Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Last Christmas with Mom

It wasn't fun, but I'm glad I was there.

Everyone in Billy C's family was sick with that thing that was going around last year and they didn't want to expose any residents at Mom's assisted living facility, so they stayed home.

My gift to Mom was my time--money being tight, that's all I had.

So I drove through the pouring rain to Rubydoo to see her. Getting off the off-ramp, I was surprised by homeless guy sitting at the curb, holding his sign "Merry Christmas, anything will help" and scowling as the cars drove by. Also, another man stood on the island in the middle of the road, holding a sign advertising a local taco shop open for business nearby.

At Mom's, I put on a new DVD I had of the Soweto Gospel Choir for Mom to watch. I thought she'd like it more than she did. But she may have also been sad that day and, therefore, a little unresponsive.

While she watched and I listened to the choir, I tried to help her clean up the clutter of her room. She was wheelchair-bound and couldn't do much, so I did what I could and made a little more room for her.

The plan for the day was to see a movie and go out to dinner, so an attendant came and got her ready, giving her a bath and getting her dressed, while I repeatedly watched this one song that I liked on the DVD. The Soweto Gospel Choir sometimes does this weird harmonic thing where several people sing the same song at different times but somehow make it stick together. It's not exactly a round. I'm not sure what they called it. But I played this song many times because I just liked it a lot.

The rain came down hard and I hoped it wouldn't work against me. The food at this place wasn't so bad, but I didn't want to spend Christmas Day in an almost empty dining hall with silent old people who had no one to come get them. I wanted to get Mom out for a few hours.

I parked the car in the covered parking area and helped Mom get in the car, hoping that the rain would let up by the time we got to the Plaza, where we would be seeing the movie and having dinner. As we came out to the car, we had to pass a coroner's truck with a recently deceased person in a body bag waiting to be loaded up. I had noticed that someone might have died while going back and forth to Mom's room earlier.

We drove to the the Plaza and yes, the rain let up. But it was still cold as Hell.

First, I parked close to the theater and took Mom in to see "Doubt." A good film--but every few minutes, Mom would go "psssst" and ask me what had just happened. Now Mom couldn't hear very well, so, when I'd tell her what had just happened, I'd usually have to repeat it again. Louder. While other people tried to watch the movie.

After the film, we walked to the Mexican restaurant at the other end of the Plaza. The rain had stopped but a post-fog mist had settled around the shops and the cold bit at our faces. On our way, we ran into two teacher friends of mine, a couple, who were on their way to see a movie. I introduced them to Mom who told them what we had just seen and began critiquing the film for them , there in the freezing, foggy cold.

At dinner, I gave her her meds. And, as she often did, she began to zone out. Still, we had a pretty good talk.

My second gift to her was the gift of light. It was around 10 at night, and, as she always did, Mom began to dictate how we should get home. But I, as we drove down Arlington, turned down the first of the Wood streets and tuned to a radio station playing Christmas music.

"What are you doing?" she crabbed.

"I wanna show you something," I replied.

And there was the beginning of the Christmas lights. "Ooooh," she said.

And, except for the occasional "look at that house" or "those are pretty," we drove up and down the Wood streets, studying the light displays, filled with silent awe .

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

John Lennon's Dead

At the time, I was 26 years old, renting a little guest cottage on Larchwood Place, behind a larger house where my landlord lived. It is among my favorite places where I have lived, almost like a studio apartment, it was so small.

I worked at Montgomery Wards, managing the catalog department. A job I hated, except for the parties after work most weekend nights.

I had just gotten a cassette player/recorder for my stereo system and had started transferring my LP's to tape. My brother called me with the news late that night. I had been recording my favorite songs from the White Album. In fact, I was recording "Julia."

I made joke (which I forget), mostly out of disbelief. It gradually sunk in about how this man was a force in the world who tried to use his popularity for good in the world.

Tom Snyder, host of Tomorrow on NBC, replayed his interview with John that night. Half of the interview covered the usual Beatle stuff and was pretty interesting. The other half included John's lawyer and was about his fight to stay in the USA--not really as interesting.

Double Fantasy had been released a short time before. Immediately after his death, local record stores had jacked up the prices for his albums...and people were buying them at these inflated prices. One record store manager told a local newspaper that it was only good business to do so. Eventually with enough public outcry, record stores brought the prices back down.

Yoko asked that people stop and observe ten minutes silence on a given day. I remember reading later in a newspaper that a girl had gotten fired from her job because she tries to observe the silence while on the sales floor.

A sad time.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Writing Runs Through It

Today at school, I had the students do a bit of SSR (Sustained Silent Reading). During past SSR's, I had been re-reading The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, a pretty good play by Lawrence and Lee, the fellows who wrote Inherit the Wind.

