Mr. Roth

I loved Mr. Roth.  We all loved Mr. Roth, us girls in the first three grades.  If he came into our room during the day, which he seldom did, we all flocked to hug his legs, reached up to pat his side and burbled cries of delight with sparkling eyes, attention which he seemed embarrassed to receive.  Maybe he was just diffident about causing such a scene in a working classroom.

Mr. Roth was the school janitor; he was old, with a big belly and kind eyes and outside of class he might reach down and lift one of us quickly up into the air and down, a fun ride that made us laugh.  He lived alone in the school basement and with his wife in a small house with a small yard surrounded by a chain link fence just two blocks down the street from the school.  In my eyes both places were equally his home.

And then he wasn’t in the basement anymore.  He had retired, whatever that was, and every time I passed the small house going to and from school I looked to see him but never did.  Now, as I look back my memory hazes over; I don’t know how long it was before I knew that he was sick or if I heard it at home or at school.  And then he died.  And though he had never attended services there the funeral was going to be at my church.

It must have been on a Saturday because my father was home that day, which I spent in anticipation of the moment when my mother would say “Get dressed, it’s time to go to Mr. Roth’s funeral.” but the appointed time approached and she didn’t say anything at all.  So I did.  And my parents were bewildered.  And I was adamant that we must go.  I didn’t see the signal that passed between them but my mother told me to get dressed, my father changed out of his chore clothes and he and I jumped into the car and drove to town.

The service was already started.  Our small church was packed and it was standing room only in the entry hall and nursery to the right, which had the advantage of a large window looking into the sanctuary.  We squeezed into the nursery and I suppose my father must have lifted me up for a bit because I remember looking through the window, eagerly straining to see what a funeral is and finding it to be a room full of people, and I remember being filled with a great satisfaction that my father and I had come.  With the nursery door open the sound of speaking and singing came in and then it was over and we went home.  And I was happy.

I had loved Mr. Roth as a little girl loves a kind old man she hardly knows and I knew that because I loved him going to his funeral was the right thing to do.  Why I was certain of that I do not know because his death is the first one I remember.  I did not mourn him; he was dead and gone and to my young mind that was a simple fact that needed no explanation.

I was twelve the first time I sang at a funeral and the first time I saw a grown man cry.  And because I play the piano and organ I have provided music for dozens of funerals over the past sixty years, witnessing emotions ranging from anguish to fury to wordless pain.  And because I am old, I have lost the presence of many people I have loved, and experienced for myself the emotions of heartbreak.  Still, being old seems to have brought me back to where I was as a child.  If I love someone, I honor them when they die and no longer demand an explanation, either from them or from God.

It’s not that I have slipped sideways back into a child’s uncomplicated view of life or that I have stripped myself of attachments and emotions so that I may exist in serene acceptance of whatever may come.  No, it is because I find myself living completely the wonderful richness of old age with my mind, my heart, my very life, filled with people who are dead and gone, but just like Mr. Roth, have stayed with me.

The Circle Skirt

It was the beginning of the school year and the full circle skirt was such the fashion for the fifth and sixth grade girls.  For first recess every morning we congregated in our chosen space to assess and judge the circular completeness of such skirts, demonstrated by any girl fortunate enough to be wearing one of the wonderful garments.  The boys were busy elsewhere and uninterested besides and if some younger boy was stupid enough to venture near and pretend he was old enough to show an interest in our underwear we chased him down and beat him up.

And now my personal prosperity was about to include me in that magic circle of school girl fashion.  Using the first money I had ever earned, raising fryer chickens the past summer, I had chosen three dresses from the Sears and Roebuck catalog.  My memory says there were three but my mind only shows me two, a blue and pink plaid with a white, almost bib-like collar, and a brown tiny autumn print with some kind of neck decoration.  It was the brown one I was wearing because I thought it made the truest complete circle when I twirled.

I stood in our front room, whirling one way then abruptly whipping into reverse, tossing my skirt out in flowing ripples then snapping it into tight folds around my legs, a mesmerizing spectacle of circular greatness.  I was waiting for my father to come home, the sparkle of my excitement ready to burst out upon him in all its dazzling glory; and here he was.  When he walked in the door I was standing in the middle of the room, grinning at him.  “Look daddy, it’s my new dress!” and I whirled around and around, my skirt making a perfect circle from my waist.

