Sunday, February 12, 2017
In my life there have been two major influences that have opened love's door for me. The first and dearest, the one that fills me with passion and completeness with each breath she takes is my wife. The other has been the couple of Marc Edwards and Dennis Haddock - forever thought of as Marc and Den. To me, Marc and Den were the definition of love. They are both gone now. That is to say, they are both together again.
I want to tell the tale of how Marc and Den met. I apologize in advance for how clumsily I do it. The true sweetness of it could only be achieved by listening to Marc tell their story. Each time I heard it, the breath would go out of Marc's voice, his eyes would darken passionately with the memory of it, and you could tell just a few sentences in that he was no longer talking so much as reliving the moment. At the time of their meeting it was the eighties and Marc worked at the West Bank Club in Chicago as Catering Manager. Dennis showed up to the Club one day to interview for a job. For Marc it was love at first sight as something inside him melted away, and he could barely speak. So paralyzed was he by this first meeting with Dennis, that he had to run and get his assistant asking her to do the interview because he just couldn't think straight around Dennis.
That random stroke of lightening ignited something that would not stop burning. After some time, Marc and Den moved to Colorado Springs where we would join their lives. Jean-Marie met them long before meeting me. Marc was a partner in the very successful Food Designers catering company and Dennis was working at the Antlers Hotel when my wife was well on her way to being one of the best wedding and special events florists in town. As happens with Marc and Den, their friendship with Jean-Marie quickly deepened. So when I started dating my future wife, Marc and Den had us over to dinner to size me up. That part I did not know. What I did know was that the food would likely be exotic and spectacular because of Marc's line of work. I remember that night sitting in their lovely candlelit dining room sharing wine and conversation with a meal of pot roast and steamed broccoli. Perfect. I had a wonderful time, and only found out much later that the initial impression I rated was a lukewarm, "He's ok, but we just don't see it, J-M." Luckily for me, Marc and Den gave second chances.
Over the years, Jean-Marie and I shared many meals, parties, and vacations with Marc and Den. When Marc and Den were planning to simplify their lives and were plotting their exit strategy from Colorado Springs, Jean-Marie and I joined them on trips to Charleston and Savannah to help them decide where they wanted to live. Though they ended up in my beloved Charleston, the Savannah trip held the most memories for me. Images from the trip bring easy smiles: Dennis poking fun at me when we were at a bar and the barman kept "checking" me out, Dennis and I napping in the backseat of the car from the airport to the hotel (time often found Dennis and I napping), Marc hungover in the back of the convertible parked in the Southern Summer sun as the rest of us visited a garden shop (Den parked in the sun on purpose because he was miffed that Marc drank so much the night before). The sweetest memory of that trip came late one night at the hotel. Jean-Marie left the room to get ice and ran into Marc and Dennis kissing in the hall. Marc and Den were so embarrassed at getting caught! She wasn't, and I wouldn't have been. I loved how Jean-Marie giggled when she told me what happened. Marc and Den were married and been together a lot of years at that point, and to still show that passion and youthful innocence about their love was simply beautiful.
Marc and Den were so adaptable as a couple. Charleston and semi-retirement did not go as planned when Marc did not realize the money out of his business that he had expected. Still they spent their first year in a beach house as promised, then hit the ground running. They found jobs and fell in love with the city. Dennis went about tending gardens, first at a church, then at a garden center, and finally the lush grounds of the stately College of Charleston. Marc worked briefly in a flower shop before moving back into work where he could make a difference. This started with Camp Happy Days where he was Director of Development for a cancer camp for children. From there he moved onto Senior Director of Development at the Charleston Animal Society (how he prevented Den from adopting all of animals himself I will never know). It was while there that Den was diagnosed with lung cancer, and Marc's world was turned on its head. It was so painful to see what Den's illness did to Marc. It was also an honor to witness how Marc's love allowed Marc to push through all his own anguish and pain to tenderly guide Den through the maze of treatments and provide Den the gentle daily care he required.
