Survivor

Winter in Sparks , Nevada 1960's

Crile R. Dean – Winter, Sparks , Nevada 1960’s

Daddy is from a generation that worked hard.  That never feared sweat and toil.  He grew up on the land, took care of animals and studied late in the night to be the best he could be.

All my life his big hands tackled plumbing and electrical and automotive tasks.  He climbed, fearless, to the roof to patch leaks.  He ascended to the top of the thirty foot apricot tree to cut off a dead branch.  No qualms.

I’m sick and can’t sit up in my seat in class any longer.  My third grade teacher says, go to the nurse.  The nurse feels my head and says, lie down awhile.  I remember thinking, lying down feels good. 

I stretch.  Open my eyes.  No lights.  Dead silence.  No kid noise in the halls.  No teachers talking.  No one laughing or running or hitting the tether-ball on the playground.  No nurse.

Where is everyone?  My heartbeat is so loud my ears hurt.  My chest hurts.  I’m hot all over.  My queasy stomach forgotten.

“What are you doing here?”  The principal says as I stand in his doorway.

“I was sick.  I went to the nurse.  She didn’t wake me.  She left me.”

“Let’s get you home.”

I hope I’m so small in the front seat of the Principal’s car that no one will see me.  We pass kids on the street.  Playing ball.  Walking. Talking. Laughing.  Every head turns our way.  Kids know the Principal’s car.  Now they know I’m in his car.

My face is hot. I want to disappear.  Everyone will think I’ve done something wrong.

“Thank you,” Daddy smiles broadly at the Principal, “for getting her home safe,” he shakes the Principal’s hand, “no harm done.”

No harm done?  I’ll never go to the nurse’s office again.

Daddy cared for us.  He mended the arm of my sister’s glasses.  He maneuvered tiny tweezers to repair Mother’s necklace chain.  He laid brick and cinder block walls.  He mowed the lawn and used the edger with gusto, all with pride in a job well done.  He planted grapes and fruit trees and worked hard in their harvest.  He shared the bounty with friends and strangers.  He loved life.  He laughed and smiled and believed all could be conquered.

I feel sick all over but I’d rather be sick in class than go to the nurse’s office.  That’s a place to avoid like the plague.  If I can hold on another fifteen minutes, school will be out. 

“Did you go to the nurse?” Mother takes my temperature, “Measles.  Sixteen is old for measles.  Go to bed.  Why didn’t you come home early?”

I just want to lie down and block out everything.

I wake to distant sounds of family around the supper table.  It’s dark in my room.  I’m hot.  Parched.  Safe at home. 

Then I’m eight years old again and waking in that deserted nurse’s office. 

I haven’t thought of that since it happened.  No wonder I avoided the nurse today.  I smile in the dark.  I’m not that little girl any more. I’ll be strong, like Daddy is strong.

Daddy working the trailer hitch, 1980's, with Uncle Bruce observing

Daddy working the trailer hitch, 1980’s, with Uncle Bruce observing

I remember Daddy working under the car in the garage.  Oil change, transmission repair, tires patched, some busted blown broken component replaced – whatever it took – so the car would once again go.

I remember we sat stopped off the side of Route 66, the Arizona desert undulating pinks and browns and beiges in the sweltering 100 plus degrees of an August day, while Daddy changed a blown tired.  We kids squabbled about the sticky back seat in the constant furnace blast of air that is summer, while in the front seat, Mother looked faint, anxious and exhausted.

It really ticks me off that I have Mother’s stamina.  Or lack of stamina.  She fatigued.  I fatigue.  I swore I’d be like Daddy.  Strong, independent, capable, positive. Healthy.

Not like Mother.  Tired.  Weepy.  Stressed out.  She spent three months in bed after a hysterectomy, then had pneumonia, then a lupus type flare-up that cleared up as mysteriously as it had come.  Always something wrong. 

I won’t be like her.  Yet here I am.  Had to change my entire diet to stop constant sinus infections that morph into bronchitis.  Funky hormones that don’t work right.  Thyroid disease.  I’ll be on meds the rest of my life.  Really ticks me off. 

