Posts Tagged ‘mother


palms (4)


one of my mother’s and grandmother’s favorite poems: trees by joyce kilmer, first published in 1913

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.


on decoration (a work of fiction)

this is the hardest part of my mother’s life for me to imagine.  not only is it literally foreign [living in post-war germany], but it is also that time in her marriage to my father when her life seems ill-defined to me, a cipher of its reality, a sleight-of-hand illusion, a card trick.  there are details that are facts, of course:  their mutual infatuation with each other (photographically confirmed), their army courtship, their time together (and apart), his parents (but not her past, at least not at first).  it is a time where she is nearly formed in my mind, so close to a complete picture of her character, only her distant past is more real than this time (she would rarely speak of this time of her life and when she did, he did not play a part in any of the scenarios or if he did it was because it was unavoidable.  we would sit on the sofa when i was young and dig through our box of photographs; i would ask “who is that?” and “what were you doing then?” or “i like the way you wore your hair,” and “that’s a silly photo!”  she would answer my questions, but she never discussed his character or what went wrong — or for that matter — what went right.  she was a model of evasiveness, on the run from the truth, at least the truth as it applied to me, dodging in and out of the traffic of my questions as efficiently as a stunt driver.)

the problem as you will by now have divined is that i know nothing of my father’s character.  there are bits and pieces, a couple of deep memories of his touch and his brusque manner, but they are so thin a layer of understanding that it is a theatrical scrim (back lit) dropped down in front of the mise-en-scène of this time, movement and form indistinct but noticeable and frustratingly close, a dream ballet, your subconscious, the truth tantalizingly close.  and then there is the matter of us not being tied by blood;  if i had half of him coursing through my veins i might be able to look in the mirror and see what he might have been (and what i might be.  this blood tie is debatable–perhaps only in my mind, as i long for some connection, somewhere, perhaps as all adopted children do–there are those who seek out the truth while the chance of their blood parents being alive is still a possibility, that is not me however, and now i am left with only my imagination–and yours.)

but now.   i conjure their love for each other (before he put her in the collapsible, wheeled cabinet with the stars and fringe and draped a velvet cloth over it, willing her to disappear.)  he, a decorated warrior, she a new recruit (with a past–played by ann sheridan in the movie) and older than him by a decade, a life already lived, if not well, at least she carried the experience of relationships with her and he did not.  (i should ask now the question that has followed this story, the story that i know; when did the abuse start?)  her enlistment perhaps the act of a desperate woman with no future and the hope that this action would change her luck (with men certainly, but also with her life.)

it is possible that i am lingering (actually loitering, slouched against a brick wall at the corner of not-knowing and wrong-way, a cigarette dangling from a pouty lip, hands shoved deep into the pockets of my jeans, just the slightest note of defiant fear wafting around my head like smoke), perhaps even dissembling, and that i have no business at this intersection and it is beginning to show, even to you, that i am at a loss for, for, for words to describe what i have no knowledge of and cannot even summon up the courage to admit it to myself.   and that it is because i have more questions that i have answers.  this is not a fairy tale in spite of the fact that that is exactly how i imagine it:  the dark brooding prince, with his dashing demeanor, gallant and handsome vs. (and it is exactly that, the versus, that defines this story, making it less a work of fiction and more like the truth) the damsel-in-distress, beautiful, sweet, begging to be saved.  and is love, is infatuation, not unlike a fight?  all of that history from both sides coming together, fueled by passion/lust — the domination of and sublimation to, the top and the bottom, the actually act of making love an assault on the castle keep, battering, battering, with its ultimate victory, its ultimate defeat.

it is true they made a life together and it is true that they loved each other in their own ways; it is also true that they made room for another life, an act of generosity so great, that in spite of their lives not fitting together still counts for something, a plus on both their scorecards.  even that though does not make the fiction of their life any clearer, or more easily understood and shared.   like the photo that accompanies this story, it is a room decorated, but without a sign of life.


middles & such things

part one

Spirit lives as body fades.  Close, cradled, caressed, kissed with such aliveness; memories fresh, scent, laughter not languishing, dipping her hand in the cool fast stream & gripping the dripping fresh cress pulling hard, head turning to me in triumph.  

