Meandering

I just got off the phone with my mother. She called to say that my eighty-seven year old uncle passed away. It was a very short call, not even two minutes long. Her voice was cracking, and she wasn’t sure where Dad was at the moment. “I think he’s in the basement,” she said. Dad’s older brother, and only sibling, is the one who died.

There is nothing particularly morbid, nor symbolic, about Dad being in the basement an hour after his brother died. It’s a farmhouse built in 1910, and there are any number of things that can go wrong, starting at the base. “Dad’s in the basement” was something I heard often growing up. We would hollar down the steps for him before we checked the machine shed or the cattle lot.

I have never liked the smell of the basement, surrounded as it is by so much dank earth. Dad has worked hard to make it as nice as possible. In the 1970s he put down turquoise carpet patterned with large flowers. It gets soaked after every hard rain, inches of water standing again and again. Dad, unfazed, is always airing out the basement. The carpet is unfazed, too; unlike other fads of the 70s, it’s had great staying power.

He is something of an artist, my father. He likes Beauty and is at turns tender and frivolous with it. I was surprised recently when, stooping over his flower bed, he told me that his favorite flower is the snapdragon. To me, they seem insubstantial, hardly worth the trouble. I mean, how can they stand a chance in a wild Illinois storm? “I like the yellow ones,” he said, plucking a tiny weed.

That’s the tender side. On the frivolous side, he decided one year he ought to paint the uncarpeted half of the basement floor, and he chose turquoise for continuity with the carpet. He sloshed it over the cracked cement floor and then continued up the walls, across the work bench and over some shelves, until even the ceiling pipes could camouflage a peacock.

I’m wondering if Dad has meandered outside by now, though the wind may be too bitter this time of year. He’s more likely sitting in his recliner. Last week was his last conversation with his brother. Uncle Dale was in bed, in hospice, overrun by leukemia. Dad told me about the call: “He said, ‘I love you’ and ‘It’s been great farming together for forty years.”

Dad could barely get this out. I knew why and was glad that I knew. Brothers of their generation, with old German reserve thrown in, didn’t just go around saying that kind of thing.  Affection wasn’t foremost when the two stood in the barnyard making decisions. There are fields to cash-rent; the other may want to rent them himself, and how do you negotiate that, land values being what they are this year? And the damned market. One says sell now; the other one balks. In forty years, Stan and Dale didn’t much stand around reveling in the romance of being the fourth generation to work the family farm.

Because the basement is always damp, Dad keeps the lights on and runs a fan continually. Mom makes him keep the door closed because she is terribly afraid of mice, even though another point of pride about Dad’s basement is making it critter-tight. But an Illinois farm will always have unexpected bothers, and no man gets it perfect, and the oddest little things can throw you off.

Dad told me something very poignant: After that conversation, in what amounted to their goodbye, he started wondering where his brother used to sleep as a child. The original 1910 house had only one bedroom; their parents didn’t add a second until their second child was born. Dale was already five when Dad came along. “I don’t know where he used to sleep. I never asked him. Isn’t it strange that something like that came into my mind?”

Yes, it is strange. And tender and frivolous. I’m trying to write about it, typing phrases like “of much consequence” and “no bad blood.” But I keep deleting them. Maybe I should call my own brother instead, ask him some frivolous question. We could laugh together about the turquoise paint. What a choice that was, and what a picture for us now: covering over what would otherwise be only cold under our feet and gloomy over our heads.

 

The Mask

     There was a house in town that had no green lawn, no trees, and a single cracked step at the door. It was more a cement square than a house. According to my imagination—I never was inside—it had only one room, occupied by a family of twelve children. I always pictured them sleeping side by side on a hard floor, like sorted lumber.

     The reason I believed in the existence of twelve children was this: there seemed to be one in every grade. Except for height, they were exact replicas of each other: brown hair, scattered freckles, short and slim, and uncannily quiet. J. was in our class. He was not a bad kid, but he had no self-assertion. I was on the other end of the social spectrum: smartest in the class and teacher's pet. The reader will forgive this claim; it is not a boast. I abused my status terribly.

     One contribution to popularity was the Halloween costume. It was especially impressive if sewn by your mother instead of store-bought. Halloween was an amazing day at school, all silliness and distraction and pretending not to be recognized. Typically the costume fit the personality, especially the villainous or goofy ones.

     If you wished for complete anonymity, you kept your mask on at recess. I can feel one today. You endured the sharp edge of cheap plastic cutting into your ears; the eye-hole was never big enough; you had to keep tilting your head to see out. The thing always needed adjustment, because the elastic was slick as a dandelion stem and kept slipping. You had to hold it by its chin when you turned your head. Your face got sweaty and your wig (necessary for hiding the other four-fifths of your head) was itchy. Inevitably the mask would be cracked by the end of the day. What a relief it was when the cupcakes were brought out! You pushed the mask—finally!--up to the top of your head so that you could eat.

     On Halloween in second grade there was great alarm and a lot of whispering: J. didn't have a costume. Not even a mask. He was that poor. What would he do at the party? Maybe he ought to go home. But while we were on the playground, the teacher detained him in the room. When we filed back in, J. was at his desk wearing a mask. Dear, kind Mrs. L. apparently kept a box of spare masks in her closet for poor children and had helped J. to choose one.

          It was a pathetic sight: the still boy alone in the center of the room, facing the blackboard. We saw his hair, his pale skin, the curved edge of the mask he had chosen. It was—this is painful to tell—a cartoon character called Porky Pig. That bright pink face was the whole of his poor disguise. He didn't move, didn't acknowledge us, just sat with unwavering stoicism while we pretended we didn't know who he was.

     Things must have improved for J., because the next year he had a full costume and had also signed up, along with two other students, to bring the party cupcakes. I was surprised that he even had a mother, let alone that she would bake.

     J.'s cupcakes were very beautiful, heaped with colored frosting. But popularity brings power and every year more cruelty, and I spread a rumor that we shouldn't eat them. They might have cooties; let's only eat Mrs B's and Mrs D's. Because I did this, my ongoing punishment is an image of J. leaving school with a full tray in his arms, silent as the Pietà.

     Elementary school is an inevitable spectrum of achievement, and I was a “high level” reader. I deliberately chose the thickest books. My especial pride was choosing one that, in a decade, no one else had endeavored to read. It was some nautical adventure, with "Courage" in the title. I didn't especially enjoy it, but my name was now immortalized inside the cover on a pasted card, which was what I was really aiming for.

     The books I genuinely loved--blessed be our teacher for having them!--were the Oz books. The Wizard of Oz we all knew, of course, from television. But here was Ozma of OzThe Patchwork Girl of OzRinkitink of Oz, wonderful thrilling escapes that saturated the mind with strange new color and imagery. And when the teacher took us on a field trip to the library, what did the librarian tell me? That there were twelve more! A whole series on the shelf, just around the corner, second aisle.

     But another explorer had already landed there. Crouched on the rug with Book Five in his hands, was J. He did not see me--my hesitation, my soured hopes, my fear of association. He was far into the splendid world, one he had discovered before me.

     I didn't read any more Oz books after that, and my life is the poorer.

     Nineteen years later I took my beautiful little daughter to a testing center to have her assessed for academic readiness. It was just out of curiosity, really. She was only five, extraordinarily bright, already reading under my tutelage. The woman who tested her said she was certainly more than ready for kindergarten.

     When we came out of that office, there was a young father with a little boy tucked in close at his side. I knew by the face of his son that this was J. We said a surprised hello. J. was still quiet but not shy, neatly dressed, handsome really, a gentle-seeming parent, and when I asked he told me that his son had just finished the tests and scored very high. He used the word “exceptional” without the barest hint of a boast or a mask of false modesty.

     I'm very glad that I saw J. that day. His son would be twenty-nine now. I hope with all my heart that he is well and content and still the pride of his father, enduring with equal fortitude the sharp edge of brittle things.

The Fabric

4-H was huge in our rural area, and we farm girls could both exhibit livestock and learn to sew and bake. My main focus was the sewing, and in fact I garnered some blue ribbons. That is because I had the best teacher in the county: my mother. Miss Carol Jean Smith married Stanley Gingrich before she finished college, but she deserved an honorary PhD in Home Economics. I mean the noble, mid-century kind, which truly valued all the arts that made Home not only economical, but lovely.

Mom was a master seamstress. She always produced excellence and held me to her high standard. But she also had the ability to teach with patience and to supply consolation as needed. I cried over many crooked hems, many jammed needles, many poorly timed backstitches pedaled imprecisely on the old Singer. She had a little pink seam-ripping tool, which I learned to use with relative composure. If a button hole was crooked, she assured me that I would improve on the next one.

When I was about thirteen, I had an ambitious idea for Father’s Day: I could sew Dad a shirt! What a nice gift, something he would cherish from his only daughter.

The choice of style was easy: Dad loved to play golf. And he was a dapper man for his time and place, liked to look the part, liked owning (as he called them) “snazzy” shirts for on the course. He always enjoyed a new one. And as shirts go, it was the perfect choice for a young seamstress: fairly simple design, no zippers, no stiff collar needing a perfect point, and only three button holes. The casual style would forgive a pucker or two in the shoulder seams (as long as it was under the arms—otherwise, the seam ripper).

