Coming Home

photo by Seaver Creative

We no longer go to the old farmhouse for holidays—it is too much for my mother and has been for several years. I hosted our immediate family again for Thanksgiving this year, our first major holiday since my dad’s death, and my tears brined our turkey.

I was doing well: setting the tables, preparing the meal, enjoying our home filled with our children and grandchildren, but then I stepped on the cat’s tail, she howled, and I cried.

This grief jumps from around corners and invades the quiet moments of my life. It startles me, catching me without my security system set securely around my heart. Like today—the first delicious snow day of the school year. This gift of eight hours of unscheduled time smiles at me.

The house is mine.

The day is mine.

I sit with my coffee, admiring the beautiful, wet snow smothering the bird feeders, flocking the pines, blanketing the lawn, and I miss my dad.

Continue reading “Coming Home”

An Unexpected Gift

The silo was filled, the combine greased and stored for another year, and frost covered the fields around our farmhouse when my Dad left for deer hunting. He would be gone a week, and he assured us he would return “before we knew it.” And he was right, of course, as soon our unshaven father was back, unloading his suitcase and telling us stories about the northern Michigan woods he walked, the animals he saw, and the people he met.

Listening and laughing, we excitedly watched Dad unpack, my youngest brother clinging to Dad’s legs.

“Oh kids, I brought you something,” Dad announced.
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I Remember

My mother carries me to the cabin kitchen,

Where my grandmother waits,

Her apron cinched, her sturdy arms welcoming, her smile firm and determined.

Where I become the main event, the centerpiece of their day.

My little red bathing suit—a miniature Marilyn Monroe,

Full of sand, and grit, and a day’s worth of four-year-old play—

Is gently peeled from my exhausted body,

And shaking and shivering and whimpering

I am submerged in an old galvanized tub full of warm water.

I remember

Their calm reassurances

And the gentle hands touching me, pouring warm water over my tiny frame.

I remember

The light of those women—my women—in that tiny kitchen.

My grandmother—the jam maker, the warbly whistler, the grandchildren snuggler

My mother—the schedule arranger, the ache soother, my eternal encourager

Feeders of the world.

The wood cook stove snaps behind me

And I am lifted and wrapped in the clean towel,

Quickly cocooned in the safety and balm of my grandmother’s ample bosom.

I don’t remember

 

My mother’s youth, her beautiful smile, or how she was—briefly—mine alone

Or my grandmother’s predictably musky scent of onions and rising bread.

All gone to me.

The tub still hangs on the porch of the cabin.

The wood stove now a vintage accent in a cousin’s home.

The rest of the tiny kitchen is unchanged, a museum vignette dedicated to early cabin décor.

And above all, I remember

 

The radiance of their love,

And how at that moment, I was the cherished center of their universe.

Americana’s Naked Truth

Young, enthusiastic, and giddy with a job which offered more than minimum wage AND included benefits, I wound my way on the country roads on my way to work. The sun rose optimistic in my rear view mirror—my 72 Catalina hugged the curves, floating over the bumps and potholes, her old head lights startling the occasional skunk or rabbit. I had landed my first teaching job—unheard of in 1982. My fellow Michigan State University graduates had moved to Texas or the West Coast, and bumper stickers read “The Last One Out of Michigan, Turn Out the Lights.”  I had applied to every school district in a one hour radius of our newly established home. One principal called, I interviewed, and he offered me the job.   I taught high school English in a paint-chipped, leaky classroom in a small, southwest Michigan district. I had five different professional outfits, two pairs of sensible pumps, a faux-leather briefcase, and a twenty-two-year-old’s optimism and innocence. And I struggled, too ashamed to ask for help, willing to take on more and more as the daily assignments and themes piled higher and higher on my desk. But “what a lucky break” and “it’s a great opportunity” and “just keep trying” constantly played in my head, blocking out the threatening clouds, fatigue and despair.