After Dennis died, Marc's friends and family rallied around him, but he was inconsolable. There was a light in him that passed along with Den. Eventually Marc re-entered the land of the living even if ghost-like. As best he could, he returned to the friends he loved as counselor, advocate, and port because that is who he was. He moved from the Charleston Animal Society to Low Country AIDS Services, where he could more directly help that neglected community. He would talk often to our children and our grandson. Jean-Marie would call him regularly and they would talk about hurts and joys, and sometimes nothing at all just hear each other's voice. I would hop on the phone with him (though I am horrible on the phone), and we would joke and we would laugh. I wish I could hear that laugh again. We would also see him as often we could.
The last time we were with him was over Thanksgiving just this past year. One day we were in the kitchen cooking, drinking, and listening to a CD of Marc at his first cabaret recital. There we were with the beautiful voice of Marc singing the standards in the background of our conversation and something hit me. I turned to Marc and said to him that I did not know how he could have performed without breaking down, because what we were listening to was simply a love letter to Dennis. Marc just shrugged, eyes wet with held back tears.
Not long after that visit, Marc's broken heart caught up to him. He completed the greatest love story I am likely to know when he rejoined Dennis. Both Marc and Den did many fine and noble things in their lives. They were leaders in the community, they were strong shoulders in weak times, they were an example for us all. More than anything else that I learned from them or shared with them, how they so openly defined love with both passion and innocence is what I will cherish the most, and will forever pay forward.
Friday, January 27, 2017
It is unsurprising that my thoughts keep going to Marc since his death (they went there when he was alive as well – Marc was that kind of important). In over two decades of having known him, there is a broad tapestry of many colors and leagues of yarn woven about him. Marc becomes impossible to describe trying to take in the scope of him. When I do attempt, I am overcome and the tears flow. Better to take him in parts, vignettes of memory and insight. Perhaps in pieces the whole can be seen through gentler tears.
I have said it often in recent weeks, that Marc loved so fully that there were those he didn’t just befriend, he adopted. My family and I were adopted, baptized, anointed, and given permanent lodging in his heart, and we reciprocated without hesitation.
Jean-Marie knew Marc before I did. Once introduced I went through the scrutiny of being “He’s nice, but I don’t see why you’re with him, Jean-Marie,” to being welcomed with hugs, to finally being immersed. As our lives intertwined, Marc’s embrace widened to take in our three children. He developed his own relationships with them and became their Uncle Marc. It was far from the typical “be kind to the kids of your friends.” Our children were quickly assimilated as individuals into Marc’s love.
I remember there was a time during our youngest daughter’s teenage years when she was having a problem with me. I think it had to do with a boy, but I am unsure and the exact issue does not matter anyway. She had talked to Uncle Marc and Uncle Den about it, and they listened, and they advised. They also took exception with me for whatever Louise had told them. We got into somewhat heated discussions on why I was wrong (particularly Dennis, but Marc was firm in his calmer style as well). You would think that I would have been offended by that. But I wasn’t, it in fact did not affect our friendship at all. I did not agree with their opinions, but I took it mainly to be a difference in parenting styles. I think “parenting styles” is accurate, Marc did not take being an uncle lightly, and we would have it no other way.
Over the years when we would be sitting around talking about the kids with Mark, he would work into each conversation a line I quickly came to love, “You know, Haley (or Michael or Louise) tell me things that they don’t tell you – and that I would never share – but I can say…” He relished his status with our children, and we felt blessed that they had Marc to turn to and talk with and get advice from. He became an implied safety net for them, and at times a welcome intermediary between our children and us.