I’m sorry to say that, with this project, my mother had a rare failure of judgment. She let me pick out the fabric. I chose terrycloth. It looked so summery, so cool! Well, alright honey, I think that will work; No, I don’t think it will look like a towel. Look at all the colors available; terrycloth seems to be in style this year. Yes, white’s a good choice; it goes with anything.

The sewing went well, albeit a little slippery. There were a couple seams I had to repeat, but nothing to induce tears. All in all, I was pretty proud of that shirt.

Dad opened my neatly wrapped box with a stream of happy commentary: Hmm…what can it be? What did my favorite daughter give me? I’ll bet it’s something really special….As he lifted the shirt from the tissue paper, he poured out praise: I love it! I’ve been needing a white one. He hugged me and kissed my cheek and said all the right things. Of course Mom pretended I had done it all on my own. Dad hurried to the bedroom to try it on.

When he emerged, it was painfully obvious to all three of us that the shirt was too small. Way too small.

Turns out white doesn’t go with everything. When stretched taut, it becomes rather transparent, especially in a loose weave. And no thirteen-year old girl wants to see the results: man nipples and springing chest hairs (where the buttons can’t quite reach their holes). Add to that the problem of the legendary Farmer’s Tan: in too-short short sleeves, boundaries are exposed, and that deeply-established brown looks ten shades darker than the upper arms. Next to the shirt’s white glare, Dad’s normally impressive deltoids looked kind of…pink.

When he just a tiny bit suggested that the gift could maybe possibly fit a tiny bit better if the sides were let out just a little, my heart sank. As per instructions, I had carefully trimmed the seam allowances to one-quarter of an inch. There was no way even Dr. Mom could surgically expand my work.

But my father could expand his praise. During his daughter’s thirteen years, he had mastered the loving little lie, the exaggerated affirmation. He tugged that shirt down over his belly and pretended to be rapt with admiration; he waved his arms across his chest to show how the wonderful fabric allowed for great movement.  You know, it’s fine; it’s perfect really. No no, it’s not too small. I’m wearing it! Nooo, honey, it’s just right. It’s great, in fact. To this day, I hear his voice--his kind, genuinely cheerful voice—and I see the squeezed smile on Mom’s face. I can even feel the wave of understanding that surely passed between them: Don’t say a word.

My heart teetered between hope and desolation. Dad really did look ridiculous. But he kept saying it was fine, it was fine, and I took the impossible leap of faith and believed him. Mom probably mustered all her imagination: maybe eighteen holes could make that shirt expand farther than the most affectionate fib, and in even better proportions.

No man can look snazzy in too-tight terrycloth. But a good-natured man with an irrepressible sense of humor can pull off something better. I’m quite sure Dad gave into temptation before teeing off. How can I blame him? I knew the reputation of his “golf buddies.” Burt and Ted and his brother Sed were great jokesters. I can easily imagine the scene: the guys chuckled when my father strolled up wheeling his bag behind him on a pushcart. They teased, So Carol finally shrunk your clothes, eh? as they ground cigars into the grass under their saddle-style shoes. What are you clowns talking about? my dad shot back. This shirt? This is my Father’s Day present, and by golly I’m wearing it with pride. You goofballs go ahead and laugh. Those pro-shop shirts of yours sure aren't going to help your lousy putting.

And for the love of his daughter, I bet you he beat them all. And afterwards, he collected their quarters and ribbed them some more and waved off the invitation to a round of beer, because his family was waiting for him at home. And he walked off getting the last laugh: Hey, Teddy, you might have fixed that bad hook, if your shirt hadn’t been so loose.

This past summer, my dad, at 82, shot under his age. That’s a thirty-seven and a thirty-nine, boys. You see, he can still play a perfect game.

 

O Sun, Stand Still

One of the first lessons we children learned in Sunday School was this: The church is not a building; it is the people. Of course, we didn’t believe it. We knew that, if the church was us, it was in big trouble.

We were disciples of crime, disturbers of the peace. We left shards of broken commandments all over the hall. We stole sugar cubes that our own grandmothers had bought; we broke the donated toys. We experimented with four-letter words. We snuck into forbidden places—the basement, the bell tower—and our only punishment was finding them uninteresting. We mimicked the way old ladies sang, gossiped about fat people and nicknamed a foster kid “Dog.”

We broke the spirit of our choir director. The Christmas program was approaching, and “Little Gray Donkey” was in bad shape. We refused to obey. A sudden impulse overtook the Bennett boy: he vaulted over the choir loft, flew about seven feet and landed with a mighty thud on his size elevens. It was shockingly brilliant. Rehearsal screeched to a halt, and we were seriously scolded, but snickered under our breath.

Despite all the evidence, no one clearly taught us about original sin. Apparently, coming down hard on people was not a denominational concern.  This deliberate omission actually made life harder when we became teens. Confirmed as members, we were now told that we were “the body of Christ.” This was bad news: our behaviors had only gone underground and worsened. And we didn’t even like each other all that much.

I started becoming suspicious of it all on Easter Sunday, just before I graduated from high school. I was already feeling that there must be a crack in the building’s foundation. Now I was hearing that we were a body without a living head.

The sermon was called “Where Did The Body Go?” The minister used a peculiar logic: the Bible says that Jesus is sitting at God’s right hand. God doesn’t have hands, so that’s impossible. The only interpretation is that the body is simply you and me, here and now, with Jesus’ fine example moving us along.

And so, by the end of that hour, all that was left of Easter was the stained glass window behind the pulpit. I had looked at it every Sunday for seventeen years. It depicted a solid Jesus. The morning light was behind him. He was standing in front of a cave. One hand was up, and there was a shard of crimson in his palm. Mary Magdalene was on her knees with her face lifted. There was no mistaking her expression: she had not expected a resurrection.

We, sadly, had expected one, but it was taken from us. Here we were, getting ready to vault into the world, with nowhere to land.

But back to those naughty children, in their goofiest hour. Mrs. Heston read us the story of Joshua, who led his people against five armies. He prayed for a miracle:

 Joshua spoke to the Lord, saying,“O sun, stand still at Gibeon,
 and O moon in the valley of Aijalon.” So the sun stood still, and
 the moon stopped, until the nation avenged themselves of their
 enemies. And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not
 hasten to go down for a whole day. There had never been a day like it before.

Our class went wild. One whole day, completely missing? That meant the calendar was all wrong! Today wasn’t today after all! Ha ha ha! Christmas wasn’t December 25th-- it was the 26th! The Fourth of July was really the Fifth of July! Everybody's birthday was off by a day, ha ha when’s yours? When’s mine? And oh oh oh, we shouldn’t even be in church right now because today is Monday!

Mrs. Heston never batted an eye. She didn’t scold, she didn’t stop the rioting. She let us go on re-arranging history on the basis of her simple testimony: the Bible tells us so. She was teaching us that its accounts are true; that the cosmos is held together by personal resolve, and its maker, anytime he wanted, could shake it up. The sun could stay or darken, according to His mysterious plan.

It meant, in fact, that anything could come undone: light and darkness, thievery and lies, every kind of mischief and all the ways we fall hard. Even, if he willed it, death itself.

The Name's the Thing

I became an English major so that I could read classics and avoid laboratories. I wanted to write poetry, not research plants. I understood symbolism; I didn't understand cells. These were two incompatible worlds, a divided campus, Caliban spurning Ariel. Indisputable theory and playful imagination were impossible bedfellows. Which is why I was intrigued by a recent radio broadcast.

The program combined a touching narrative (a young girl named Claire is enchanted by a bird) with biological insight (the bird's evolutionary purpose). All was tied together with deep philosophical hypothesizing—mainly by me, while driving along the I-15.

The bird is called the honeyguide, and it lives in Mozambique. Its name is sweetly practical: this species actually does lead people to honey. To summon the bird, you must first master its sound, which was nicely demonstrated on the program: a long rolling rrr followed by a sharp humph. You whir and huff your way into the forest and soon, playful as Puck, out flies the little brown honeyguide. Follow it leaf by leaf, and you will discover luxuriant, edible, dripping gold.

According to the broadcaster, “Scientists believe that billions of years ago the bird may have evolved an innate desire to lead people to honey.” My first thought was that a chocolateguide would have been just as useful. But then the bird would have ended up in South America, never to be discovered by young Claire.

My second thought was this: prior to honing its innate desire, the bird surely evolved organizational skills and an altruistic instinct. In fact, a group of honeyguides could easily form a non-profit. On their continent, many important causes could be targeted: world hunger, micro-financing, and/or eco-tourism, to name just a few.

Third thought: My son could capitalize on this. He works for a company that helps non-profits to raise funds. By successfully marketing its services to the honeyguide, he could help his company expand internationally. Sam, declaring himself “the fittest,” could then muscle his way up the ranks. This natural selection would mean, of course, a hefty raise.

However, as we have seen, evolution is not without its hitches. There is such a thing as moral devolution, in which a progressive desire for luxury masks itself as biological Necessity. If it comes to this in Sam's case, I will have to keep an eye on him, maybe offering to do research—on, say, an all-expense paid trip to the Mediterranean.

But in the meanwhile, hats off to the honeyguide for sticking around all these years to make life sweeter for all of us. As Shakespeare would say (if interviewed by NPR) a bird by any other name wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

In a Restless World Like This

My parents have fallen asleep leaning on each other. I’ve peeked into their bedroom because their tv is still on. The sound is muted; the words are scrolling across the screen. My father, at eighty-two, needs a c-pap for his suspended breathing, but there is still room on his shoulder for his wife of sixty years. They were watching a show about dancing. And Dad wanted to catch one more weather report before morning.

