I need younger friends

It’s a vital part of “church” to be involved with people beyond Sunday morning. When the outside activities of the Bible study group my wife and I were involved with seemed awfully tame, we started a class that targeted a younger demographic – those 55-65 years old. 

Our activities would take us beyond local restaurants and dinner theater. We “youngsters” hiked at Hanging Rock State Park, rode bikes down the Virginia Creeper Trail and canoed the New River

One Sunday morning a sweet couple visited our class. When Sue Ellen noted the ages indicated on their visitor card, she called the church office and suggested John and Mary might find the older class more suitable. She was told no, they specifically asked for our class. 

We weren’t going to shut the door on anyone, even though they were the age of many of our parents. And what a wonderful addition they were to our class. Ironically, Mary, who had a teaching doctorate with a specialty in English as a Second Language, had recently worked in Colorado for a man who was a young boy in the same church where Sue Ellen and I were members years ago. 

When we learned that John and Mary’s ministry careers were primarily among students, we understood why they wanted to be in our class, among people a generation younger. They’d always worked and lived among young people and we were a touch stone to that earlier era. Being around younger people made them feel younger. 

They could not physically do everything we did, but if they attended a game night they gave it everything they had.

And goodness, their insights from a life in Christian service at home and abroad enriched us all. When they moved to Tennessee recently to be closer to their son we showered them with a surprise and rousing send-off with class members and friends holding signs and singing hymns. 

I’m at the point in life where some of my friends are turning…old. My army buddy Steve turned 70 today. When I rode with him last summer in Omaha he took another spill on his skinny tired road bike. He’d only recently healed up from a previous spill that broke some ribs and bruised him ugly. 

At his wife Linda’s insistence, Steve recently purchased a hybrid bike as his main ride. Now, Steve is a guy who hikes, skis, swims in the ocean and likes to ride his road bike long distances. He’s on no medicines and gets synapse collapse in his brain when he sees the number 70 pop up in relation to his age.  

This hybrid bike has fatter tires, a smoother ride and more stable (read: forgiving) handling. But, in his mind, it’s like he traded a Mustang convertible for daddy’s Buick. 

“I’ve never felt so bad about a purchase in my life,” he said, when I called him to wish him happy birthday. “I felt like it was the first step toward turning in my car keys because the kids don’t think I’m safe to drive anymore.”

After a shared laugh he said, “I felt it was like going to the vet to get fixed.”

Of course, he made sure Linda felt his pain. But 44 years of marriage has coated her sympathy nerve with a layer of Teflon, which is to say she wasn’t hearing it. 

He confessed that after an initial “getting acquainted ride” he likes the bike a lot. He even says it just might be nimble enough to use for RAGBRAI next year, in riding across his home state of Iowa. 

Between John and Mary and Steve the lesson for me is clear: I need younger friends. 

Dad’s wallet reveals a life

My Norwegian bachelor farmer uncle Donnie treated his wallet like a filing cabinet. He collected each year’s expense receipts in his wallet, which grew fatter with each passing week. 

Each tax season, he emptied the wallet for his tax man who sorted the receipts and paperwork to file Donnie’s taxes. Then, the wallet would slowly fill again during the year, making a continually widening bulge in his pocket. 

One summer – meaning the wallet would be about half full – Don lost it. While climbing a fence, or crawling under a farm implement, or sitting on a jouncing tractor seat, it somehow fell out of his overalls. 

Whatever money was in the wallet was an afterthought. He was distraught about all the records, receipts, his license and the agony of retracing all the lost transactions. His distress was well known to all the family, repeated over each Sunday meal and birthday cake.

Dad’s wallet was a pocket portfolio of his life, including pictures of his grandchildren and his Selective Service card from 1948.

About two months later, my cousin Dickie and I drove the pickup down to the furthest pasture to chase the cows back up to the barn for milking. All of 13-14 years old we parked the truck, climbed the fence into the field of alfalfa – a thick, leafy forage crop about knee high. Mutually lamenting poor Uncle Donnie’s lost wallet and the resulting decrease in the “wages” he generously bestowed on his nephews, I said to Dickie, “Wouldn’t it be something if we found Donnie’s wallet?”

At that moment, as if a star ripped a seam into the heavens to beam a shaft of light at our feet, we looked down and there was the wallet, seemingly set there atop the ground with a careful hand, with the long tendrils of alfalfa pressed aside. We looked at each other and screamed, jumped up and down, picked up the wallet and headed for the pickup. 