When Dennis died, our son Michael was in Charleston visiting and was there for Dennis’s passing. His presence and strength for Marc in that time of the immediacy of Dennis’s death elevated their relationship to a level Jean-Marie and I were not privy to, but were thankful for. It was Marc clinging to something solid when his legs and heart could not bear himself up, and there may be no one more solid than our son Michael. During this time, we would see Marc and talk to Marc on the phone and he would say, “I know he’s your Michael, but he is also MY Michael.” And that spoke volumes, and that was as it should be.We have been blessed in so many ways over the years of being family with Marc. One of the largest blessings has been having him as Uncle Marc, by having him as our grandson’s God Father. This has brought Jean-Marie and I so many smiles over the years as he stole our children and grandson and made them his own.
Sunday, January 1, 2017
Sitting at Starbucks I look to my right and see a man about twenty years my senior with grey wispy hair peering through glasses at his laptop screen while his pale and thin-skinned fingers scroll and type. I turn back to inking my New Year’s blog with fountain pen in hand, now feeling like a scribe to some indeterminate age or perhaps just to my ego as a writer.
I find at the turn of each year, that looking into the future is like looking in a mirror – there is a very limited view of what is before you, and excellent vision of what lies behind. I don’t know what to expect, not many of us do. Perhaps that is why we write down our resolutions, to set goals in order to set the future. I have done this, and almost always failed at this. It is why I have stopped setting resolutions.
I also feel like learning from that clarified past I see in the mirror, gives me an idea what to do and not to do in my future without constraining the wonders of chance. It is the same thought process I apply to having a bucket list. Of course there are things I would like to do in my life, but I feel if I focus on certain things too much I might not notice the essential spirit of the journey I am living.
It is not as if I am going through the world with blinders, so much as going through the world with my eyes wide to see as much as possible. I don’t begrudge the resolution writers or the list makers. It simply isn’t me. I am thankful for the strength to face whatever future I may have, grateful that in the spaces that make up majority of life I have my wife, children, dogs, and friends about to share it, and I look at the roof over my head counting my blessing that cold nights are made less cold and hot days more bearable for having it there. What I have to offer as a New Year’s tribute is that I will face the challenges before me with an eye on my past mistakes, I will flow with change rather than fight it, I will work to be a better person to help make a small part of this world a better place, and I will take my wife’s hand and look into her eyes as we smile our way into 2017 and the many years ahead. God bless and Happy New Year.
Thursday, December 22, 2016
Christmas stirs up memories in most people, and I am no different. I have memories of all kinds from attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve to crawling beneath the tree to unwrap my gifts early to traditions built around my children and grandchildren. This year I am thinking of Santa (which is only fair since he spends so much time thinking of us).
When I speak of Santa, I am not talking about my father dressing up in costume for so many Christmases. By the way, he wore the outfit even after we grew to adulthood, although by then he just wore the red pants and the cap. What I am talking of is falling into my memories of the jolly old elf himself.
I recall two very early memories of Santa Claus. The oldest of which took place when the family lived on St. Andrews Drive in Orangeburg. Our grandmother, Nanny (Dad’s mom), would come and join us from Connecticut most Christmases and in those days she would come by train which made her visits more magical. She would come to town and take us kids to the cafeteria at Eckard’s Drug at the Orangeburg Mall where I would always get a chili dog and the waitress would always remember our Nanny. Nanny would take us other places as well, and anywhere she drove was an adventure because she was not a good driver…she scared us. Anyway, this one Christmas, I remember charging out Christmas morning to take inventory of what Santa had brought. I don’t remember what it was that year, but what sticks with me the most was Nanny telling us, “I heard a noise in the middle of the night, and when I got out of bed to look I saw Santa and I rushed right back to bed!” The image that formed in my mind was of Nanny peering around a corner and spying Santa from behind as he bent over his pack. That goes down as the first and most substantial proof I needed that Santa truly existed.
Later after the family outgrew the St. Andrew’s house and had moved to Mason Drive, my older brother Chris and I shared a room with a nightstand and AM radio separating our beds. On Christmas Eve, we would go excitedly to bed and celebrate what became a ritual for us – the listening to the Santa radar tracking from the mysterious Cheyenne Mountain in some far off land called Colorado. We would track him most often across Canada and Yankee climes (he must have been saving his visit to the South for later – the best for last!) before falling asleep to muster ourselves for an early morning assault on our parents and presents. This memory is lasting not only because I live in Colorado Springs at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain now, but because if the United States Air Force said Santa existed, that was good enough for me.
