blind pig finds acorn

Part of the Spokane Falls on the Spokane River, Spokane, WA. March 1993?

My father was notorious for finding a way to muck up a photograph. Favored methods:

  • Using a wide angle Instamatic (pause while he shudders), take a photo of an animal or bird you see in the mid-distance. Photo has a brownish dot in the center (maybe) that can be anything.
  • Shoot a portrait-type shot of people looking directly into the sun, squinting. Cut off only their feet. Alternately, shoot from too far away and make sure photographer’s shadow is prominently displayed in foreground.
  • Line up your group shot in front of a window, glass-fronted artwork, or better yet, a mirror. Shoot with a flash.

That’s just a minor list. I’ve tackled sorting through the photos I brought home in mid-2020 when we cleared out my parents’ house in late July. I’m primarily interested in photographic proof of them, their sons (me and my brother), and the relatives and friends who they encountered during their lives. Every once in a while, though, I come across a photo which makes me wonder how it ever happened, such as the one above.

The photo above is unretouched except I blurred out a few white spots in the dark sky where the cheap photo developer couldn’t be bothered with blowing off dust on the negative. This is a natural light photo and the falls are not lit. It appears to have been shot from a restaurant currently called Anthony’s at Spokane Falls. The shot is looking due east to the kind of clouds which Spokane seldom sees as the sun sets. That’s Canada Island on the left which splits the Spokane River. The cataracts on the north side of the island are approximately the same. I unfortunately mislabeled the photo, so I’m not entirely sure of the date, but I recall it was in March, and it sits between a photo from June 1992 and one from July 1993.

Some day I may try to retouch it and see if I can make it look better, but there’s not a lot you can do with the photos taken back then. I don’t have the negatives; I had to scan this from the print. I’ll likely just leave it and remember that my father could take a good photo now and then. And I can tell you for certain that he never stopped trying! I’ve four or five storage boxes full of prints to attest to that!

Golden times

Oregon Coast. October 2011.

In October 2011 my wife and I rented a house just outside Newport, OR, where we vacationed with my brother, his daughter, and our parents. Our last night there an amazing set of conditions created one different sunset after another. (I’ve posted other photos of it here and here.) For more than twenty minutes I stood on the bluff outside the house snapping photos as the rest of my family waited to go to dinner. We might have had reservations, I don’t remember. I ignored their growing impatience to capture these photos. Thus, the photos have an undercurrent of discontent, though I don’t regret taking them. It represented the self-centeredness they would say I’ve had all my life. I’ll have to explore this later.

A follow-on about clothes

Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina. Still there in November 2007.

A little bit ago I wrote about the longevity of clothes in my closet and how they mark the march of time in reverse. I’ve realized lately that they have staked out the future too. Today I wore a fleece top purchased when we took a Thanksgiving getaway to Ocean Isle Beach, NC, in 2007. It’s none the worse for wear (the fleece top, not Ocean Isle Beach which might very well be the worse for wear). It dawned on me today that a heavy flannel shirt/jacket, the aforementioned fleece top, the sweatshirt I wore last week which was given to me by my employer in 2003 or 2004, etcetera, etcetera, will possibly be in my closet when I die.

Recently I’ve tried to lengthen my time between Now and Death. “It’s likely twenty-plus years, you fool,” I tell myself. Retirement planning forces one to focus on ‘how long do I have’ and then hope the money lasts that long. It fosters looking toward the end instead of the path toward the end–instead of focusing on where you are right now. And lately, I’ve been successful in realizing where I am relative to my likely End. I accomplished this by looking backward the same amount of time I can expect to live. Today it means focusing on where I was twenty years ago. “Goodness, I thought things were grand back in 2003!” he thinks. It feels many years ago when looking backward. Then why not many years ahead when looking forward?

These darn clothes tell a different tale, or at least they have their own tale to tell. “We’ll still be there in your closet. This is your wardrobe for the rest of your life.” It’s weirdly depressing and freeing at the same time.

A better Valentines Day

Clearwater Beach on the Gulf of Mexico. February 13, 2013.

Sure, flowers are nice–especially the two dozen roses I handed my wife a few hours ago. But warmth, white sand, palm trees, the Gulf, and a previous visit to the Phillies Spring Training Camp? Priceless. “Bouquet” is a fluid term.

blue sunsets

What if sunsets were blue? What if
they resembled my recollections:
how I broke upon your hardness, how you
ran from my insensitive cutting
remarks, lasers which severed whatever
tied us together those few years? Would I
ever have experienced solar reds, oranges,
pink-tinged magic? Known this reality?

