What’s in a name?

Adapted from the eulogy I delivered at my father’s funeral October 7, 2013:

We just called him "Dad."

We just called him “Dad.”

I would like to talk about how my Dad established several variations of his name over the course of his life.  He was born Charles Francis Laundra and was known to his family as Charlie… the middle (fourth) child of five boys and three girls in a rambunctious, hard-working household—destined to feel forever deprived of getting enough attention and so craving it all the more, he found himself often in trouble for misbehaving (today we would call it “acting out”).  He has always been “Uncle Charlie” to my cousins on the Laundra side.  In 1951 at age 17 he joined the Air Force and somewhere between  basic training, the Atlantic and Scotland he came back as Chuck Laundra, and so he is, of course, “Uncle Chuck” to my cousins on the Kraft side.  Now his choice of “Chuck” —(think about it: Chuck Yeager, Chuck Connors, Chuck Norris)—seemed to be a name not only for breaking away from his family nickname but a way to invent a framework for the role he was going to be required to play, for maybe the whole rest of his life, so that he could live in his community, get hired to a profession, have a family life which he SO WANTED, and all those things that the culture outlined for the American man pursuing the American dream.  Of course the opposite of a social structure is anarchy. None of us here would wish to return to the dark ages where you were simply beheaded if the village didn’t approve of your actions. But the American dream was culturally, in 1955, shall we say, narrowly defined.

I think the evolution of “Chuck Laundra” is a great illustration of the arc of cultural history into which my father was born: It was a time during which he and many others had to go to unfathomable lengths in order to safely navigate a social structure that simply shut down the essence of who he was, forcing him to live, on a daily basis, a half-life—hiding his authentic self, his true-ness, his free and God-given soul … so that society could remain comfortable.

And the price we paid as a society for that nonsensical way of thinking was that so many of the players were robbed, not just the ones whose orientation was so plainly misunderstood:  Was not my mother robbed of the potential to have a truer married life?  And what about the potential same-sex partners who never could realize their dreams of intimacy, commitment and lifelong connection to another human being? Is not the greater community robbed when teenagers take their own lives, at an alarming rate now, because they cannot bear the heaps of hatred, misplaced shame and hostility coming at them and are too young to see beyond their present circumstances?  Partly because Chas was my dad, I grew up observing all the ways we annihilate one another with hatred, ignorance, superstition and shame, or perpetuate institutional prejudices with our silence.  And so for me, I came to a profound understanding of how my father moved through the world, having to deny the very essence of what makes us who we are… again, so that the rest of us could remain comfortable.  Wow. That is the sad, constricted world in which my father navigated, trying to be good, to be what others expected of him, trying like the rest of humanity to do good, to get some joy and gratification, trying to be happy within these ridiculous “moral” constraints.

Many years later, when it was safer to do so, my Dad finally arrived at a new life, and a new name depicting his most authentic self: Chas.  I think we all associate this name with his coming out and with his gay identity.  Ironically, “Chas” is what his father occasionally called him when he was growing up, and that’s why he liked the name.

I remember a certain evening back in 2001 or 2, after my parents’ divorce when Dad had relocated to Manchester, MI and had undergone chemo and radiation treatment for cancer.  It was a period in his life that was very dark—a difficult and lonely stretch when he was the most shattered I think I had ever seen him.  I was in the Ann Arbor Civic Chorus that year and he had come to our holiday performance… it turned out I had a very froggy laryngitis voice and couldn’t perform with the choir, but I was well enough, so we ended up in the audience together.  After the main part of the concert, the audience was invited to sing along for community caroling.  I knew how lonely, ill and wretched my dad had been feeling—very depressed and poor in spirit—Yet when it was time to sing carols, with no hesitation whatsoever he lifted his face, took a deep breath and crowed out his song with such hope in his spirit, just as I had heard him sing every Christmas of our lives around the piano.

It was African American theologian, author & civil rights activist Howard Thurman who said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

It strikes me, then, that this was one of the greatest things about my father: it was like he was nearly always able to put his despair in a shoebox momentarily, so that he wouldn’t miss out on the chance to celebrate something: the family traditions; the human expressions of drama and joy, the affirming of life in its whole kaleidoscope of color and noise and sweat and lights and action!  It was profoundly moving to me when we were crowded around his hospital bed a few nights ago, even after we had said, “It’s okay Dad, you don’t have to talk,” he screwed up what lung power he had left and matched us cadence for cadence as we all prayed the Our Father.

Charles Francis Laundra joined in.  That really was a core part of who he was.

Dad had a fascination with the beginning, birthing, and raising of all life, and in as many forms as he could experience.  His countless forays into animal husbandry are legend, starting with the adoption of stray dogs and keeping homing pigeons as a boy, to the hatching of chickens, the breeding of poodles and rabbits, raising canaries… all of which gave him great personal reward and pride, and drove his family & neighbors crazy.