Time passes so quickly (as only time can), and I grew up. I drew the mantle of Santa onto myself. Santa is a busy elf, and I think it is our jobs as adults and parents to help him out so that he can spend his efforts helping those around the world that cannot as easily help themselves. I married Jean-Marie, a beautiful woman with three incredible children, and we joined forces as Santa for them. We filled stockings, and placed gifts out with tags reading “from Santa” each Christmas. Doing our jobs as Santa helpers. Though a joy, it is not really the memory I wished to share here. The memory that is currently making me smile is after our oldest child at 21 years of age gave birth to our grandson Russell. To provide space and security for them, Jean-Marie and I turned the detached garage into a cottage that she moved into at Christmas time two months before Russell was born. It was in that cottage when Russell was almost three years old, that Haley asked me to do something special for her. So after dark on Christmas Eve after Russell had been put in his bed, she called over to the house and told me it was time. I grabbed a ladder, walked across the back yard, and set it up against her cottage. Quietly as I could, I climbed up on the roof, then stomped around for a bit so that Russell could have his magic moment with Santa.
The last memory I am thinking of happened seven years after that last memory on a December afternoon when I was driving around with Russell. We had the 850 KOA Sports Zoo on the radio and one of the hosts, Dave Logan, began some kind of rant. Suddenly he made an inadvertent slip and said something to the effect that to think such-n-such was like still believing in Santa Claus. There was a hasty commercial break and when they returned, the hosts Susie and Dave were trying to smooth it over any way they could. I was just sitting there, stunned and silent behind the steering wheel. At almost ten years of age, Russell was at the cusp where he might still believe and then again he might not. It is not a conversation you hold with a child, so I didn’t know what to say or do. So I did one of the things I do best - panicked. I sat there sweating, trying unsuccessfully to map out what to say when Russell turned to me, placed a hand on my arm and said, “It’s alright, Bumpa. I already know about Santa.” My heart melted, because Russell didn’t know it then, but he was starting his path to take up Santa’s mantle with that act of kindness toward his grandfather. And you know what? For the second Christmas Eve in a row, Russell (now 17) will be joining his step-dad Mike on the Santa Hotline - Santa continues to be payed forward.
Sunday, November 20, 2016
Some family ties can only be born of gunpowder. This sounds like some deep-South rednecked bullshit, but it simply represents truth to me. Raised on a small dirt farm in South Carolina under the demands of work that would often leave hands bloodied and spirits despondent, gunpowder provided the best and only real communication my father and I would share. It was a recurrent theme in our lives. Most of the time my daddy spoke to me in grunts and gestures, with a firm and often unforgiving hand. If not for the balance of love provided by Momma, I may never have known that life was anything other than an uneven and desperate landscape as rocky as the soil we tilled for the cotton that barely fed us. Momma saw to it that I knew affection, that I learned of God in church, and drank the very marrow from the teachers and books that sustained me in my haven hours at school. I could talk volumes of her and her deep effect on my life, but this is not her tale.
My father was a quiet man, the son of a quiet man, and his knowledge of love lacked anything but the most rudimentary concepts. Daddy worked the land, protected us, and fed us. The expectation of tenderness would have been too much to ask of him. Each morning, I awoke to a dark world with the weight of my father’s strong, knotted hand on my shoulder. That hand did not shake me, nor pull nor push at me. Through that heavy mitt, my father passed the gravity of his presence to me, and I would wake instantly. There were chores to be done, the makeup of which often depended on both the season and my age. We never lacked for work whatever time of year, whatever the weather. My going to school only put Daddy on edge, it was time I should have been at the farm. He didn’t see a lot of use in school in the face of work that needed to be done. But my attendance was non-negotiable with Momma, so Daddy relented on that one thing.