Daddy did whatever it took to take care of us.  Even when it meant auto repair work that was dirty and greasy and often held up our well-laid plans.  I remember I thought when I grew up I’d have enough money to pay for such jobs.  No getting dirty for the man in my life.  No waiting by the side of the road for a maybe-maybe not rescue.

Except no man ever measured up.  No man ever rode to my rescue.  Instead it was me who had to pay for repairs.  It was me who had to find solutions.  I remember long distance calls as I sat alongside the highway waiting for the tow truck.

“Here’s what it sounded like, Daddy,” I’d say, “what do I tell the mechanic?”

Breathe deeply, girl.  How would Daddy handle it?  He’d be grateful for another day of life, another opportunity to be positive with those around him.  He was cheerful. He knew God made him and he could trust God for who he was.

I have to choose.  Believe.  Deal with who I am and what my body needs.  What’s the alternative?  Get mad?  Get depressed?  Avoid doctors and nurses offices?  Binge on problematic foods and suffer the consequences?  Give in to needing to be pampered, like Mother?

There’s no contest. I won’t be like her.  I can’t change the way I was made.  I can control how I respond.  Like Daddy or like Mother.

Daddy and Mother, Pomona, Ca 1990's

Daddy and Mother, Pomona, Ca 1990’s

I sit in the house that was Daddy and Mother’s and marvel that he was my retirement age when they moved in here.  My age when he poured concrete and installed the heating/cooling unit, built the back porch overhang, ran electrical wiring for lamps where the old Craftsman style house needed more electrical outlets, replaced the shower stall, added cabinets to a bare kitchen wall, hung a microwave, toaster and electric can opener under those same cabinets, hung shelf brackets on the walls for shelves that now hold books, two and three rows deep.  And he did all this while working a full-time job that included hours on the highway.  He may be gone now, his earthly productiveness finished, but I see him everywhere I look.

My retirement is an unexpected journey: freedom to not be in the mad paced work world; freedom to have energy for exercise; freedom to learn new things; to take classes; to write; to cook, which is a toss-up – successful meal or hardly edible – freedom to be the best I can be, and most surprising, freedom to be at peace with Mother.

By the time Daddy had slowed in age and had stopped trying to repair automobiles with their computer components and modern molded plastic parts, I’d learned to do some rehab and repair items with my own hands.  Though never as detailed as the skills Daddy had and never with the power that flowed from his large hands.

He walked three miles a day up until six months before he died.  Cancer.  Something takes each of us at the end, right?  He was six weeks away from eighty-nine.  He loved life and lived it fully.  He believed he was headed to a place without pain or limitations or suffering. I believe, too.  I’ll see him there, one day.

Meanwhile, life in this old house continues for Mother and me.  I’m here so her days will end in her own home.

She has surprised me by learning to let go of the expectation I could do what Daddy did.  While I didn’t inherit his big hands or his strength, I did inherit his work principle and his belief in joy and love.  The bedrock he gave my life lives.  I decide to laugh and believe that all can be conquered. And some days I see a glimmer of Mother deciding to give up her worry.

Mother keeps on going.  Through the pain of a twisted spine, crooked and hurting hips, heart disease, swollen legs, heavy medications with weird side effects, she keeps moving.  She’s nearly eighty-eight.  She might have it easier in these late days if she’d kept moving and walking years ago.  If she’d changed her diet and dealt with her swollen legs in the decades before heart disease took over.

Still, I’ve come to the late realization that she’s much more of a fighter than I ever knew.  She’s stubborn and no one will stop her until she’s ready to stop.

“Quit nagging me to eat,” she pushes her plate away.  She looks small and frail after two months bedfast with bruising and sores on her leg.  She lost her appetite and went down another ten pounds.

“Are you ready to quit,” I stand next to her in her permanent spot at the dining room table, hands on my hips, and try to keep the frustration out of my voice, “ready to go home to God?  Ready to finish this life?”

She doesn’t look at me.

“Because if you don’t eat, that’s what will happen.”  I watch her as she thinks it over.

