance and harmony to the other. They were in fact the “Grand Persons” her new teacher, Jean Houston, referred to, and that’s all another story….somewhere farther down the line. This piece is for the story teller, my Dad.
It’s strange how one doesn’t know the history of parents, all the little things that make up that person. How many times do children have to do a family tree in school, yet how often is that just it … a tree with names. I guess that’s better than nothing. It does encourage young children to talk with their older relatives, but how much is missed? It’s the little things that are so important in our lives which form us; so too it is the little things for our parents’ lives that affect us.
It’s important to be a risk taker if one is to grow. I’m a real risk taker. Well, no wonder. Little by little I find out that Joe used to ride motorcycles. Wow! Putting his grandchildren on little wild horses at his buddy, Harry’s farm, was risking. Giving bites of “gas station stew” to his grandson Chris and bites of all kinds of strange things to the various grand and great- grandchildren were risk taking behaviors! (For the kids!)
Thanks to my oldest sister I heard about how Joe, during the depression, kept many of the people in our small town fed. In the dark holes of my memory, I do remember little account books at the store. I also remember hearing the story that some of those people wanted to give Joe their land to pay the bill, and he wouldn’t let them do it. He said times would get better, and he knew they would pay him back. I guess they did. I know we teased him when those farmers later discovered oil on their land, and we could have been really rich. But all of us knew in our hearts that we were proud of him for those times, and that lesson certainly stayed with us. Each of us in our own way continue to help those less fortunate; that wouldn’t be so if it weren’t for his example.
There’s a very popular book out now, EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO LEARN I LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN. One of the selections in it deals with dancing. It talks about how dancing can help us through those dark times in our lives … how dancing frees us. I love to dance. I don’t get to a lot, so I build it into the workshops I teach. Afterwards, different people will come up to thank me because they haven’t danced too for so long. As I sit here writing this, I realize Joe planted those seeds for the love of dancing. I can see him at the various wedding receptions dancing the latest dances whether he knew them or not. Somewhere in my memory I’m sure I can find myself at age three or four or five dancing with him then, just as his great-grandchildren dance with him now.
Joe always had strange people around; people that other folks made fun of. Sometimes he would joke around with them also, but most of the time they were his flunkies. He had them helping him doing odd jobs. He paid them some; I guess at times it was food or hand me down clothes or furniture. One peson was given a castle. Now to many people the old slaughterhouse would not be a castle. As I look at the homeless today, I realize that Joe took care of the homeless of his day. When you don’t have anywhere to go, even a slaughterhouse can be a castle. I recently recognized that many of the students I worry about most are those who “fall through the cracks” of our University system. Those seeds too come from Joe and his strange people.
As I’m writing this, I have just completed a very intense workshop where may people shared horror stories of their childhoods. A girl who had been given away at birth and raised in thirty different foster homes who sees only a big black whole of emptiness and who has no trust of people at all. Another spoke to hiding in closets as her alcoholic father beat up on her mother and sisters. The stories went on and on. One boy talked about his dog. He’s one of our majors. He said we learn how important unconditional love is, but most of us don’t get it when we need it most. He used his dog as an example of unconditional love; no matter what you do, the dog is there waiting for you, eager to great you. I discovered many years ago how fortunate I was to have had this type of love from both Gertrude and Joe. Each time I hear the horror stories from students, I am grateful.
In the frustration of life I’ve sometimes needed to be reminded how important it is to follow this example of unconditional love. I remember well one summer when my family moved back home … as all of us seem to have done at one time or another in our adult lives. Some of to build houses; some of us to wait for another house to be readied. Whatever, we all seemed to need to live with Mom and Dad for a while. I suspect now there was a greater design to that need. It was early one morning. Gertrude had been up fixing breakfast, like always. I don’t know what the problem was anymore, but Chris, my son, was the center of it. I had lectured him about something, and his Dad had been extremely critical. At the next moment, Grandpa Joe comes through the kitchen having just risen. He had no knowledge of what had transpired minutes before. Chris, beaten down by the criticism was walking into the “telly” room when Grandpa spotted him, put his arm around him, hugged him, and said, “Chrissy, what should we do today?” I left the room to hide my tears. The contrast was so vivid!