So, I cherished this thirty-minute drive through southwest Michigan, and as the year progressed—and my energy level and enthusiasm sagged—I cranked the AM station higher and savored the sights on the way. The same cars met me every morning, the same deer scavenged in the winter snow, the same trees began to bud, and the same little man waved at me every morning. I think I noticed him in early March—probably after we experienced the “spring forward”– standing by his garage in his little gray work suit, holding his little gray lunchbox, sipping coffee from his little metal coffee cup, his thermos upright on the ground. He tipped his cup at me. And then he was there every morning. I waved—he tipped. I smiled—he smiled. Oh how I loved rural America! Pretty soon I began to roll my window down and extend my hand in friendship, waving wildly as I passed—you see it was too early to sound the horn. If horn sounding had been acceptable, I would have toot-toot-tooted some cheerful tune for him. The smells of early spring, the sounds of the wind passing, all buoyed me as my little, reliable friend cheered me on. I told my co-workers about this little man. I pointed out the house to my husband.  I thought about pulling into my little man’s drive, saying hello, and sharing a morning cup with him.  What a great country!  It couldn’t get any better.

But then, the lightning bolts of reality grounded me. The first day of April, I hummed along, anticipating spring break, extra sleep, and a much-needed reprieve from my teenage students. My hourly lesson plans scrolled through my head. Everything seemed in order. I followed the curve, and my little friend’s house was in sight. I extended my hand, turned to smile, and there he was—naked—just standing there, slack-bellied and expressionless against his garage. No coffee cup, no thermos, no little gray uniform.  A fuzzy, electricity slithered down my spine to my toes. I gripped the wheel. I looked straight ahead. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be. Not my little friend. Maybe he was wearing a nude colored jumpsuit. Did they make such things? Maybe they changed the color of his work clothes. Did they make flesh colored work clothes?

I think there was— probably still is—something in my face which must invite such behaviors. “You have an open face,” a friend once told me. ”People will tell you things.”  (This friend is a retired psychiatric nurse—that should have been my first clue that this face could result in such behaviors from strange men.) I had been flashed several times while a student in East Lansing. I had lived above a thirty-something flasher when I student taught in Battle Creek. And now I had been flashed by this little man, tarnishing my Mayberry countryside.

I knew that appearances aren’t always what they seem. People can surprise you. It was like the time my brothers and I were part of the Buckaroo Rodeo Show in the sixties.  Sleepy-eyed, we watched the show every Saturday morning in our pajamas. From our couch, we admired Buck’s cowboy accent, his confident smile, the way he spoke to the “Buckaroos” in his audience. One Saturday my mom and dad dropped us off at the television studio in our new cowboy boots and crisp western outfits to be a part of Buck’s young audience. We perched on small bleachers, smiling when the cue card said “SMILE,” clapping when the cue card said “CLAP.” And when the television camera was off, Buck snarled, telling his stunned Buckaroos to “Shut up!” and I heard him say to the woman applying his make-up, “God, I hate kids.” Suddenly Buck’s smile wasn’t quite so sweet—his buckskin costume not quite so genuine. I wrapped a protective arm around my youngest brother, checking to make sure my other brothers were within my reach. So you see, I should have been skeptical of my pastoral drive and the little man. I should have somehow seen the truth coming.  But I didn’t.

I survived my first teaching placement, receiving a glowing evaluation and an invitation for another year of the same. A new suit and boots made their way into my closet, and I changed my morning route. I finished my year traveling different roads, but my new path wasn’t nearly as sweet.  The red-wing blackbirds trilled along the ditch banks, as the spring uncovered the litter decorating the sumacs and cattails. The red barn sported fresh paint and a neat paddock, but behind the white picket fence, the lone farmhouse’s curtains were drawn tight.

My Life’s Anthem

Lightening laced the air–the June sky was veiled a deep purple-blue—an eerie nighttime in the late afternoon. The wind whined and whistled, the old maples swayed and curtsied, the thunder growled and menaced.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s okay,” my mother crooned.  “Let’s watch for your dad.”