this middle seems the right place to begin.   although when you read this you will think to yourself that it is not a middle, but an end and perhaps a beginning, but it may be too soon to confirm the beginning part, without the rest of the story.  you will definitely know it’s an end though, at least a conventional end, one that you are familiar with (possibly, possibly not; it would depend upon your world experience.  you may know it as an end only intellectually, but not as an end emotionally.  i can’t help you understand the difference.  you will need to make that decision for yourself.)

middles come unexpectedly and it is hard to determine, at the time the middle is happening, that it is the middle.   you always know when an end happens, you’ll say, “well, that’s the end of that,” or “yes, i’m done with that, thank you very much.”  it may be easy to say you are in the middle of a book, just from the number of pages you have read or the ones yet unread; the same could be said about a meal (or any number of everyday occurrences, such as driving to work, or walking the dogs.)  lunch-time usually signals the middle of the day and heralds the downward count of time to evening.   but isn’t evening a beginning?

and certainly there is no problem determining what constitutes a beginning.  we are always saying, “i began this,” and “when that began,” and “life begins at __,” and  “in the beginning,” (perhaps the greatest mythologies offer the assurance that there was a fixed beginning to help us place a time constraint on the happenings that swirl around us from birth — another beginning, so says everyone i know.)

you can see how defining the middle of something might cause you to pause in your consideration of how you know it is the middle of anything.  that is the problem i have faced in deciding that this is the middle of the story of a mother and her son, also, obviously a story of the son and his mother.   of course, that is not now, the now of you reading this, but the now of the time i have determined was the middle of the story.  “but,” you might cry, “is that not the beginning of the story?”  and i would have to say that it is not.  of course, i have the power to decide what is the middle, the beginning and the end; i am, after all, writing this.  my fingers are touching the keys and my eyes are following the cursor as it moves across the computer screen; there is a bit of omniscience in that, is there not?  i am not playing with you, but trying to help you understand the nature of middles (and by default, the nature of beginnings and ends,) which even for me are fuzzy and ill-defined.

that does give you and i a bit of an equal footing, my indecisiveness on whether or not this is the middle of the story of a mother and her son, although you may think you, the reader, have more control over that decision and who am i to determine what you think (not a question.)

may i backtrack for a moment?  re: the nature of beginnings.  it is time, our time and our understanding & acceptance of time & our recording of time that determines beginnings, middles and ends.  so, you could say that middles are self-imposed, as are beginnings and ends.  who could say where in time the universe is?  surely that great a decision cannot be placed upon us, for no matter how much we search for the beginning (in order that we may begin the countdown–a point from which all time begins–you can’t avoid it, the beginning, but when you look at all time, all beginnings and all ends — and those middles that would invariably occur — you would have to say that your entire life is a middle, would you not?)

then.  there is the story, which we are interrupting in the middle (as i was saying.)  the bed seems enormous, but only because her body is so small now, as i lay down beside her, a son with his dying mother.   we are in a home that is not our home, but one that she and my step-father have rented for this last bit of time she has, because she is dying.  there is no more to be done to stop it and i have come to this house, a brick house in the rolling, wooded hills of the missouri ozarks, from my home in chicago to spend time with her.  of course, it is a countdown & everything seems to be underwater or upside down–that is, my perception of time has a wave in it that is distorting my vision as if i’d been caught in the surf and tossed underwater and pushed down by the power of the ocean just long enough to panic.

colors are both more intense and more subdued (all the furniture in this rented home appears to have been washed and dried so many times that the color has been leached out of it–only traces of browns, oranges, reds and blues remain.  i don’t believe that description is true and at the time of my being there with my dying mother, i know i never gave it a thought.)  but now, when i conjure these memories that is the color palette i see, well-worn, bleached out by the sun, a faded polaroid (a candid shot, not posed–but composed nonetheless, one of those photographs that are perfect for their not being perfect.)

what distinguishes this middle.   my mother and i are laying on our backs not looking at each other but staring at the ceiling of this bedroom.  she has a  shunt in her chest which she has just shown me.  it is where the doctors pour chemicals (and morphine) into her (“fill ‘er up, herb,” my stepfather may have said to no one.)  i thought i might fall into it, if i looked at it too long (a rabbit hole if ever there one,) so that did happen.