He is also famous for his innumerable hobbies.  Whenever I hear the nursery rhyme about “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,” I think of Dad because he really would try just about anything. He even tried hunting once, I think with some teaching buddies—so out of character for him—He was such a lover of (and master of) all the home arts: gardening, baking, weaving & knitting, quilting, basket making, light carpentry learned from his years of building sets.  Late in life he started learning origami and loved it.  I want to state for the record, that cleaning up and organizing his hobbies was not a priority for Dad, and it fell to our beleaguered mother to keep his hobby fallout from besieging our household.

I could go on and on, but others are here who are wanting to speak, so I will close my talk with a short but heartfelt list of things my father taught me or that I learned from having known him:

  1. How to ride a bicycle, and how to use a dictionary.
  2. If you are six years old and not interested in a half-hour dictionary lecture on what a word means, you can use the bicycle … as a means to get away from the dinner table …
  3. If you cut a piece of toast into six rectangular sections, they are the perfect size for delighted children to dunk into their sunny side-up eggs on Sunday mornings.
  4. Don’t put off your big projects. I know some of you are laughing because you know I haven’t really learned this one, and what little I know I learned from watching Dad suffer the consequences of his own procrastination.  But he did try to teach us this lesson, and with me it almost always involved an all-nighter at the typewriter with Dad, in the dining room, accompanied by index cards and a lot of library books.
  5. I learned that Chevrolets, even really old ones with a small U-Haul on the back, CAN, in fact, make it through four states in a blizzard, as long as you’re exceptionally careful and you keep singing songs in the car.  And that travel is a wonderful adventure which everyone should get to do.
  6. Stories, theatre, art, dance, music and literature are the food of the mind and  soul, and you can never consume too much of these.
  7. You can’t make someone love you.
  8. “The family, the family, the family.”  (I’m kinda’ borrowing  here from Bo Schembechler’s famous mantra, “the team, the team, the team…”)  My dad treasured his family more than anything, and he taught us also about “the family of man,” and that it’s best not to have too many boundaries on who’s a part of the family and who’s not.  He didn’t believe in exclusion, and that has been a powerful influence on us.
  9. It is a moral crime to hurl our ignorance, hatred or intolerance upon people who are different, merely because of their difference. It is always, always wrong to shut down the spiritual essence of any human soul.
  10. Our world is getting smaller every minute. I am so grateful to have inherited, from my father and my mother, a worldview that encompasses the full spectrum of humanity and diversity.  Focusing on the things we share in common promotes harmony and justice in our world, and especially in these increasingly uncertain times, we have to keep reaching out, including, expanding, until everyone belongs and everyone wins.

Thank you for being here with us to celebrate our Dad’s life.  He loved you all so much.

Departures

In memoriam: Kathleen "Kitty" Ristau, Feb 2, 1930 ~ May 5, 2011

Out of all  those eight boys and girls born to Harold and Alma Laundra between 1928 and 1943, there were three who stayed and made Saginaw their home, who married and raised their families there—my dad, Aunt Mary Hudson, and Aunt Kitty Ristau.  I attended my first funeral, Aunt Mary’s, at the age of five, so we were destined not to be blessed with knowing her throughout our lives.  Our Aunt Kitty, though, is a different kind of love story all together.

This April 9 after a brief phone call with my cousin, Melanie, in which it became clear that Aunt Kitty would now need round-the-clock care after a hospital stay, I went outside to work on cleaning up a perennial bed.  I thought about my aunt as I worked, visualizing flashes of long-remembered angles of the Ristau’s back yard, the front door, the vine-covered brick, the clothesline, the chain-link fence, the flowers between the driveway and the side of the house.  When I grew tired of weeding, I stopped for a break & sat down on our concrete porch.  It was sunny, but chilly and windy.  My hair had been whipping around in my way as I worked, so on my break I pulled up the hood of my sweatshirt, tucked my hair into it and pulled the cotton drawstring snug around my chin.  I began to tie my hood strings into a bow thinking how rarely grown-ups ever actually tie their hoods in this fashion, that this is more often seen on children whose moms do this to prevent ear-aches.  It was right then, with the laces in my fingers, that I wondered how many times Aunt Kitty must have tied a kid’s hood, taken off a kid’s snow boots, hung our beach towels on a clothesline, or flipped a grilled cheese sandwich onto a paper plate in front of us.  It was right then that I sat on my front porch steps and fell apart.

We were so small when we moved to Michigan in the summer of ‘63, and our families wasted no time throwing us all together for every conceivable family celebration, holiday or summer excursion—birthdays, first communions, 4th of July picnics and fireworks, camping and visiting Grandma & Grandpa at the cottage.  I received my first box of chocolates ever, from Aunt Kitty and Uncle Ted, along with a ‘Wonder Books Easy Reader’ called Laurie and the Yellow Curtains (which I still have), when I broke my arm the summer between first and second grade.   One of my earliest memories on Charles Street is of falling asleep to the sounds of our four parents playing cards, visiting & laughing.