My father stopped a few steps inside the door and looked at me, attention in his face and his posture.  “Uh-huh.” he said and nodded his head.  I was still dancing.  “Look!” I exclaimed and held my arms straight out as I twirled to impress him with how far out the edge of my skirt was going.  He doubled his interest and excitement.  “Uh-huh, uh-huh” he said, nodding his head all the while.  And I stopped.  Something had just broken past my excitement and pride of purchase and was standing directly beside my desire to share it all with my father.  As I stared up at him I understood, completely and totally understood, that “uh-huh” was all the excitement I was ever going to get from him.

My daddy was the person in my life who told funny stories and sang silly songs.  He could play his harmonica through his nose and roll up his tongue and whistle an almost tune.  He made up nonsense words and taught us his old high school cheers.  I could follow him around and talk all I wanted while he listened.  But he never danced or jumped or ran; he walked.

Over the years I learned that when a piece of truth tore a slot in the skim of my life and popped right through I was looking at a revelation, but this was my first and I was surprised.  Staring up into his face I saw my placid, non-responsive but interested father as he was and knew for certain that he could never ever reflect back to me the emotions that were whirling me around and around.

I am glad to say that instead of being disappointed, I made the instant decision that it was okay.  He couldn’t do what he couldn’t do and I decided to accept him as he was. The other side of that decision, that I had no right to insist that he change to please me, was a delayed lesson that I have learned gradually over the years as I have headed into old age.  But on that day, having faced the truth without being saddened by it, I danced on away, whirling in my joy, anticipating the moment when I would share the newness of my dress and the perfection of its circle with all the other girls.

Cat and Clyde

She leaned heavily against the outside of the kitchen window, glaring at me as I stood washing something in the sink, her claws out and dug into the metal screen.  Cat hated everyone, including those who fed her.  I was told her name but we never formally met because when I moved down here she did not deign to be introduced.  Except for the occasional confrontation through glass she spent her life across the driveway among the sheds and rusted bodies of antique cars, Chevrolets, to be exact, where I would catch glimpses of her as she strolled from one hiding place to another.

Then we had a small field fire on that side of the driveway that swept down across the creek and started up toward her kingdom.  I was watching the men controlling the burn when I was startled by the flash of a taut stretched body flying through the air.  It was Cat, shooting across the field from one spot to another without stopping, without hesitation.  It took me moments to realize it was field mice; the field mice were fleeing the fire and she was killing them all.  Jump, snap, then a quick leap to the next, until the fire came to its ending place and her regal self strolled away to one of her hiding places without a backward glance at the carnage she left behind.  It was then that I knew for certain that Cat was a cold-blooded assassin, a killer without passion.  Self-contained and self-sufficient, she did her job as she saw it and accepted shelter, food and water without surrendering her disdain for anyone besides herself.   She lived almost twenty years and died on her own terms, don’t think she didn’t.

It was about three years ago that I met Clyde.  He doesn’t live with me.  He was just a kitten when we first met, eager to become acquainted, certain that touching and being touched is the most important thing there is.  He hasn’t changed much, except that he has become a very large cat, sleek and heavily muscled, but still eager to leap into the nearest lap.  Some cats lean and cuddle and rest, but Clyde is too direct for that, nor does he have a lot of time to waste, for though he likes to come inside to make a quick snack of the house cats’ food and possibly sit on someone, Clyde considers himself an outdoor cat and he always has things to do.

I was at his house a few weeks ago, we were stirring around in the morning, when someone glanced out the back door and announced, “Clyde has a squirrel.”  I had heard that Clyde is a hunter and proud of it, so would often bring his prizes to the back porch for his family to see and appreciate.  I wanted to be part of his approval team so stepped to the door with a smile then stopped, mouth open and eyes wide.  There was Clyde, looking up at me with his “Good morning, how are you?” face and at his feet was the body of a squirrel, not a squirrel, the body of a squirrel with a little bone stub sticking out as if its head had been popped right off.

