Archive for the 'the hope chest' Category


what i remember (memorial day)

the military, in one way or another, was always the drumbeat keeping time in my family when i was growing up.  the year i turned 18 was the last year of the draft, and although my mother had suggested i enlist (career opportunities! great retirement package–should you survive left unsaid, but there was never a period at the end of that sentence–as there is in this one.)  my draft number was in the 300s (whew!), and off to college i went.

the author's mother enlists in the women's army corps 1950

my mother enlisted in the women’s army corps in 1950 after the demise of her second marriage to wyoming rancher, bill russell (i think it’s interesting that she’s noted as ‘miss’ evelyn h. russell), following a tradition set by her uncle (maynard high served in the navy in wwII and her half-brother, ralph jr., who had been in the navy after wwII.  what i want to know is why two land-locked men from wyoming joined the navy, but i digress.)

after basic training, she was posted to fort sheridan as a telephone operator (a previous life choice, better left for another time) where she met my father, a sargeant in the army.  (is this boring yet, this litany of where’s and when’s and who’s?  why should you care, you might be asking yourself about now, about robert’s mother’s military service, but to know this is to understand a little bit more about me–and after all, it is about me, i mean the blog is called ‘robert patrick’ for a reason.)

enlisting may have been the smartest thing my mother ever did for herself.  it got her away from the expectations of her family and put her, eventually, in a position to take control of her own destiny–as much as one is allowed to do that–but, she was able, after a time, to make her own decisions about how she led her life and with whom.

there is only a brief time in our life together when the military did not impact our lives, but so short as to be inconsequential.   after she and i moved to rapid city, she soon found a job at ellsworth air force base, where she worked for the next 17 years.   as it turns out, she was quite the object of desire among many an enlisted man (and some officers, too) at ellsworth, but one made a point of dogged pursuit and eventually proposed (she accepted!) and they lived happily ever after (well, mostly, her protracted duel with cancer a possible deterrent to their mutual happiness.)

he, (first name roy.  roy was the middle name of my father.  a coincidence?  i think not.) a life long enlister:  enlisted in the army and served in germany at the end of wwII, discharged from the army and enlisted in the marines and served in korea, discharged from the marines and enlisted in the air force and served two tours of vietnam, finally ending up at ellsworth and falling in love with my mother.  i’ll say this:  you would have never known he was or had been in the service; he was the gentlest and kindest man who loved my mother i had ever met.

did i mention that my grandfather on my father’s side had been in the army and served in europe during wwI where he suffered a head wound (part of his skull was blown away by shrapnel and had been replaced with a metal plate–a constant source of amazement for his grandchildren, “grandpa, may i touch the plate in your head?”  and he, as quiet and pleasant an individual you’d ever hope to meet, a barber with his own shop in south springfield, illinois, that he could walk to from home, it was literally around the corner, never complained — that we heard — and he would say, “touch it right here and you can feel the edge of it,” taking our small hands and placing them just so on the side of his bald head.   grandpa smoked a pipe and wore bow ties and if i ever find a picture of him to show you, you’ll think he stepped right out of grover’s corners or spoon river or possibly a norman rockwell painting for the cover of LIFE magazine.)

hollywood, u.s.a. feb. 14/44, chalk & graphite on paper by m.w. baxter

so.  when m. showed me this drawing yesterday at the long beach flea market i knew we had to have it.  look at his face and you’ll see the sadness, the sense of loss, and the world-weariness that emanates from his eyes and the set of his jaw, this young man drawn by someone (was it a dollar portrait on olvera street?) toward the end of the war.  there is a loneliness in his face (home-sickness, perhaps?) that fills me with sadness and compassion.

have i told you that i read the military obituaries that are posted each sunday in the l.a. times?  they move me so, these young lives cut short, their wives, husbands, children set loose from their love (i do want to believe that there is love lost, in spite of my own experience with a father in the military.)  it is the folly of man, is it not, that allows our youth to fight old men’s battles?  how else to explain their resolve to destroy these futures?  yes, i admire those who fight for us and yes, i rue their loss; losses that seem monumental to those who survive and inconsequential to those who prompt them.   there must be a better way.