Turned from unreal shadows dancing on 
Plato's cave wall, pushed into dwelling
among well-lit shadow-makers,
my memories hold
only blue shadows
watching blue sunsets.
when a memory plays you tricks

Smoke in the Smokies

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, western slope. May 2004.

At the beginning of May 2004, we headed to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, primarily to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ve searched in vain for a photo taken around that time near our home in Grafton, New York, where Spring still fought Winter’s grip on our weather. Two days later we entered Spring’s glory, Smoky Mountains-style. I’ve posted other photos (here and here) which display the explosion of green we encountered. I said to my wife as we drove through undergrowth with leaves as large as my hand–some kind of berry, I suspect–and kept an eye out for black bears newly emerged for the Spring, “You know, I think I could live here.” Two winters later, as I cursed the snows again, an opportunity beckoned to test that conjecture, and I took it. North Carolina pleased us even more than Tennessee. Recently, I’ve posted several photos from that time because late January reminds me of the move, and the approach of Spring always makes me thankful I get to experience a long, lingering one here below the Mason-Dixon Line. I’m thinkin’ I need to put on my travelin’ shoes again…

Me stuff

When I tossed my 1968 J. C. Penney’s Towncraft wool coat, it was older than about half my co-workers. Its brown, blanket-thick fabric had kept me warm for 38 winters. It arrived in my life as I began my freshman year for high school (still to be served in a junior high school), when my mother decided my brother and I needed new coats. We both came home with nearly identical wool coats, cut at the hips, and lined with polyester faux fur. They cost $20. According to the website in2013dollars their purchase price would be $170 or so today. That’s a little difficult to believe, because I know Mom wouldn’t have spent $170 in today’s marketplace to buy me a coat, but not everything remains the same today as it was then. A gallon of gas should cost about $2.90 based on 1968, but I’m paying more than that and only briefly did I see it below $3 at all in the past twelve months.

But back to the coats. In January 2006, more than 37 years later, I threw that coat away. It had hung in our basement, only coming out when I took walks in the woods behind our house, and the coat had developed a green sheen indicating some type of moss which I couldn’t see individually had taken over the wool. I promised my wife I wouldn’t try to save it when we moved south to North Carolina.

Moments before it went into the dumpster: the 37-year-old coat. Grafton, New York, January, 2006.

I still hear my parents saying you wear clothes until you outgrow them or they wear out. Before I reached 30, I realized I wouldn’t be throwing many clothes away for the latter reason because I just didn’t wear clothes out much for reasons I still don’t understand. Sadly, I do outgrow them still, but these days it has to do with an expanding waistline. I absolutely love buying clothes. The fact that they will take years to wear out frustrates the consummation of that desire. I prod myself to ‘just give them away–if they don’t bring joy…’ but it’s a lost cause. Most of them still bring joy. A few bring sweet pain:

  • There’s a wool Pendleton wool shirt I just took off two days ago. My father wore it in the last years before he died at the end of 2013. The shirt shows absolutely no wear, and I would bequeath it to my son except I don’t have one. I’ve donated most of the shirts I took from his closet, but a fleece pullover remains for reasons which elude me: I dislike it and wear it little, thus ensuring it will be good enough to bury me in, or at least keep me warm in the nursing home.
  • Look up at my avatar photo. Though difficult to see, I’m wearing a robin’s-egg blue sweater. The photo was taken at Christmas 2009. There are several other sweaters in my closet purchased at the same time, since I tend to buy several things at once but only once or twice a year.
  • Yesterday I wore a pair of sneakers which I distinctly remember purchasing when we lived in New York. We left New York in January 2006 as mentioned above.
  • I’ve lucked out more with t-shirts. The oldest one (I think) appears to be one purchased while on vacation in Boone, NC. We took that vacation in May 2013. The T-shirt looks fine; I’m sure it has years ahead of it given that I’ll only wear it in certain circumstances because it’s not 100% cotton, and I dislike such shirts. (“Why don’t you throw it or donate it?” “Because…”)

In the room two doors down from this office, a leaf-green down jacket is draped over a plastic lawn chair. I purchased three items in the summer of 1972 to keep me warm while camping in the Rocky Mountains. Recently graduated from high school, I had never camped in my life, and in the fall of that year I would enroll at the University of Montana in a program featuring frequent camping trips. My new advisor recommended two things for camping: a down jacket and a wool sweater. More precisely, he recommended buying two wool sweaters at Goodwill, cutting the bottom six-to-eight inches off of one and sewing them on to the other to make a wool tunic. I bought the jacket and the two sweaters as directed, paying $1.99 for one sweater and 99-cents for a second. My mother made the necessary alterations. (The more expensive sweater fell to her shears.) When camping ended a year later, I removed the add-on, and kept the 99-cent sweater until it joined the mossy wool coat from 1968 in the commercial dumpster in my front driveway. Mostly I tossed it to appease my wife, but I admitted to myself that the high neck on the coarse wool sweater irritated my skin. The green down jacket sports a two-inch square of green plastic tape on one elbow where a spark from a campfire fell and melted a hole. It’s the original tape from 40 years ago. I wore the jacket just a few weeks ago during a cold snap when temps lived in the teens and twenties.