Most of us can probably recall a best friend’s or cousin’s house, early on in our history, as a sort of a “laboratory household,” a home that in some ways resembled our own routine at home, but in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, could be quite different.  These lab households are always the beginning of a child’s human exploratory.  If children are very lucky, there will be a close relative’s house nearby, inhabited by a generous, capable, patient, practical woman in charge.  I loved the ride over to the Ristau’s house & learned to watch for the Yukon Restaurant on State Street, because I knew that was Bock Road… and my aunt & uncle’s phone number is the only other number permanently etched on my brain for life: 792-4364.

Growing up, the Ristau household was as familiar as our own.  In addition to frequent get-togethers for fun, my mother relied upon Aunt Kitty many times for childcare when we were sick and our teacher mom had to report to work.  Aunt Kitty & Uncle Ted’s house was our second home, and definitely our laboratory of contrast and experimentation.  Whereas my mother & dad had quite definite rules of behavior with the appropriate consequence applied for misbehavior, Aunt Kitty’s general rules were more like, “Don’t kill each other, and everybody has to be in bed by 9:30.”  There was SO MUCH MORE joyous horsing around to be had at the Ristau’s, and we learned quickly the free-wheeling, rambunctious ways of our four daring and adventurous cousins.  For one thing, they had a laundry chute—I used to beg Laura and Melanie to let me throw their dirty clothes down the laundry chute, and I’m sure we also tossed GI-Joe down on parachuting missions more than once.  Everything landed in a huge box in the basement, conveniently right next to the washer & dryer.  Another 6 year-old observation:  Some people put the toilet paper on with the paper rolling over, and some put it on with the paper coming out from under, and it worked both ways!  Aunt Kitty was always such a fountain of useful resources, and really no part of the house or garage was off limits as long as nothing got burned to the ground & no one had to go to Emergency.

Many family stories, told and re-told,  have become legend, like the time JoEllen and Pete (who couldn’t have been more than four) were playing George Washington and “cut down” Uncle Ted’s new young cherry tree (actually an apple tree he had started from a seed!) in the back yard with a plastic toy saw.  It was everything Aunt Kitty could do to hold Uncle Ted back from pummeling both of them… nobody could believe how much damage a toy saw could do to a young tree trunk.  I don’t remember if the tree lived, but JoEllen and Pete did live to see another day. There was the time Melanie and I got up early to make breakfast in bed for Aunt Kitty and Uncle Ted, quietly getting the bowls of cereal ready and putting them on cookie sheets for trays—except my child-sized hands couldn’t quite handle the slippery, glass, half-gallon full bottle of milk from the fridge to the table, so down it went, smash, all over the kitchen floor at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning—I’m sure this is just exactly what you want to hear lying in bed with your husband at 6:30 on a Saturday morning… I was petrified of what punishment might come from ruining a whole bottle of milk, but when Aunt Kitty came padding in to turn the kitchen light on, Melanie began explaining how we were fixing breakfast in bed for them… and I remember there was no punishment at all, just sort of a warning to slowly step backward in our bare feet, while she matter-of-factly managed towels, mop & broom to whisk away the shards lying in the milk… and afterward, her praise and politely fake gratitude for our having tried to do something so thoughtful.  Like my own mom, Aunt Kitty knew so well how to let children be children.

We spent nearly every Christmas Eve of our lives at Aunt Kitty’s house.  When we were young, one end of the dining room table was devoted to kiddy hors d’oeuvres and red pop punch.  During our tweens and teens  we gradually migrated over to the oysters and whiskey punch.  I was never privy to the high school hell-raisers’ card games in the basement, but it is rumored that there was more beer consumed in the basement of 2397 Bock Road than at any other private residence in Saginaw Township.  Even into our teens, Aunt Kitty was the accessible and understanding aunt I went to when things at home got too constrained or too oppressive or too tense.  She somehow understood my father’s moods and my mother’s stress, while at the same time sympathizing with my anguish.  She taught us card games, let us “cook,” watched our ballets and our half-baked musical performances of South Pacific in their basement, came to our ball games, helped us put on carnivals, celebrated our victories, and encouraged us to try things.  She was to us half-aunt, half mom.

The greatest thing about people loving you when you were young are the vast stores of detailed happy memories that you can hold in reserve for when the realities of your life leave you feeling empty and beleaguered and alone.  Every parent makes some mistakes, and yet it is the sum of their love, and their devotion in shepherding us to adulthood that we ultimately remember, and this is what we will always carry in our hearts.

Aunt Kitty used to teach us campfire songs, and we’d sing them up at the cottage outside around the campfire.  A few years ago at a family reunion at Melanie’s place, we all sat around a fire once again, and sang some of the old favorites—Aunt Kitty too.  This song she taught us especially goes through my head as we bury our Aunt Kitty today:

“That poor old man has gone to rest,
We know that he is free,
His bones, they lie, disturb them not,
Way down in Tennessee.

That pee-or old mee-an has gee-on to ree-est,
We knee-oh that he-oh is free-oh,
His bee-ohns, they lee-eye, dis-tee-urb them nee-ot,
Way dee-oun in Tee-enessee-see-see-see.

That piggedy-poor old miggety-man has giggity-gone to riggedy-est,
We niggity-know that he-gitty-oh is free-giddy-oh,
His biggety-bones they liggety-lie distiggity-urb them niggety-not,
Way diggity-down in tiggity-ene-siggity-see-see-see.”