i fell into to it and rolled over on my back to ease the pain of knowing that i was free-falling without any chance of support (no net, no parachute, no one to hold me, that was ending.  even though this is the middle there was an end–you could see it in the not too far distance if you squinted and should you be inclined to be that introspective.  i was not.)  i wish i could tell you what we talked about before she fell asleep and i slipped off the bed and out of the room, pulling the door closed behind me, that click of the <door mechanism> like the snap of a neck or the crack of a knuckle, bone hard and sharp, a retort to my lack of consciousness.  (do you not see how sexual it all is?  the little mechanism that holds a door shut, a tongue that slips into its waiting, panting hole, fill me, use me, ignore me, slam me, pull me closed so gently that it is a feather upon my breast.  but finally and ultimately – redundantly — it is closed to you.  like love.  like death.  but i am, at this time in this story, not thinking of death.)

later (it may have been earlier, time again aggrieves me, i do not remember, all of my visit — was it a week? two? — this month before her death has a cloak over it and even now, as i divine that time spent there and push myself to remember what i did not want to remember then, time has fucked it all up.)  it is all snatches of memory, laundry hanging on a line, snapping in the wind, ragged little pieces of cloth not even defined as clothing, sheets, towels, shrouds, windings, all of it just rags and then she, my mother, is having her hair washed and set in the house.  the beautician has come to her and confides to me, “she wanted to look her best for you,” which.  it was too much then and i know that i excused myself to cry alone in the guest room.  there may have been deep hacking sobs, i do not remember.   i do remember not being able to watch the beautician make my mother beautiful for me.  i cry now <cue lump in throat>, but true.

you see, that is my problem.  i am inured to the pain of her passing.  some may call it cold-heartedness.  others may say, “there was no blood between them” (my birth, a diversion that should be addressed, but not now, “but if not now, when?” they demand and i answer, “soon, soon.”)  of course, at the time (not the time of this visit before she died, but the time of the funeral and burial,) i was inconsolable.  there were only men around to offer me succor (stepfather, uncle,) which may actually true.

part two

there was also my stepsisters, well.    but i am jumping ahead of this, the first part of the story (but not the beginning, it is the middle.) only one stepsister, the other one having been banned from being around me (at my insistence, i could not bear the sight of her for what she had done to my mother, as cruel as if she were the cancer to my mind,) and i am certain, by default the other daughter of my loving stepfather later, rather than sooner, also fell into the trash (not harsh, but true.)

the sisters then:  there were two, b. and s. (these abbreviations self-fulfilling, had i but known.)  b. lived with her husband & brood in upstate new york; s. with ne-er-do-well husband and three children in southern california.  my stepfather began courting my mother (in the true sense of the word,) in 1970 (they were married in september of 1973); his daughters played no role in his life with my mother until they married and i had moved away.  let’s jump ahead here as i’m afraid that i will lose the thread of the middle of this story, the one that opened this book (a beginning no doubt, but also an end, with them so closely linked like that i have no choice but to determine it is the middle.)

my introduction to s. went like this when i was visiting for christmas in 197_ and she & her family had been packed up and moved and installed in a home on my parent’s property when their lives took a turn for the worse in california.  my mother doted on the children, a relief to me, burden of reproduction lifted, but regardless, i am at my parent’s house, it is christmas and we are about to go over to s.’s house for dinner.  mother turns to me and says, “promise me you will not laugh.”

“oh, for heaven’s sake, you can’t do that to me! what do you mean?”

“just promise me you won’t laugh,” she reiterated.  “fine, i won’t laugh,” as we put on our coats for the walk across the yard to the house next door.  the door opens, it’s a small house and with the kids running to greet grandpa and grandma and their parents big  in that way that only happens in the country of canned foods, kfc and tv dinners,  taking up space, so there’s some jostling of bodies as introductions are made, and the younger two children pull at my mother in greeting.    then i see it.  well enough that there was a warning, although i must admit it did not adequately prepare me for the shrine.  to elvis.  in the corner of the living room.  a white plaster bust of the ‘king’, maybe a foot and a half tall, with italian lights circling the base–they were nestled in a cloud of angel hair—and all of that then protected by a plexiglas box.  it was not ironic.  it was their altar.  i should have been concerned then, but i wasn’t (another warning ignored).

the evening and the holiday unfolded without incident.  until, well into their life together and i’m down for another visit (this then when i was told she had cancer and before they moved back to rapid city to care for her mother–my psychic grandmother–but still and all,) it is when she began to detail the abuse of s.  as my mother slowly faded away, she shared a lot with me, perhaps i will with you as well.)

