Happy Father’s Day, Uncle Bill

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAccording to my Uncle Bill
half the town was Koettings
the other half Keelers
anyone else in that tiny place had just married in.

A 70+-year-old bright-eyed Koetting rogue
Youngest of 9 or 10 or 11. . . I forget. . .
I couldn’t keep count of all
those strapping German-Catholic babies.

Everyone loved him, and he loved
Hogan’s Heroes, not M.A.S.H.
(too many commies in M.A.S.H, not his war)
He gave fatherly advice but didn’t usurp the role.

Koettings and Keelers and them
that had married in. Everyone loved him.
Son of immigrants, proud VFW inductee,
Texas farmboy, my mother’s sister’s husband.

Beloved Uncle Bill.

We Gather Together

Years ago, when I was younger and childless, I used to have what I called “refugee” Thanksgivings. People without family or far from their family or on the outs with their family would end up at my house, eating traditional Thanksgiving food off my mother’s china (service for 12, Stylehouse Miniver, straight out of the 1950s).  It was my way of honoring my family traditions, and also a recreation of the mythical “family” Thanksgiving as it should be, instead of how it actually was/is.

 

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photo by Scott Umstattd, via Unsplash

We have our families of choice, like the ones of my long ago “refugee” Thanksgivings, and we also have our inescapable families of birth and marriage. Each kind comes with its own measures of grief, dissent, love, and laughter. Many people crave that ritualized, mythical family experience that we’re led to believe is conjured up from stuffing and cranberry sauce, while simultaneously fearing the shadow family dynamics that almost inevitably accompany any such attempt. It’s often unclear where your boundaries should be drawn.

My advice to you is this: Make the choices which best offer the comfort and joy of the season to you and your nearest and dearest. Do not participate in dysfunction that eats at your soul and makes you dread the season. Be as kind as you can while maintaining your own boundaries. And if you are able, gather your “refugees”. Make a tribe. Reclaim the sacred myth, and make it your own.

Advice from My Mother

Only cross your legs at the ankles
and don’t go out without a scarf.
Back straight, head up,
pay no attention to impertinent remarks.

A lady doesn’t play pool, drink beer
she swears no oaths, utters no hard words.
Clear eyes, dainty smile,
A good woman lets manners be her only sword.

Always wear a slip and girdle
never straighten hose on the street.
Handshake firm, hellos warm,
Have a kind word for everyone you meet.

And most of all, know your own worth
Look to no others for advice
Be modest, be firm,
Your reputation a pearl beyond price.

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My beautiful mother, Esther Nadine, circa 1955

The People We Leave Behind

A very long time ago, when I had been in foster care for about a year, my foster mother took me aside for some conversation. Foster mother told me that she had long suspected that I was her husband’s illegitimate daughter, and that this belief had been a major driving force in her taking me in. She said after living with me for a while, she was sure that she was mistaken. I was too much like my dad, she said, to be anyone else’s daughter. I was too smart, just like him. I had his same snarky sense of humor. I even walked like him. I could be nothing but his. Plus, she was sure that she’d seen my foster father look at me in a lustful way, something that he would never do with a daughter.

I was not part of her clan after all. Not one of “them”. Still, she had what she saw as a duty to my dead mother, her friend, (who was not my biological mother) to finish raising me. Even though I was not her illegitimate step daughter, she would continue to try to do right by me.

I was shocked. My foster father didn’t seem like the cheating sort. He had never been anything but kind and distant, with an occasional venture into attempting to be the boss of me the way he was the boss of all his other children. If he had cast any lustful stares my way, I was thankfully unaware of them.

SDRandCo (66)

photo by SDRandCo

Not long after, my relationship with my foster family started a  slow, inevitable slide toward estrangement. I was no longer welcome in their family. I was no longer welcome in their town.  Eventually, my foster mother called to try to make amends. I was as cordial as I could manage, but I had no desire to stay in touch. I thought the best gift I could possibly give the entire clan was to stay as far away from them as possible. Let them live their lives as though I had never existed.

These days, I have a tepid but cordial relationship with some of the clan, conducted almost entirely on Facebook. One of them told me the not-news-to-me. They had discovered that some guy was. . .their dad’s illegitimate son. They call him “cousin” now, to acknowledge the relationship without actually acknowledging the relationship. I am amused and relieved.  Poor foster mother was partly correct. There was a secret baby out there. It just wasn’t me.