I reared back.  “It has no head.” I exclaimed.  “Oh, he always starts at the top and eats his way down.” I was told.  I looked again.  There was no blood, no fur, no indication that this squirrel’s head had not been snapped off whole, and I realized that Clyde had just made a thorough job of eating ears, tongue, brains, bones and all and was ready to go on down if I would just step away and let him get on with it.  So I gave him a friendly nod and turned away.  When he came into the house later in the day he placed the squirrel’s heart on the kitchen floor as a gift to the home.

Two workers; equally skilled and accurate, highly efficient, obviously very fast, but oh so different, and wouldn’t you know it, thinking of them stirs memories of me at work.  I remember myself at six, dustrag in hand, moving fast, wiping every flat place on the rocking chair, then up and down and around the base of every slat, before poking the rag into the curlique to make it clean.  Dusting was a chore I did not want to do but I was thorough when I did it, and precise, and I knew without a doubt that I did it right.

It took me years and much experience to see that such confidence in job performance focused my satisfaction on precision, efficiency, speed and job completion, making me somewhat self-contained and definitely self-reliant.  I would never apologize for being what I am because I know that being organized, swift, efficient and precise are desirable traits, never to be disdained.  It just took me a while to understand that touching and being touched really is one of the most important things there is, and when I finally did understand this important thing I began trying to remind myself to include in every task completed a little gift for the home.

 

 

 

Mary Ann

My first memory of Christmas stands fresh and clear.  I got out of bed, walked into the living room because I was awake and fell straight into the abyss of true love.  For there, sitting beside the tree in plain sight was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.  She had black braids like mine, wide open eyes, a triangle nose and a perfectly shaped mouth.  When I picked her up I discovered that her cotton dress and black felt mary janes had snaps that allowed them to be removed, and panties I could slide off over her soft cotton legs.  I looked up when my mother walked in, still in her nightgown.  She told me I was up too early.  But I was awake, and now I was in love.  There was no going back.

I named her Mary Ann.  Of course my mother had sewn and stuffed her, attached and braided her yarn hair and embroidered her flat round face, and the love that had gone into the making of Mary Ann came right into my arms and glowed in my eyes. With a father working long hours and going to school, a mother busy with family and her own projects, a brother in cahoots with the big boys next door and playmates who lived across the street I was not allowed to cross, I needed someone who would always be there for me and from that moment on it was Mary Ann.

I took her clothes off and put them on.  We played games.  We talked.  We talked a lot.  Then, as the years went by I left her clothes on, played games with other children, found the words to talk to them too and Mary Ann sat alone more and more, but she was never loved less.  I kept and cherished her and one day presented her to my own two-year-old daughter.  She however, felt no particular love for Mary Ann who was soon battered and ripped and disheveled by careless attention.  I still mourn her departure from this world.

Upstairs in my house, in a box, lay another doll for many years.  I don’t know her name.  She had a china head and hands and feet attached to a stained and torn cloth body.  Her face was worn and scarred, her eyes rattled in her head and one had a tendency to stay permanently closed.  She was my mother’s doll.  That is what I remember my mother telling me the few times she took her out; “This was my doll.” but by the way she looked at her and handled her I knew that she had loved her and loved her still, so when it came time to clear out my parent’s house I could not bring myself to leave her behind.  I even brought her with me when I married and moved to another place two hundred miles away.  But, I did not love her.

I can’t pass on love; I learned that with my daughter and trying to take on my mother’s love just brought a piece of clutter into my life and my house.  This has made me stare at all the other bits and pieces from my parents that sit comfortably around me until I have finally understood that each one of them, in some way, was important to me, not just to my parents, but to me. And so I look at them, I enjoy them and every now and then I even dust them.

And when I die, as old people do, everything I love and have cherished will have to be handled, managed and disposed of by someone else, and it used to bother me some to think of my special memories being sold or tossed away, but it doesn’t any more because after all these years I closed my eyes, turned my head and let go of my mother’s doll.  The doll meant nothing to me, it was my mother I loved, and I love her still.