my mother would say, “i’m going to drive to jeff city for the day, may i take r. (the youngest daughter) with me?”    s. would reply, “well, i don’t know, lay-about, out-of-work husband and i were hoping to get a new washing machine sometime soon, r. might be available then.”  to make it plainer, she pimped her kids because she knew my mother loved them unconditionally and to have them around her she would acquiesce to s.’s demands.   i felt bad for my mother, and at the same time i am surprised that she would stand for such nonsense and where was my stepfather in all of this?  it was a scab that i picked at over the course of the next few months as my mother’s health deteriorated.)

in a letter from my mother dated 22 feb 81, she writes,

“dear son–

“wish you were here to help me — i’m putting my pictures in albums — at long last.  it’s gotten to be a horrendous project.  i’ve let them accumulate for about 7 years.  [this note added in parentheses on march 1:  didn’t get it done – put all back into boxes & will try again later.]

“Thot you mite like to have this one of you & me taken about 17 years ago.  you sure were a cute little guy – & look at that hair cut!!

“this macaroni & chicken recipe looks like something you might of conjured up.  sounds real good.  when you throw a conglomeration of stuff together it usually comes out pretty good – when i do it, it isn’t fit to eat!  i just fixed some scalloped potatos – i put some onion in it – cut up some link sausages & put them in – ran out of fresh potatos, so sliced up a can of  them & put in.  covered whole mess with cream of mushroom soup & cheese & it tastes terrible!!

“1 mar 81.

“don’t know what happened – must of jumped the track somewhere.

“just talked – very unsatisfactorily – with you about your little chair.  i’ll do whatever you want, but you should know we are getting rid of some junk we have – we plan on selling this place in a year or so & renting a place to live.   roy is getting older & we don’t want the responsibility of keeping up a place–he is going to put the trailer & that 4 acres up for sale 1 april.  that will give s. a month to find another place to live–we can’t take this sh__ any longer–Roy has aged 10 years & it just isn’t fair!!

“Guess this is enough griping for now.  love you very very much, mom”

mother and son, 1964

in the dying house i am about to meet b., the other daughter and she comes in and gives me a big hug before i can retreat from our initial handshake.  she is smart and verbal and funny in a self-deprecating kind of way that immediately puts me at ease (and off my guard, another warning ignored).  my mother responds well to having her there, i can see it in her eyes and how they brighten when b. is around her, fussing over this doily or that cushion, solicitous and caring, it was not unlike being rocked to sleep.  i wish i could remember how long she was there visiting, but as i’ve told you my memory of this time is a series of snapshots without sound, and without much color, and although these images are there for me, it  is a challenge to bring them forth (and in the light of self-examination) that is all.

you will forgive me if time is conflated here–the middles collapsing on top of each other–the next thing in this series of recollections is a walk that b. and i took on a sunny afternoon down a country lane and into the fields of scrub that were behind the house that they were using so my stepfather would not have to live in the house after my mother died.  he would be able to go back to their own home that was down the road between dixon and vienna (mo) and eat ice cream without the furniture screaming at him that the love of his life had moved on without him.

but i have jumped ahead of my tale: b. and i take an afternoon walk, and yes the sun was out, it being april, possibly warm, i don’t remember having a jacket and we’re walking through hayfields and talking about her family and my life in chicago and she asks me, “are you gay?”  so feeling all warm and comfortable with her, i say, “yes”, when normally i might have changed the subject, she was after all, a stranger to me, and my sexuality was none of her business, and i didn’t like being defined by who i slept with <insert angry young gay man still fighting the good fight here>, but it seemed okay with her and i let it go.

we walked and talked and came across an abandoned schoolhouse, weathered clapboard, white paint peeling, shifted on its foundation as if it had suffered through an earthquake or tornado like someone might a sneeze that rearranges their hair (that hard one that lifts the hair on the back of your neck); we climbed into it through a broken window, giggling at each other’s nonsense and the lighthearted tone we took with each other help lessen the burden of my mother’s sadness and decline.