In the years I still lived in town after my parents died, I had more than one woman confront me with the notion that I might be her husband’s illegitimate daughter. I wish I could have met my biological mother and asked her about it all, but I was too shy. She had, after all, given me away. Since my mere existence captured the imaginations (and paranoia) of so many folks in my tiny town, I figured the last thing bio-mom would want would be to talk to me about it all. I seem to have been her living scarlet letter. Best I vanish for her sake as well, and mine.

And so, when I get invited to school reunions, this is just the big, jagged tip of the iceberg of the  past drama of why I don’t want to attend. No offense, old high school buddies, but no social event seems important enough to navigate that landmine of other people’s prejudices, fantasies, and expectations. I’ll raise a glass for you all, from my safe distance of a couple thousand miles.

A Letter to a Young Friend whose Loved One is Dying

Dear young friend,

I do not pretend to understand how you feel as you navigate the news of your grandmother’s cancer returning. Staring down the grim and unavoidable conclusion that the woman who raised you likely only has months left on this earth is a situation that I have also faced. Those of us who’ve been there think we know what it’s like and of course we do– to a certain extent. Even so, this is a deeply personal journey and no one can really know what it feels like. No one else can live your truth.
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I understand the push-me, pull-you of wanting to flee the situation and wanting to stay. I understand running away and being angry at pursuit and feeling bereft if no one follows. I understand wanting someone else to be in charge, and not wanting to let go of an ounce of control. I understand the pain of “please don’t leave me” and the resentment of “how much longer must we all suffer this?” I even understand the false dignity of taking the stand that no one could ever understand you, that you are above all this, serene, secure, untouchable.

You don’t need or want my advice, and so I am not giving it to you. Instead, I’m giving it to the wind, where perhaps it will travel to the heart of someone who does need it. Here it is, a list of things to think about which might or might not help.

  • All this is not about you. The center of this drama is the person passing on. This is true no matter how hard the family or anyone else tries to recenter things. You are neither the savior or the monster here. You’re just a girl (or guy) doing the best she can in an awful situation.
  • Try to resolve what you can with your loved one, but don’t expect any bedside miracles. The confrontation or clarity you wanted about your relationship may never come. Or the dying person may have a take on things that doesn’t help you in any way. See the first point for clarification.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat, drink, sleep, go on walks. Listen to your favorite music. Read your favorite books. Watch the best movies. Don’t give in to the desire to spend every second angsting at the passing person’s bedside. This will serve neither you nor them well. If they are the sort of person who wants constant bedside angsting, now is the time for you to learn about appropriate boundaries. Find a therapist if you can.
  • You will live with this time forever. No matter how well or badly you deal with it you will carry this time in a secret corner of your heart. Be your most authentic self now. It will help later. People will tell you to be brave. Nice work if you can get it. If you’re not that person, however, don’t do that person. Do you, as they say on the internets these days.

Godspeed dear one, for no other speed is possible right now.

Diamond Girl

It was my Cinderella moment. I had even had my “ugly stepsisters” moment earlier in the day. In a moment of unparalleled stupidity, standing in front of my open locker while Reg, the daughter of my ride home impatiently tapped her foot, I blurted it out.

“I’m going to go to the dance tomorrow night!”

Reg and her frienemy Elaine hooted with laughter. “You? At the school dance? No way!”

Elaine turned mock sad eyes on me. “Nobody will dance with you, you know.”

“You don’t belong. You know you shouldn’t go,” Reg added.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I did know that I didn’t belong. Of course I knew that nobody would dance with me. I had a mirror, and a sky-high I.Q. It was easy for me to figure out that my tragic appearance and complete lack of social skills were not going to get me to “belle of the ball” status. The best and worst possibility was that I would be utterly ignored. That didn’t matter. Just seeing the school dance, being there, would be good enough.

Reg and Elaine kept the conversation firmly tuned to why I shouldn’t go to the school dance most of the way home. They enlisted Reg’s mom into their cause. She pursed her lips and said that perhaps I was a little young. Perhaps I could wait. Reg and Elaine giggled and snorted and poked each other, very pleased with this pronouncement. They knew I adored Reg’s mother. They were sure I was routed, but they had forgotten someone very important in the equation. My mother.