Now, as I said, we were several years too young to be legally driving a truck, but that’s the way it was on the farm. Don taught us how to drive because he needed the help. We relished the privilege and were always very careful drivers.

But now, I possessed not only Don’s long-lost wallet, but also what I knew was a get-out-of-jail pass to drive like a bat outta hell back to the barn. No matter how mad Uncle Donnie would be to see us bouncing and spinning up the dirt track like that, I knew that when I flashed the wallet, everything would be all right. 

And that’s exactly how it turned out. 

With credit cards and electronic records kept online and on cell phones, modern wallets don’t always carry the same identifying history they once did. I mean, goodness, some guys actually carry their wallet in the FRONT pocket now. My dad was more careful with his records than his brother, Donnie. But his wallet still was a valuable filing cabinet for him, and a treasure box of memories. 

My sister Linda sent me dad’s wallet last week. Dad died three years ago, after a fall on ice in Wisconsin, in the town where he was as much a fixture as Main Street. The town where I grew up and graduated from high school, in the same building in which I started first grade.

I was hesitant to delve into that historical trove at first. Going through dad’s wallet was sure to carry me back. How far, I had no idea until I dove in. 

Every part of the wallet’s contents prompted memories. Some items were much older than I would have anticipated. Of course, I was gratified to find pictures of my children, one taken when the youngest could barely sit up straight. Today he’s 36. 

My high school graduation picture was there, as well as an earlier picture of me and two siblings. So much of the content consisted of business cards for his various doctors and insurance carriers. In fact, those were the majority of the items in his pocket filing cabinet. 

Others included a driver’s license, good through 2018. It’s expiration date outlasted his own. 

Maybe most surprising was the presence of dad’s Selective Service registration card, dated Sept. 18, 1948. Maybe he kept it because a line on the bottom of the frayed card says, “The law requires you to have this card in your possession at all times for identification and to advise your Local Board of change of address.” Dad was a stickler for the rules. 

It helps me understand a little better his lack of understanding when I registered as a conscientious objector with my own draft board in 1971. 

Another card dated August 1949 declares dad’s draft status as 3-A – a hardship deferment from being called to service, “because service would cause hardship upon his family.” His first child was born the next month, when dad was 19 and mom was 18.

And then there was the final draft board classification card dated Aug. 24, 1965 that said his draft status was 5-A – over the age of liability for service. That’s a card worth keeping. 

Dad had in his wallet his Social Security card, and cards both for membership in the Teamsters Union and honorary withdrawal from the teamsters seven years later when he was no longer driving milk truck for Bancroft Dairy in Wisconsin. 

Dad’s wallet was a pocket portfolio of a life lived both honorably and dutifully. Thank you, Dad.

Be a spark or get tossed

Sometimes we get into a cleaning, sorting, trashing, unloading kind of frenzy when we’re feeling burdened by stuff and stuff’s attraction, demands, care and maintenance. 

When Sue Ellen hits full frenzy fury, I chain myself to a post to make sure I’m not tossed into a box subconsciously labeled “of no further use,” or as an item that “no longer sparks joy,” in Marie Kondo’s terminology. 

Some few things have outlasted every purge in our 44 years together. Thankfully, I’m one of them. 

But this week Oskar died. 

Oskar was a small food chopper and came as a wedding gift in 1975. It endured several super glue fixes in recent years before finally throwing up its blades and sighing, “Please no more nuts, carrots, celery for salads, or styrofoam bars to make snowflakes for kids’ plays.”

When we think of “things” that have lasted the duration of our lives together, now that Oskar is gone, we can name three. 

First is a sleeping bag I bought when I got out of the Army. Mine was to be a wild and free life after the olive drab constraints Uncle Sam put upon me. That sleeping bag, and a tent that turned out to be a portable rain forest, so impermeable it turned my moist breath into morning showers, along with a 1964 International Scout that had a mind of its own, were my tickets to adventure. 

I still use the bag. 

We married while I was still finishing my degree at Oklahoma Baptist University. Summers were stifling and neither our apartment nor our car had air conditioning, so we bought a Gott cooler and a bigger tent and spent many weekends at the lake. 