When I was six, Daddy got me my first rifle, a bolt action 22. I was given the rifle as a privilege, not a toy or as people see it today - a right. Through obedience and hard work, Daddy felt me ready for a gun. We used guns to hunt food and to occasionally kill vermin that went after the chickens or picked away at our feed stores.
Daddy first taught me to clean the gun. I learned to always make sure to remove the ammo first, particularly the round in the chamber. Then came the repeated lesson of disassembling and reassembling the gun until I was as proficient as a six-year-old could be. Daddy taught me how to clean the barrel and taught me why we oiled the weapon. He made sure that I knew that when the gun was not with me, it would be unloaded and in its rack. Leaving the gun lying around would have lost me the gun perhaps for good. The gun became part of my chores with its own set of consequences. I sat raptly with Daddy, listening intently to his teachings and admonitions. When Daddy and I worked with the gun, he talked to me and not at me. He shared both a passion and rite of passage with me.
Daddy began taking me hunting with him for small game. We hunted squirrel, rabbit, and birds mainly. On hunts we didn’t speak because we didn’t want to spook the game. Whatever food we brought home was food we wouldn’t have to buy, and we never hunted beyond our need. Though silent, we communicated through looks, glances, and hand signals. In hunting, Daddy and I found our sacred time together, our secret language. Father and son, man and boy elevated to equals through the gunpowder.
Sometimes Daddy would see something like a rabbit and take the shot. Sometimes he shared the shot with me. He would look my way and point. Then I would raise my rifle quietly to my shoulder, aiming along the oil dark barrel through the forked site at the quivering prey. Daddy told me never to shoot straight away but to calm myself before the shot. To take three breaths, and on the exhale of the third one pull the trigger to let breath guide the bullet. Daddy taught me killing even little things was never anything but serious business. If a bullet was off and the animal lay suffering, he taught me the mercy of finishing the job with my knife so as not to prolong the pain, and also to honor the act of hunting for food and not sport.
Hunting became a repetitive task to me, a duty to fulfill. Taking an animal thrilled neither my father nor I. But being alone with Daddy in something that we shared, something private outside of our home selves, is where lay the joy in these outings for me.
As I grew, Daddy shared other rites with me, extending our bond in the gruff way of men. He shared beer with me after hunts beginning when I was eleven. At thirteen, he passed to me his father’s 12-gauge shotgun (immaculate with my father’s care and his father’s care before him over the years). At that time, I began to accompany him on deer hunts. During those outings along the dirt backroads, I learned to drive our rusted three-speed pickup.
I realized somewhere along the line that Daddy was teaching me how to be a man, not by word, and not by sitting me down and telling me a lesson. Daddy taught by example through chores, through beer, through driving, through the gunpowder. I absorbed these lessons as devoutly as I absorbed each subject taught to me in school.
A couple of years after Momma died from the flu and just into my adult years, I learned the hardest lesson as Daddy lay dying with stomach cancer in the same ramshackle house of greyed and crumbling wood that he and Momma raised me in. Even if there had been anything the doctors could have done for Daddy, he would not have accepted. He made up his mind early on at Momma’s graveside that he couldn’t live without her.
I was able to help care for Daddy through his illness. My first job was only twenty or thirty miles away from him. Neighbors helped during the day, thankfully, and I sat with him in the evenings and on the weekends. One day my father motioned me close to tell me something. Through parched lips and with breath already smelling of decay, he asked if I would get his pistol from the case in the front room because he hadn’t the strength to get out of the bed. I did not ask what it was for. I knew he was in constant pain, and I knew he just wanted to be with Momma. Without being told, I loaded the gun before handing it to him. He did not say anything, simply looked at me then at the door. Daddy was a quiet man. I kissed his forehead, then left the room, obeying him for the last time. I still picture him whispering through dry cracked lips, keeping count with his breathing. One, two, three. The final act of gunpowder between us.