Warp threads

Bridget, Allen, Karen, Steve, JoEllen

On Saturday Afternoons In 1963

When I was four, I wanted to be a teenager when I grew up.

The day we moved to North Charles Street, as soon as my tricycle was off the truck, my mother suggested I ride to the end of the block to explore, and report back.  As I steered my trike, bumping along the unlevel squares of sidewalk, I took note of the houses and bushes, the cars parked in the street, gum on the sidewalk, the smell of fresh-mown grass laced slightly with lawn mower gasoline wafting across neighbors’ yards.  The summer air was abuzz with the life of the insect world and the sounds of birds singing to the soft breeze shimmering through tall, old street trees.  At about the middle of the block, along came Karen Hauck on her tricycle from the other direction.  We looked each other over and decided it would be okay to say “Hi.”  Shortly thereafter we must have decided it would be fun to ride our trikes together.  We set off for around the block, and Karen became that day my best little friend for the next two years.  It was the summer of 1964 in Saginaw, Michigan.

Karen was the last of five Hauck children and had come along at least ten years after the youngest of the other four; hence, it was her teen-aged brothers and sisters, as well as Karen, who had such a profound influence on my rapidly expanding little world.  There was Larry, the oldest:  a tanned, blonde, Ken doll-looking guy who was forever washing his light blue Chevy convertible.  I remember once he took Karen and me for a ride in it with the top down.  It was just an errand to Arlans Discount Store for Larry, but for me and Karen, it was a cruise down Bay Road in the Miss Michigan Bean Queen Parade.  It had been a bright, cobalt summer day, and we sat in the back, our little mosquito-bitten calves barely making it over the edge of the vinyl seat, swinging our feet to the beat of Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’ playing on the radio and trying to rest our dwarfed arms up over the sides of the doors, grinning at each other as the wind whipped through our hair and saying things like, “Hey, mellow yellow … we’re cool!!”  At McDonald’s, while Larry was inside getting hamburgers and milkshakes, we stood up, perched our rear-ends on top of the seat back, and practiced giving our best Chevy convertible “bean queen wave”—that slow, mechanical, fake-looking parade wave of a white-gloved miss junior pageant winner.

Nancy, next-to-the-oldest, was the replete “twentieth century fox,” whose ash blonde hair was always styled & teased into a perfect “That Girl” Marlo Thomas flip, and who wore all the latest Twiggy fashions—she could have been a Twiggy paper doll (the Haucks were all sort of doll-like, each in their way).  Karen and I used to go up to Nancy’s room when she wasn’t there, try on her bangle bracelets, play her 45s, and dance to “This diamond ring doesn’t shine for me anymore” with our imaginary boyfriends named ‘Rick’ and ‘Doug.’

Then there was Judy Hauck—she was our babysitter.  Judy was the kind of serene, beautiful, perfect 14 year-old girl that freshman boys were afraid to ask out.  After my parents would depart, she would sit on the floor and let us comb her dark brown hair and practice braiding it and putting barrettes in it while she stared at the television.  Judy was quiet and cool, but she always let us jump on the beds, so as a babysitter, in our eyes, Judy was the greatest.

Finally, there was Alan, Karen’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed wonderboy brother, a younger version of Larry who pronounced his R’s somewhat uniquely.  He was a couple years older than my brother but horsed around with Steve quite a bit and was, frankly, way more of a babe.

These older siblings naturally doted on Karen quite a bit.  She was their little baby sister, their cherished angel-cutie, and she was accustomed to being treated as such, although she didn’t seem overly spoiled or conceited because of it.  The treatment she received was just a given to her.  Later, it would become clearer to me that while I led the somewhat sheltered, education-focused life my mother was choosing for me, Karen led, in utter bliss & ignorance, a charmed life.  At four, though, I was just busy absorbing everything like a little sponge.  I was not consciously aware of the comparisons I was making between my household & early values and those of Karen’s family, but in fact and deed that is precisely what was going on.  And there was plenty of contrast, because Karen & I were all opposites:

She lived in a white house on the southeast corner of our block; I lived in a gray house on the northeast corner, at Charles and Bro-mor.  In between was old Mr. Kanippel’s house; a small, dowdy beige brick duplex where a young couple with a baby named Kimberly lived; Karen’s Aunt Emma’s house with her extra lot spreading over to Karen’s yard; and Karen’s house, on the corner of Charles & Cooper Streets.  Karen was a year younger than I.  She had fine, white-blonde hair and wore barrettes or a pony tail; I had brown hair styled in what was known then as a ‘pixie cut’ (my working mother hadn’t time to fuss with braids & such in the a.m.’s and needed our hair to be practical).  I immediately yearned to know what it felt like to swish a pony tail back and forth against my neck.  Karen’s mother, Delores Hauck, was an industrious housewife of fine, German stock; my mother was a first grade teacher who went to work each day at the Bridgeport Schools.  Karen’s father’s name was Paul.  He may have been employed at one of the GM or Chevy plants on a second or third shift.  Mr. Hauck was rarely around and, when he was, said very little. Karen could go to him freely, but I was a bit inhibited when he was around-intimidated by his silence and the fact that he rarely seemed to smile.  My father was a high school English teacher who also taught in the Bridgeport school system.  He was much more animated, rarely silent, sometimes got violently, frighteningly loud, and was around much more of the time.