there was a map of the world on one wall, the corners curling up from its fight against nature, its colors as faded as those colors in that house where death lay, that yellowy peeling varnish washing out europe or africa (pink and blue, but so subtle as to only be a ghost of their former glory) and it crossed my mind then that i might not ever get to see the world after my mother died, that that opportunity, whether i wanted it to or not, would evaporate with the exhalation of her last breath.  the lens of her life would disappear with her and the world as i saw it through that lens, even on this day in an abandoned schoolhouse, so narrowly focused on this point in time–would, as it must, lose its color and vanish, perhaps its shape faintly outlined by the oceans.  this i did not share with b.

part three

i do not know how long i stayed or the exact day i left my mother’s arms to get back on the train in jefferson city, but i know that writing this now, i can feel her warm embrace, it was a challenge for her to hold me tight, there was so much pain in her face and as she often did, she took my face in her hands and pulled me close, nose to nose (our eskimo kiss for as long as i can remember, and one i often asked for no matter how old i was) and said, “son, i love you.”  i may have cried in her arms, but i know she would not have any of that, but held me close until it was time for me to leave.  it is possible that she made herself see me off at the train station, just as it is possible that she did not and my farewell to her was carried out on the brown sofa in the living room of a house they had chosen for her death.

the month between our last goodbye and her death was filled with the idle gossip of my co-workers (it’s not as if i could not hear them), “how much money will he inherit when his mother dies do you think?” or “will he have enough to leave here and travel?” or “it’s sad to see him suffer so, do you think his family has any money?” and frequent nights out to my local leather & levi bar (italics mine.  it is the vernacular, and not unlike a foreign language the words themselves carry an important meaning) where i tried to bury my feelings in the hot embrace of any man that would have me (as sad as i was, i never shared with strangers what was happening, but how could you not know that i was weighted with some impending loss?)  the addition of many beers not withstanding (it was as if i could not get drunk), the month passed by as clearly as if nothing had happened, nothing worth remembering.

i had jumped and was free-falling like a <you may insert your favorite metaphor here; parachute not opening, the earth rushing up to meet me; alice skipping and bumping down the dark rabbit hole (which i’ve used previously); the entrance to hell, dante beginning the descent, the screams of the damned closer and louder with each step> stone thrown into the well and as far as i could tell in my waking life there was no end to the nightmare of loss i was experiencing, the only sound i seemed to hear was the whispered chant of  “when, when, when”, it was there with me in the morning when i roused myself out of bed, it was there in the metal-on-metal screeching of the ‘el’, the very act of walking down the street seemed to be a rebuke and a time bomb; forget a ringing telephone as it was the signal of my execution.

i know the date of the day my mother died, but i could not tell you how long it had been between the day i last touched her and the hesitant, sad sound of my stepfather’s voice telling me of her death.  i know i heard him speak, but i could not have told you then (or even later that day) what words he used to tell me of my mother’s death had you asked me.  and it may have been that the words he did say to me,  “she’s died, robert.  i tried to get her to the hospital, but she died in the car on the way, i’m sorry, i tried,”  were the words i did hear but could not make sense of at the time, the comprehension of language had left me then.

i do not know how i got to missouri for the funeral.  i believe my uncle, my mother’s half-brother, picked me up at the train station or the airport, but i may be mistaken, it could have been a stranger, a local friend of theirs that volunteered to meet me and drive me down into the back country where they lived.   it was may, a month shy of her next birthday, and on the day of the funeral the three of us rode in the cab of my stepfather’s pick-up, all big men squeezed together in grief, that tight closeness keeping us upright.  it was not until we were in the funeral home (and suddenly now, because i’ve put off coming to this part of the middle of this story, for it is a middle and not an end, i find myself struggling to adequately describe, to find the right words, the proper grammar, the language i know i possess to share with you how hard, how unfathomable the loss, i am digging deep–digger o’dell-like–and perhaps the best thing to do would be report the time as cold-eyed and steely-tongued as a reporter writing for the local weekly.)

there were a lot of strangers in the visitation room, my vision, even now as i look back on those moments, is blurry around the edges, erasing their faces.  there was the smell of farming (horses, sweat, manure); there was the smell of lilies laid over top of that; there was my mother in an open coffin, wearing her favorite red ______ (it was red, as in the photo above, someone, somewhere had told her that ‘red is your color’ and she stuck with that advice even in death); there was a preacher speaking, but his words i did not hear; there were men and women stopping by my chair touching my shoulder or taking my hand, their gentle tenderness and concern is, even now, a cue for tears as i hit the space bar and the back bar repeatedly finding the words i know i have; there was roy and my uncle lifting me up from my chair, my legs too weak to stand and walking me toward the open coffin; there were hacking sobs (they were coming from me, i thought i was drowning); there was a moment then that i thought i could not look at her, i knew that if i did, it would be true, and i did not have the courage to face that; and there was just one quick moment of recognition, that the woman in the coffin was my mother and wisely, prescient as it happens, they held onto me and turned me away from her and walked me down the aisle and out the door.