We still use the cooler

It often carries goodies as we travel to see our children, none of whom were conceived at the lake. Every time we pack it up, I marvel that it has been with us for so long. Yet, it still regulates the temperature of the items it contains, like the thermos I once gave a secretary. When I saw her using it the next day she told me she appreciated its capacity to keep hot things hot and cold things cold. 

I asked her what she had in it today. “Coffee and a popsicle,” she said. 

Sue Ellen was just 20 when we married. She worked at a bank and had her own apartment after moving out from a home with six siblings, and had neither time nor money to accumulate much of a trousseau. But she had started her dish collection of the then popular Yorktowne pattern from Pfaltzgraff. 

For 21 years, these were our “good” dishes, pulled out to impress company and only after the kids were old enough to know dishes were not suitable as heavy Frisbees. When my mom died we inherited her china, which became our company dishes, and the Pfaltzgraff became our everyday dishes. 

Funny how the exceptional loses its aura when pressed into common use. 

The Pfaltzgraff is heavy, and hard to spell. We can always peg the length of a friends’ marriage within a year or two if they feed us on Yorktown pattern Pfaltzgraff. 

Sometimes we look at new dishes, brightly colored, modern patterns, disposable. They might brighten up the kitchen table and provide a fresh perspective. But, they wouldn’t hold our food any better.

I confess I hold this feeling much more closely than does my wife, but there is something endearing and enduring about the consistency of an everyday implement that has been part of our lives together – every day. Not temporary, not disposable. Just consistent. Present. Available. Useful. Non-demanding. 

There is a fourth thing that we brought to our marriage, but it is more intangible. We each brought a part, insufficient of itself, but required for the whole – like the final spark plug required to make a dead engine roar to life. 

That, of course, is love. Our love for each other, a love we thought fuller and richer in the first blush of our infatuation than ever known by previous humans. Yet, it has grown with time into intimacy, interdependence, tolerance, forgiveness, adoration and the mystery of oneness into a force to overcome many an onslaught. 

When my mother died in 1996, my dad stood in the window as the hearse pulled away, kissed his hand and put it to the glass. I know our birth canal opens toward death, but dad’s slide toward the inevitable started in earnest that day. Losing mom wasn’t just grief for dad. It was an amputation. 

They had been married 47 years. I’m older than dad was at mom’s death and when I survey my environment, the accumulation of things around me and consider those few things that have been with Sue Ellen and me our entire lives together, it’s easy to dismiss the sleeping bag, the cooler and the dishes. 

The one constant that matters for 44 years has been my partner, my heart, my life. We’re closer now to the end than to the beginning, but every day still dawns a treasure. 

Happy anniversary, Sue Ellen. 

Didn’t you used to be somebody?

The entry alcove to our house features glass panels on either side of the solid wood door. It’s a nice touch that enables me to see who is at the door before opening it. The panels also provide a tall, narrow view to my neighborhood and at least twice a day I find myself standing by them, peering out. 

I say “find myself” because I didn’t really intend to go over there like some watcher in the woods. The world outside the glass just drew me. I watch nature’s cycles on the maple tree, from buds, to leaves, to color to bare again. 

Sometimes I see people out there: kids waiting for the school bus, adults getting into cars on their way to work, someone putting a card or letter or bill payment into the mailbox and flipping up the red arm that reminds the mailman not to pass by this box. Often there is a dog walker with a small, warm bag dangling from his hand as if he had just discovered a treasure to which only his dog could have led him.

Mustard’s mug, retired at the local diner, along with his brother Marv’s — my dad — and everyone else whose funerals meant they no longer needed the mugs.

My uncle Donnie – Mustard, to those who knew him from youth – was a Norwegian bachelor farmer right out of Garrison Keillor’s tales from Lake Wobegon. He scratched a living from the sandy loam of southern Wisconsin where he raised corn, alfalfa and oats to feed the 19 head of dairy cows whose milk fed him. 

He didn’t always trust God and nature to do their jobs after he’d worked so hard to prepare the soil for planting. He’d give God a few days to breathe life into the corn seed and then, if he saw no green shoots, he’d nervously walk down to the field, look for the little arched rows of dirt left by the planter, and scratch away the soil just to reassure himself.

Maybe the planter wasn’t working. It put the seeds directly into the ground so you didn’t really see them being distributed, unlike a grass spreader that sprays seed so you know it’s going where it needs to be. Maybe this year the seed was bad. It’s never been bad before, always come up before. But this year, maybe the seed is bad. 