Sunday, September 25, 2016
Today marks the closing of Vin Scully’s 67 years in broadcasting and as voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Tomorrow, he begins retirement. It is the magic of baseball that such a sad moment will also bring to countless individuals even more smiles as this event slips us into the past. You see baseball more than any other sport not only embodies its present, but cannot exist without its past. In baseball our tribal elders that pass along the stories and legacies of our clan are the announcers, and Vin represents the finest qualities of our elders.
The Dodgers during this last weekend of calls by Vin, are playing my Colorado Rockies in Los Angeles, and it has been both pleasure and honor to listen to the ceremonies, deserved tributes, and most of all the stories that surround the career of Vin Scully. Baseball is all about the stories, and with each telling I not only learn a new tale, but I recall tales of my own.
I remember the bedroom I shared as a kid with my big brother Chris. I don’t even have to close my eyes to feel the warmth of Southern Summer nights, see the grainy shadows of branches cast by street lights through the open window, and hear the coo of doves and hoots of owls as background noise to the call of baseball. Chris and I each had our own twin bed, and between our beds was a nightstand on which a small box shaped AM radio softly glowed tuned to WDIX in Orangeburg bringing us Braves baseball from far off Atlanta. Then it was Earnie Johnson and Milo Hamilton making the calls, telling the tales, bringing the likes Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, and Dusty Baker to life in our dark and shadowed room. Nationally televised games couldn’t compete as the stoically neutral announcers shared their experiences somehow watered down and sterile when compared to the familiar voices we listened to almost every night of the season.
Now an adult, I live in Colorado and follow most closely our Colorado Rockies. They came into existence in 1993, just a year after I had met my future wife Jean-Marie and discovered she was a fan as well. The story of the Rockies for me begins with the announcers. I think Colorado did it right by bringing in the voice of the wonderfully experienced announcer Charlie Johnson on TV to gently gather the fans into the fold of the Rockies, familiarizing us with the collection of players assembled for the new expansion team. When Charlie left, Drew Goodman took over the play-by-play reins accompanied first by George Frazier and now by Jeff Huson and Ryan Spilborghs on color (all former ball players). On the radio, there have only been four announcers and I can still hear all their voices in equal proportion. It started with Jeff Kingery and Wayne Hagen, and now the games come courtesy of Jack Corrigan and Jerry Schemmel. I can enjoy the game as easily on radio as on TV thanks to all these fine voices.
Really the point is, baseball is a family made up of players and fans in equal parts with the announcer seated at the head of the table introducing one to the other and uniting all. As Vin Scully retires, we say goodbye arguably to the greatest of our tribal elders that have included Jack Buck, Harry Carey, and the legendary Red Barber. Baseball in large part is a sport that is passed on to generations as an oral history, and Vin Scully has done it better than anyone else. Through his humility, knowledge, skill, and uncompromising respect for the sport and the characters that populate it, Vin has become a mentor to generations of announcers and the nation’s home team announcer. Broadcast booths everywhere are a little emptier after today.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Taking off from Denver is not a completely easy experience. The air is thin here, and the plane seems to lumber for a long time down the runway, its wings scraping and clawing for anything that resembles lift. There is almost a sigh from the plane as it gives a brief shudder when it leaves the earth to return to the sky it was made for.
Today my wife and I head to St. Thomas by way of Charlotte, Miami, and long hours in the air. To ease the stress of travel a bit, the first leg is spent in first class. The sun is toward our nose, and my wife is to my left. The horizon like the future awaits.
It has been twenty years since we have set foot on St. Thomas. Then it was for our honeymoon, now for our anniversary. Then we left teenagers in our wake, now we leave adults with mortgages and pets, and a couple of grandchildren sprinkled amid them for good measure. We don’t go to the island to recapture anything. We go to celebrate, both a milestone and a future.