Escaping Trouble

I held the small clump of tangled hair in my hand, the evidence of what I had done as well as the evidence of what I had not done.  I’m not sure how old I was, but I know that just a few days before I had been given the job of brushing my shoulder length hair all by myself and that I was to do it exactly the way my mother had, over and under, over and under.  Each morning my mother asked “Have you brushed your hair?”  and I replied “Yes.” and sure enough my hair would be smooth and shiny, because I had you know; I had brushed my hair over and over until it looked the way it should.  But I didn’t go under because that was harder and it wasn’t necessary either because my hair looked just fine.

Then, when I discovered the snarl of uncombed hair at the back of my neck that would not yield to comb or brush I realized the difference between looking fine and being fine. I already knew I had done what my mother said to do and I hadn’t done what my mother said to do and I had told her the truth and I hadn’t told her the truth.  And now I was sure I was in trouble.  So, while she worked in the kitchen I stood in front of the three sided mirror on her dressing table with my hair pulled up and her sewing scissors in my hand and I cut that piece of trouble off.

I did some underneath brushing right then, checking for tangles with a care I had never practiced before and entered the day with mixed feelings of satisfaction and relief.  Besides encountering and solving a problem I had escaped discovery and possible punishment.  Life was good and I was pretty smart.  And that afternoon my mother decided to wash my hair.

At that time our house had one water line directly to the kitchen faucet, and a bucket underneath the sink to catch the used water which we carried out to the garden, so hair washing was not an automatic daily occurrence.  A pan of water had to be heated on the stove then mixed with cold water in a larger pan.  Then my mother placed the small wash basin on an upended wooden crate, just the right height for me to bend over while she did this weekly chore.   And now she asked “Did you cut your hair?” staring straight at the evidence that I had.  “No.” I replied.

This is my only memory of telling my mother a direct lie.  She did not question me or confront me.  She didn’t back me against the wall and make me tell the truth, nor did she accuse me.  She waited and when I didn’t change my story, she washed my hair without saying another word.  I lied because I knew I had done at least two wrong things and I lied because I thought the lie would save me from punishment for doing them.  Now I had another problem; my mother knew I had lied and was lying and she did not punish me, not did she force those lies into the open.  Instead she left them inside my head for me to carry around all by myself.

And here I am, an old woman, and they sit there yet, reminding me that the whole truth is the only real truth, that even the smallest of lies stands as a barrier between me and someone I love and “getting away with it” will never feel as good as I think it should.

Glitch

My body is talking to me today, saying “How can I hurt thee?  Let me count the ways.  Let’s see now, two feet, both knees, one shoulder, two hands, but the right one especially, and a hip, let’s throw in a hip today, it doesn’t matter which one.”  What’s wrong with the old thing?  Doesn’t it know I am twenty-five, or thereabouts?  At least that’s what my mind keeps telling me.  Just last week when my doctor said “Hop on up to the table there.” my mind said “Okay.” but my body stood silent, staring at the tiny step at the end of the examination table, pondering some sort of upward lurch.

And I was in the city several days ago having a fine time flitting from store to store ticking items off my list of errands, when walking across a parking lot to take care of number four I arrived at the drive area in front of the door.  I looked both ways before I stepped out, noticing a car far enough away and approaching slowly enough to be no danger; nevertheless I decided I would hurry to get out of its way, but after several steps I realized that even though my mind said I was speeding up my body was not moving any faster.

This contradiction pursues me relentlessly in the most irritating ways.  Just this past summer I stood in front of the dunking booth at a local festival with three balls bought and paid for at hand. I’ve always had a strong arm and, as long as I remember to focus on the spot I want to hit, a fairly accurate aim.  I enjoy dunking booths.  So, I focused, took aim and threw, and missed three times.  I bought three more balls, missed again and walked away feeling grumpy because I don’t like being deprived of anticipated pleasure.  Later, replaying my attempts to drown the cheerful adolescent sitting on the plank, I saw that though my focus and aim were straight ahead, my arm had every time been pulled to the right by that old shoulder that hadn’t paid any attention to what my mind was telling it.

There are people who would tell me that it’s all about aging joints, but I suspect something far beyond that.  I am a “list” person, always have been, because my mind thinks about all kinds of things, constantly, and thinking can take up a lot of time.  A list keeps me moving, telling me what to accomplish, and I like a day with completed tasks.  But lately I’ve noted that when I check my list at the end of the day, of the eight things my mind said I could do my body has completed only two.  It all makes me suspect some sort of serious disconnection here.