And it’s been dry. Has the seed dried up before a good rain could come germinate it? Or, it’s been really wet. Maybe the seed has drowned. Donnie would scratch at the earth until he found the seed and reassure himself it had gone into the ground and was just fine. From then on, he had to trust. And God never let him down.  

When I stand at my window I feel like Uncle Donnie checking out the field, making sure everything is as it ought to be. I spotted a service man walking around the neighbor’s yard once when no one was home, and I called the neighbor at work to tell him about it. It was OK. He had an appointment and the neighbor was late. 

This morning, on my birthday, I looked out the window and wondered if I would be there to look out the same window in 20 years. If so, I’d be the age of my dad when he died. How would my life be different in 20 years? That’s not a long time. 

I’m reminded of the cartoon my wife and I, both fitness advocates, posted for years on the refrigerator. A couple, about our age, were exercise walking and one said to the other, “What do you say? Two more years and we’ll let ourselves go?”

I don’t intend to let myself go, but stuff happens. I consider myself exceptionally healthy because at age 67 I eat well, take no medicine and can still ride my bike 100 miles in a day. Then I remember I’ve had two emergency surgeries and a broken neck and cracked skull. My mom died of cancer and my dad had a heart attack and bad kidneys. 

I’m also old enough to appreciate my father’s wisdom. When he was finally retirement age I was in the thick of raising my teenage children and spare time was more rare than spare change. I told dad he must appreciate the way days surely linger for him now that he’s older, with fewer responsibilities. 

Instead, he told me, “The older I get, the faster time goes.” I didn’t believe it then. I do now. 

Someone speculated that time goes faster as we get older because each unit of time is a smaller portion of our life than it was when we were young. That last month before Christmas for a five-year-old is a huge, slow moving portion of his entire life. He’s only had 60 months. A month to wait for a 60-year-old is but a blink. He’s had 720 of them. 

I think of my older friends whose social calendar revolves around doctor visits. It’s their excuse to get out and it’s a time when someone important is looking for them, expecting them, preparing to receive them. 

And I think of my friend Cliff who had a very significant career in church ministry and administration across several states. Visiting him at age 92 in the sad, shared room of his nursing home after his wife died, he looked around at his narrow bed, the few pictures taped to his wall, the closet with just a few items hanging there, and said, “I used to be somebody.” 

We assured him his life mattered, that it had counted for good in the lives of his children and in the many he touched through his work and devotion. 

I think of that this morning, standing at my window, staring out at the corn rows of my neighborhood, and wonder if in a few years my friends and neighbors will look at this house, scratch their heads and try to remember the somebody who used to live there.

Lonely at the Lake

A dip in Hyco Lake saved the day.

Deep in his heart, every man longs for a battle to fight, an adventure to live and a beauty to rescue. – John Eldredge

Of all the great memories from my cross-state bike adventure with my friend Mark,  the most lasting image came from a moment off the bike. 

It was our second day, and hottest. The bank sign said 96 degrees when we rode past. It seemed we climbed all morning and early afternoon as we left the NC mountains and navigated around bodies of water, racing down to them, then slogging back up to level ground. Now, we were crossing Hyco Lake on a short, flat bridge when we looked longingly at the dark, calm water. 

“Every time we cross a lake on a hot day, I want to jump in,” Mark said. I shared the sentiment and when I saw a cabin with a “For Sale” sign on it at the far end of the bridge, I rode into the short driveway, intending to walk unnoticed to the end of its dock and jump in. But, as we rode into the cabin site, the owner came out to attend to something on his deck. 

Unthwarted, I rode up and asked if we could take a dip into the lake from his dock. Skeptical at first, he said, “Go ahead.” 

Mark, hoping tryouts are still open for Olympic underwater dancing team.

Mark stripped to his bike shorts and jumped in. I didn’t want to ride the rest of the day in wet shorts, so I got nakie and jumped. Oh my goodness. Given the day, the ride, the heat, the perfect water temp, the freedom, it was heavenly. 

After we’d gotten refreshed, we air dried a bit. I wiped myself down with my sweaty jersey, put on my dry shorts and walked back up to the cabin. Mark squished his way up to where the owner was back out on the deck. We chatted long enough to learn that he was from Massachusetts and had bought the cabin three years ago to be near his son and grandchildren, who lived about an hour from there. 