She pulls her plate back and takes another bite, “No.  I’m not ready to go.”

Mother - all dressed up for church

Mother – all dressed up for church

That was last month.  Now she’s back making her own breakfast.  Gets herself dressed.  Pulls on compression hose.  Takes her vitamins and medications.  Moves around the house again.  Her weight is up two pounds.

Maybe it’s ok for me to be like Mother.  She’s a survivor.  Daddy was a survivor.  I can take the best from both of them.  I’m a survivor.

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Softball

flowers in a sunny meadow

google images

We were twelve.  The sun shone.  Our hunger had been satisfied with grilled hamburgers and watermelon.  We sat Indian style on the grass.  He was cute.  Short blond hair, light brown eyes and nice smile made me happy to be with him.  He slowly leaned sideways, until his head almost touched his knees.  I watched his head lower, his face turned toward me, his eyes on mine.  I was fascinated.

KA-WHACK!  A softball smacked my forehead.  Pain exploded and my world spun.  I was knocked backwards like a bowling pin, my legs still tucked under me.  The world went upside down, voices whirled around and echoed from someplace far away; my ears rang like falling stalactites cracking on hard cavern ground.  Everything went black.

The softball game stalled.  Light came back and hurt my eyes.

“Didn’t you see it,” he asked?

It hurt to shake my head.

Someone yelled, “Is she ok?”

The men and older boys resumed their game.  My head still spun.

“Honey,” my mother called, “come over here.”

I got up on wobbly legs, climbed back through the fence and went to the picnic tables where my mother sat with the women and small children.  I needed sweetened iced tea and something cold for my throbbing head.

I didn’t need my mother fussing over me; telling me I should have known better than to get close to the ball field.

Meadow.  An impromptu baseball diamond in a grassy meadow at a Saturday church picnic.  But, it was pointless to correct her.  She would worry if I were wrapped in cotton.  As for me, I felt embarrassed and abandoned that no one had protected me from that ball.  Who was the outfielder, anyway?

In the summers since that sunny day, I never did do much baseball watching.  Didn’t get into the sport.  After all, I wasn’t there for the game, all those years ago.  I was there with the cute guy.  Apparently it’s a guy thing to watch the game and talk to a girl…and assume she’s aware of the game and will see the ball flying right toward her.

Family Moves

I am twelve years old when Daddy calls a family meeting. We come together in the living room, the doors, windows and curtains closed against the deepening dusk. Outside it’s rapidly cooling down after a seventy degree, sunny, Southern California, winter day. I’m in the middle of family. Safe in the familiar routines. Cozy. We six against the world.

Little island of light and warmth
hold me tight, keep me safe,
here no dark dreams creep.

I sit in the middle of the sofa, excited and a little anxious to know what’s coming. Changes are not rare. Family meetings are rare.

Quiet, fervored wish.
Calm, budding hope.
Past anticipation’s dashed dreams.
Restraint. Restrain.
Be quiet, good little girl.

Mother looks relieved to settle back on the threadbare sofa after her day washing, cleaning and cooking, her stamina as faded as the design on her worn housedress.  Winzona, nine, dirty and grass stained from sliding across the front yard in a game of dodge ball, sucks her thumb and leans up against Daddy’s left side at the opposite end of the sofa from Mother.  Daddy, white T-shirt tucked into heavy cotton work pants, sort of perches on the edge of the sofa with his in-charge-alertness that he has on Sundays at church when he’s praying or at the front, speaking to the people.  Larry, thirteen, sits on the floor, Indian style, knees bent, legs crossed with bare feet pulled behind his knees; his white T-shirt neatly tucked into jeans, one knee poking through loose jean threads; his hands busy coaxing the purrs out of Buddy The Cat, whose contented hum deepens as he settles into the deep cavern between Larry’s crossed legs.  Trevie, fifteen, blond, wavy hair Brylcreemed into place, pulls over one of the metal, Formica kitchen chairs and sits. He’s alert.  Trevie always has a plan; is always on the move.