I told her all about the school dance, about Reg and Elaine, about wanting to go and not belonging. She stuffed me into the most inappropriate outfit for a mid-70s casual school dance ever– an a-line peach polyester skirt with matching lumpy sweater, my hair ruthlessly combed and secured back from my face with plastic barrettes the exact shade of lima beans. She let me off at the curb (quelling my dread fear that she would walk me to the door).  Afterwards, she would be waiting in her approximation of a pumpkin, the gargantuan blue Oldsmobile that she loved like a second child.

The gym lights were low. There was no crepe paper decorations, because this was an “informal” dance. In the back was the largest jukebox I’d ever seen. “Diamond Girl” started blasting as the gym doors closed behind me. I’d never heard it before, never heard most of the songs that were played that night. (My mother kept me on a strict musical diet of Classical masterpieces, Patsy Cline, and Englebert Humperdink.)

It was a moment of pure magic and possibility.  Even Reg and Elaine appearing to “compliment” my hair and clothes didn’t lessen my joy at being there. I joined the wallflowers and embraced the night. I even got to dance one dance with the boy who danced so badly that no girl would dance with him twice. He wouldn’t turn into my prince, but at least I could truthfully tell my mother that I had danced that night. Perfection. Diamond Girl, indeed.

The Dirt Fort

The summer I was eleven I was shot at, twice. One sunny day my friends and I were playing in one of the many gulches in our neighborhood. This particular gulch was the scarier one because there was a giant storm drain at one end, and if you hiked far enough up the other way, eventually you would come across the pair of very old abandoned cars. In case you’re wondering what in the hell our parents were thinking, letting us play in a gulch, all I can say is that every kid in the neighborhood played in the gulches. Even my mom, who got regular lectures from the pediatrician, school teachers, and other parents about being “overprotective”, let us play in the gulches.

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photo via MorgueFile

What we didn’t realize is that the truly scary thing in the gulch was the high school kid with the rifle. He yelled something about trespassing (it was all city land) and then started taking pot shots at us. As we scrambled up the gulch wall, a bullet slammed in the dirt right between my outstretched fingers. This kid was not playing.

My dad had words with the shooter’s dad.  Rumor has it those words were: “If your kid shoots anybody, I’ll kill him and bury his body out deep on the Reservation somewhere that white people have never seen.” That was my dad, tiny but mighty.  No telling whether he was playing. Or not.

We were told to stay out of that particular gulch, and the older kid got his gun taken away (until hunting season).  We confined the bulk of our adventures to the open prairies and the adjacent gulch. And then one day our arch-nemeses of gulch play, a couple of boys near our own age who often pelted us with rocks and rotten vegetables, came running our way, screaming with fear.

“RUN!” they yelled, dragging us along with them.

We ended up at the nemeses incredibly swanky dirt fort with the shooter kid in hot pursuit, this time with a bow armed with deer points.  The fort was a deep hole in the ground covered by a sheet of old plywood that the nemeses had carefully buried under loads of dirt.

The entry hole was too small for a high school boy of adult size, so we listened to him scream with rage and stomp around outside for a while. First he tried digging us out, but he didn’t have a shovel and the nemeses had outdone themselves with their dirt coverage.  Then he shot half a dozen arrows or so into the roof of the dirt fort. Two of them lodged in the plywood deeply enough that he couldn’t get them out. It started to rain, and finally he left.

We sat for a long time listening to the rain, talking and waiting to make sure that shooter kid was actually gone. Luckily for us the dirt fort was relatively water tight and it was a gentle rain, not a gully-washer. Eventually we crawled out and went home, but not before digging out the remaining deer points. The deer points seemed much scarier to my eleven year old self than the bullets, but truth is either one of them could have killed us.

That was the first and last moment of detente with the arch-nemeses, who went back to hurling rotten vegetables at us as soon as fall brought a new bounty of discarded garden produce. The shooter kid was sent to live with an uncle in another town. I suspect my dad might have upped his threat to include scalping and torture before anonymous burial.

But my dad also lifted the scary gulch ban, other than to warn us off the abandoned cars (for fear of tetanus). Though he was furious about the kid shooting deer points at us, he was enchanted by the story of the siege of the dirt fort. He decided that for the most part, we seemed to know how to take care of ourselves and each other. One of the other parents, however, found the dirt fort as horrifying as the deer points. A squad of dads was dispatched to dig it up and fill it in.

Ten years later, the whole gulch was leveled and a beautiful city park got installed to top it off. I still miss that the dirt fort.