Jane

When my mother-in-law dozed off, I shut the door to her room at the assisted living facility and looked for some place where I could sit unnoticed and NOT think.

When you are visiting a place such as that, you can only really think one thought:  Life is a river flowing in one direction.  Eventually – and more quickly than the mind can conceive – the river empties out into the great delta of geriatric unpleasantness.

Unless one capsizes mid-journey and is swallowed up by the river, the delta is our destiny.  The great contradiction of the delta is this:  No one wants to go there and at the same time no one wants to not make it there.  And so we spend most of our lives pretending we can outsmart the river.

I found a little sitting nook in front of a window outside my mother-in-law’s room that overlooks a little courtyard and I pulled out my iPad hoping it would put me into an electronically induced coma of sorts or at least that it would serve as a Do Not Disturb sign and no one would stop to chat me up.

Within minutes, I sensed her rolling up behind me, chopping her slipper-clad feet at the carpet to scoot herself forward.

“Please oh please don’t stop,” I thought to myself, “Please just keep going.  Please don’t talk to me, please just let me be.”

But she didn’t keep going.  She stopped. She rolled up beside me and didn’t say a word.  I looked up from my iPad and out the courtyard windows, and there she was, her reflection next to mine, both of us gazing beyond the window and down the river.

Finally, because it was all that could be done, I turned to her and said hello.

“What is that you got there?” she asked, pointing to my iPad.

I told her what it was and that I was playing a game on it to pass the time while my mother-in-law napped.

She said she always wanted to learn how to use a computer but never did.  And now it was too late.

Then she told me her name was Jane.

Jane had big round blue eyes and a mostly clear mind.  She had been a high school English teacher in the west Texas town of Odessa.  Jane was a little more tart than sweet and it didn’t take long to fall in love with her.  For the next hour, she recounted scenes from her life in Odessa all while folding and unfolding a piece of paper in her hands.

When she ran out of stories or just grew tired of talking, we sat and stared at ourselves in the window.

“Would you like for me to read you a poem?” she asked unexpectedly.

“Yes, I would love that,” I said honestly.

She sat up tall in her wheelchair and in her English Teacher’s voice, she read:

Only Now –

This is the best time

The only now that

we have time

and soon, much too soon

Now will become then and

will start all over again

Negotiating

Pulsating

Vibrating

Celebrating

Now!!

When she finished, I asked her if she had written it.

“Yes, I did,” she said, “In 1981.”  She handed me the paper.  I re-read the poem and noticed her pretty youthful handwriting.  I saw that she had written down the date and even the hour that she had written it – March 14, 1981, 2pm.  I wondered what she had been doing that day, what in her life had brought her those poetic thoughts and why she wrote them down.  On that particular day in 1981, I was barely 21, at the headwaters of the river.

Jane1a

Just then, AD and other family members found me and set up camp in what had been my private nook and began chatting and sharing news as though nothing special had just happened.

When I turned my attention back to Jane, she had quietly slipped away and was scooting down the hall with her poem folded up in her hand.  I watched her scoot all the way down the hall and around the corner.

And I wanted to go with her.

Jane2

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Another Kind of Spotlight

I wrote about Uncle Claude here recently and how he was a major influence in AD’s life. As such, we often talk about him and we often talk about him to Sean.

Oral tradition, the telling of and retelling of family stories, connects us to those who came before us, those who had a hand in shaping us in some way.  Their stories are our stories and our stories are our history.  It is the through the knowledge of history that we know from whence we came, and to some degree, for better or worse, who we are.  (And perhaps it is why I love history so much.)

We tell Sean about how Uncle Claude would quietly go around town doing nice things for others, mowing lawns and fixing things. We tell him how he and Aunt Jean took in AD and his mother and brothers for a time after AD’s father died.  We tell him how he served our country and how he was a war hero. We tell these stories so that he might have an understanding of who Uncle Claude was, how he shaped us for the better and how he was, in our eyes, a great man.