A severe storm watch is in effect for the following counties: Stark, Henry, Whiteside. These are the surrounding areas; my father’s crop is safe. There is only this quiet after the rain, only faint, trilling taps on the roof and the tick of a clock by the bed. The screen is flashing images of the outside world, making a sort of glow over them. But it does not wake them. It is more likely that my footsteps will, so I decide to close their door, leaving just a little opening for that same light.

Down on the Farm

I read submissions for a children's magazine, and about once a month, a farm story comes through my queue. Usually Farmer Brown gets up in the morning to the crowing of his rooster. Happily, he walks through the barnyard tossing grain to six fluffy chicks. He stops to pat his milk cow and admire a family of pink pigs. A typical conflict is a stubborn goat who doesn’t want to join the fun—until Farmer Brown coaxes him with a yummy ear of corn. Then all the animals pile into Farmer Brown's bouncy pickup, and off to town they go for a little fun.

The problem with these stories is their lack of zest. Real life farming is a much greater adventure.

A real farmer doesn't wake up to a rooster, but to a market report. If his vehicle bounces, he should see a mechanic before harvest. A single cow might be kept by, say, an experimenting homeschool family, but a modern dairy farmer can only survive if he invests in an "operation.” Animals going to town are not a subject for a child: they are about to be slaughtered. And a typical frustration is not a stubborn goat, but a thing no man can coax: the weather.

My father has been on the farm 82 years but has kept with the times. He showed me his mobile app this morning. Here is what it said:

MARKET COMMENT:
Corn: DN 4-6
Beans: DN 5-7
Wheat: Mixed
Rains bring some relief
to central Corn Belt,
trigger profit-taking.

Translation: Last night’s rain could have cost him several thousand dollars. DN means down.

Dad could kick himself for not selling on Wednesday—but how could he know that the Board of Trade would weigh his storm against the drought in North Dakota and decide that his crops weren’t worth as much on Thursday?

The one thing my father shares with Farmer Brown is a cheerful spirit. He says, “You can’t look at it as a loss. You do and you’ll drive yourself crazy.” You wait and hope and, as his 87 year old brother says, don’t plan any vacations to Vegas. A farmer gambles every day.

Dad loves visitors. He will take you for a ride in his pickup anytime. He'll explain the timing of pollination, the optimum moisture in a kernel, why peat ground has its advantages, and the reason an old shed is left to collapse in the weeds. He’ll tell you why you don’t see as many farm houses around the county as you used to--let alone pigs (which are not pink, btw).

Last night’s thunderstorm kept me awake, not because of noise, but because I became like the child who keeps asking for another bedtime story. I knew better. The storm that made my heart beat faster could very well break my father’s.

The atmosphere was shuddering like a troubled brain. I only saw one bolt of lightning strike the earth; the rest was an entire dome of pulsing light, snuffed out to stillness, then reawakened with a shock so bright that it brought an almost prophetic vision: a split-second when the darkness fled and the entire the land was clear as day, green to a blue horizon. The maple tree in the yard was suddenly outlined so that you could have numbered the leaves, if the world had frozen. But it didn’t. It never does.

By some miracle, in that wild weather there were occasional tiny flashes across the field: fireflies. They were ridiculous, really, in their persistent light. But it's July in rural Illinois, and that is what you get, and that is what you loved as a child. Your mother gave you a pickle jar and your father punched holes in the lid, and both let you stay up late. You ran around the yard in the dark, barefoot. You caught those little lights in your soft hand, and they tickled. You knew you had to let them go in the morning. But that was okay, because your father assured you that they would always come back.

The Quick Change Room

Last week I regaled you with my performances on the stage. This week, we consider my work behind the scenes, at a different community theater.

I’ve had many part-time, temporary jobs over the years, but none harder than my stint as a costume director. I was paid what I was worth (a bag of chocolates, I think it was), so no one really had the right to complain about my performance. But surprisingly, they did.

The play was called “The Quick Change Room,” and my job was to coordinate the costume changes backstage. Whoever volunteered me should have known better: you don’t give this job to someone who is easily distracted, likes to chat, and can’t see well in the dark. Focused, silent, eyes like a cat—these are the stuff. And the more amateur the actors, the more at stake. This particular troupe took great pride in their entrances onto the stage (which were, I’m sorry to say, usually better than the acting they did when they got there).

The job requires precision. Prepare for complaints. “Next time, unzip the black dress before you hand it to me.” “Leave the top two buttons of the skirt undone—I have big hips.” “Could you sand the soles of my shoes? I slip every time.” And my favorite: “You need to set the hat eight inches to the left—I’m used to grabbing it there.” There were also dangers. Two actors came to me breathing murderous threats against each other; the issue was (I am not making this up) a shoelace hole. As the saying goes, there are no small parts, only short fuses.

I trouble-shot and fumbled my way through five performances and at the end of each, while the actors were out celebrating, I checked and rechecked zippers, repaired rips, ironed undergarments, hung slumps of dresses back on their hangers, and rinsed out the armpits of the men’s shirts. The bag of chocolates didn’t last long.

Half-way through the first performance, I knew this was not the career for me. There’s no future in a field where you are the personal pin cushion of a prima donna. There’s no workplace pride when a misplaced boot forces an improvisation that ends with an actress in tears.

The irony in all this was that “The Quick Change Room” is a comedy taking place in a dressing room. The setting is a Russian theater. The troupe, and the nation as a whole, is transitioning from communism to capitalism. The laughs come as characters bumble and hustle in and out of costumes, agonize over missed cues, and bemoan the public’s changing tastes. In the end, they turn Chekhov into a Broadway-style extravaganza, and the place sells out.

I can’t recommend it for the whole family (there is one scene that has, uh, no costumes and is rather…hippy), but it is a very clever play. And I learned a lot. Some fascinating discussion took place in the (real) changing room. The best actor was a big bearded Italian with a host of family anecdotes and a loud, happy voice. Joe was actually the one responsible for the lost boots (he had left them under his dressing table), and he graciously apologized, which was no small consolation amid the slings and arrows I was dodging. Joe liked to call attention to his orientation. He talked about his “crush on this guy at Walgreens," and he liked to describe features of the culture he hung out in. One actress bantered back and forth with Joe about their lifestyle differences. She was the mother of four. So was I. One night Joe said, “Do you know what we call women like you? Breeders.” The actress laughed, and I felt curiously unoffended. I liked Joe. He was nice to me. He was polite about buttons, and he sprayed all the shoes with Febreze. He meant no harm. He was simply offering a glimpse into a social order that he himself didn’t seem to take all that seriously.

As I sit here today watching the national news, I can't help but think that we're in a quick-change room. Rehearsals aren’t going well. It’s not exactly a family-friendly show. Apparently a new world order is being staged, and we'll all be fine if we just shift a little to one side. 

I am a mother (of an admittedly wild brood), not a politician or a pundit, and most of my job is done. The hustle and fumble and forced improv was worth it. I couldn’t ask for a better role. I’ll admit that, as the show goes on, I worry. But I have heard that the director is very good and, as he is wont to do, will flawlessly pull it off in the end.

           

Cats

My four children consider my brief theatrical career as something of a family joke. But I take it very, very seriously. I cannot understand their attitude. What can possibly be wrong with having witnessed your middle-aged mother on stage, dressed head to toe in spandex, with white face paint and a spiked wig, prancing for two hours (very lithely, mind you) and answering to the name Jellylorum? Is this something to blush at? To blot from the family album? On which to base a claim, as one son did, that you are “scarred for life?”

Have YOU ever had a starring role in “Cats”?

I remind Scarred Son that the whole thing was not my idea. His Broad-Minded Brother (names withheld to protect the guilty) actually launched me. He and Gung-Ho Little Sister were trying out for a local production. He invited me to come along. Something stirred within me. I was swept up in a vision: I would make a triumphant-albeit-modest return to the stage. (I had played a suffragette in a school melodrama 35 years earlier). The swan would arise.

I prepared a peppy audition number, expecting at most to be placed behind a trash can (the set was a city alley). But lo and behold, the director (he was sober, I promise you) said, “You have a really good voice.” The call came the next day (he was still sober, I promise you): he wanted me as Jellylorum.

Broad-Minded Son exclaimed, “That’s a lead, Mom!” Not only would I be one of the first cats to pounce onto the stage, I would have a solo.

I see by your expression, dear Reader, that you don’t quite know what to make of this. “Cats” is one of the longest-running musicals of all time. Some would say Too Long, because all the characters are—you guessed it—cats. So if you have an aversion to cats, were once scratched by a cat, prefer any pet BUT a cat, or are simply allergic to adults dressed as cats, you will find it, at best, weird. It is based on T.S. Eliot’s poems for children. Eliot put aside his obscurantism and had plain old fun with rhymes about anthropomorphized cats. All their names are wacky: Skimbleshanks, Rumpleteezer, Mungojerry…and our friend Jellylorum. Their various escapades have been put to song, and now community theaters everywhere perform “Cats”-- with moms like me putting the force in tour de.