My dad was working beyond the barn, cultivating the corn fields on our low ground–rich black muck stretching all the way to the far ditch banks and the distant woods. He was trying to finish before the storm. From behind the panes of the front window I could see his tractor, a small red dot inching its way down the rows, working its way towards the gravel road leading home.

Tears welled in my eyes, “Please, hurry, hurry, hurry, Daddy,” I prayed, pressing my hands to the cool glass.

This was my whole five-year-old world: the barns brimming with glossy eyed steers, the fields striped with tender seedlings, the yard shadowed with trees, and our home filled with comfort.

I pressed my nose to the window as the rain drops began, speckling the sidewalk. I heard the sputter of the tractor as my dad rumbled up the ramp and into the barn.

Then the summer storm raged, the water ran in sheets down the front window and the lightening sizzled and snapped. Shaking, I hid my face into my mother’s soft bosom, she held me tight and stroked my hair. We rocked and rocked, waiting for the storm to break , watching for my father to walk across the road from the barn.

My two little brothers played happily on the floor, oblivious to the storm, to the noises, to their frightened big sister. They built their block towers and knocked them noisily, their monuments clattering to the floor as the lightning flashed and the thunder rattled our old farm house’s bones. I wrapped my arms around the wonderful softness of my mother, and she rested her cheek on the top of my head.

“Kathy, look.” I turned to the window. My father stood in the barn doorway and waved his hat—he put it back on his head, and raced towards the house, leaping across the puddles, sprinting across the road to the shelter of the front porch, the screen door slapping shut behind him.

“Wow! That sure came up quick!” He stood, dripping, shaking his hat. “What are you boys building?” he asked, bending to touch my brothers’ heads as they pummeled another structure.

He turned to my mother and me. “How are my girls?” He reached down and took my trembling hand and pressed it between his.  He looked at my mother.

“She was worried about you,” my mother prodded.

My dad bent down and looked in my eyes. “Kathleen, it’s okay.”

I wasn’t convinced. I looked up at him, still dripping with rain, still holding my hand.

“Kathleen, it’s always going to be okay.”

And it was. And it is. And it will be.

My parents continued to add to our family–two more baby brothers within the next five years. And our home stretched and adjusted, welcoming the seasons and changes that life eventually brings.  Those years in our childhood home and the many lessons we learned together shaped us and allowed us to understand that this life journey has both ups and downs, joys and sorrows, but that things work out—hard times don’t last.

When we hurt each other, we learned forgiveness.

When we met challenges, we learned persistence.

And as we face the body’s mortality, we learn grace.

Sunshine always comes after the rain.

My life’s anthem.

 

My Father’s Blessing

During our early years, my brothers and I were insulated from the world on our family farm, a snug cocoon wrapped carefully by my parents’ love for each other and for us. I thought all parents spoke gently to one another, all mothers calmed their children’s fears with tender hands, and all fathers appeared cheerfully at every meal. I thought all children went to bed at 7:30 and were up by six, that all children had red pop and popcorn on Sunday nights, that all children had shady yards and brothers to play with.

We children were each other’s best—and sometimes worst—friends. We played together, rode bikes together, built forts together, and eventually worked the farm together. Even my mother and I—the meal-preparers, the cleaner-uppers, the piano-players—were needed, usually during July and August. Crops of rocks sprouted from ground my parents purchased in the early 1970s. If fieldstones had been a cash crop, we would have been rich. Instead, we were drafted to walk the fields, picking up this bumper crop which could damage our expensive farm equipment. One person drove the old John Deere tractor with a bucket on the front we used for everything from cleaning the barns to hauling a dead animal—while the rest of us walked beside it, finding rocks and throwing them into the bucket. Tractor driving was a no-brainer. Dad usually assigned my youngest brother this job: picture a freckled five-year-old in a hat sitting happily as the tractor inched along. When we reached the end of the field, my father would hop on the tractor, dump the rocks in the fence row, and turn the tractor around. Then we would walk the length of field again.