After a while, I got the general impression that everything at Karen’s house was better or more fun than at my house.  Karen’s mother’s dishes were the blue and white ones with the picture of the Chinaman going to town on them; our dishes were plain brown stoneware edged with what looked like beige tie-dye.  Karen had white patent leather go-go boots and got to wear tights in fall and winter with her jumpers;  I had sensible, taupe, suede Hush Puppy oxfords and wore white knee socks.  Karen had a white rabbit muff and a camel coat with a fur collar to wear to school; I had a red nylon play jacket with a hood, and hand-knit woolen mittens my grandmother made.  Karen had the newest, trendiest toys.  I had dolls and games too, and tons more books, but Karen’s toys seemed better, or at least, playing at her house was more fun.  Karen’s mother let her iron!  I was very impressed with this.  My mother would never have allowed me near a hot iron at five, but Karen was allowed to iron handkerchiefs and pillowcases.  I soon learned that by not informing Mrs. Hauck about my mother’s rule, I got to iron at Karen’s house too.

We were inseparable that first summer, because there were no other girls our age in the neighborhood and we were not yet in school.  We enjoyed playing exactly the same things at exactly the same time.  We would play with our Barbies and Little Kiddle dolls (Karen had a Barbie Dreamhouse, handed down from Judy); grocery store (Karen had a cardboard store and miniature play boxes of real grocery store items that said ‘Tide’ or ‘Green Giant’ or ‘Cheerios’ on them); we would listen to the motion picture soundtrack LP of Mary Poppins and sing all the songs together; we would play Judy’s ‘Mystery Date’ board game; we would play house elaborately, endlessly, either on my front porch or in Karen’s knotty-pine paneled rec room; we would play hospital outside in her yard—a picnic table served as the operating table or gurney or recovery bed, as needed.  Karen had a red plastic doctor’s bag with a syringe, Band-Aids, pills and a stethoscope.  We would climb Aunt Emma’s plum tree, eat plums, and sit and sing the Kookaburra song, and we would wander around in Aunt Emma’s vegetable garden, looking for “bad tomatoes” to step on with our little sneaker-clad feet, because we enjoyed the way the tomatoes went “smoosh.”  We would make pies in my sandbox.  We would dress up in our mother’s old clothes and shoes and jewelry and parade around with our baby buggies in tow.  Occasionally I would dress and wrap our toy poodle, Bearit, in doll clothes & blankets and ride him in my buggy, much to his distaste and always to his inevitable escape.

And Karen and I would walk to Louie Miles’ Grocery Store at the corner of Cooper and North Carolina to buy penny and nickel candy.  We would buy Bazooka bubble gum, candy necklaces, sweet tarts, slow-poke suckers, candy cigarettes, and paper dots.  When it was hot, we would sometimes buy an orange creamsicle or an ice cream bar.  Louie was a very nice, youngish man who ran the store with his new young wife.  Sometimes Steve and Alan would come too.  They bought baseball cards and  used to wangle our Bazooka gum out of us by telling us we could have their bigger pieces of gum from their baseball packs if we traded our Bazooka with them.  (We soon caught on that baseball card gum didn’t taste very good and was not the main attraction of the product.)  On the way there and on the way back, Karen and I would practice what to do if any cars ever stopped and a bad man invited us for a ride or offered us candy.  We would act it out, screaming and running up the block as our parents had instructed us.  When we got to Karen’s corner, sometimes we would peer down the storm grate at the curb, listening to the water gurgle.  We had pet alligators down there, and we were fond of feeding them accumulated dead leaves that had collected in the curb.  For their treats, we would feed them chestnuts.  One time a man came out of his house from across the street and explained that it was not a good idea to put dead leaves down the storm grate because of blockage.  From then on we could only pretend to feed the gators, which wasn’t nearly as much fun.

My little girl world was filled with story books (Madeline, I Can’t Said the Ant, Bread and Jam for Frances, The Story About Ping, Curious George, The Witch of Hissing Hill, Blueberries for Sal) which kept my imagination well fed.  One favorite story, from a children’s anthology, was called “Posh and Tosh,” about a Swedish farmer and his wife who traded places for a day, on the husband’s observation that his wife had it so easy taking care of the house & garden & little Altjie, the baby, while he toiled all day in the fields with his scythe, and looked after their cow.  Of course Axel botched up all Hannah’s household tasks royally, including flooding the kitchen floor & cellar with an overturned butter churn.  Apparently, I thought this was thoroughly hilarious.  I had a wonderful after-school babysitter, Aunt B.J., (she came in the morning to help get us off to school and was there when I returned home from school, till my mother got home), who must have read that story to me more than a hundred times, always at my request …  I guess that’s what having a favorite story is all about.  On Saturdays while my parents did chores, my father would play Broadway musical records (Gypsy, The Pajama Game, South Pacific, West Side Story), Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, marches of the British Royal Military & Color Guard; Percy Faith and his Orchestra; Edith Piaf; American Masters (Stephen Foster, Aaron Copland, etc.);  and of course, Peter and the Wolf.  We watched Mitch Miller & Hootenanny on Saturday night and the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday night.