The first thing I had to learn was How to Move Like a Cat. It turns out that they do not say “Ouch” when they jump. They don’t stick out their fingernails (unless threatened); their paws hang loose. They don’t walk; they swish. And when the music starts, they dance like there’s no tomorrow (which was Scarred Son’s prayer, after opening night)

Rehearsals were rougher than I expected. From moment one, I was under tremendous pressure. At the sound of a lone oboe, I had to leap from a ten-foot platform onto an eight-foot platform. The first time, I landed on my face. The second time, my paws froze to the boards. The third time, Broad-Minded Son (who played an escape-artist cat) taught me a way to “just sort of roll yourself into it.” As I said earlier, he is the one who launched me.

Besides her solo, Jellylorum was featured in three numbers: one about a cat teaching mice to knit, one about a pub-crawling cat, and one rather sultry number called “Macavity the Mystery Cat.” I am no dancer, but I must say I mastered the moves quite admirably (one was called “headlights,” but it’s best not to ask).

I did not perform with an entirely clear conscience. My husband was a pastor at the time, a very principled Scottish Presbyterian, and there was a Sunday afternoon performance. But he was gracious about it, perhaps persuaded by the apostle’s “all things to all men” (although I don’t think that includes becoming feline).

I even made the papers. Because three Telfers were cast (Gung-Ho Little Sister made an adorable kitten), a reporter interviewed me about the experience. Here is how she began the article:

“Some families bond by taking vacations. Some play board games. The Telfer family enjoys dressing up like cats and crawling around on a stage.”

I was very glad I hadn’t told her the Scottish Presbyterian part.

Ah, my solo, you ask? It was nothing, really. The stage was empty. The lights were dim. Silently, I slunk onto the stage. Then, emerging from the shadows, I arched my back and slowly rose to my feet. I drifted (or so it felt) into the spotlight. Then, cued by a soft F-major arpeggio, I began a mournful ballad called Gus, the Theater Cat.

Gus hobbled onto the stage (someone’s dad, whose spandex was mercifully hidden by a tattered cloak) while I sang about his bygone career:

He isn’t the cat that he was in his prime
Though his name was quite famous, he says, in his time
And he likes to relate his success on the halls
When the gallery once gave him seven cat calls.

With heart-wrenching nostalgia, I ended the song:

These modern productions are all very well
But there’s nothing to equal, from what I can tell
That moment of mystery, when he made history
As Frirefrorefiddle, the fiend of the fell.

It matters not, dear Reader, what “Frirefrorefiddle” means. The point is, when I finished the song, I was sure I heard weeping.

Scarred Son will say it was him, but do not believe it.

I could regale you on and on; this only scratches the surface (ho ho). I will tell of just one more role. The same company put on “Sweeney Todd.”  I could reach a high C, which was handy for a number called “City on Fire.” I was part of a group of escapees from a 19th century London asylum. We burst onto the stage and ran all around it, shrieking, “It’s the end of the world!”

After that show, the child whom I’ve not yet mentioned—our oldest, aka She Who Understands True Artistry--threw her arms around me and summed up my entire family-history-making career with the highest compliment of all:

“Mom! You were the best lunatic!”

 

 

 

 

The Fall

Twenty years ago, one of my brothers went missing. He did it on purpose, and now all we have of him are recollections and bits of vague information on where he might be.

In my parents’ attic there are four boxes of our school papers, arranged like fine linens by our mother. After I laughed and sighed through mine, I opened my lost brother’s. It contained most of what I knew of him, because in adulthood we went our separate ways and, in his case, disappeared.

I found cards my parents had received at his birth: light blues and the white delivery stork swinging a happy baby in its beak. The cards are very sweet, funny and probably valuable as vintage items fifty-eight years later.

I found the marvelous drawing he did at age twelve: an Indian chief on horseback. The nobleman has a stern face, a full headdress, a long spear. The horse is rearing. Its legs are all muscle and very precisely drawn. The portrait hung on Grandma’s refrigerator, even after she had lost the memory of where it came from. I was there when my mother took it from her empty house.

Mostly, my brother's box contains his athletic achievements. In our rural area, there was no boy like him. He was an unerring pitcher. In the mile run, he had more strength and stamina than any other leggy farm kid. He fastened a boxer's speed bag to the pipes in our basement and with flawless eye-hand coordination would turn it to blur: back and forth, back and forth, fist punch elbow punch, fist punch elbow punch fist elbow fist, an almost terrifying speed for me, his younger sister, to watch. In a lighter mood, he would entertain his peers by walking the entire perimeter of the basketball court--on his hands.

Basketball earned him his great fame. He spent thousands of hours at it. Our father poured blacktop for him and hammered a backboard onto the garage. My brother’s shots rarely needed to bank—almost every shot was a rimless swish. One summer, he worked out a deal with Dad: if he could practice basketball eight hours a day and not do farm work, he would earn himself a scholarship to college. And he did. He was a Division I point guard. He was often in the newspapers.

It goes without saying that he had a lean, sculpted, ruthless physique. His physical balance was perfect.

He was also high school valedictorian, an entertaining emcee at rallies, a clever writer of poems, essays and short stories. Pretty girls had crushes on him, and guys would double over in laughter at his jokes. They all looked up to him with envy and admiration.

Looking back at what may have caused his deliberate disappearance, I wonder if the seeds were there in those obliterating punches and the maddening rhythm of the endlessly swatted ball. In the torrents of sweat on his bared chest and his steely, hypnotized expression. In his lion-like confidence. In the way he argued religion and did not always resolve the debate on a cordial note. Eight years ago, I heard that he was studying Greek to get at the original meanings of great truths. I also heard he was divorced and, for a time, homeless.

Back to the cardboard box. There was a trophy from eighth grade, the small kind that fits in a boy’s palm: First Place Pole Vault. This was the most dramatic of his sports. Pole vaulting requires an uncanny combination of skill: the right grip of the warrior pole, great bursts of speed, precise timing and accuracy, unreal flexibility. It also takes a sort of reckless nerve.

I don’t know if my father has any regrets about that one summer. He was always so proud of his son’s achievements, never missed a game or meet. But I worry that all the articles, the ribbons, the certificates and trophies will only grieve him more, so for now I’ve hidden them in a corner of the attic.

I’ve had many glimpses into Dad’s heart over these twenty years. I find it as noble as King David’s when Absalom undermined his father’s realm. Dad says he trusts the heavenly Father—what else to do? I caught him one summer day standing on his front porch. He was weeping. He spoke the question that a man of deep faith, after bowing to the unanswered Why, will ask. He simply said, “How long, Lord?”

Now I'm picturing those two things together: my brother free-falling from what seemed an impossible height, while his family trusted that he would land without injury. And my father gazing out at what a farmer inevitably sees: his growing crop. It was very green and healthy that year, looking to be another record harvest.

 

 

You're the Tooth Fairy!

Today rhondatelfer.com takes a break from essays and offers a little fun. Dedicated to goofy moms everywhere.

       Ben gave his mother his biggest wide-mouth smile. “Do you remember that I lost my tooth?” he said.

       “Yes,” she said. “It fell into your potatoes.”

       “Here it is, in case you’re wondering.” Ben lifted one corner of his pillow and showed her. “It’s right there. Do you see it?”

       His mom squinted. “I think so,” she said. “It’s a little hard to see. But the tooth fairy will find it. She always does.”

       “You mean you always do,” said Ben.

       “Me?” said Mom. “Why me?”

       “Because you’re the tooth fairy,” Ben said smartly.

       Mom looked surprised. “How can I be a fairy? Do I look like one?”

       Ben frowned. “No, I mean there IS no tooth fairy.”

       “No tooth fairy? Then who brings the dimes?”

       “You do. And it’s dollars now, remember?”

       “Silly,” she said, “You know I never have enough change.”

       Well, that was true. Once she had to borrow from Ben’s jar just to pay a library fine. She probably couldn’t—

       “Waaait a minute!” said Ben. “I said there IS no tooth fairy.”

       “Really?” Mom’s voice turned whispery, like she was asking for a secret. “Then who takes the teeth?”

       “You do!” said Ben. “Wesley told me.”

       “Wesley said that? We’d better invite him over. He must think I have wings. And a houseful of incisors.”

       Ben’s brain had to move fast now. His mom started mumbling to herself.

       “…messes of molars, canines everywhere….”

       “No no no,” said Ben, but his mother wasn’t listening.

       “…might be an interesting job. Lots of travel. But I’d have to lose weight. I couldn’t possibly ride a firefly.” She shook her head. “No. I’d never be hired. I’d have to learn Bulgarian, Swahili…and all those addresses! I have a terrible memory.”

       That was true. Two times last week she forgot to put a sandwich in Ben’s lunch, and Wesley would only share his carrot sticks. That killed his tooth. Mom could never--

       “Hold on!” said Ben. “You’re trying to trick me. You don’t have to be everyone else’s tooth fairy.”

       “…and I’m so bad with directions. Imagine me trying to find Madagascar.”

       “Other kids have their OWN tooth fairies!”

       “Why, Benjamin!” said Mom. “You know there’s only one tooth fairy.”

       “Nooo…I mean their moms are their fairies.”

       She chuckled a little. “So many tiny women flitting about? All the shoe stores would go out of business. And who would sign up for the zumba classes?”

       Ben was not going to smile, no matter what. He growled and bumped his heels on the mattress. “They’re still just moms. They don’t get tiny.”

       His mom acted like she hadn’t heard. “Thousands and thousands of fairies! When I was eight, there was only one, and she was fast as a moonbeam. Everything is mass-produced these days.”