That is the brightest spot in this trip for me, the sure knowledge of a future with this exciting woman who is also my best friend. Her love for me has always been a gift, a wonder, and a surprise. Her hand will always feel both new in mine, and as if it had always been there. Its love’s dichotomy that causes me to smile, and causes me to look at her and see new love and life partner.
I won’t bore you with stories of the twenty years. Most of it is simply space, passage of time. The rest an accumulation of moments, a private collection of joys and pain that are ultimately our cement. We share these memories in our eyes, in touches and caresses. And that is all the reminiscence we really need.
For now we fly, as the last twenty years have seemed to. St. Thomas awaits as it did then, as do burgers and rum drinks at the Duffy’s Love Shack. Thank you to all our family and friends who were there at our start and who have joined us along the way. Thank you, Jean-Marie, for saying yes, for giving me children, for sharing your love, and for giving me a life. All the years we have had, and all the years before us will not be long enough for me to repay that thrill, but I will keep trying.
Sunday, May 22, 2016
Don Quixote de la Mancha
would never tilt at these towers
that dwarf Dutch ancestors.
No cloth laced wooden blades
at which to take aim,
just edged steel, spinning swords
splitting wind in twain,
separating energy from air.
Arms atop spires
the color of sun bleached bone
scattered in sparse dry grasses.
Inorganic crosses arms wide,
enthralling witnesses and martyrs,
as cattle and pronghorn
worship, heads bowed,
Sunday, May 8, 2016
Sometimes the triggers are subtle: a smell, a song, a sound. I will be sitting there and think of my mom and want to share that moment with her, then realize that the only way to do that now is through prayer. But there are days, moments, that hit like a sledgehammer. Mother’s Day this year snuck up on me as I focused on the joy of my wife, mother of our children, and on our eldest daughter, mother of our incredible grandson. Probably I had subconsciously pushed the sadness to the side, to save for later, to feel in a private moment. Two days ago, as Jean-Marie and I flew back from a conference that I attended, I realized it was Friday May 6th and Mother’s Day was only two days off – which would make it May 8th this year. That was when the sledgehammer fell and I fought off tears, May 8th Mom would have been 82.
I have never been a good enough son to remember Mom’s birthday with any reliable accuracy for much of my life (my wife Jean-Marie improved my memory in that regard substantially!). I am truly terrible with dates in general. I have trouble remembering my sister Laura’s birth date, and that of my little brother Greg. Ginny’s birthday is hard to forget since it is on Independence Day, and my older brother Chris only takes me a little math to work out (he is one year, one month, and one week my elder). Mom’s birthday I always linked with Mother’s Day. When Mother’s Day approached, I would buy a card and a gift and use them for both – I’d like to think that Mom admired the practicality of it, but that is only my guilt tossing a coin into the wishing well. This year I can give her no card, no gift. No two-for-one phone call. The only gift lying about is for me, the blessing of having her for 53 years, the gift of the memories that lie in her wake.
It is Sunday today, and I close my eyes and I can smell the cooking of breakfast. As a family, we fell into a ritual of watching Award Theater on TBS on Sunday mornings eating homemade Egg McMuffins. Mom made these using egg rings in her electric skillet for maximum authenticity. Dad of course dubbed these “Egg McMommies,” they were better than anything made by McDonalds. One Saturday night, I had been over at my best friend’s house hanging out and watching TV. It was getting late and I needed to get home, but Summer of ’42 came on and Ben and I had to watch (what teenage boy wouldn’t?!?). So I spent the night forgetting to call home. When I got up the next morning seeing it was almost 9, I hustled out the door and ran home (I was a runner then and ran everywhere, and Ben only lived a mile away). As I came in the door that particular Sunday while the family was amassed in the den in front of the TV, Mom said to me that my breakfast was almost ready. “Mom, I fell asleep last night at Ben’s. I’m just coming home.” I said this maybe hoping for punishment to ease my guilt at not having called. “Oh, I thought you were just out for a run.” She knew I was safe, and she trusted me.