I remember once having my mouth washed out with Safeguard for saying “ass” while sitting on the front porch steps with Steve, who had dared me to swear.   Once I got to school, I learned dozens of other bad words, such as nigger (it was 1964 and boy, we sure knew that was a bad word!), fuck (third grade, seen scrawled in huge chalk letters on the back wall of St. Helen’s Catholic School, although the true definition and concept of the act didn’t come till later) and faggot (fifth grade boys seemed to need to say this a lot).

I recall a game Karen and I devised (it was our sexual curiosity game) which involved bad words and a nasty man.  (Sometimes I think only the psyches of four year-old middle-class Catholic children were already guilt-ridden enough to have had an innate sense that, if we were going to play a game that involved our sexual anatomy, we had to somehow make sure it was “bad!”)  We thought it up one day in my back yard, shortly after my father had built us a real club house.  When Steven wasn’t hogging it for his fort, Karen and I would play house and other pretend  scenarios in it.   We invented our own special, secret name for the game, and we insisted on it being a horrid name!  We tried to think of the worst words we knew in the whole world:  Karen said, “nigger.”  I said, “nigger boy!”  We decided to call the game “the nigger-butt boy,” this name including three of the most nasty or cootie-laden swear-words we knew; and saying it greatly excited us.  In our game, we would take turns being the “n.-b.b.,” who would knock on the club house door.  The other one would answer and say, “Go away!  You can’t come in because I’m by myself, and my mother isn’t home!”  But the “boy” would always trick us into opening the door for each other, and he would then proceed to close both windows and demand that we pull down our pants, which we would of course do, so he could inspect us.  When whoever was pretending to be the boy was done, he would say savagely, “okay, you can pull your pants up now, but if you tell your mother, I’ll come back at night and burn a civil cross in your yard!!!”  (We didn’t quite have our civil rights & our Klan activities straight, but we knew some kind of bad people sometimes burned crosses in people’s yards on TV, and it suited our purposes for a pretend vicious threat just fine.

I took piano lessons at a too-young age, but I was smart enough to recognize the difference between real songs and that baloney “Typewriter” piece in some beginning Schaum book.  I loved listening and singing as my mother played, because she could really play and it appeared so effortless.  But when it came to being dedicated to practice, it seemed there were too many other things crowding my interests & time.  I wanted to be a brownie, learn ballet, read everything in sight, do art projects, put on plays, make up stories … and I guess my parents didn’t stress the practice too much when I was a child.

I suppose, besides wanting to be a teenager when I grew up, I wanted to be many things, whatever we were playing that day:  waitress, nurse, pioneers, teacher, church… but most of the time, true to my tail-end boomer upbringing, I usually just wanted to be “the mother,” who, in my view, had all the power.  I enjoyed being in charge when I could; I was a real GIRL-girl and played traditionally feminine things at a young age—mommies & dollies and tea parties and all that.  By the time I was ten & living on an army post at Bamberg, Germany in 1969, the Nancys and Judys of my early childhood had started burning their bras and screaming for equality, and it all got rather confusing after that.  It would be years before I understood the depth and breadth of what it meant to have been raised by my parents instead of by Mr. and Mrs. Hauck.  It would be another decade of carefuly memorizing a ridiculous social playbook, a catechism of conflicting rules and of what those rules said about the kinds of girls who grew up like Karen, and the kinds who grew up like me.  There would be an agonizing adolescence filled with taunts and rejections and the cruel realities of my rank in an unforgiving pecking order:  perfect, beautiful, smart, talented, average, ordinary, a smoker, a slut, invisible … and at the bottom: fat.

But those early play days with Karen Hauck were innocent, blemished only slightly by the realities of my father’s tirades, the newly forming realization that I was chubby, a broken arm from roller skating, and the occasional case of fiercely intense hives, brought on by a vague but overwhelming, fretful anxiety I couldn’t name, when I didn’t want to go to school and needed desperately to be with my mother … who went off to work each day at the Bridgeport Schools, to teach first grade to all those other little children, … who got to be with my mother all day long.

John P.