“How would you like to learn about our new home?”  Daddy opens the World Encyclopedia, Volume M-N, to the section on Nevada, “I’m being transferred to the Nevada desert where I’ll be testing rocket fuels.”

It’s 1962. The space race is heating up.

Caution fades, joy leaks.
Adventure! Off to new places.
No worries. This safe world is just
moving house, right?

Over the next weeks, as Mother packs up everything we own, we read and reread everything the World Encyclopedia, Volume M-N, has to say about the topography, the weather statistics and the historical information of Reno and Sparks, Nevada.

I know the decision to move was made between Daddy and Mother before we kids even knew a thing about it.  And before that, it was made by Daddy’s bosses at North American Rockwell, or Rocketdyne as we know it.  But this one somehow feels like a family decision where we all have a part. All the moves in the past just happened as a normal course of everyday life.  This one holds the portent of great adventure.

~

google images:Sears, 1960s

google images:Sears, 1960s

And we’re off!  We’re shopping at Sears for coats on our way out of California to Nevada.  We’re headed to serious cold weather, where winter means freezing nights and possibility for snow!  Some man is taking random pictures, trying to get shoppers to commit to visiting the Sears Photography Studio.

My picture shows me shy, barely smiling for the camera, arms crossed over my flat chest; my short sleeved, white blouse with Peter Pan collar, buttoned down the front and tucked into a pleated, plaid skirt.  The photo is in black and white, the colors in that plaid skirt lost with the past.  My chin length, dark brown hair has Shirley Temple rows of curls across the top; the sides sort of fluffy, like tight curls brushed out.  I’m standing in front of a stack of jeans in the boys department.  This is so rare.  Shopping together as a family.  Shopping at a store for something ready-made instead of watching clothing take shape on Mother’s sewing machine.  Having our pictures taken.  How did Daddy afford to pay for these pictures?  I feel the newness, the strangeness, the adventure.  Just don’t look for it on my face.

All reserve and shyness.
Eyes betray no excitement.
I’m long practiced.  Hold it all in.
But don’t pinch me to test for life.
I can strike back.  Ask my sister.

~

I did just fine at six different grades schools from kindergarten through sixth grade and starting a new school is just one of the things that happens. No big deal.  So, why does starting seventh grade at Dilworth Junior High in Sparks, Nevada, make my stomach hurt?

There’re the six different classrooms a day with six different teachers.  That’s new.  There’re the over one hundred kids in the seventh grade.  That’s different.  That’s more kids than I’ve ever been with in one grade.  There’s the fact that the seventh grade class all seem to know each other.  They started kindergarten together.

Expand little island of safety,
carry me through the halls.
Resilience take hold in the lunchroom.
At least don’t embarrass me in the locker room.

For the moment I can forget school.  The Truckee River is at flood stage in Reno, so school is let out early and Larry and I walk the mile or so of blocks at the edge of downtown Sparks from the school to our motel room.

“You’re off early, too?” Mother says as Daddy sweeps into our motel room, grinning and pulling off his heavy work jacket.  She’s wiping down the tiny counter space of the kitchenette portion of the large room where we’ve lived for a few weeks.  The room holds two double beds, a sofa, a roll away bed, a small bathroom and an even smaller closet.  Close to the kitchenette wall there’s a kitchen table, metal legged and Formica topped with six unmatched chairs crowded around it.

Winzona doesn’t have to go to school yet.  Until we know what part of town we will live in, Mother and Daddy have decided she could wait.  Hardly seems fair, but then, it feels like the baby usually gets special treatment.  If I were nine again, my stomach might not hurt.

“Get your coats, we’re going to watch the flood,” Daddy bounds across the room to the closet to get a change of clothes, then shuts himself in the bathroom.

“What?” Mother fusses, “watch the flood? That’s dangerous.”

Trevie, just arrived from his walk from Sparks High School, tosses his school books on the sofa, “What’s dangerous? Where are we going?”

Mother’s looking frazzled.  I wonder if living in one large room in a motel makes her stomach hurt?  Or, if it’s Daddy’s fearlessness?