My first real camping trip with Woolco, a group of us leaning in to the message of our faculty advisor: “you gotta wear wool if you wanna stay warm”. Arrowhead Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana. October 1972.

I’ll toss expired food as if it insulted my mother. I’ll throw away half of our Christmas decorations because I don’t like putting it all up in early December only to take it down as January begins. I once sold off virtually every piece of furniture from a 4000 square foot house prior to a cross-country move. I don’t hoard in general; I hoard specifically. To wit:

  • While working in New York I picked up the habit of using scratch paper for most computer printouts. From that point forward I routinely brought home scratch paper from work once I moved to North Carolina at the beginning of 2006. I still run across paper from those years. We’ve moved three times since then.
  • I recently forced myself to ‘designate for assignment’ most of the old computers I’ve clung to. Those which remain able to perform at an acceptable speed sit around waiting for a purpose in their sad little electronic lives. Until I joined the ranks of music streamers a year ago, an old laptop from 2012 sat on my downstairs bar to serve up our digitized music. Though it’s slipped into retirement again, it sits on the bar still. Perhaps it will become a photo display.
  • But for a divorce, I would still own a Yamaha amplifier and its matching cassette tape deck, purchased in 1986. (Well, not the latter. I’ve not needed a cassette deck for a decade.) I still cart around the Boston Acoustic speakers which they powered; these speakers were in use through 2009 when I discovered the woofer in one had shredded. I still plan to fix it, more than a dozen years later.

I want to think my distinction involves the usefulness for the tools in my life: the clothes which keep me warm, the computers which enable me to work and communicate, the audio/video equipment which entertains me. If so, how to explain all the memorabilia, the extensive library, the suits I will never fit into again, or, frankly, the pool table which came with the house and hasn’t heard the crack of a cue stick on the white cue ball in years? Perhaps the memorabilia serves as a tool for memory, and I can rationalize the books because every few months I want to look something up in them, but the suits? The pool table?

We’re all biologic collections at war with ourselves: laziness versus industriousness versus mindfulness versus purpose; emotion versus analytical thinking versus empathy versus pragmatism; habit versus creativity versus spontaneity versus thoughtful planning; childlike wonder versus mature knowledge versus arrogant authority. Those things around us, be they physical or metaphysical, play the part of a charcoal rubbing of our psyches, of who we are. I’m going to look a bit more closely at this “stuff”. It seems to want to tell me something.

Smasho! Bango!

My beloved Subaru sedan shortly after its death. January 2007.

I have no favorite vehicles but some were certainly better than others. My special edition Subaru Outback sedan was a lifesaver when we lived in snowy New York from 2001 to the beginning of 2006. One year later, it was dead, the victim of my ill-considered decision to turn left in front of an oncoming car doing about 60mph. That’s the bumper on the left. It’s amazing how many micro-seconds are still in my mind about that day. Believe it or not, I received no ticket for this because the guy was 10-20mph over the speed limit and ran a red light (it had just turned when he entered the intersection).

I thought to have a post today on possessions, started yesterday, but no…

Comin’ into Lost Anjeleez

On approach to Raleigh-Durham airport. January 2020.

About three years ago today, as we ignorantly assumed nothing like Covid-19 lay on the horizon, I returned to Raleigh, North Carolina, from my boyhood home of Spokane, Washington. I had spent two weeks sorting two lifetimes’ worth of goods my parents stashed into their house. Raleigh never looked so good to me: I carried the deep satisfaction from accomplishing a complete journey through the whole household, and I had left the cold, snowy north to the lovely near-spring weather pictured above. My retirement might have officially begun 50 days prior, but it didn’t really begin until this moment of coming home. One month later we returned through the same airport from New Orleans, unknowingly passing Patient Zero who brought The Covid to our area, and we spent all of March sitting on our butts wondering what had kicked them so soundly!

A meditation on death

Mission San Juan, San Antonio, TX. November 2021.