And it makes me face the possibility that getting old has made me delusional.  My mind says I am still young; my body shouts that I am not. My mind says I can still, maybe, possibly, set the world on fire; my body keeps dropping the matches.  What is the point of this, I ask myself.  Wouldn’t life make more sense if my mind and body could agree?  But then I wonder what kind of sense that would be.  What if my mind stopped believing in possibilities?  What would that do to my body, which already craves safety more than danger, silence more than noise and rest more than activity?

But then I think of this; when I make something, I know what it is and what it is likely to do.  And besides that, when I make something with my very own hands, I’ve noticed that I feel a proprietary affection for my creation when I put something of my self into it.  And this makes me wonder if the confusion I experience between my mind and body is a deliberate glitch; a ridge for me to trip over, a boulder I must circle around, a puzzle that is not made to be solved and a disagreement that is not meant to be settled, because I know that the one who created me never, ever, grows old.  My body tells me life as I know it is coming to an end.  Without offering a single contradiction to this obvious fact my mind that cannot grow old says “You are alive. There is still joy ahead.”

 

Chickens

My first memory of chickens involves a dead one.  It was the summer I had just turned four and we were visiting my grandparents, my mother’s mother and husband, on their farm on the far side of Kansas.  I was in the kitchen watching my grandmother prepare the next meal when she looked down at me and asked “Have you ever eaten chicken feet?”  I’m sure I looked totally mystified because she said “Well then.” picked up what she had started to discard and showed me how to peel the skin away and that evening I chewed on cooked chicken feet for supper, feeling mighty pleased about it too because my grandmother had fixed them especially to me.

Next came a big box alive with the magic cheeping of one hundred tiny yellow balls of fluff.  I was going on six now.  The box had air holes round as a fifty-cent piece and was delivered by the mail man.  My mother put it on a low table in the living room for the first night and promptly provided water, food and a small light bulb strung above for heat while I carefully scooped up chicks to brush against the tip of my nose.  So soft, so delicate, so entrancing, their needle size claws digging into my palm and they so light that it was like fairy feet tickling my skin.  That didn’t last long.

Freed from the box down in their protected corner of the chicken house on the second day they quickly made it very clear that being picked up was my idea not theirs, their claws began to scratch and they commenced growing feathers, turning scrawny and not at all entrancing.  Before long they had turned mean.  My mother said they weren’t but those beady eyes told me a different story.  And I saw how they would chuckle and murmur in a friendly swirl about my mother’s feet when she went in to water and feed them, but when I was sent down to do this chore alone they fled squawking with exaggerated alarm into the far corners of their pen, only coming close to take a quick pecking jab at my ankles.  And later on, gathering eggs was the same story.  I watched the hens cock their heads and cluck in a friendly way while my mother slipped her hand under their warm feathers to slide out the eggs they were guarding then received an angry glare and vicious peck on my arm for trying the same thing.  No matter what my mother said I knew for a fact that chickens were mean, sneaky, and for good measure I added in just plain stupid.

But chickens had arrived to stay.  Three years later they provided me with my very first private income when a special batch was ordered for me.  I did all the work, my mother kept the books and when my father said it was time, we caught them all, stuffed them into crates and sold them for fryers at the processing plant in the next town over.  I stared a long time at the pages of the Sears Roebuck catalog deciding which dresses to buy with my profit, proud to buy them with my very own money.  We ate the eggs.  We ate the chickens.  My mother sold eggs until she was eighty, and there sits on a shelf in my house the Jiffy Way egg scale made in Owatoona, Minnesota that told her the weight of each freshly wiped egg held in its oval cup.

And now I live again in the country, it is mid-morning and a unique fragrance floats in the air.  It takes my breath away, or, said in other words, stifles my will to breathe, for some farmer has scraped up the bottom of his acre-size organic egg houses and is spreading the litter across his fields and I am reminded of what I don’t like about chickens.  But I don’t forget what I like.  And that’s what I have discovered over the years; that just about every situation and every person is made of things I don’t like and things I do.  There is no message in that, it’s just a fact; one I try to remember.