Climb a tree

Farm winter

The uppermost pine tree provided a new perspective on a familiar world to a boy willing to take a risk and climb to the top.

A newly enhanced, freshly framed aerial photo of the Wisconsin farm on which I grew up now adorns a bookshelf in easy view. Of course, every time I look over at it, I’m struck with an indistinct nostalgia.

Aerial photos are nothing now, with the advent of drones making common what once was a rare perspective. But this winter view of the farmhouse and out buildings where I roamed, explored, risked and discovered was unusual in the 1970s.

Entrepreneurial pilots provided such shots. They got them by leaning out windows with their cameras, and then taking the pictures to the farms they’d photographed to try and sell them to the farmer. Judging from the aerial photos I saw hanging in the kitchens of my friends, the pilot/photographers were adept at making the sale.

One of the features in the aerial photo of my home place is a row of very tall pine trees, forming a windbreak on the west side of the buildings. They were very, very tall trees when I was a kid. Now, they’re just tall.

Limbs on one of these trees grew almost like a spiral ladder, making it easy to climb. I scurried up that tree often and each ascent lifted me to a new perspective. Oh, not as dramatic as the aerial photographer provided, but still, a new look at a familiar world.

As I got older and braver, and my experiences at lower heights confirmed my ability to climb higher, I ventured onto the thinner limbs above me. These limbs were not as strong or secure. I didn’t feel supported and when the wind blew, the top part of the tree to which I clung swayed.

I wondered if it could support my weight, or if the thin trunk here would snap under me. I actually wondered sometimes if the lower branches would break my fall or even stop me from hitting the ground, or if they would break under my accelerating body mass should I plummet toward the ground.

I was nervous, yes, because I was clinging to an uncertainty. Yet the certainty learned from previous experience lay beneath me, just a step away.

Of course, mom and dad didn’t know I was climbing this high in the old pine tree. They did know I climbed it to a “safe” height. I built a tree house in it that I proudly showed them. But if they knew I was climbing so high, they would have been very nervous, and might even have forbidden me to do it. Or, they might have encouraged it.

That’s how we learn, isn’t it? By how we stretch the boundaries of what we know, of what we can be certain? By taking a risk?

It’s safe to learn to ride a bike when dad is running beside you with his hand on the seat. But you’re never actually riding a bike until he lets go.

It’s safe to learn to swim in deep water with mom’s hand under your belly. But you’re never actually swimming, until she lets go and you kick and paddle your way to the side, discovering on the way, that you no longer need to fear water.

You learn it’s safe to jump across the creek because wading at the edge taught you it’s not very deep anyway, and if you fall in, you’ll only get wet.

You learned to climb a ladder because you climbed a stepstool. You learned to pull yourself up on the monkey bars because daddy held you up at first. You take risks based on confidence achieved at a lower level.

We need to let our kids take risks.

I know, danger lurks around every corner in a parent’s mind. To let them risk climbing a tree might result in a broken arm. To risk learning to ride can result in a scraped knee.

But the alternative is a clinging, insecure child who will not venture out of sight of his parents. Translated to an insecure adult who will never reach for opportunities the next limb higher.

Let’em ride fast down the hill, jump the creek, camp in the back yard, run ahead of you on the hiking trail, attend the college out of state. You can’t protect them from every risk. You don’t want to.

Let’em climb a tree.

 

 

 

Yes, the train stops there

Early in my journalism career I spent two weeks in New York City, first at a conference, then working with Religion News Service as free help while staff there oriented me to religion news writing beyond my Baptist perspective.

After the first week, I thought, “This is great. I love New York. It’s never dark, never quiet and never stops.” By the end of the second week, I was silently screaming, “Get me out of here. It’s never dark, never quiet and never stops!”

But it was a broadening experience for a small town guy in his mid-twenties, trying to navigate concrete canyons instead of cornfields. During the first week my group attended a live performance of Shakespeare in the Park. A sudden rainstorm cut the performance short, so during the second week, when I was on my own, I went back to Central Park to pick up the play to the end.

My biggest fear as a New York novice was getting onto the wrong train and ending up in a part of the city where I didn’t belong and not knowing how to get back to where I did belong. I studied the train schedule as best I could understand it and knew that the play would end just about the time the train I needed would be leaving the nearest station.