My friend’s mother died this week. These deaths of friends, relatives of friends, and famous people we’ve known of our entire adult lives, become more frequent as I march toward the end of my 60s. When they strike near, they strike deeply. I’ve been reminded of my mother’s passing in 2019 and to a lesser extent of my father’s passing in 2013. Then, thinking of my father’s death reminds me of my friend’s father passing about four and half years ago. In turn, I recall I became close to this friend of mine when a very close friend of his died much too young. One thing leads to another, then another. Memory isn’t so much a card catalog as it’s a word-association game.

Each recurrence resonates with those which came before. Though my personal losses do not gut-punch me anymore the way they did when they occurred, memory-tropes have become stronger through the ensuing years. More and more, very specific moments become the definition of the entire event. Other details fall away. My friend’s mother had fluid building up in her lungs. My mother had the same though caused by a cancerous tumor. When I learned about my friend’s mother this week and her symptoms, I also heard the watery sound of my mother’s lungs as she tried to draw her final breaths, like smoke burbling through a hookah. It wasn’t pleasant, then or now.

Deaths link up in my memory, each resonating the others. This day the bells of death sound across my entire life. My first memory of death occurred when I had just turned 14. My family vacationed to San Francisco where we drove through The Haight staring at hippies–“make sure your doors are locked, boys!” We also visited my great-grandmother lying on what she assured us was her deathbed. “I’ve run the good race, I’ve fought the good fight,” she proclaimed to Mom, her granddaughter. “Oh, don’t say that, Grandma!” my mother exclaimed which I thought odd since the old lady obviously lay at death’s door. (We lack so much tact in our early teens.) I remembered this because my friend’s mother remained lucid into her final hours, just as had my great-grandmother. My mother and father both were not, each of them passing in a morphine-laced state of unconsciousness. I remain grateful I didn’t have to encounter the attitude my mother did in San Francisco in 1968. Do you protest as a matter of good taste, as my mother did? Do you agree with the fading relative, thereby assuring yourself honorable mention in the Total Jerk Hall of Fame? Do you hesitate, mumble something neutral, and earn their scorn for your equivocation? Maybe it all goes well if you’re lucky.

My mother slowly lost her engagement with reality, not that her grasp had been firm. (I too suffer from that state, having one foot firmly planted in a hallucinatory land where reality exists somewhere between a fond memory and a meaningless joke.) We crossed a threshold in 2017 when Mom could not grasp why failing an eye test meant she could no longer have a driver’s license. “But I had just recently had eye surgery!” She remained convinced a simple form filled out by her doctor and sent to the DMV would straighten everything out. I think she didn’t give up hope so much as the matter just faded into the background. By the time she entered the hospital 18 months later, diagnosed with stage four breast cancer at 89, she couldn’t quite comprehend how she had gone from her daily existence to this state of affairs–never mind that her life at that point had become rely-on-strangers-for-meals-and-all-tasks. In truth she only changed venues and caretakers, swapping neighbors for nurses.

This disturbed me less than it may sound. When she fought to understand why her driver’s license had been suspended, my superficial exasperation papered over how my mother’s stance resonated with all of those memories where she also couldn’t understand the logical progression of bureaucracy in all its forms; when she cried because in attempting a sewing class exercise called Idiot’s Delight she couldn’t get it “to work” and felt she was worse than an idiot; and those myriad times when she couldn’t understand electro-mechanical issues, made all the more rich because her father had been an electrical engineer. Does it sound as if I mock my mother? Absolutely not! Love of the maternal wraps itself around what the maternal is, regardless of its logic, perseverance, emotive sustenance, or intellectual prowess. I loved my mother. Everything followed from that. The mother I loved, and what I loved about her, relied wholeheartedly upon her husband and in her final days upon my brother and me, but truthfully mostly on her neighbors since my brother lived hundreds and I thousands of miles away.

Bells from my father’s death ring different tones; they peal a melancholy chorus. He never outgrew being a preacher’s kid, a PK. He learned the social skills that most nomadic children do, those whose parent(s) are in the military and travel from base to base, those who follow their academician parents from university to university, and those like my father who moved from place to place as his father pursued Calling after Calling. His father was an American Baptist minister. My father experienced a couple of moves early in his life, but by 3 or 4 began a decade in the suburbs of Minneapolis. His family then moved to Havre, Montana, where my father spent all of his high school years. His graduation from high school in 1942 permitted but one short year in college before the United States Army came calling because of World War II. He served in the Quartermaster Corps, achieved the rank of Sergeant, and told us absolutely nothing else about it other than he apparently sailed back and forth across the Pacific. I learned later how dangerous those convoys were and the dangers he faced. His background is relevant here because it informs his passing.