       Ben scrunched his forehead and tried to look mean. But a laugh snorted its way out. “Here’s what you do: you come into my room when I’m asleep. You take my tooth. You put money under my pillow. Then you sneak downstairs.”

       “My dear bright boy,” said Mom. “You know you stay awake so long, asking questions. How could I start work at two in the morning?”

       Ben’s brain was getting scrambled. All he could say was, “The tooth fairy is YOU.”

       Now his mother laughed outright. It got so bad that she had to hold her belly. “So she’s ME, huh? Does she drive a minivan? Go to the bank? Shop for watermelon? What a sight that would be!”

       Ben held his belly, too. He rolled back and forth and got all twisted up in his sheets. His mother just kept going.

       “Does she answer emails? Bake lasagna? Wash your underwear? And oh oh oh, what if she tried vacuuming!”

       Ben laughed so hard he fell out of bed, and Mom had to drag him off the floor and tuck in the sheets all over again. “Listen,” she said, “I have an idea. Why don’t you stay awake all night? Try to catch the real tooth fairy.”

       “Try to catch YOU, you mean.”

       His mother sighed and looked out the window. “I wish I was a fairy. I’d love to spin on a snowflake.” Then she kissed Ben on the cheek—the one that wasn’t sinking into the pillow. “Make sure you listen, too,” she said; “you might hear a little tap-tap-tap on the window.”

       Ben tried saying “Okay,” but his mouth could only make the big O.

       He listened, but all he heard was his mother’s feet going pat-pat-pat down the stairs. Then he watched the yellow crack of light under his door. He stayed and stayed and stayed awake until his eyes got buggy and droopy. He thought, Maybe she’s not coming because I’ve been awake soooo…yaaawwn…soooloooong….

       Suddenly the door opened. His mother peeked in. “How’s it going?” she whispered. “Have you caught her yet?”

       “Caught YOU, you mean.”

       “You little goof. I’m going to bed now.” She kissed him on the forehead. “Tell me all about her in the morning, okay?”

       Ben yawned one last tooth-missing yawn. “Well, maaaybe it’s not you.” He looked at his mother with sleepy, happy eyes. “But you would have made a good one.”

THE END

Victoria's Apologetic

When our first child was six months old, I caught her in a strange act. Victoria was in her walker, lolling near the bookcase. Suddenly she bolted upright, eyes wide, and began babbling at the air. If I hadn't been with her, I would have guessed that a long-lost acquaintance had burst into the room and completely astounded her. She looked in turns absorbed and fanatic, subdued then alarmed, waving her arms and lifting the chin of her hairless little head. She repeated this inexplicable behavior on several occasions.  

It wasn't teething; it wasn't a demand to be picked up. It was something more wonderful, in the literal sense. What could produce this blend of bewilderment and ecstasy, sudden fear followed by sudden calm, near anger turning to wild joy? Perhaps there were guardian angels after all, and Victoria was conversing with hers. 

It was not the first time my daughter reminded me of things I had forgotten about the world. Once, holding her in front of the hall mirror, I sneezed. Victoria looked straight into my face and began to laugh--I mean a genuine, uncontrollable fit, with breathless snuffles, scrunched nose, tears in her eyes. It was hilarious to her that a dust fleck and a facial grimace should produce such a sound. Later I watched her display the same unrestrained glee over the most ordinary things: a cat rubbing against my leg, a carton of yogurt tipping over, water rising in the bathtub. My daughter had discovered comedy, and it was the finest thing life had to offer.

As a mother at home with my child, I often felt that the world with all its mystery was opening to me. Now we were probing the relationship between comedy and creation. Comedy is incongruity: a thing happens that could, imaginably, have happened another way. For a mind new to the world, most things fall into this category. Gravity. The location of ears. The moon hanging above the trees. Yawns and bellows from the mouths of furry beasts.

When I discussed this with my husband (a seminary student at the time), he told me that Victoria and I had stumbled upon the classic philosophical question of causality. Just because Cause A regularly produces Effect B, it doesn't mean there is an iron-clad, logical relationship between the two. When you toss the toy down the stairs, it isn't necessary that it rolls. G. K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, presents the idea this way:

All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery.

Babies sense this. For them, rules of nature are not rules, but wonders. What to adults is simple cause and effect, to them is occasion for laughter. Because they are fresh to creation, babies have the purest, most undiluted sense of humor. The supreme funny bone, if you will. Why should such a cause have such an effect? One-plus-one always equals two; we can imagine it no other way. But when Daddy steps up on a chair and his head is suddenly bumping the ceiling, it's funny. When Mommy cracks an egg into a bowl, why should the yoke go down? Why not up? It's all startling and novel. To Victoria, it was hilariously illogical. Surely somebody schemed it.

Our daughter's amusement with the world was her own apologetic. It was her evidence that this is a created place and the Creator smiled when he thought it up. Because of her, I could imagine God's mirth when he commanded the homely caterpillar to sprout rainbow wings, or the satin blossom to unravel and become crisp fruit. I imagined his delight over a glossy wave turning to white foam. Or lightning leaping across the clouds. The tiny mustard seed sheltering the birds of the air.

Mr. Hoyt Bowman, an elderly usher at our church, had the self-appointed task of distracting fussy babies brought to the back of the sanctuary. One Sunday, Victoria's eye was caught by his shiny black patent leathers. To amuse her, he began sashaying them together in little zigzags. Victoria was captivated by the bouncing black tips. He popped them up and down, heel to toe. Victoria chuckled. Here, comedy and art found their perfect blend. Light and motion were noticed for what they truly are: created things. Victoria smiled as if to say, “Now that is original.” And of course, in the truest sense, it was.

In Year Two, the complexity of Victoria's nature became more apparent. Those Wordsworthian “clouds of glory” which had seemed to trail her showed up soiled after all, and with the rest of humanity, she tugged at the world to pull it her way. There was willful defiance of what to us were perfectly logical commands: Keep the beans on the tray, the milk in the cup, the doll out of the toilet.

Still, she was full of mirth. She reminded us that there is a Creator. The universe is ordered by him. In him all things hold together as by a spell. The ancient psalmist never doubted, and neither should we, that one day the rivers will clap their hands and the mountains sing together for joy at his coming. Until then, should we sneeze at the thought of angels in our midst?

 

I wish you the very best

The last time I visited my parents on the farm, I found an old shirt box in their attic. Inside were handmade birthday cards from my classmates. In a flash, I was back in second grade. Mrs. Langford's voice was trilling cheerfully. She told us to get out our crayons. She rounded the room, handing out sheets of construction paper. Then she demonstrated, very slowly, how to fold them in half. At the blackboard she picked up her special teacher’s chalk and, with perfect printing, wrote the formula:

Happy Birthday Rhonda, from ______.

With smudgy fingers and feet dangling above the boards, my classmates began creating. I suppose I was making my own picture and trying not to peek to the right or left.

The cards are very hopeful. My birthday is in the dead of winter, but nearly everyone drew flowers. Some composed variations on a classic theme. Kathleen, for example:

roses are red
violets are Blue
but you are the best
Achoo

and Lori: 

Roses are Red
Vlilites are Blue

Tinker Bell is you

and Bruce, who can now be forgiven for

Rross are Red
Vilits are blue
I wonder what you smell like
I do I do.

Some attempted a portrait. Eddie--though he wouldn’t dare call me Carrot Top--used orange for my hair. Annette chose the same, but gave me a purple crown. Denny was ornery, as usual: Happy Birthday Red Headed wood Pecker. Suspiciously, he put a pipe in my mouth.

Brenda had the whole 64-color set. She made me a beautiful present in periwinkle, a color I coveted. And Dawn couldn’t get enough of sevens: 7 candles! 7 tulips in 7 colors! An enormous 7 right next to my name!

Wait—did Mike have a crush on me? He put two people in a row boat, with a heart floating in the sky above them. The heart is pale peach, very vulnerable looking. In Mike’s topsy-turvy state, he made one big mistake: when you open the card, the words are upside down.

Billy’s cake is on a table--good thinking, Billy! I like, too, the wish you left: Happ Bith day. Here I can safely confess what Mike never knew: that you were my real crush (did we ever officially break off our engagement?).

Rodney would eventually earn a Ph.D. in quantum physics, and here he is already displaying his genius. He discovered a new law of science: the cake is upside down, but the candles are still burning.

Melinda’s work is all brown. Maybe it’s chocolate, but there is a depressing look to her cake. The candles are too far apart and don’t fit; three are drifting off into empty space. One of them (a slip of Melinda’s crayon?) looks like a small cross.

Here is a pink house for me, floating between sky and grass. And here, lavish green frosting. And here (not sure why) is a multi-colored washing machine.

Who is the anonymous sender who put tears on the face of a stick figure? Who wrote ow three times in red? And this sparse card, done in pencil: would no one share their crayons? The one foster child put a happy daisy on the front, but an angry one inside. And this card, so neatly folded, says I love you. It’s from Edwina, the quietest of all. I hold it awhile, remembering the day in college my mother called to tell me Edwina had died in a car accident. We were all turning eighteen that year, but still so very young.

Dear friends: I appreciate the birthday wishes on Facebook, I really do.  But some day I would like another batch like these. Crayons only, please. You can send them to Rural Route 2. The mailbox still leans over the blacktop, where the yellow bus used to stop and carry me to school. It doesn’t come by anymore, of course, because all the children on that route have grown and gone away.