So while the final curtain was still fluttering down, I left my seat and raced through the park, to the train station. Much to my palpable relief, the train was there, idling at the station with the doors open, and the engineer sitting by an open window, his arm resting on the sill.

To be certain I wouldn’t jump onto the train to nowhere, I ran up to him and asked, “Does this train stop on 68th Street?”

He said, “Yes it does.”

Then he shut the doors, and drove off, leaving me on the platform, instantly affirming every bad thing I’d heard about New Yorkers.

Do you think he somehow didn’t know the intent of my question? Do you think he didn’t know that I did, in fact, want to go to 68th Street and wasn’t just inquiring about the train’s route?

I still can’t comprehend the engineer’s actions, but they gave me a great story to share that night when the slow movers from Central Park congregated on the platform, waiting for the next train.

There was no reason for me to get incensed. I was simply dumbfounded. I couldn’t chase the train and clamber onto the back car. I couldn’t shout or curse or wave my arms in anger and effect any change. I’d simply wait for the next train.

I’m continually amazed at the level of anger in everyday life in our society. The smallest things set someone off and lead to fisticuffs or worse – a simple urge to merge into traffic by an accomplished high school girl prompts the man in the truck next to her to shoot her dead.

Road rage? Give the car some space people. What does it cost you? Relax.

Cycling with my group two years ago we met a woman on a horse. She was riding in the ditch to our left, coming toward us. When we met her, the horse reared up. I admired her control of the animal.

Twenty minutes later a car roared up behind us. The driver pulled sharply in front of our group and slammed onto the brakes. Two riders hit the car, then the pavement. I was in front, but avoided it.

The driver was the woman who had been on the horse and she leaped out of the car, practically foaming at the mouth with anger. She said we had intentionally spooked her horse, and then rode on, not stopping to help.

Somehow she had gotten the horse back to the barn, gotten into her car and tracked us down through several turns, while managing to maintain her white hot anger that prompted her to break the law and endanger herself, eight cyclists and whoever might have approached us on the road.

I don’t understand that level of anger. I basically don’t understand anger at all. I can be disappointed, frustrated and wish things were different. But anger is a foreign emotion.

Unresolved anger leads to ill health and to dramatic actions with horrible consequences.

Take a breath. Realize that next year at this time it won’t matter…probably in the next hour it won’t matter. Smile. Give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Assume good intentions.

Just don’t get on a train in New York City if you don’t know where it’s going.

 

To catch a hero

glove

It’s just a glove, but when you’re having a catch with a child, it’s a dreamcatcher.

I spotted my first baseball glove in the old Gambles store in downtown Rio, WI (population 788) when I was a kid. You could get anything in that store, from baseball gloves to washing machines to a nut and bolt to hold the wing onto the airplane you were building to fly off the barn roof.

If they didn’t have it, you didn’t need it.

The glove listed for $4.75 and in my imagination it promised to make me field the ball like Willie Mays, hit like Harmon Killebrew or pitch like Sandy Koufax. That’s the promise I saw in that copper colored, slotted slab of leather.

I actually dreamed about that glove between the time I saw it and when I finally got it. I dreamed about flagging down impossibly distant fly balls; of tossing the glove into the air to knock down a potential home run ball before it cleared the fence; of stretching at first base to snag an errant throw and save the inning.

That glove was going to make me a hero.

When I had saved enough I grabbed the bills and all the coins off my dresser and went to town with mom. I marched into Gambles to claim my dream – I mean, my glove.

I carefully laid it onto the counter and when the proprietor rang up $4.88, my heart sank. I hadn’t accounted for the tax man in my saving. My stomach tense, heart pounding, I dug deep and when I put every single penny I had on the counter, it totaled $4.88.

Dreams come true.

I slid that glove onto my hand with the excited reverence of a woman pushing her finger into an engagement ring for the first time. Its exotic leather aroma conjured up dugouts, strikeouts, shutouts and the hero headlines sure to come my way. I couldn’t wait to find someone with whom to have a catch.