Just as he hid from his war years, my father hid from the aspects of his personality which didn’t fit into the mold of being a PK, a devout Christian, of being the “perfect kid” (a different kind of PK). The monsters in his closet slipped out a few times during his life, most notably at the end of it: he retreated from the corporate track he was on and moved his family from Los Angeles back to Spokane, Washington, returning to the same job he had left less than 24 months previously; he quit that job because he couldn’t conform to the ethical stances of his peers (or was it just a midlife crisis?); and at the end, he fell into a crevasse of personal turmoil when as chair of the church finance committee he learned the church secretary had embezzled a substantial sum from a struggling church. This final trip to the dark side took place when he had marked 82+ years and the pall of it never lifted. Retirement makes us face the delightful dilemma of the retired: how much meaning must one instill into one’s life? How ‘permissible’ is it to just “take it easy,” “take it as it comes” or in essence to live in the moment when the moment requires nothing significant of you? My father seemed to have no issues with the relaxation of retirement until The Failure. After that, he could see no path out of his darkness, and it continued to haunt him until he died in the middle of his 88th year.

If I wander the aisles of memory’s storeroom where I’ve tucked so many things, I come across other deaths, less impactful but salient nonetheless. The Sunday School classmate who died of a brain tumor the year following my great-grandmother. The teaching friend of my first wife who lived longer than expected with her congenital heart defect. When young I found it more difficult to feel these deaths, to be sorrowful. I don’t know why. Youth? Failure to connect with these people? Perhaps the latter. Before the teaching friend, my father’s father died of a stroke in 1980. (I was going to write “massive stroke” but any stroke which strikes down a man in his mid-80s packs a wallop.) Despite the sorrow I felt at his death, my strongest memory from that time is of our very small family–his two sons, my father and my uncle; my four cousins with a spouse or two; and my mother and me–hanging out in a motel room reminiscing in what passed for a wake.

But as the 1980s closed out my remaining three grandparents died in successive years: my mother’s mother in 1988; my father’s mother in 1989; my mother’s father in 1990. My second strongest memory at my grandfather’s passing haunts me. Because it is of my grandmother, I don’t think of it right away when I think of his death. I think of it as a bridge memory to hers. I arrived early to my grandparent’s house but everyone had gone somewhere except my grandmother. I still can see her clearly, staring, staring into her backyard as the gentle rains of the Willamette River Valley fell. Lost in thought? In shock? Numb? A mixture perhaps. I’ve noticed no pattern to the reaction of the surviving spouse when they’ve lost their lifetime companion. My father’s mother had her emotional heart ripped out of her when her husband died. She never recovered. Soon she lived in assisted living because of a gentle dementia, and afterward suffered a stroke in 1983 or 1984. She then lived in a vegetative state for five years. My mother’s father also slowly lost the mental faculties which made him my grandfather. The final time I saw him he lay sleeping in the infirmary where he had lived for several years, even before his wife died.

I look at the memories of those last two deaths reluctantly. I do not handle hospitals and deathbeds well. I visited each of them only once. My grandmother ate and breathed with machines. My grandfather just hung on for no reason anyone could articulate. When I said “the final time I saw him” it also was my first time seeing him in the infirmary.

My mother’s mother died between these troubling deaths and the early one for my father’s father. Today I’m reminded more of her passing because like my friend’s mother, my grandmother passed in a lucid state albeit with a bit of morphine-induced hallucinations. (“Why do they allow cats in here, Louise?” she asked my mother toward the end.) Despite certain traits which lessened her as a Good Person, she and I connected throughout our lives. I mourned her more than the others, especially as I had matured by then and learned to cry. (I’m guessing that I cried when my final two grandparents passed, but I do not remember one way or another.)

All these peals from the bells of memory ring back when someone dies, more loudly when it is someone close such as my friend’s mother this week. I met her at least a half dozen times in her final five years. I see her legacy in my friend. I offer my support, I share his grief, I attempt to help where I can. What strikes to my core, however, isn’t this. It’s those resonant bells which call me back to the deaths in my family, to my loved ones. And, frankly, to my own and my wife’s which have yet to occur. What lies ahead for us? Will I meet it with dignity? Perhaps. Will I cry and moan and complain about my state in the world? Much more likely. Will I be aware I’m dying? Do I want to be aware? What if my wife goes first? How will I cope? I’m not a mentally strong person; I fear I will act as my father’s mother did and just withdraw from the world.

These bells ring across time’s arc from the past and into the future. They sound more frequently these days. They’re louder. They’re more insistent. I sometimes would like to ignore them, but that would be like ignoring the sun or perhaps more aptly, like closing one’s eyes while driving a car. Best to listen and maybe learn.

Mission San Francisco de la Espada Catholic Church, San Antonio, TX. November 2021.