But he’s only six. We don’t really know how much of these stories he absorbs and remembers.

But, truth be told, maybe we tell our family stories because we need to tell them moreso than because he needs to hear them.

Be that as it may, late last week Sean and AD were sitting together on the sofa and the evening news was on in the background.  A segment came on enumerating all the famous people who had died in 2009 — everyone from Walter Conkrite to Soupy Sales.  When it was over, Sean turned to AD and said, “I guess we missed the part where they talked about Uncle Claude.”

I had to laugh, not just at the idea that the national news would mark the passing of our beloved uncle, but also because Uncle Claude died before Sean was born.

But I did pause to ponder what the news would be like if they did more stories on ordinary people doing good things and less stories on famous people doing bad things.  Wouldn’t that make the world a nicer place? I think so.

But then again, Uncle Claude would never seek nor accept the spotlight or the applause of human hands. And that’s part of what made him so great.  He spent his life seeking another kind of applause, another kind of spotlight, another kind of reward.

I like to think that one day in heaven, on the nightly news, there was this story:

“Today in the greater Tuna metroplex, a man who goes by the name of Uncle Claude went on a goodness spree.  After tossing the football with a fatherless boy, he mowed the grass at the church.  Later he fixed a broken screen door for a widow lady. There were no eye witnesses.  He was last seen driving a 1977 Ranchero.  Back to you in the studio, Gabe.”

An American Hero

Uncle Claude was already in his late 70s when I came into the family about 13 years ago.  He passed away about a year or so before Sean was born.  Many things bring Uncle Claude to mind, but nothing more so than Veteran’s Day.

The first time I met him was on a warm November afternoon.  AD had taken me to Tuna to meet the family for the first time and one of the first people he wanted me to meet was his Uncle Claude, the man who had been like a father to him after his own father died when he was a young boy.

That afternoon, the three of us took off and played a round of golf and what I learned about him that day was that he was a quiet man loathe to draw attention to himself, that he played a mean game of golf and that he had a razor sharp dry wit to the delight of those agile enough to keep pace.

What I didn’t know about him on that particular day was that he had hoped to play professional baseball before he was called away to serve in World War II when he was eighteen.

I didn’t know that as a 19-year-old boy, he had survived the D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach at Normandy and then later the Battle of the Bulge – two of the most horrifically bloody and casualty-laden battles in American military history.

I didn’t know that later he had ridden through the streets of Paris with de Gaulle as Parisians cheered for her liberators. I didn’t know that he had received a Purple Heart after an enemy’s bullet left him with a shattered elbow and unable to fully extend his right arm for the rest of his life.

And I will never know the horror and hardship he suffered without complaint for my freedom.

Claude lived his life in such a way that very few people knew that he had served America with such honor and valor. He returned home and quietly carried on.

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Uncle Claude was not just a hero to a young fatherless boy, but he was a genuine American hero, and remains so to all who enjoy her freedoms.

Therapy, Financial Advice and a Make Over. All In One Place

My mother and father-in-law have owned a cosmetics studio and clothing boutique in downtown Tuna for the past 30 years.  In addition to selling makeup and outfitting the local church ladies, they have provided a number of other services to the locals.

Up until a few years ago, an older lady named Leona would come in every other week or so with her checkbook and hand it over to George.  Leona couldn’t read or write a lick so she brought her checkbook in and George would balance her statement and tell her how much money she had and write out whatever checks needed to be written.

Another lady came in to the store three times a week for seven years. She never bought anything, but she needed some place to be for the three hours her husband took dialysis.  She drove in from some outlying area and after she dropped her husband off at the hospital,  she would stop in at the store and hang out.  George and Cleo offered her a comfortable chair, a place to put her feet up, something to drink, some fudge if George had made some that week, but mostly they offered her some place to be.

Occasionally you’d get a crazy older lady who would come out of the dressing room asking for a bigger size wearing nothing but her bra and a pair of stretch pants.  George would duck quietly out the front door because he is a gentleman.