 

The Invasion

No European nation could have bested our rural Illinois town. We had a loyal citizenry, our own vernacular, a representative cuisine, remnants of family dynasties and even some unique tourist sites. We were better off than much of the world, and there was rarely outside interference. Our borders were secure.

So when the French invaded, we were naturally alarmed.

Some say that the most tragic year for the English was 1066, when the Normans crossed the channel and completely wrecked the language. We were no philologists, but we too would have fought hard at Hastings.

Freshman year. French I. A small but resilient band. The teacher was an outsider, new to the school, and though we didn't dislike her (quite) it was hard to keep a straight face when she introduced herself as Miss Diggle.

Oh rare Miss Diggle! Orange hair as big as a continent, parchment-pale skin, searing red lipstick, soft, sly voice. Her teaching method was calm, quiet, almost hypnotic, but all the while she was preparing a siege. She would take us captive and immerse us in French.

Day One. Do not open your textbooks. Listen. Listen again.

“Papa, mangeons dans un restaurant ce soir. Oui Papa, dinons en ville. Excellente idée, mais demandez a Maman d'abord.”

Now repeat, line by line.

That was when heads began to roll.

We said,Papa, mowgee doo resteroo sissy. Wee paba deeno veal. Egg-sale day may day dom dibbo.”

After a few rounds of this, Miss Diggle told us what we were butchering. Apparently, two children in France wanted to go to a restaurant. Their father liked the idea, but they had to ask Mom first.

We howled. Why didn't they just say so? 'Mowgee' and 'deeno' for eat? What kind of family was this? 'Wee' for yes? That kind of thing could get you in trouble. A 'resteroo sissy'? Hardly an excellent idea. They ought to stay home. Let them eat toast.

Miss Diggle was unfazed. She went on to teach us about French culture. Over there, people spoke through their noses. They ate goose livers. They took their dogs to all the restaurants. Women carried loaves of bread under their armpits, which they never shaved. And there was always a revolution going on--probably because the masses couldn't pronounce anything.

We learned that life was very hard in France. They had something called the Imperfect (no surprise there) and a lot of confusion about masculine and feminine. But what did it matter? Le, la, it's still only a table. Cats aren't always male. And just because it's covered in sweat, bread isn't necessarily boy-like. Losing points on quizzes only increased our prejudice against the French.

None of this was really Miss Diggle's fault. She had many strengths. In addition to her bold lipstick and her ability to keep a straight face, she had convinced the upperclassmen that they were now fluent. One day a senior girl stopped me in the hall to express, in raptures, how lucky I was to be starting French. She had loved it; it would forever be her favorite language; it was branded in her soul. As proof, she casually rattled off Lesson One:

“Papa, monjo noon restawraw sisswa...Weeee...Ay-zay-lone eeday....”

Well I say, Berets off to Miss Diggle. We remember her with delight. In fact, I googled her surname just now, and as I suspected, there is great dignity in it. We would have paid more respect, I think, if we had only known that Diggle “derives from a geographical locality, from the village of Diggle, once a farmstead, scarcely a hamlet, on the Yorkshire border.”

I don't know exactly where that small town was, but I bet they, too, fended off the Normans before letting themselves be conquered. History does repeat itself.

Beside still Waters

When we lived in the Chicago suburbs, I worked as an aide in a retirement home, on the fourth floor health care unit. I led activities, simple ones because all the patients had some degree of dementia. At the end of the day I was required to fill out a form for the state, reporting each patient's participation. The rows were labeled Music, Crafts, Reading, Nature, etc.

The most ambiguous item was Socialization. There were just two options: a check for “yes,” a dash for “no.” I was required to mark it and encouraged to be very liberal: check yes if the patient is breathing. I was told that you never knew, that the person might be socializing with him or herself. Or with someone in a dream. Or you simply may have missed a meaningful movement of their eyes.

The most difficult patient to judge was Dorothy. Her dementia was among the worst, and her behavior was unpredictable. The head nurse told me, “Don't stand too near her; she sometimes hits people.” This made Dorothy a liability on the ward. They kept her wheelchair next to the nurses' station all day. She had lost the ability to speak, and did not move her head, which made her look very sullen.

The genuinely sociable patients spent the day in the dining room seated at tables of four. Some of them could stand and poke around the room with their walkers, but most sat all day. They especially liked Bunco and could still toss the dice from their bent fingers. The ladies loved getting their nails painted, choosing colors like Fire Engine Red and Passion Pink.

These residents were mostly from Cicero, and a few had seen Al Capone himself. Nearly all had heard Benny Goodman live. They remembered Marshall Fields at its most magical, and were ardent White Sox fans. But the topic that animated them most was Friday nights at the Aragon ballroom. They really did use the phrase “the good old days” for it. One woman, who could barely put together a sentence otherwise, told me she had met her husband on the dance floor. “He was woo-hoo,” she said, with a breathy treble on that last syllable. I regularly played big band records and took these ladies by the hands for a dance. They couldn't leave their chairs, but they could bob their shoulders and swing their arms for a little fun. On those days, everyone within earshot got a check mark for Music.

Despite the cheery moments, decay loomed on the fourth floor like the wet ends of cut flowers. There was a fecal smell from poor bathing; an odor like horses from old teeth. There were smiles, but also complaints, some irrational, some fair enough. I was once chided for lifting the blinds to let in the morning sun. I thought it would cheer them, but they told me it hurt their eyes.

Parked at the nurses' station, Dorothy couldn't hear the music. She couldn't tell what she remembered, and had no amusing qualities or ability to exchange basic pleasantries. She had a folkloric face, large and square with a sharp nose, long hairs on her cheeks, a chin that angled outward rather than curving nicely from her bottom lip. Her forehead never relaxed. Her shoulders hunched to the level of her ears so that she could not look up into faces. Even so, you could tell she'd been a tall woman. Her hands were mannishly large. Her feet were unattractively long. She looked, in fact, a bit sinister, an impression that was reinforced when she exasperated the staff by suddenly swiping her hand and spilling juice, with a scowl that made it seem on purpose.

One day a fellow aide told me that Dorothy had, for decades, been a very active member of the Salvation Army. The image came to my mind (granted, more Victorian than post-Depression) of a severe woman in a cape swinging a schoolmarm's bell. I saw black-booted feet planted on a cold walkway of snow. I saw her staring down people who averted their eyes and walked on. This was all I could tell of the soul of Dorothy.

The day finally came, the inevitable pronouncement on ninety-three years: Dorothy was put on hospice. It had been delayed by a strong heart and a daily dose of large pills. Now the nurse brought them to her bedside in a paper cup the size of a communion glass. The juice was poured directly into her mouth, and the droplets that hovered on her lips were dabbed away. Witnessing this, I checked 'yes' for socialization.

Her slippers were empty on the floor, permanently stretched in the shape of her feet. The hospital blanket stayed molded over her long form. Her hands, streaked with veins like swollen rivers, stayed still. Had she even wanted to, she couldn't turn her head to see the bits of sunlight that slipped through the edges of the closed shades, or the gifts that had accumulated on the windowsill: a potted plant, stuffed animals, thinking-of-you cards.

One day I tested what was in her line of vision. With my face next to hers, the only thing I saw was the clock on the wall. I considered taping up her cards or digging an old poster out of the activities closet. I wondered what Dorothy would like to see. The question, I realized, was ultimately, Who was she? What would speak to this unyielding captain at her watch?

People active in the Salvation Army know all the best Bible verses, so I decided to write one on a card for her. In the office I found cardstock and a marker, and wrote out a portion of Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
He maketh me lie down in green pastures,
He leadeth me beside still waters,

He restoreth my soul.

I put the over-bed table across her straight body and made sure it was at eye level. I folded the cardstock into an inverted V so that it stood up. I took off her eyeglasses and cleaned them; she blinked her blue-gray eyes and did not flinch. The glass was badly smudged from neglect, which in retrospect explains a lot.

Dorothy's eyes slowly scanned the words. Or did I imagine it? Was it pretense on my part, taking credit for a good deed? Maybe, like all those check marks, I was falsifying what I saw. But no, there it was again; I was sure of it: her forehead relaxed a little, and she really seemed to be reading.

A few days later I arrived at work and saw two men pushing a trolley out of Dorothy's room. On it was a canvas bag the length and girth of a body. They wheeled it toward the elevator. Nurses stood aside. The door slid shut.

It's a strange thing to walk into a room and see a bed that has just been stripped. It's strange to gather up hand creams, a hairbrush, stale candies. To open a closet and see blouses hanging there and a pair of dress shoes on the floor. To stand in a room that is large with absence and consider that a life was there, a person incapacitated but able to see a promise, even in dim light, and perhaps discover that, on no strength of her own, she could still draw near to someone who had dared draw near to her.

Binyam

The small east African nation of Eritrea ranks among the world's poorest, but it has a treasure that sets it apart: a capital city built above the clouds. Asmara sits on a plain at seven thousand feet, at the edge of the Great Rift Valley. If you drive east, just beyond the last street, the land suddenly drops, and a thousand rugged peaks are beneath you. Moist air from the Red Sea gathers in the valleys, forming white, promising clouds for a country that, year by year, is desperate for rain.