I had my TA re-arranging the books on my bookshelf, filled with books that I have recycled from my personal home library. The Thoreau play had been on that bookshelf, but rather than disturb my TA's progress, I just picked up a worn paperback copy of Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It that was on top of the pile of books he was re-shelving.

As I opened it, I found an inscription: "To Jeff, with Love, Christmas 1992." There was no signature, but I knew my mother's handwriting.

This book had been among my favorites. Mike Gribble had recommended it to me a couple of years before. Mike, a producer of Spike and Mike's festival of Animation, was always recommending books to me. As an English teacher, I envied that Mike always had the time and energy to read so much.

He died in 1991 of cancer. I called his home phone, hoping to get information from Dickie Mo, his housemate, regarding the memorial service. Instead I got the answering service. From it, came Mike's voice, thanking me for my call and telling me about future Festival of Animation shows coming up.

In an odd way, it was nice to hear his voice one last time.

I have no idea how Mom picked this book as a gift for me. When I picked it to read today, I had the notion that I had bought it for myself shortly after Mike recommended it.

Apparently not.

Mom had taught me about loving literature. When my 1st grade teacher told her that I had trouble with reading, she supplied me with lots of comic books to get my interest. Then, when she determined there really was no reading problem, she kept the supply coming and gradually introduced me to more challenging fare. I graduated from Donald Duck to Superman to Classics Illustrated to, eventually, books that had few illustrations, if any.

Today, I did something with A River Runs Through It today that I rarely do with any book. I read the introduction, written by Norman Maclean. He talks about writing the book in part to hand down his life's story to his children--something Mom talked about doing, partially did, but never completed--in part due to her inability or unwillingness to master her computer and partly due to her lack of discipline when it comes to just sitting down and writing. She got some of it out, but not as much as I would have liked.

Before she got her computer (was it her 80th birthday?), I offered to let her come over and use mine--I'd teach her how to use it.

She only came over for that purpose once. She was in her late 70's at the time and could still get around pretty well, if somewhat slowly. She had the Parkinson's, but it was in the early stages, barely noticeable.

I got her set up in my office. While I did some house cleaning, she wrote, occasionally calling out for help. I then went out for Subway and when I got back, we had lunch.

We sat in my living room and she told me about her vision for this--"I see this little girl telling her story through the different houses that she lived in."

Most of these stories, the ones that I know anything about, never made it to print. Sometimes, when I was with her, she would start telling me about her family history. A lot of characters in her family.

Her Mother and Father were among the most colorful of them. Grandpa was an alcoholic and the primary reason they had to keep moving from house to house. Grandma contracted Multiple Sclerosis and was the main reason they eventually had to move in with us toward the end of their lives. Grandpa just couldn't take care of her by himself anymore.

Grandpa started collecting birds in our old pigeon coop out behind our garage. He had a couple of parakeets, a canary, a cockatiel, and a myna bird that said "Hello, Bill." He spent a lot of time in that coop with his birds. Drinking.

He was supposed to have stopped drinking. When Mom and Dad found out that he had a hidden stash back there, it was good-bye birds.

Grandma was bed-ridden. She could move her head and had only the use of her left arm. She read all of the time: books, magazines, the morning and afternoon newspapers (my job was to help her find Ann Landers).

Mom had hinted a couple of times that, before Grandma became bed-ridden, her marriage to Grandpa had been troubled--that there had been loomings of divorce. "I've seen some pretty ugly things in my life," she'd say, and stop there.

After Grandpa died, Grandma would tell me daily that he had loved me. After she died, their bedroom became our den, but the walls were still lined with her books, most of which never left the house until Mom did. The shelves reached almost to the ceiling.

Some of those books, along with other memorabilia (and even some trash) sits in my garage. I have gotten rid of a lot of Mom's stuff. But I have trouble throwing away anything with writing on it. Some of it is hers, some of it dad's, some of it Grandpa's--mostly notes and letters, none of it organized for posterity.

I have found old birthday cards Dad to Mom, Mom to Dad. Some unsent letters from Grandpa to people I never knew.

I haven't thrown this away because, it seems to me, that's where their spirits are.

Today, I even found a part of Mom's spirit on my school bookshelf.

After my last class, I walked up to the office to drop off my weekly attendance report when I ran into a former student--now a senior--waiting outside another teacher's classroom. He was reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, another book about another river. I stopped and asked him how he liked it. We talked for a little while about that book and books we had read in my class and which ones he liked better and about books in general.

As I left him, he shouted out "Thanks for teaching me to love literature!"

I am haunted by books and untold stories.