The six of us pack the car tightly, warming up the interior and fogging up the windows.  Safe.  Together in a small space.  The motel is miles from the flooding river.  School may be new, but family is still family.

~

The wind whips up the collar on my coat and keeps flipping my hair in my eyes.  It stings my cheeks with each lash of my hair against my face.  The rain has stopped for the moment.  We’re standing on a bridge in downtown Reno, looking at the rising water.  Torrential rains for days have dumped so much water, there’s no place for it to go.  It just keeps getting higher, reaching its fingers up.  Reaching for the heavy, gray and black sky.

google images - Truckee River Flood stage, Reno, Nevada

google images – Truckee River Flood stage, Reno, Nevada

Rush, water rush.
Blow, wind, blow.
Crash, mighty power,
overwhelm petty fears, small
jealousies, school hall woes.
Eternity, huge
versus
 puny, momentary upset.

“Let’s go, honey,” Mother looks anxiously at the river and then back towards the car parked on the street.

I’ve never seen a flood.  Not in sunny, Southern California.  I’ve never seen so much out of control water.  It’s like the world is alive.  It’s like the leaden, heavy skies are breathing life into the high desert.  I like it.  I like the purple peaks that tower over the valley, their tips covered in white.  I like the cold nights and the thunder and lightning.  It’s the flip-side of never ending sun.  I feel exhilarated and free.  I breathe deeply and tight muscles relax.  The only thing my stomach tells me now is that its dinner time.

“Will the water come up over the bridge, Daddy?” Winzona tucks herself under his arm.

Embrace the storm.
Fly on the rain,
breathe in the wind,
relax in its grip,
float above the clouds;
up where blue skies and sun live on,
undaunted.

“Yes, it probably will, sweetheart,” Daddy hugs Winzona, then turns towards Mother, “Ok everyone, back to the car.”

Write

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

Plumb the depths
dig into the gritty nitty
else  i l q1 r b H  and
all aaaa—zzzz—2222
fall hollow?

Reach no heights;
pale to  f a d e , the flesh
unknown.
So they say.

Dig it up, serve in red
bites, chunks drip,
for drool’s only run where
pain lives.  Apparently.

Risk.  Fly off the rock.
The greater the heaven
the greater the soar,
the greater the fall,
the greater the splat.
Splat.
Splat.

Ah, splat into wisdom’s eye shine
or splat into vapid’s barren desert?

Turn the letter-word-phrase to
a golden, light, even crust on all
sides.  Perfection?

Beauty’s in the eye of
the beholder, I’ve heard.
Still, word’s truths live
tho’ understanding varies.

Does this depth skim
some other’s surface?
Miss their depth?
Is this as
deep as I get?

Perhaps it takes a dig
beyond their deep
to get me.

kitchen visions…

image source:Bing image

image source:Bing image

Knife flies, onions weep,
garlic peel    sticks
Mother cries with throat clogs.

Time flies while Fur Elise sweeps
the keys.
Who knew?
This was no season for angst.

Where is the time kept that perfected
thus?

Sisyphean over and over
around and around, up and down
in and out
marks dread’s thread pulled
over years and ages and days and
minutes to hold in a No. N.O.

Yet, here I am, wheeling the knife
shaping the pieces, carving the chunks
that eases with less than Herculean.

I’m quite impressed
Beethoven, Orff and Bizet serenade
with an flow that marks success.

Smile fills my plate.
Why did I not know it could be this easy?

Art heart…

The heart lunges, it hungers, it leaps.  I’ve seen it try and pour itself out in saving others or giving to others in a beauty that is unrecognized by the fearful, the hurt, the hungry.  They lash out against the heart’s beauty.  They misunderstand.

I get the beauty, but of course, I compare.  Me to her.  Me to him.  Aren’t I silly for doing that?  What’s to compare?  Their uniqueness shrivels my plainness?  Or does my beauty shine a hue that differs from their rainbows?

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

Take the strutting peacock, for instance.  That’s just the male.  The female, the one he’s strutting for is plain and mousey by comparison.  Which begs the question, if you follow, does the male with his bright feathers, tips in bright, bold eyes, think he is beautiful?  Or does he strut because he is ugly until chosen?