We are spending Saturday morning with our friend John P. in Macomb, a metro-suburban result of sprawl, northeast of Detroit.  A near-tornado-like storm came through a couple days ago, and his neighborhood was without power for 24 hours.  While spouse is downstairs helping John wet-vac indoor-outdoor carpet in basement (the sump pump stopped), I’m killing time on John’s computer.  He has a desk mat with a clear plastic overlay, beneath which are displayed some of John’s favorite quotes & maxims to live by: “Never argue with an idiot. He’ll bring you down to his level and then beat you with experience;” “We fail financially when we sacrifice what we want most for what we want now;” and “The same energy you use to focus on all the reasons you are miserably stuck can instead be channeled into welcoming the new.”  John is a fastidious bachelor who recently (and quite frugally with the help of a just as frugal do-it-yourselfer sister) upgraded his kitchen with new floors, appliances, sink and fixtures, done in stainless steel and a neutral palette appropriate for resale.  He keeps his cupboards neatly stacked with dishes, his pantry alphabetized, and his beverages and cottage cheese filed in convenient banks in the fridge, all of which makes me momentarily certain I should have married John.  He is my husband’s best friend and polar opposite.  John lives with neatness and order the way he likes it, and therefore lives well.  He is an accountant for the Department of Defense, a superior human being and, considering his leanings toward anal retentiveness, an extremely congenial, understanding and non-judgmental person.  He was, in fact, my best man when Greg and I got married.  I had been dealing with a very overloaded life at the time of our wedding, and John was the one who took care of all my little needs.  Mother and sister, best friends in from overseas, and other relatives took care of all sorts of other preparations for the big day: Dad baked individual loaves of bread for table favors; Angel-women tied programs together with satin ribbon & pearls; another matron of honor arranged an entire 9-day honeymoon to Hawaii  based on nothing but her love of Hawaii and her love of us.  We were blessed with the presence and involvement of loved ones with special roles at the ceremony and reception; Greg’s best man Richard flew in from Korea and one of my matrons from the Netherlands.  But on the actual day of the wedding, I remember that it was John who brought me back from the edge of hari kari when my guest list wouldn’t merge into the table directory document properly and I had to manually type 80 names & table numbers into six columns two hours before walking down the garden path.  It was John who had kleenex every time I asked for some, and John who kept track of my shoes after I couldn’t stand them any more & kicked them aside because they were too large & falling off.  It was John who helped me get seated outdoors on a cheap stool without knocking it over (in a size 26 satin gown with a floor length veil hanging down my back and rather ample derierre), and it was John who made sure I didn’t get wet when the rain finally started just as everything had to be cleared out of the reception venue.  He was just there for me whenever I needed him to be, and he endeared himself to me forever by his complete devotion to me on the one day I most needed to be assisted.  It’s not that I had clueless matrons of honor—It’s just that John served at my beck and call while they were watching over other essential details.  He was, in fact, the butler extraordinaire to a bride who had bitten off way more than she could chew in one ten-month span of selling a home, putting things in storage, helping fiance dismantle and sell his parents’ home of 30 years, commuting 100 miles round trip daily to full-time job, and keeping tabs on the building of a new home … By the wedding day I was, … well, let me just say the phrase “basket case” wouldn’t even come close to what I was.

At 51, it feels reassuring to know, finally, the kind of men I tend to love.  All have had in common a  purity of heart at their bottoms—no matter what was at the surface of their appearances to the world.  When I wonder where purity of heart comes from and how it stays with some of us, it occurs to me that men I tend to love also have all suffered in some major emotional way due to physical challenges as youngsters.  John’s list includes a touch of cerebral palsy, hearing impairment and slight alternative speech pronunciation, grown smooth after years of careful, diligent practice.  I suppose there is an unspoken recognition among children who are different, and share the common ground of having been humiliated at the hands of bullies, etc.  My radar for this never decreased with age, and in time I have embraced  and accepted that my spirit is a magnet to these ‘grown children’ who always, always instantly understand what’s most important to the suffering human soul: recognition, acceptance, healing.

Rita Mae Brown said, “Whenever I find myself doubting the existence of the Almighty, I remember that through my friends, God has loved me.”  Thanks for your love, John.

Let the nursery diving begin!

My favorite thing to do in spring with my best friend, Eloise, is to drive to counties south, east, and north of our own Washtenaw County, MI, to the plant places we have come to rely upon for the best deals, the best selections, or the best services for trees, shrubs, perennials, herbs, annuals, natives, seeds, hanging baskets, tools and supplies. We are the proverbial Johnny Cashes of Southeast Michigan nursery-diving (“I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere…”) Our all-time favorite for best PRICE, SELECTION and QUALITY is, hands-down, Block’s Stand and Greenhouse at Eureka and Middlebelt Roads in Romulus, MI

The selection, accurate labeling AND UNBELIEVABLE PRICES at Block’s simply can’t be beat. We also love Coleman’s Market in YpsilantI for their dollar perennials (this year’s prices for 4 inch potted perennials: $1.25 each OR 9 for $8.95), as well as Alexander’s in Whitmore Lake/Pinckney for their dollar perennials. I have built the backbone of my garden on $1 perennials, and I have Eloise & Poverty to thank for that. It is so fortunate to have a best friend who knows more about plants and patience than I do.

No matter what other dooms we are fielding in our lives, we always look forward to these few morning or afternoon excursions where we can let our manic sides take over, gleefully loading up the trunk with our young treasures. (Another outstanding rationale for $1 perennials is, of course, “How much financial damage can a body possibly do buying $1 perennials?!”) Our mutual gardening motto is “Who on earth would pay $10 bucks for a perennial?!!!!”