We lived in Asmara from 1993 to 1996. Afternoon drives were our main family diversion. When we parked our car to stretch our legs, we first stopped a local shepherd boy to ask, “Are there any landmines here?” Eritrea had recently won independence from Ethiopia in what was then called Africa's longest war, and the damage of those thirty years was everywhere. Tanks rusted on the roadsides. Shepherd boys were among the wounded. Our children could not race along a path freely.

Captivated expatriates described the Eritreans as dignified, hardworking, handsome, courageous and hospitable. Outside of Asmara, herders and farmers lived much as in biblical times. In the city, young men and women craved exposure to the Western world from which they had been cut off. They had grown up in a besieged city—once described as the world's largest prison—and their older siblings had either escaped abroad or been killed, one by one, in the war. Relief groups were hurrying into the country to help rebuild. Missionaries forced to flee decades earlier returned, gray-haired and still in love with the slender, dark-eyed people of the land.

While my husband taught, I carried my own small load, never more literally than on my weekly trip to market. I shopped mostly on foot. I knew my favorite vendors by name. Their one-room shops were crowded if three customers stepped in at once. Hefting five or more bags and baskets, I took home kilos of potatoes, cabbages, oranges, beef, bread, lentils, and imported canned goods. By noon my arms ached. I was dusty. The sun felt too direct, and I wished I had help.

Help stood on the street corner one Saturday. Catching sight of me from half a block away, a small boy ran up and blocked my path. He looked up expectantly, as though we were long familiar with each other. I smiled and tried to pass on my way. He grabbed the handle of one of my bags and tugged for control.

I saw that he was barefoot. As poor as the nation was, the children of Eritrea usually wore shoes. Almost every family could afford the kind of sandal worn by the liberation soldiers, manufactured from cheap rubber. But this boy's toes pressed against the hot cement. The edges of his soles were ash grey.

Hansab, hansab—Wait.” The boy's arm went slack for a moment; he stopped to listen to me speak his own language. “What is your name?”

“Binyam.”

“Binyam.” I let him take two of the bags—his weight in potatoes alone—and we walked together to the taxi stop. “Here is far enough,” I told him.

I had exactly ten birr left in my pocket, and I needed it all for my fare home. I wondered what to do with my unsolicited employee. Very carefully, he set my bags at the curb. His clothes were torn and unwashed. The dust of the streets had settled in his hair, so that the overall effect of his person was of a field in drought.

“Where do you live?”

“Akria.” It was a neighborhood far on the north edge, where no foreigners lived. I had been through it only once.

“Do you have brothers and sisters?”

“Eight.”

I said, “Binyam, I want to give you something. But I do not have it with me. If you come here” —I told him a familiar street address and explained it was a church meeting place—“tomorrow morning, I will have some shoes for you. I want to give you shoes. I want you to hear the stories, too. Your name is in the Bible, did you know that?”

Binyam came to the church, and I met him at the front steps with a pair of shoes. They fit him perfectly; as I had guessed, he wore the same size as my five-year-old son. During Sunday School I watched for a look of pleasure on Binyam's face and for a new pride in his posture. He didn't seem particularly interested in speaking with me; he quietly took his place among the other children and sang songs and listened to the story. It was good for him, I thought, to be off the streets and in this crowded, happy room. Afterward I invited Binyam to come every week.

He came just once more; he came in the same dusty clothes, and he came barefoot. When I asked him, “Where are your shoes, Binyam?” he looked away and moved into the group of children out of my reach. All that hour I was distracted by his feet. When he did not attend the next week or any week afterward, I could not get him off my mind. The absence of the slight, shoeless boy was bigger than his presence had been. I kept imagining scenes of great turbulence for Binyam. Had other boys beaten him for his shoes? Had his father punished him for taking a gift from a condescending foreigner? Maybe he had to sell them, for food.

Many expatriates published articles on the virtues of this new nation, and many, like us, hoped to stay and work for years, for the good of the people who had welcomed us. But the day came when the government, made up of the guerrilla fighters who had battled for independence, declared that all foreign relief agencies were illegal. The national press reminded the people that by their own will they had won independence and by their own hands they would rebuild. The country was kicking off its shoes, and few outsiders knew where they went.

The people were left as poor as ever, but the government newspaper reported great jubilance and patriotism and a bright road to progress. There were more battles fought along the border. There were arrests, imprisonments. We dismantled our life in Asmara and were never able to return.

Binyam would be nearly thirty now. Unless he has escaped, he is likely doing hard labor in national service, from which they say there is no exit. It is all incomprehensible to me. I can only picture an insistent child in the heat and dust, determined to take my burden. I wonder what he might have carried away, if he had come back to hear the story of his name. It is open in front of me now, full of transience and loss and the promise of provision in a new land: And they journeyed from the House of Bread, and there was but a little way to go. And the woman travailed, and the midwife said unto her, ‘Fear not; you shall have this son also.’ And so it was, as the woman's soul was departing, that she called his name Bin-oni, which means son of my sorrow. But his father called him Bin-yam, son of the Right Hand.

Ade Fana

During our three years in Eritrea, I tried very hard to speak the main language: Tigrinya, a Semitic tongue with its own alphabet and its own phonemes. It kept my vocal chords in a constant state of culture shock. An activity as simple as buying an egg was a tough workout. In English, the word is as fundamental as the thing itself. But in Tigrinya, "egg" is an onomatopoeia: the sound, I was told, that a hen makes when laying it. Very difficult to hatch in an American throat; it always sounded like I was ordering a Coca Cola.

There were two kinds of eggs on the shelf: small and brown or big and white. The grocer urged me to choose small. “They are the best,” he insisted; “The white ones are big, yes! But not so good. Those chickens eat only one kind of food. These chickens--” his hand swept over the brown eggs-- “eat whatever they can find. A variety!” True; chickens in the capital city were given great range. Still I preferred white. Especially when I got to know Ade Fana.

Ade Fana (Ade means 'mother,' a term of respect) lived three doors down. She kept chickens in her backyard. To me, she represented what was most endearing about Eritrea: toughness, humor, simplicity, dignity, an open door and a low stool to sit on because, best of all, there was always time to chat. When I came for eggs, she greeted me with three strong kisses: right cheek, left cheek, right cheek again. But she never gushed or fawned. Her manner was as blunt as her wit was sharp, and she quartered no nonsense. She was Socrates in a shawl. One day I reported being startled by a mouse in the night. What did Ade Fana think about mice in the bedroom? She shrugged. “What is a mouse, or a rat? What harm can they do? You just say Shoo! Now a snake in the house...Ay!"

My favorite moment was early in our acquaintance. I think she was still sorting out who I was. I was the first “Italian” to frequent her home; I attempted to speak her language; I was kenisha (the word for Protestant that still connoted “heretic” in the villages). Ade Fana shuffled up very close to me, tilted her head back and peered under her glasses to look into my mouth. I thought a compliment about my Tigrinya was coming. Instead she said approvingly, “Of all the Italians I have seen, you have the straightest teeth.” 

Fana and her husband Abe HabteMariam lived through the long decades of war. Like so many of their peers, bad news came in swift succession, the messengers of Job running up to their door again and again: first, one soldier son killed, then another, then—perhaps most tragically, for it was after liberation—a third was shot down, and their daughter-in-law died suddenly from grief. 

Ade Fana was a wisp of a woman, slender features, thin shoulders, swift little hands. Her husband was tall, stooped, big-boned. His eyesight was clouded by cataracts. Except for pumping water, he mostly sat in his chair, tended by his wife. One day I found Ade Fana sitting on a stool in front of him. She was holding his big bare foot in her hand and using a razor blade to cut away his corns. Not surprisingly, neither of them flinched.

Though he was nearly blind and deaf, HabteMariam (his name meant “riches of Mary”) walked to and from church several times a week. To do so, he had to cross the busiest road in town, guided only by a hand-carved prayer staff. It was no small wonder, this parting of airport traffic for Aba HabteMariam. His wife went at different times. During the fast seasons it was twice a day, every day, five a.m. and again at noon. Together they kept the fasts, which lasted for weeks and consumed nearly half the year. They would eat no meat, no milk products, no eggs. From drar (evening meal) till fadus (noontime next day) they ate nothing at all and did not take even a sip of water.

One day I heard that Ade Fana was sick; they had taken her to the hospital. (At that time, the one place you did not wish for your friends to go was the war-wasted city hospital). Her granddaughter told me she suspected it was all that fasting; Ade Fana just got too weak and dehydrated. One couldn't think of Ade Fana, grown thinner and at risk, without theological concerns. An elderly woman, frail as a dry reed, walking two miles fasting, standing through the long service fasting, listening for hours to the drone of an ancient language that she could not understand. A splintered cane at best, but she grasped it firmly.

When my friend was back from the hospital, I visited her. It was good to see her smile, though in an uncharacteristic pose: resting on the big bed inside the house with her feet up, being waited on. She looked happy when I gave her the gift of a Tigrinya Bible, and she nodded approval when I read aloud from it.

In the way of all flesh, the chickens eventually stopped laying and had to be eaten (in the proper season, of course). Ade Fana bought new ones, and the price for their eggs remained 60 centimes, no discounts. But you could still come sit on a stool and chat. It was a very good deal for the largest, whitest eggs in town.

The Worker

As a missionary, there was one relationship that I was hesitant to mention in my letters home. I didn't know what to call her. 'Maid' seemed aristocratic; 'domestic help' sounded almost canine. In the local language she was simply called 'the worker,' but that translation was hardly adequate. She was a cultural adjustment, but indispensable. She was order in household chaos, calm in family storms. Her name was Tsegeredah, which meant rose, and while she did have a sweet spirit, she was tough as nails. 