sensory perceptions

it could have been last week.  Or maybe it was a year ago, i’m afraid to admit that it could have been much, much longer (10 years, 15, the day after she died 28 years ago) when i stopped hearing my mother’s voice.  it’s not that i’ve forgotten some of things she may have said, it’s that i can’t hear the sound of her voice.

when i think of her voice the word that comes to mind is clarion, but even that seems impossibly strong for a sound i no longer hear.   she laughed a lot or maybe she liked to laugh & used that sound as punctuation; i think of her voice in a lower register (but not gruff, still feminine) & i certainly can see its fury when she was angry (that one time i hid out of her sight line as she called me into the house over & over & over again, each call her voice rising in exasperation, anger, fear, desperation & when i did appear — like an apparition emerges from the fog — she shook me, she yelled at me, i can see her lips moving but it is a silent fury & when she knew that i had willfully ignored her, she spanked me, making me bend over the washing machine, my shorts & underwear tangled at my ankles; the sting & slap of my leather cowboy belt the sound that remains.)

we spent so much time together that to have lost the sound of her voice is an embarrassment.  how could it have dissipated?  a wisp of smoke from the chimney caught in the western wind, the silvery, feathery ether torn & shredded, you watch it scatter ahead of you, only its scent (if there was one) left lingering, falling to the ground, the ash of the dead.

i can see us together (an image not goaded into being by a photograph) but that sense too, has become blurred & cataract clouded, one that i’m only able to see if i look at it sideways from the corner of my mind’s eye.  the shape & form of her body is shadowy & indistinct, although some color leaches through.  i’ll admit that color is not unwelcome, but it has a bilious quality to it (mustard yellow, swamp green, baby shit brown) that seems in counter-point to who she was, the woman i want to remember.

when she walked she led with her belly, even when she was rail thin, before that middle-class stomach started expanding (“i’ve been thin my whole life & i don’t care if i have a stomach,” she proudly claimed.)  i see that movement, but not her, i’m unable to conjure her face, her arms, her feet, the individual parts that made up the whole without having a film reel past me, clackety-clack, & i know those are only moments & not her whole being (the whole is what i want.)

we held hands when we walked, even when i was older & no longer needed to be in contact with her for my own safety & i know we did that,  but i can’t feel her hand in mine (gloved or not, dry, moist, palm against palm), her fingers tapping out a beat against  my own (maybe.)

we would sit next to each other, often, & her weight & mass & nervous energy would radiate through my body (& mine to her), but now that sense of touch, communion, has been swallowed, digested, excreted, flushed, refined, & expunged & only its idea a remnant that i grasp onto, desperate not to lose it as well (as a young child will turn & grab onto a parent’s leg in shyness.)

before i grew too tall, she would throw a protective arm across my shoulders & with her hand grab the opposite arm tightly & we would walk & talk or she would face me & put her hands on my shoulders & look me in the eye, “tell me everything, son,” her blue/brown/hazel eyes steady, serene, searching.  now, though, the feel, the weight of her touch has flown & it does not matter that i try hard to conjure it; always  i’m left empty-handed, no amount of legerdemain able to bring that sense of touch to me now.

her scent may have been the first sense of her i lost (& perhaps the first i remember.)  she smoked (marlboros), she rarely drank (but when she did, she could knock them back with the biggest & the bravest.  & it was always fun & a little scary as a child to see her drunk.)  the smells i think i should remember have less to do with what she smelled like than they do with what she liked. the foods:  vinegar & spinach, avocado & asparagus, canned meats (to this day it’s hard for me to even open the dog food can for the smell), beets.  the beauty products: talcum, lipstick, rouge & mascara, face powder, lilac & roses, pond’s cold cream, mayonnaise in her hair (a conditioner), sweat.

because i can list these things does not mean that i can smell them on or about her.  it does not bring her to life (even for a universe’s lifetime, in other words, no time at all.)  it’s just a list of organic items that somehow define her, but do nothing to make her real again.  i have lost that immediacy, that feral knowing, the indescribable essence of her.

it’s true.  i obsess about my mother.  because now, now when i am filled with questions that an adult with 50-some years behind him can ask another adult, i may not.   not that those questions would have been answered, but the very act of asking them would have freed me from the not knowing, the emptiness of ignorance.   they would be out there & answered in their time & in her way & would have, perhaps been discovered like a star or a solar system when i was standing in the darkness looking up at the sky.



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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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