I am a slow, steady methodical gardener, concerned with economy of motion and energy (mine), striving always for the easiest, most idiot-proof plants, planted in huge masses to make maximum impact with minimal effort. Eloise, a master gardener and graphic designer by trade, is much more a ‘collector,’ always searching for a specific plant she has reviewed, always on the lookout for the unexpected jackpot or prize plant for which she has searched high and low. My garden is an open book of bright, solid colors and reliable zone 2 to 5 workhorses; Eloise’s garden is full of exotic colors, labor-intense dahlias, every rose with the word “peace” in it, many native plants and, at last count, a ridiculous number of hosta varieties. I have possibly 15 different things in my entire front yard. Eloise’s spring front yard show (just the spring show alone) includes daffodills, hyacinths, primrose, tulips, weeping pussy willow, eastern redbuds, then the stunning half arc of peonies, allium … it just goes on and on like that all season long.

Even as our gardening styles run to opposite ends of the spectrum, we are truly compatible when it comes to these spring excursions which have become almost ritualistic over the past few years. Stay tuned for our further 2010 adventures as we wander hither and yon through village and dell, seeking great deals and that perfect plant!

OTHER PLACES WE HIGHLY RECOMMEND:
Prielipps Farms & Greenhouse in Britton at US 23/MI 50 (US 23/Dundee exit) (price, selection)
Specialty Growers (Eloise’s recommendation) near, um … Howell?)
Dexter Mill (best pine bark mulch in four counties, not to mention their famous “We don’t rent pigs” ball caps)
Gee Farms, Stockbridge, MI (for trees, shrubs, Japanese maples, more)
Lodi Farms, Ann Arbor/Lodi Twp (crazy-fun antics you can do to get 15-25% off plants–but you MUST do them/sing them, etc.)
Downtown Home & Garden Ann Arbor (just plain FUN in every way!)

All work, no play …

Regular work.  Overtime work.  Freelance work.  Housework.  Avoidance work.  Chore work.  Spousal support work.  Brainless, unfocused multi-tasking work.  Yesterday it was nearly 80 degrees for one, breathless day of spring-has-sprung bliss, and I had to try to … work.  Must… get over this hump… of work … only way I can make it to … coloring eggs and playing in the garden!

The Catch-Up

So since last I posted, my plate, which had been going along like this 

for quite a while,

began to gather some speed,

and now it’s pretty much up to: 

I had planned a post-Christmas piece called “What I Got,” so entitled to commemorate the 5th grade pen-pal letters I used to gleefully exchange containing the Santa gifts report- but in content more a depiction of the family of origin I’ve been to hell and back with (and they with me) all gathering Christmas Day at our house, and the unique nature of my family’s particular flavor, character, neurosis, beauty, courage, and whacky symbiosis.  We have all come through so unexpectedly intact—quite the redemptive achievement when considering the real and potential harm we have collectively weathered.  Such a grand day we had, and several other excellent holiday celebrations before and hence with friends and hubby’s family too.  It’s, well, … “What I Got,” and I understood, more this year than in any other, that it is so more than worth celebrating.

It seems I’m good at condensing my ideas for blog entries, into brief but intriguing headlines:  “The Seduction of Catalogs.”  “Resolutions, Schmes-olutions.”  “Being Fat Isn’t a Crime—YET.”   “If Others Could View My Night Dreams, I’d Be Locked Up.”  Sigh.  But when will I ever actually have the energy and pith to write now?

I was starting to get used to being underutilized and having lots of free time to take my imagination out for walks, to seek spiritual sustenance, to call MARVIN every two weeks, to straighten up and fly right with a daily writing discipline.  But now that’s all shot to hell because I have taken a low-paying position in the non-profit sector that will demand of me much brainwork and blood, much passion, much patience & energy, and the accepting of one enormous plate of way-too-much in exchange for… well, I was going to say way-too-little.  But that’s never the way these kinds of jobs work out.  In exchange for low pay you usually get brilliant, creative, big-hearted people as your colleagues, and I certainly hit the jackpot there.  Our cause (services to the most vulnerable and underserved of our community) provides me with sound perspective on my own frailties and fortunes.  The chaos is palpable and distracting, there are no networked or integrated technology systems at all (think mid-80s), and when you open things (cupboards, cabinets) there WILL be an avalanche.  But there are also talented and experienced grant writers doing their thing (doing it—right in FRONT of me where I can proofread every word and ask every question and learn every little thing!!)  There are innovative vocational counselors and housing specialists who have developed award-winning vocational home construction programs in which those without homes have actually built their own housing. There are people all around me, former clients & some on staff who started or fell to the bottom of the world, helped themselves back up to a standing position and now help others.  In this new work world, I’m getting back to work with real people who have real hope and deal with the real world on the world’s terms.  They are hoop-jumpers with the patience of Job, and they are survivors ALL.  Ten days into it, I feel very proud to be serving this staff, and its clients.  More to come, but I know not when … as soon as I can muster more pith.