Perhaps it’s far simpler.  His DNA is programmed for bright hues and strutting and her DNA is programmed for simple, plain, protective style that melds into the ground cover, hiding there to protect the young, making the nest look enticing to the fabulous, plumed, brilliant, stunning MALE.  And so they choose and so they mate and so the breed continues.

They did what they were born to do.  They follow instinct and fulfill their destiny.  I get tripped up in the search for my destiny versus some other person’s destiny – hers or his; my potential versus hers or his; the choices, the options are myriad.  Too many to comprehend and embrace.  Perhaps that is why I get nothing done and accomplish squat.  Which way to go?  Which dream to follow?  Which heart to embrace?

I ponder and try to reach beyond the sameness of this morning.  Nothing new there; it’s the common challenge as the everyday breathes on all sides.

I call to Mother and she comes to my desk, slowly, her balance steadied by her footed cane.  Sun shines its morning glow through the eastern window with a glisten on the gray streaks in her dark hair.

“I can’t stand here looking at pictures,” she leans on the cane, “I have to get some breakfast.”

“I know,” I rise from my folding chair and help her get seated.  “Just this one; you’ll love it,” I maneuver the laptop so that Mother can see.

My nephew’s wife posts pictures of their two girls, toddlers, on her facebook page.  In this picture, the littlest one grins, every inch of her body covered in happiness, her big blue eyes saucers of joy.  Her older sister looks shyly at the camera, her smile demure, her big blue eyes tentative.  They’re both dressed in ruffled, polka-dot cotton shirts and tot sized blue jeans.

“So beautiful.  I want to squeeze both of them,” Mother reaches up and adjusts the angle of her glasses for a better view.  “They need to come see us again.”

We look at several pictures until Mother pushes herself upright and with careful moves of her cane, returns to the kitchen.  There’s a slight lift to her movement.  She drank in the beauty of two new little lives, health’s glow on their skin, bright eyes, fluffy hair and pint-sized outfits.  She doesn’t feel any better than she did before; it’s the beauty that has lifted her.  She’ll get her breakfast a little easier now.

So shall I compare my beauty to theirs?  To some artist?  Shall I stifle the creativity that I didn’t know was there because it looks different from all others?  I find myself picking at our differences.  I see the lack in my creative well.  I feel drab and useless.  I am ineffectual.  I am not an artist.

It’s no good stopping at that sore spot.  The lack is too painful.  I push on.  I seek the truth.  I dig until I find it.  Or it finds me.  God programmed their DNA.  God programmed my DNA.  I’m not the artist she is or he is.  I am my own artist.  I will take my cue from Mother.  Absorb the beauty, let it escape the synapses of my gray matter to run down my arms and spill out through my fingers.  I will create.

The do…

image source:picsbox

image source:picsbox

I wonder if we choose
cadillac shine with fingers to the keys and
synapsis firing
or do the pistons lift and fall to the unseen?

Fingers filled and colored bright        glued           stationary
where they   float   push    pull
GRASP             reach   tug      despair
d

r

o

w

n.

How they soar to the music and bleed into the camera,
emerge, wholly frac  tured.

I try to wrap my head around that beauty, that strange
drama of pain, fulfillment, Joy.  Driven determination.

They leech into my sleep.
Dreams skate across the wrinkled blanket and
fall into the abyss of sweet and fearful.

“Like a sparrow in his flitting, like a swallow in its flying,
a curse that is causeless does not alight.”

Proverbial sight pierces dark.  Not proverbial until birthed,
right?  I mean, the proverb started somewhere, get it?

Begin the beguine, trip the light fantastic
right down to the drive, the sit, the start, the do, the do, the do.

Was that really so hard?  The barrier releases and the flood
bursts
OR trickles, trickles, trickles,
rains, splatters, downpours, floods;

OUT they spit, the letters, the a, the c, the qu, the z
after one, two, three   Squat.

So, if outside, implore;
if inside, explore
else denying dry DIE crackle and Never have life.