Of course, that glove and a successor found a way to get lost in the ensuing years. But I’ve got grandsons now – and a granddaughter – who always want to have a catch. On Memorial Day weekend Grayson wanted to show me how hard he could throw. No problem, I thought. He’s only 8. I don’t have a glove, but I’ll wear my leather yard gloves and catch a few.

I’m writing this with a severely bruised hand. I also own a new glove.

After the last “ouch” I could tolerate, I hauled Grayson to the sporting goods store. One minute into the store I thought I would not be getting a glove that day. The least expensive glove on the wall was $350. They went up from there.

Then Grayson found the rack for mortals and I scanned the price tags to the bottom where they stopped at $50. Ahh, I thought. “That’s the glove for me.” Its other attributes were irrelevant.

Grayson and I headed back home and had a catch. He didn’t have to hold back for fear of hurting my hands and the snap, pop and sizzle of the ball smacking the pocket was an ear worm of joy.

Fifty dollars is still a lot to pay for a baseball glove. And I’m going to take care of this glove for the precious tool it is. Because I have 17 years of having a catch with grandchildren before the current youngest is out of high school.

And I want to be their hero.

Norman and glove

My cousin Sandy saw this post and found my glove on video! Given the event, I was about in fourth grade. That’s Sandy, trying to wrest it from me…

Smoke, Flame and Memories

relatives

Relatives in one of the many photo albums stored in dad’s office.

Dad’s sudden death in March left a home office crammed to the brim with files of records, boxes of old photo albums, crates of special event greeting cards and birthday wishes he’s received over decades.

My siblings and I sorted through cassettes of his favorite polka bands, remembering polka tunes like “Fortunes of War” by Ray Budzilek, “Red Wing” by Marv Herzog or “She’s Too Fat” by Frank Yankovic. Video cassettes of movies, and promotional pieces I’d done for clients through the years filled boxes but would never be seen again because no one has a video cassette player.

We found thick newspaper files of cousins’ high school graduation notices, boys going off to war and anniversary announcements. He saved confirmation programs and programs from funerals. Dad was executor for the estates of several relatives who died decades earlier and all their paperwork was still there in the cabinets.

Over every dusty file we shook our heads and asked dad why in the world he saved all this stuff. I never knew he was such a collector of this memorabilia.

We went through everything because we dared not miss clues we needed to settle eventually his affairs. Of course, we saved not one percent of the items, which included old National Geographics and lovely calendars from the last century.

Because my sister who is estate executor didn’t want anything taken to the dump that had on it people’s names or personal information, she insisted we burn them. After an aborted attempt to incinerate the goods in the cornfield on the old home place – an attempt that quickly attracted an audience that for some reason arrived on fire trucks – we scaled down the conflagration to a pleasant, hand warming experience in the backyard barbecue pit of my cousin Bobby, who coincidentally is the local fire chief.

As I’m feeding the pit with decades of detritus I voice my frustration with dad’s having saved all this stuff – a practice over decades that now requires my attention to dispose it.

“Our parents save this stuff because they think it will mean something to us someday,” Bobby said. We acknowledged the simple reality – with a healthy dose of reverential head nodding – that it doesn’t. At least it doesn’t register meaning to us at the level our parents probably thought it would.

I later expressed that thought to my wise and insightful niece Stacy who said we were doing exactly what dad expected us to do. He knew we wouldn’t save all of those items, but he knew we wouldn’t just haul a truck up to the door and start pitching drawers and files into it, either.

Stacy reminded me that we went through every file and photo page by page, each page a memory. Some we flipped through, some made us pause and share and talk about it, laughing or crying as we recalled that moment, friend, or relative.

We were kids again, each sharing incidents the others didn’t recall, expanding our memory banks with new deposits. When finally we made our way through the last of them, determining which to save, and with which to feed the fire, we were able to close a chapter, like the slap of a leather cover against the last page of the last album that we saved.

Thanks for the memories dad, and thanks mom, for putting all those photo books together years ago.

Our children will enjoy going through them.

March of the boxes

Dad's hands

My hand over dad’s in his final moments. 