I’ve been thinking about Memaw’s store a lot lately and the cast of characters that have come in and out of there over the years.  Memaw is in her mid-80s and still works that store most days.  I’ve been after her to retire.  Although I don’t know what could possibly fill the void that she would leave behind on Main Street.

The following post was published in November of 2006

* * * * *

Therapy With A Side Of Cold Cream

My mother-in-law, Cleo, has owned a cosmetics and clothing business on Main Street in downtown Tuna for more than 25 years. She has enjoyed a fair measure of success for a variety of reasons.

One, she can flat out sell. That woman could sell the devil a Bible and then he would order a few more for gifts. Two, Papa George stands squarely behind her, encouraging her and supporting her every step of the way. Three, she understands that she is not selling clothes and cosmetics, but hope and dreams. And four, the good people of Tuna need some place where they can get therapy and a makeover at the same time.

A bell tied to the front door, clinkles and clankles, announcing the arrival of each customer. She greets them by name. “Helloooow there! Come in!” she calls from behind the counter looking over the top of her rhinestone bifocals. She asks about their children, their grandchildren. She knows them.

Usually the first customer of the day is some old farmer wearing bib overalls. That might seem odd if you were at the mall, but no one in downtown Tuna blinks an eye to see a farmer in a boutique. His wife has sent him in with an empty powder compact that he pulls out of the pocket on the front of his overalls. Cleo knows exactly what to replace it with without even looking at it. His wife has bought the same product in the same shade for the last 25 years.

He pulls up a stool at the makeover counter to rest and chat. He leans on his cane and Cleo leans on the counter to hear the latest. His wife has cancer, but she is hanging in there he says. Cleo listens and offers him a piece of homemade fudge. There’s nothing that George’s fudge won’t make better. Cleo rings up the makeup and walks him to the door. “You hang in there now. We’re a’prayin’ for you,” she says as he makes his way out the door.

Ever so often, some young gal will come in with her head hanging low. She’ll pull up a stool at the cosmetics counter and pour out her woes all over the eye shadow counter. Like a good bartender, Cleo listens. Her husband has left her. He took the dog. Cleo gives her a piece of homemade fudge and pats her arm.

Fifteen minutes later, her woes have been replaced with a new face and a new blouse. When you’re living your life out in a country and western song, a bag of cosmetics and a new blouse will fix most all that ails you. She hugs Cleo as she leaves the store. “Keep your chin up gal!” Cleo calls to her. She has made a customer and she has made a friend.

You just can’t get that at the mall.

* * * *

The entire Tuna series can be found at the Best of Antique Mommy

More Millie

Your last helping of Tuna for the week.  Have a great weekend y’all!

* * * * *

Millie Conway

In our family, we celebrate Easter and our risen Lord as we do any other holy day – by racing home from church and eating entirely too much. And then complaining about how full we are as we waddle off to check out the dessert table.

And after all that eating, nothing much else can be done except to sit around the table and talk trash before going back for another piece of pie. When my mother-in-law Cleo and her siblings get together, talk inevitably turns to Millie Conway. After 70 or more years, it’s still Millie Conway. If you have ever wondered how long one can harbor sour feelings, it’s at least 70 years.

In case you are wondering, Millie Conway was a girl that Cleo and her older sisters grew up with. As legend has it, Millie had the good fortune of being an only child and consequently was afforded a few luxuries – new clothes, an occasional Coke or a bologna sandwich all to herself. In Cleo’s family there were seven children and no such luxuries. If Cleo were to have to choose a last meal, I can tell you right now it would be a sandwich of thick cut bologna with real mayo and a Coke. The contentious feelings towards Millie wasn’t borne out of the fact that she had so much and that Cleo and her sisters had so little, but that Millie was the original Nellie Oleson.

After a round table rehashing of Millie’s many acts of evil against the sisters, each one reported as though it had never been told before, one of the siblings will say of their oldest sister, “You know, Fanny always wanted to hit Millie but mama wouldn’t let her,” and then almost piously, “Mama never let us hit anybody or anything like that.”