and outside the funeral home, standing for a moment on its porch, roy and uncle murmuring their thanks to the sorrowful, from that blurry edge lunges s., the ugliest of step-sisters, grasping at me with her pinched face and thin hair and heavy weight, “i loved your mother, robert,” she cried and i know these words, “you had a fine way of showing it,” formed themselves and i may have yelled, screamed them at her or it’s possible i said nothing and only thought it, but she fell back into the penumbra that made up the edges of that day and i never saw her again.

we drove to the cemetery in vienna (home to an americanized version of the wiener schnitzel, i know for a fact because it said so on the side of a barn or a welcome sign as you entered this small town in the rolling hills of the ozarks) and up to the grave site they had purchased a few years in advance with its russet and gray marble headstone, their birth dates already carved into it, a wedding bed for the end of their lives.   this time, this here and now, was the hardest for roy, a veteran of and witness to many deaths, but this one, this one stopped him, dulled him (he recovered, as i did,) but there was for both of us a dark, swirling confusion without her right then.   as is the case with funerals such as this one, after the burial there was a gathering of mourners and well-wishers (yes, it’s true, they were wishing us well on our journey without her) at the house they had rented for the very purpose of her death.  women laid out casseroles and meat platters and sandwiches and salads all the while eying roy, talking amongst themselves what his prospects for life without a spouse would be; the men stood out on the front lawn talking about the weather, a new winch one of them had bought and why seed was so expensive at the feed store these days.  i know these things because they were all happening in my peripheral vision; i could not focus on anything but my loss.  i may have sat in the living room for a moment, but more likely, i excused myself and went into their bedroom and laid down on the bed, just as i had the month before and stared at the ceiling and wondered if i would land on my feet.


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.


Willsie Ave. (Ghost of Christmas Past)

Christmas 1970 at 918 Willsie Avenue, Rapid City, South Dakota.  (After looking at the google street map, the neighborhood has devolved since my last visit there in 1984, sad.)

This year we ‘flocked’ the tree ourselves, copying what the Martha Stewart of our family (my aunt) had done the year before.  That big white box with the red cross bow is an antique lamp that I had bought for my mother (it was silver plate, a kerosene lamp re-purposed for the Edison century with a lovely, milky glass shade, a few years later, my mother had a local artist paint blue flowers all over the glass shade and somewhere in the depths of my garage, today, it rests in a box, carefully wrapped and cushioned, most likely never to be used again–although I did try to scrub the flowers off once, but they seemed to have been applied with car paint, tant pis, and yes, I know that adding tant pis was a gratuitous use of the French language, but if I don’t use it, it will languish like the lamp, wrapped in old Paris Match magazines, stored in a musty corner of my brain.)

Secret: sometimes when I would get home from high school in the afternoon and I would have the house to myself for a couple of hours before my mother got home from the air force base where she did something relatively important (high security clearance, no less), I would draw the drapes in the living room and the dining room (a great room before there were great rooms, but small, because you know, we lived on the other side of the tracks and the creek, the house was no bigger than a cracker box with a roof on it). I would fill the house with music, my music, my generation’s music (I had a fondness for female singer/songwriters/poets: Joni, Joan, Janis, Laura) and I would take off my shoes and move furniture out of the way and I would dance.  Dance by myself & tip & swirl & jeté & dream of being partnered by Nureyev or any other magical, masculine creature (Pan perhaps), stopping between tracks to catch my breath, look at myself in the mirror and dream of a life where what I hardly understood would/could be true.