Where do you stand when they wheel your shrouded father from his nursing home room? It’s awkward. The next time you see him he will be wearing his best suit, hands folded across his chest, toes up, wearing his glasses even though he’s “sleeping,” never having looked more like his own father.

Tight lipped, my sister, her husband, my wife and I nodded at the mortician and his assistant, and followed them with our eyes on their familiar path down the carpeted hallway to the door where their hearse waited. They’ve made this trip before, harvesting one by one the carcasses of giants who once roamed the earth. But family never is ready.

Then we slid back into the room where dad spent his last week and packed his paltry possessions accumulated during the travails of his final days shuttling on “the system’s” money mopping monorail between hospital, nursing home, hospital, nursing home and hospice.

My sister Denise and I were with dad when he breathed his last. She sat on the bed, hand on his leg; I sat next to him, hand on his arm.

We chatted with our unconscious father’s labored breathing a constant, disquieting rumble in the background. Her own life has been very difficult the past two years, with cancer in both her and her husband. Living a thousand miles apart, such moments of sharing are precious and rare.

Suddenly, silence boomed through the room. Denise stopped in mid-sentence and we turned toward dad. He was gone and we were immediately grateful and sad. We lingered for nearly a half hour before we called the nurse.

After hospice workers and the coroner verified the obvious, and the mortician wheeled dad’s body out the door, we carried our packed boxes down the hallway like ants following a trail of ketchup.

That trail led past the dining room where a couple dozen residents prepared for dinner. Their eyes lifted to our quiet convoy and immediate, unspoken recognition passed over their faces. We walked the hallway down which someday soon they will be wheeled.

Our small boxes and sad faces reminded them starkly that one day their own children would shoulder the remnants of their lives and move quietly down hallways real and figurative to fill the holes they leave behind.

Through all the sad events of my dad’s final days, the flash of recognition on those faces stands apart. Life recognizing death. Antelopes sharing a watering hole with a lion.

One day they’ll be too tired to run. Or the lion will be too hungry to give up. But today, they’ll live in uneasy proximity.

Our march of the boxes reminded the residents that one day the watering hole will dry up and they will lose the race. But not today.

One eye tuned to us until we turned the corner, their heads dipped again as they returned to their meal.

 

When Someday Comes

“Someday” arrived on a drizzling cold Saturday afternoon as I idled in the back of a long line of slow moving cars, each with blinkers on, heading for the same destination at the top of the hill where my dad always said he would be laid to rest someday.

The call we all dread but expect someday came four weeks earlier. Dad had fallen. He was unconscious before he hit the ground and his head smacked the cement unimpeded, prompting bleeding in the brain. At the trauma center surgeons told my siblings on site, and me on the phone a thousand miles away, that we had five minutes to decide whether or not to operate.

Odds were slim that dad would survive an operation, given other health issues. And we knew dad would rather be eaten by piranhas than to endure a lengthy term of physical impairment. We knew his end of life directives, so we elected no surgery. We would let this injury run its course, whatever channels it might carve.

Dad made a remarkable recovery in just a couple of days. My wife, daughter and I transferred him to a rehab center in our own car, and we returned to North Carolina. Dad improved steadily before I noticed on my daily phone call that he was very confused. He quickly deteriorated. I returned to Wisconsin and two weeks later dad died.

I was at his beside, listening to his labored breathing, urging the hospice nurse to administer morphine every hour as allowed, praying for grace and dignity and asking God to make dad’s final hours as few as possible.

His last breath was no different from any of the previous 100. But his body decided that last one was enough, and then it quit, signaling the end with a profound silence that rang through the room like a gong. My sister and I looked at each other and knew it was over.

It’s not easy to die in our system. Too many economic incentives are in play to let an old man pass in peace. A well insured patient at the end of life becomes a virtual money bladder into which every medical discipline sticks a straw to suck out their own sustenance.

I’ll write more on this later, but it seems less “health care” than it is “wealth share.” Or, in the case of the surviving spouse, or heirs or debtors, “wealth pare.”

Dad fell a second time when he was at rehab. Although we had determined the previous week we would not allow surgery or heroic measures just to keep dad breathing, attendants rushed him to the local emergency room, then back to the trauma center in the capital city. There doctors examined and tested him again, and a bevy of very kind, soft spoken palliative care doctors and interns explained options, and convinced dad’s children to admit him to palliative care at their hospital. When their straw was sated, they said he had to go back to the nursing center, under what would become hospice care.