These natural treasures were many shaped; some were beautiful—which my father liked to save—and some were HUGE. These my brothers and I couldn’t budge. We would dig around them, estimate their size, and call for my dad who would have to empty the bucket and come back to remove it with the invaluable “loader tractor.”

The days spent harvesting stones were, in my memory, the hottest days of the summer. One day stands out. I must have been in middle school, so my four younger brothers would have ranged in age from five to twelve. We spent the humid afternoon “picking stone”: bending, lifting, walking—occasionally sitting in the fencerow’s grassy shade drinking water and eating cookies—then bending, lifting, walking again. Dad worked with us, encouraging us and motivating us with his total commitment to the land and the job. “The purpose of these trees, kids, is to hold the soil in hard rains.” Or “See how the field slopes? When I drill the wheat this fall, I’ll plant a curve along this angle. See?” Or “Have you ever seen so many stones? You kids are helping me so much.” Or “Do you know why more stones keep coming up? The glacier deposited these as it scraped across Michigan millions of years ago.” And finally, “What do you think Mom is making for supper? I’m getting real hungry! How about you?” Science lessons, conservation tidbits, and personalized compliments—my Dad managed his children like a championship coach. We were undefeated, exhausted, and ravenous by our last walk of the field.

At the end of the day, we crawled into the bucket or sat on the tire fenders, and Dad drove us triumphantly home—home to my mother and a meal for the team: roast beef, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet corn, tossed salad, glass after glass of cold milk, and ice cream. Our freshly washed faces glowed as Dad recounted the day for Mom.

My parents’ optimism equaled their youth. They were so young and so beautiful and so committed to each other and to us. They were a handsome couple—my tall, athletic father with a head full of luxurious, dark-brown hair and my shapely mother with her snappy brown eyes and ready smile. So they were radiating towards each other from the ends of the long dining room table as we five children puffed our chests with pride at a job well done. Dad’s sunshine warming us, we lingered at the table, Mom and Dad drinking coffee, we kids eating and laughing and teasing and eating some more.

My Dad leaned in, his strong, gentle hands wrapped around his coffee cup, his eyes twinkling. “So, if you kids could be anywhere right now, where would you want to be?”

Hmmm. We looked at one another, full of fantasy and dreams.

“Disney World!”

“I think a Tiger Ball game.”

“No, I’d pick Yellowstone. I want to see that geyser!”

“How about the Field Museum in Chicago? I love it there.”

“I’d pick the cabin. Fishing sounds great.”

We dreamed and debated and dreamed again. One by one we turned to Dad. He was enjoying us and my mother, celebrating his good fortune, his good health, his wealth of a loving spouse and children.

“Dad, where do you want to be?” my youngest brother asked.

Yes, where would he want to be? He always loved baseball and pitching to us in the front yard. He loved fishing at the cabin and building fires for marshmallow roasting. He loved adventures and friends and foot races and meeting people. He did love country music. Maybe he dreamed of the Grand Old Opry? Dad, smelling like Old Spice and shoe polish, loved Saturday night dates with my mother. Perhaps he would take her to Rome or to Paris? He had never considered Dad’s dreams. It was unimaginable.

His eyes were moist, sparkling at my mother and the five of us. Attentive, waiting, expecting, we looked at him.

Dad smiled, his gaze direct. “You know, kids, I don’t want to be anywhere else. I want to be right here with all of you.”

My body filled with warmth, my cheeks colored. I felt like a precious gem, a lustrous pearl, treasured and held high.

Some people spend a lifetime searching for validation, for a sense of who they are, for a feeling of acceptance. I didn’t have to look any farther than our dining room table.

This blessing, this love of a father for his family, will last my lifetime.

This piece appears in the Tournament of Writers Small Town Anthology III available through Amazon.