Nearly every household in Asmara had a worker, or serahtenya. A young girl might live with a family to help with the baby. Or a cousin might come from a village to stay. Grown daughters shared the workload until they married and had their own homes and serahtenyas. Side by side, these women handwashed clothes in plastic basins, cleaned house with limited water supply, prepared dough for the bread that was cooked daily, chopped vegetables, and sorted grains and legumes by hand. 

Tsegeredah washed our clothes, wiped floors, did dishes, all with a careful conservation of water since the city pipes frequently broke. She scrubbed market vegetables, straightened messes, found lost shoes. She negotiated the various personalities who appeared at our gate: the man who sold papaya, the woman who sold eggs, the man who sold potatoes. She advised me if the price was too high or the product too bad; she scolded the seller if he was too pushy. With a self-imposed determination to protect us, she dismissed realtors, favor-seekers, people who'd reached the wrong house, and the landlord himself if, in her view, he came at a bad time. 

Tsegeredah wasn't an avid talker, so we only had a brief sketch of her life. She didn't know her birth date--our celebrations were a novelty to her--or even her age. “Ane?” she said; “Me? Maybe...thirty?” Three of her siblings had been killed in the war. Tsegeredah had fled to Ethiopia as a young girl. From a start of selling tea along the sidewalk, she eventually owned her own restaurant. One day fire broke out on her block, and all the businesses were destroyed. So Tsegeredah came back to Asmara to live with her mother in a one-room mud-walled home. Before she worked for us, she had no job. 

Part of our challenge was linguistic: Amharic was her first language, Tigrinya a broken second, English a sparse third. I knew no Amharic, floundered in Tigrinya and, with three small children, sometimes spoke a discombobulated third.

Our children loved Tsegeredah; the best translation for this was "to pester." They tugged her away from work for a ride around the yard on her back (a very broad, strong one). They threw sand in her wash basin, to test her temper--which she displayed with a growl and a laugh. Her hearty "kee-DOO!" put them in stitches: from Tsegeredah, it meant "go away, you goofy kids, until I have time to play."

With Tsegeredah, there was less waste in our home. If she saw some leftover destined to be thrown out, she would take it home for her chickens. She could burn unwanted paper in her earthen stove. Empty cans were perfect for dipping water out of a barrel, and a jar made a fine drinking cup. Her own house had no electricity, so why use ours? Even if the daylight was waning through the tiny kitchen window, she would work in the dark. In three years, I never saw her flip a switch. 

One day we insisted she go to a local celebration with us. “Leave your work,” we said; “we'll only be gone an hour.” When we came home, there was a stranger's coat and pair of shoes on the floor, and all our rooms were disheveled. A thief! Tsegeredah was riled in an instant. She rushed around the house and yard, looking in every corner--"Alo! Alo! He is still here!”  She paced around with angry tears, punching one fist into her palm. She blamed herself: she shouldn't have gone out, it was her job to stay and keep house, why did she ever go? The day was ruined; those festivities pointless. She was so upset that I couldn't be, and I felt oddly light-hearted about the intrusion. 

The next day a policeman and a teenage boy came to our gate. I knew it was our thief: he was wearing my husband's L.L. Bean jacket. He was barefoot; we had his shoes. I thought, “When Tsegeredah sees him, watch out.” But she only took one look, gave a quick growl, and went back into the house. Her part—the indignation, the mourning—was done. It was not for the boy to fall into her hands.

I've said that having a maid was an adjustment. But surely we were a new culture to her. I tried to explain American things. “Ay-ya,” she said, looking very thoughtful, “Than-sgee-ving... Ay-ya, Vah-leen-tine Day.” Her tone was one of recollecting a far-off memory; I never knew if she had really heard of these things or was only pretending. “Ay-ya, To-pay-ware...." 

Our evangelical faith was something new. She wasn't a church goer; no one had taught her the Bible. One day, side by side in the kitchen, I told her the story of the woman at the well. I found myself intensely excited. Tsegeredah's hands were in the dishwater, but she was listening closely. She kept trying to guess the outcome. When I told her that Jesus knew, without being told, that the woman had five men, her eyes grew wide and she sucked in her breath. When I told her, “Jesus said, 'I can give you living water,'” she shook her head at the extraordinary claim. She was seeing it all. It was real, a story of her neighbor, like yesterday's news. She knew what a well looked like; yes, yes, she could see the woman hauling water. Ah, yes, that is a tiring job. Yes, she would want that precious water, too. Oh, the shame of living with all those men. And oh, she could just picture the woman running into her village eager to report this remarkable man.

For three years, Tsegeredah saw five sinners up close: tempers lost, mischief made, insufficient gratitude, complaints of thirst. When we moved back to the States we lost touch with our worker. A new war scattered the people again. Now, in my neat home and empty nest, I have all the gadgets I need to work alone. But I would like, if only for a while, to sit with Tsegeredah—if I could make her sit. I would drink tea with her and thank her for a thousand things. And I might ask if she could not, after all, tell me something about when and where she was born.

Down the Road

My oldest brother claims he tried to attend Woodstock, but I don't believe him. In August of 1969 we lived in rural Illinois, and Randy was only twelve. He would never have made it to the junction of Route 6 without being noticed; anyone could have seen that a freckle-faced kid with a buzz cut and a makeshift headband needed an immediate ride home in a pick-up truck.

There is further proof: all the photos taken of him during Woodstock are at the county 4-H fair. He may have failed at hitch-hiking, but he was a blue-ribbon winner at showing his horse, Misty. Dad had bought Misty for all of us to ride, but I was scared of her. It seems silly and unreasonable now, because I love the smell, feel and grandeur of a beautiful horse. But I was very young when we had Misty and was witness to a terrible event.

A family was visiting us, old college friends of our parents, and we children were expected to play with their children. Young David was my age. He was pale and dorky, and I stayed away from him. This made his visit dull, so my father offered him a little ride around the yard on Misty.

He set David in the saddle and showed him how to hang on. But, as my father later put it, Misty "took off a little faster than expected," and before my father could catch the reins, she trotted under the clothesline. David was immediately decapitated. I was sure of it; he fussed for such a long time. I was hiding my eyes, picturing his slitted throat. Later my mother scolded me for not even coming out to have iced lemonade with our guests before they went home. There were no snicker-doodles left, either, so all in all it was a very bad day.

Years later, at the University of Illinois, I ran into David. I had seen many cute boys on campus, but unfortunately David was not one of them. He was still pale and, I'm sorry to say, still a bit dorky. But to his credit, he told me he was off to seminary to become a Lutheran minister. They wear collars in that denomination, and so it may just be that Misty gave him a head start in his career.

With the exception of my horse experience (or lack of), I was and am a loyal farm child. Of course, so is my brother. We recently had a heated debate with our parents about the barn.  Mom and Dad thought it had become unsightly; they wanted to tear it down. We were up in arms; I wept, and Randy argued with all the passion of his thwarted Woodstock days. We had memorieswe protested, and in the name of all that must be salvaged in this crass, urbanized world, it was unconscionable to delete a barn. For our parents, it was a matter of safety and maintenance costs. And they rightly pointed out that, since their offspring lived hundreds of miles away, we were hardly around to help take care of it.

We had to grant that the barn isn't terrifically interesting from the outside; as barns go, it's pretty nondescript. But inside, there are hand-hewn beams with the original chisel marks; there are old hooks where milk pails were hung; the top plank of one stall is worn into a polished curve from the broad neck of a workhorse leaning over for a treat. The main problem is location. Unlike other barns, it doesn't sit back and preside nobly over house and yard. It sits between the house and the road. It's a view-blocker. Apparently great-great grandpa Otto thought the county road would be laid east-west; unfortunately the township changed its plans after he had dug his foundation, and the road ran north-south, just eight feet from the barn, parallel to its long side.

In our family feud, I didn't bare my real motives for wanting to save the barn. It was its very position, blocking the view of the road, that made it romantic. There was a boy I dated in high school who drove twenty-five miles across the county to come fetch me for a movie. I had all the symptoms—palpitations, preoccupations, stabbing pains—of deep love, and was always ready early and watching out the window for his car.

What I could see from that window was the interstate bridge. I-80 was just three hundred yards from our door (two hundred from the end of the barn), so our blacktop road passed over it. A visitor's car would crest the hill; you spotted it there; it would head down and then be briefly hidden by the barn. Then it turned into our driveway and its tires crackled over the gravel until it came to a stop.

Saturday nights I watched for the boy's car. It was winter and already dark when he came, so I would see his headlights first. There was no more thrilling sight in the world than those headlights on the bridge. They descended; they disappeared. Long, long seconds later they reappeared. Then the slow turn into our yard, then him standing on the doorstep and me already wondering about a kiss at the end of the night. When eventually this boy stopped asking me out, I thought I was demolished.

Our arguments saved the barn. But now I feel a new sadness. I've realized that over the decades, my parents have stood at that window countless times watching for their children to come. The rebel teenager. The troubled college student. The newly engaged pair. The first grandchild. The one who kept saying, “Maybe next Christmas.” A car to look for at the top of the bridge with its lights on in the dark, so close to home and yet, for a time, disappearing. Finally the blessed sight of that person walking towards the front door, which was already being held open by my father's hand.