There he spent his final week on this side of the veil as his body slowly shut down. It was a privilege to be there. It was a privilege to deliver the eulogy. It was a privilege to be known for 50 years as “Marv’s helper” and for all of my life, past and future, to be known as “Marv’s son.”

I have some trophies on my shelf, some papers in frames. But my proudest moments came from dad recognizing my hard work, whether it was splitting wood for the furnace that heated our Wisconsin farmhouse, or bringing home a good report card, or giving him a grandson. My worst moments were enduring his disapproval.

Dad was 86. His kidneys were bad, his heart weak. We always knew that someday we would lose him. But no matter how long you anticipate the final event, when someday arrives, it’s always a surprise, and you’re never ready.

 

 

Eulogy for Dad

Marv mug

Today we gather as friends and family to mourn the death, honor the memory, and celebrate the life of Marvin Jameson, our dad, our grandpa, our great grandpa, brother, husband, uncle, step father, community leader, friend – and true friend. You’ve come from across the street, and as far away as North Carolina, and Texas – and Sicily. Your presence is a blessing to the family. It affirms what we’ve always believed – that relationships matter and that dad developed a web of relationships that supported him throughout his life.

His dearest friends are from relationships he maintained for more than 60 years. After we moved to Rio in 1958, we loaded into the car on many Sunday afternoons for a drive to Stoughton, Verona or Oregon to drop in on families that he and mom knew from their earliest days. We grew up with those kids. And today some of those children – now middle aged men like me – will usher Dad to his final resting place as his pallbearers.

Dad loved to travel. His desk drawer is stuffed with maps and when we talked about our schedule since we always lived far away, dad would pull out a map to visualize where we would be. He always talked about memories of his travels – and the friends with whom he traveled. The mortar of shared memories builds relationships that endure.

To maintain those connections, Dad was the organizing principal behind what he affectionately called “the old timers” that meets for lunch every other month. As committed as dad was to maintaining long-term friendships, he had an infinite capacity to broaden that circle. During visitation last night I met many people who knew Marvin only from the last 20 years, or last decade. He openly embraced new friendships.

An outpouring of condolences through social media, calls and notes from people much younger than Marvin remember him as “the kindest man in town,” as “generous” and – maybe the highest compliment given to any man – “a good man.” One young man less than half dad’s age visited the house Thursday and was inconsolable.

How many of you received cards and calls from dad? It was all to maintain relationships, to stay in touch, stay in contact, to keep the vital cord of relationship connected from one human to another. He held strong opinions, but he wasn’t apt to argue for his view because he knew he probably wasn’t going to change your mind and relationship was a whole lot more important than winning an argument.

Dad loved to drive. The hardest part of his ordeal the past month was hearing that he would not be able to drive anymore. His children remember that whenever we went someplace we would take the scenic route. Dad knew who lived in just about every house and farm. And he knew who lived there before the current occupant. Once, a trip home from Columbus with Denise was taking an abnormally long time. Finally, Denise piped up from the back seat, “Are we still in Wisconsin?” Even with dad’s sense of humor, he was not amused.

Except for brief stints in Brooklyn and Portage Dad lived in this community since he was 14 years old. He pedaled his bike from Lodi to live with his aunts Vicki and Lillian so he could go to school in Rio, where Lillian taught. By 10th grade he figured he’d taught the teachers in Rio all he could, and he quit school to start driving a gravel truck for Columbia County.

He worked at least one job from then until he fully retired at age 77. He worked at a tire store, at Bancroft Dairy, in the processing plant and on a delivery route. He drove gas truck for the Farmer’s Union Co-op, and then managed the store, until he bought into a local insurance agency, and served on the board of Arlington Mutual Insurance. Through these kinds of jobs Dad knew, it seems, everyone in four counties. And, I’ve learned his reputation for integrity and consistency and wisdom is untarnished.