Before I leave the world of unconditional love, and dogs, love for animals, especially dogs, comes from Joe. None of us will ever forget the dogs, but Jack will probably be remembered most of all. Jack and Joe had a great relationship. Gertrude, being the wise woman she was, never interfered with that, even thought it meant riding in a truck with dog hair and often, the dog! Brothers Joe and Gene will remember long how they had to be the bad guys as they made arrangements with our uncle to put Jack to rest. Jack who had been accidentally shot several times during hunting seasons, run over once, always dropped off at the slaughterhouse with food and source for water with Joe’s words, “Heal yourself buddy and come home when you’re better.” And Jack always would. I think I should point out that there were no vets in those days.
But the time came when Jack, with his regular eight some block walk from our home to the family store, was seen, and of course reported by those well meaning home town folks that Jack was having great difficulty. The middle of each of those blocks he would have to lay down and rest before he could move on. It was time for Jack to be put to rest.
The openness to people and the natural sense of humor which are vitally a part of Joe’s life are also blessings to us. Again, here is someone who hasn’t consulted the research and the researchers haven’t consulted him, yet it’s all the same. People who care about people and people who have a sense of humor live longer, and are loved by all. They are the best medicine, survival tools we can have.
All of these seeds Joe planted within me, probably like Gertrude, without knowing it. And they have grown, some more than others, but the one which probably captures all of them is “the storyteller.” “Tell me a story, Grandpa!” Each of us has witnessed our off springs and their off springs in this story time setting. We’ve also seen strangers watch as their children become totally engrossed in Joe’s stories. It is that “child like” vision Joe captures. And it too, is a survival medicine but it is more than a survival medicine. It is a vision of life that says, no matter what, there is always something new to look at, to dream about, to make a reality. Life is in fact and dance is is definitely worth living!
Recently some of us learned about a series of reports Joe wrote for the local newspaper. They were descriptions of ball games between a fictional team where he incorporated names of local people. Many of us have died as Joe asks for the sixteenth thousandth time, various waitresses and others, “Did you have to go to school to learn to do that?” Today, in writing this, I’ve realized something important. Again, without knowing it, Joe is still planting seeds. Each of us will have to figure out what this means, but it’s definitely a seed. I think I’ve figured it out for me, but I suspect farther down the line I’ll keep finding new understandings of it. “Oh, no wonder I’m a writer and a story teller!”
The mother was reading in her bedroom. The son was on the lower level of the split ranch home working with his films. It was his birthday. His sister was busy at her job in the deli this Sunday. The birthday cake was completed. All was well.
Sniff sniff. Must be the furnace working thought the mother. It was the first week in November and the heat had just been turned on two days ago for the winter season.
Sniff sniff. Really smells terrible thought the mother. She continued with her reading.
Sniff sniff. Cough cough. Something is wrong. She looked over to the heat vent and saw smoke coming through it. Rushing to the lower level, she was met with smoke filled rooms. Concerned about her son’s safety, she managed to get to his work room and threw open the door. The room was not only filled with smoke but flames as well.
“It’s okay, Mom. I’ve got in under control.”
They both struggled putting out the flames. She saw that one of his newly purchased very expensive lights was totally destroyed. Things like that never bothered her as long as he was safe. Other than some singed hair, he seemed to be all right.
Years later the mother would remind him (as mother will do) of the incident.
“Yes, and remember it was my birthday and you called me up later to eat cake. I told you I wasn’t very hungry and you really yelled at me. You said you made that cake and after I practically put the whole house on fire, I was going to eat it if you had to stuff it down me.”
The mother didn’t remember that part.
You may notice “Clare” is spelled differently here from my website “Claire”. That’s because originally I felt uncomfortable using the real name as my own. The real name meaning St.Clare of Assisi. Over the years I have had an obsession with this Saint. It started a long time ago where attending a Catholic school eventually led to Confirmation. That meant we were to pick a name for the event, and were given little books with lives of the Saints. Most of the girls in my small class were picking Mary or Ann. I seldom did what most people did. I was torn between St.Clare of Assisi and St.Theresa the Little Flower (At least that’s who I thought it was - more on that later!). St. Clare’s picture was of her holding a monstrance with host inside. ( Look at the picture of my St.Clare statue collection.) The story went that an army was coming. Her Poor Clare ladies as they were known then, came to inform her of the soldiers’ approach. She went to the chapel, took the monstrance with host inside and went out to meet the army. They turned around never to return. I’m pretty certain this impressed me as her being strong; my Confirmation became St.Clare of Assisi. (more…)