I sit here and listen to the early silence of the house, and I can hear Mom laugh. Mom loved to laugh and she was good at it. I loved to make her laugh. She would get a silly smile on her face that I could see even over the phone, and if the moment were good, with eyes squinting she would double over just a bit. It was not a raucous laugh, but one submerged in her chest constrained a bit by politeness perhaps, but it was genuine and fun as all getout to watch. My brother Greg does a good imitation of her laugh, maybe I will call him today. Laughter is the best medicine, especially when dispensed by Mom.
I set my memories free to run through the grass of every sports field I had touched while growing up, and I cannot find a one where Mom was not in the bleachers cheering. Football from Pee Wee to Varsity, home or out-of-town games, I see her bundled against the weather and smiling. Basketball games in gymnasiums with the high pitched screams of teenagers echoing off concrete block walls, there was my mom sitting in the sheet metal stands. Every track meet, even the ones where the coaches had put away their stop watches in the gathering dusk before I finished the two mile race (during my slower days), Mom would be there encouraging me through my final laps on a cinder track.
Mom, I miss you, I love you. Today I can say through the tears as I write, “Happy birthday, and happy Mother’s Day,” not because there is any happiness in your absence, but because even in the sadness, I can see your smile and that makes me smile.
Monday, May 2, 2016
Trains captivate. They are the haunting mournful cry in the night, the horn that seems to call through the darkness for no reason, yet touches our souls. They enthrall us when we are young, we curse them at grade crossing when we are older, we long for them and their mythical destinations through all our lives.
When I was young, my grandmother would travel to see us every Christmas by rail (that is before air travel became more common place). The family would go to the station nearest to our home in Orangeburg, SC, to await her arrival. I would look towards the far distance with anticipation that never resulted in disappointment. The locomotive and the cars in its care would first appear as a pinpoint that quickly grew in size and intensity until it finally arrived, a thing of power and noise and iron carrying my grandmother. From the gleaming stainless steel coach, my Nanny would emerge into our arms and cries of joy to be taken home with us. When Christmas time was exhausted along with the adults, we would return to the station to see Nanny off to her home in Ridgefield, CT. She would climb aboard as I would ache at her leaving, and watch the train depart. Her pilgrimage to us being enacted in reverse. The engine that had brought her to us now took her from us, and we would watch as long as we could. The cars moving down the rails, further from view, getting smaller and smaller as the parallel rails grew closer and closer, until in the distance rails merged, the train disappeared, and the horizon claimed all.
In my young mind, it was at the point in that far distance when all was lost beyond the limits of my sight that Ridgefield existed. The train appeared from that event horizon and returned to it. That was all the proof I needed to draw my maps, to know that distance was not measured in steps or miles, but in the reach of railroad tracks and train whistles.
The fate of being born early enough to witness the miracle of passenger rail service, being born early enough to learn from my mother that I once rode a train with my tiny feet in her face in some cramped compartment crowded with my parents and we their children on an adventure to the Yankee filled north had left an indelible mark on me. Perhaps that memory hung in some primal part of my brain when I attended Clemson as a Mechanical Engineering student and stumbled into a research assistantship with Dr. Harry Law who was at the time a leading railroad researcher. That tingle of rail travel helping me to see not just the science in what I was working on, but the magic as well.
It has been a path that has lead me around the world and into scientific intricacies that have enthralled me for the past thirty years. I have been researcher, supplier, and consultant in this industry and loved every minute of it. Before my wife’s retirement from her successful floral design business, I would happily tell people when asked what we did that my wife played with flowers and I played with trains. As adults, what professions could be more childlike.
This week I am at another rail conference in my career and presenting soon on the latest project to occupy my time and efforts. Such moments never fail to bring me back to what brought me to this industry in the first place. I can’t help but think of my late grandmother, of the rails that brought her to us and sent her home. I cannot help but think of the call of train horns in the night as special to me as the sound of owls that haunted the pines. My career continues as a romance that combines my love of math, physics, and the iron highway. It’s not rocket science, but it is very cool.