Dad was a worker. Retirement was starting to wear thin for him. In fact, last fall he applied for and was hired to deliver newspapers for the Portage Daily Register. Fortunately, he thought ahead to the slippery roads of winter and ultimately declined to start the new job.

Dad was never one to turn down a friend in need OR a good card game. He loved Euchre and Casino. Those of you who know the game will understand when I say, dad never turned down the right bower. Even if was his only trump and it meant getting euchred.

Dad had a laugh out loud sense of humor. He loved jokes about the hapless Norwegians Ole and Lena. I’d tell him a joke and if he could remember it, he’d share it with Denise and she would always say SHE’s the one who GAVE me the joke in the first place. Often, she was right. In the past year or so, I didn’t have to have new jokes for dad. I could tell him the same one every week.

Dad had an amazing memory for numbers and dates. He could and did recite his great grandchildren’s middle names and birth dates. After our weekly calls he would say give Caleb Archer, Harper Grace, Juliette Elizabeth, Corbin Wayne, Grayson Robert, Larkin Elizabeth and Colton Jameson a big hug and kiss from me, will you? Kids, that’s why I hug and kiss you so much. Your great Grandpa tells me to. He could do the same for his great grandchildren in Texas, although there were some he never had a chance to meet.

Dad loved that he had granddaughters and great granddaughters whose middle name was Elizabeth, like mom’s. He loved that he had a grandson and great grandson with middle name Wayne, like his. There was always some debate about whether dad’s middle name actually was Wayne, or maybe it was DEwayne. He couldn’t remember. I’m Wayne, my first son is Wayne, my wife’s dad is Wayne, my son lived in Wayne, Pa. so we went with Wayne. The parents of Corbin Wayne, who is nine months old, tell me, that if Grandpa’s middle name had been Dewayne, Corbin probably wouldn’t have carried on the tradition. Then, lo and behold, I find dad’s class ring yesterday and the initials inside are M.D. J.

He was so proud of his grandchildren. Those who lived close – Tyler and Stacy – he adored you. And the adoration you returned warmed not only our dad, but also your aunt and uncles who so appreciated the attention you gave. During difficult days years ago, grandpa went out of his way to include Stacy, Tyler and Jeffrey in his travel and visits to affirm to you that families may struggle, but family love always wins. Grandchildren who lived far had earlier memories that probably grew to legend in your minds, but they are still true and sweet. Coming down County B past the farm still plucks the heartstrings of all of them – and of us.

In 1996 when Barbara died, Dad’s children thought he would die of loneliness. He cried often, and walked and walked and walked. Then he remembered an earlier relationship, and a girl with whom he shared confirmation classes at Dekorra Lutheran Church in 1944. Margaret and dad were married in 1997 and Margaret, it’s not an exaggeration to say you may well have saved dad’s life. Thank you for the companionship you shared these nearly 20 years. Thank you too, to your children who cared for dad.

The outpouring of condolences and sentiment from generations of friends and family that know my dad affirm to me time and again what an honor it has been to be known as “Marvin’s son.” It’s a title I’ll carry forever, as will Linda, Denise and Jim. In the years to come, the ability to say, “Marvin Jameson was my dad” will open virtually any door in Columbia County.

Dad was a good man who prayed like everything depended on God, and worked like everything depended on him. We miss him already. You will miss his calls, his card games, his ready willingness to help at church and in the community. Ushering, being a taxi to help others get to doctor’s appointments, helping with communion at Wyocena and Covenant House.

God, on the other hand, is looking for a fourth to join Him, Marvin and Barbara at the card table. Oh wait, there’s Merlin now. And Jerry, Dale, Orly and Lennis are waiting to take on the winners.

When you squeeze people they leak out the glue that holds communities like Rio together. People like Marvin Wayne Jameson. Institutions are vital too, institutions like the Church. And schools. And in Rio, institutions like HomeTown Café. Nancy, who runs the joint, has a great tradition of personalizing a coffee mug for her regulars. Another tradition of hers is to “retire” the mugs to a glass display when that regular customer – no longer needs it.

Dad no longer needs his, because he’s drinking his coffee now from the Holy Grail. Bottoms up dad. Bottoms up.

(Delivered at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Rio, Wisconsin on March 25, 2017)