As soon as I left home to go to university and then, later, I set aside Christmas, but now, now in 1970 I was committed to Christmas as were my friends. We went to the same Four Square Evangelical church, we sang in the choir, we did deeds (good ones, I think) and after church, we would go to A & W on 8th St. (Hwy. 16 to Mt. Rushmore) in my car, a 1963 powder blue Ford Falcon, affectionately (and perhaps presciently) known as the “Mud Queen”, and laugh and giggle and my best friend, Alan, would make out with Sarah or Katherine or any other young girl who would fall under his sway. He wasn’t particularly good-looking, but he was magnetic, with a gravelly singing voice and musical talent pouring off of him that the girls, our classmates, found irresistible.  He was not a crush of mine. I would look at him in the rear-view mirror with his arm around someone and he always seemed so happy then.  That particular happiness eluded me then, but i never begrudged him his.


rituals (& holidays & friends & blog posts)

it started off innocently enough.  a blog about culture & art & things i like.  over the years it’s evolved & now interspersed with all that art-y stuff are memories & obsessions & things i like (oops, i’ve said that twice now, but i do like writing about things i like — 3 times, but who’s counting?  seems it’s me.)  i’m not like some people i know who blog as regularly as a swiss watch keeps time (let’s say daily & i admit to some jealousy of their habits,) but i’m me & i write & post photos as it suits me.

every morning for the past 10 years, i’ve gotten up at 5:15 a.m. (almost always, even without the alarm.)  i pour a cup of coffee & check on m., who recently has taken to falling asleep on the couch in the den when he can’t sleep, with the t.v. on quietly in the background & joey curled up at his feet on guard duty.  soft snoring (yeah, right!) an accompaniment to the weather report on channel _.

after a few sips of coffee & quick check-ins with all of my social media outlets, i gather up billy & joey & take them for their morning walk.  the morning walk habit is one of the great pleasures of my life.  sometimes the sun is coming up & other times it is still dark outside (as i’ve noted in this blog on occasion); today the sun was up & there was the blue pacific ocean with its layer of cotton candy sunrise sky laying on top of it, a gift of beauty if ever there were one.

the dogs show great patience with me at this time of day–if i have the camera with all i have to say is ‘wait’ & they do & i snap a photo of ocean or the sun or the palm trees that dot our hilltop aerie, brushes painting the sky.

this morning, not unlike any other morning (except its freaking cold, low 40s! i know, i know, but it’s cold for us,) there was a brilliant sun greeting the dogs & i as we made our way up the driveway to the street.   & as you can see the sun sparkled & shimmered as it got caught in the fronds of the mexican palm trees; the sky, an indescribable blue (but i’ll try: cerulean, teal, delft, aquamarine, seafoam — that’s usually used to describe the color green, but i’ll make an exception in this case — the blue of a vein laying just under the skin of the back of your hand.)

growing up there were rituals (& holidays) as well, but none that so clearly defined the day as the walks i have taken with the dogs these past 10 years.  we (my mother & i) usually ended up at my uncle’s house (her half-brother) or we drove all the way to gillette to have thanksgiving with my grand-parents (her mother & step-father); rarely did the event take place in our home.    sometimes my mother would revolt & insist that we stay home & if family wanted to join us they could, but that happened maybe once & it’s not because my mother couldn’t cook (she could & well, i might add,) but because we didn’t have much (except each other) & if the expense of hosting could be shouldered by those more fortunate than we (except we had more love in our house, you could tell even if you were my cousin.)

day must end (that rotating earth thing always gets in the way) & another dog walk inevitably occurs after the sun has departed our world & is busy illuminating points west (but east, you know.)  these evening walks take a more circuitous route than the morning one, in that we traverse the full circle of our neighborhood.  my feeling, actually my understanding (from what i hear) is that the dogs look forward to & prefer this longer meander around & around, there are new palm trees (see above) that gather at night as if there were a regularly scheduled meeting (p.a., palms anonymous…) to hash out their feelings & work through their issues.

& on this walk, this more leisurely stroll, i too have the opportunity to reflect on the day, the past, the future & consider my options, or the roadblocks (my own & those of others) & talk with the dogs (they are such decent listeners, truly, deeply listening, listening that i only hope to achieve in my own life) & somehow their acquiescence to my voice, my problems, & my joy make this walk the one that (well, i’d like to say has the most meaning for me, but then i think of the morning walk in much the same way, instead, let’s declare it a draw, shall we?)

& if i think of one thing (any thing, really,) then i may think of you as well.  for that is how the mind works, all those synapses connecting disparate parts of our lives & thoughts & deeds & at night, at night there is the chance that a connection with you (each of you, friends now or future friends,) will strengthen & grow & light my 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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