And then someone will say, “Poor Fanny went to her grave wanting to hit Millie and never got the chance.” And then we all hang our heads in a moment of silence for Aunt Fanny and her unrequited and unopened can of whoop ass.

“Whatever happened to Millie Conway anyway?” someone asked.

“Oh she died some years back,” Cleo says.

Everyone paused to consider this.

Then Antique Daddy adds triumphantly, “Well, I bet the first thing Aunt Fanny did when she got to heaven was kick Millie Conway’s butt.”

And if there is any image that will convey the true meaning of Easter, it’s two old ladies in a throw down at the Pearly Gates.

Originally published April 2007.

Mover, Shaker, Biker?

At age 90, my Aunt Jean is a mover. Not a shaker though, because that would be undignified. 

 

Aunt Jean is always on the go, on various committees, visiting folks in the hospital, looking in on the elderly her nieces and nephews and does it all with a quick step and in stylish attire.

 

Every month, the church she attends arranges for the seniors to go out for dinner together at a local dining establishment where Christian fellowship and merriment commence therein.

 

Last month, the senior coordinator selected a new place in town called Luce Wheels.

 

Cousin Cheryl, who lives in Tuna and is about my age, sometimes goes with Aunt Jean to these senior dinners using the excuse that she will drive her home after dark, but really we all know it’s because Aunt Jean is fun to hang out with.

 

When the seniors arrive at this new establishment, it turns out to be a biker bar. 

 

No matter.  All the seniors go in and enjoy a meal and then later some of the tattooed patrons were nice enough to show them how to play shuffleboard.

 

About 7:00pm, Cousin Cheryl turns to Aunt Jean, yawns pointedly and says, “Well, it’s getting late, I guess I better be getting you home.”

 

“Oh no,” Aunt Jean says, “I think I’d like to stay. The band is about to start.”

 

On second thought, maybe Aunt Jean is a shaker.

 

Millie Conway

In our family, we celebrate Easter and our risen Lord as we do any other holy day – by racing home from church and eating entirely too much. And then complaining about how full we are as we waddle off to check out the dessert table.

And after all that eating, nothing much else can be done except to sit around the table and talk trash before going back for another piece of pie. When my mother-in-law Cleo and her siblings get together, talk inevitably turns to Millie Conway. After 70 or more years, it’s still Millie Conway. If you have ever wondered how long one can harbor sour feelings, it’s at least 70 years.

In case you are wondering, Millie Conway was a girl that Cleo and her older sisters grew up with. As legend has it, Millie had the good fortune of being an only child and consequently was afforded a few luxuries – new clothes, an occasional Coke or a bologna sandwich all to herself. In Cleo’s family there were seven children and no such luxuries. If Cleo were to have to choose a last meal, I can tell you right now it would be a sandwich of thick cut bologna with real mayo and a Coke. The contentious feelings towards Millie wasn’t borne out of the fact that she had so much and that Cleo and her sisters had so little, but that Millie was the original Nellie Oleson.

After a round table rehashing of Millie’s many acts of evil against the sisters, each one reported as though it had never been told before, one of the siblings will say of their oldest sister, “You know, Fanny always wanted to hit Millie but mama wouldn’t let her,” and then almost piously, “Mama never let us hit anybody or anything like that.”

And then someone will say, “Poor Fanny went to her grave wanting to hit Millie and never got the chance.” And then we all hang our heads in a moment of silence for Aunt Fanny and her unrequited and unopened can of whoop ass.

“Whatever happened to Millie Conway anyway?” someone asked.

“Oh she died some years back,” Cleo says.

Everyone paused to consider this.

Then Antique Daddy adds triumphantly, “Well, I bet the first thing Aunt Fanny did when she got to heaven was kick Millie Conway’s butt.”

And if there is any image that will convey the true meaning of Easter, it’s two old ladies in a throw down at the Pearly Gates.