“That must have been great,” I said. “Lake house, grandkids, lots of fun.” 

“They only came twice in three years,” he said. “And my relatives from Massachusetts never came.” So, he’s selling the place and moving in with his sister back home. 

I can’t get the image out of my mind. He’s not a rich man, he said. The lake home wasn’t a vacation spot. He planted his life there so he could be near his son and grandchildren – an hour away. They came only twice in three years. 

No one visited from Massachusetts. Not once. It costs 80 bucks to get the yard mowed, and his boat looked like something you’d put your supervisor in, hoping to create a sudden job opening. He couldn’t stay. No reason to.

He was a lonely man, lonely enough to leave his grandchildren and move in with his sister back home. We thanked him, wished him well, and took off – up the hill away from the lake and on to Roxboro. 

I don’t know the family dynamics. Maybe he was hard to get along with, maybe he mistreated his son’s mother. But to uproot your life in your retirement years, move 700 miles to be close to your grandchildren, and then be ignored – that just struck me as too, too sad.

There are lots of lonely people out there. For lots of reasons. Don’t let some of them be your grandparents. And, don’t be afraid to say hello to strangers.

The wisdom of Bill

I was facing a big life decision recently so I went again to talk with my friend Bill. He’s the strong, silent type and a great listener but when he speaks, his voice always slices like a knife of insight through the goop clouding my thinking.

Bill’s place is very comfortable; shady with a great view of nature from where he rests – woodlands, pastures and now a large stand of loblolly pines that one day will be harvested. I laugh with him to think that when those trees are cut, people that have been driving by them for a generation are going to gripe and complain that the forest was cut down in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

They won’t remember the trees were planted 20 years earlier specifically as a cash crop to benefit the work of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, where Bill grew up, and lived and worked most of his career.

I can hear him chuckling and shaking his big ol’ head, rubbing the bald pate once forested with hair. The more time I’ve spent with Bill the more I realize he’s always understood people at a level much deeper than his easy-going nature typically revealed. He’s not snowed by the self-important preening of others who gathered around his table, even when it looks on the surface like he takes their words at face value.

I tell Bill how much I appreciate him, how he and his wife, Louise, took us in and showed us the ropes when I started working where he worked. I was a generation younger, in a higher “position” on the organizational chart and from another part of the country. None of that mattered, only that we respected each other, each worked hard and we all loved our children.

Bill doesn’t say much, but I know he cares. But, I digress.

I told Bill about the decision I faced. Comfort is cool; change is hard. His expression was stone cold, waiting for me to continue. The more I told him, the more I heard myself talking it through, the more it became clear which direction I should take.

I just chuckled. He’s always like that now, waiting for me to talk it through between us, without saying anything, knowing that eventually I’ll make the right decision.

With that out of the way, I tell him I know that he and Louise are enjoying their time back together again after several years apart, due to circumstances beyond their control. I catch him up on the kids, and sense his pride in them, as he’s proud of every kid who grew up at Baptist Children’s Homes, also due to circumstances beyond their control.

Bill acts as if he has all the time in the world, and I’m reluctant to leave him, but…life goes on. I thank Bill for his time and wisdom, rise to my feet, brush the fallen oak leaves from his headstone, and close the gate to God’s Acre behind me.

Thanks again, Bill. You’re always there for me.

Mother’s Day 2019

HS graduation

Mom, left, at my high school graduation. Sisters Denise, and Linda, and Dad.

I know special remembrance holidays are fabrications woven to sell cards, flowers and candy. But this Mother’s Day is Sunday and something today about the beautiful weather and lunch with the mother of my children made me pause and remember my own mother, Barbara, who died at age 64 in 1996.

She was a lovely woman and a wonderful hostess, always ready for company no matter how late or how unexpected. I realize now we didn’t talk a lot, but she was always ready if I wanted to open up, not that she ever did. I never knew how ill she was until 19 days before she died.

Our night time ritual was for me to give her a kiss when I headed upstairs to bed. She was usually reading on the sofa and had a toothpick between her lips. She’d somehow make it disappear into her mouth while we exchanged a quick peck on the lips and then it would reappear.

I can still remember the night – and the look on her face – when I decided I was too old for that ritual. I had thought about it for a while and I agonized all day. Somehow, I knew what it meant. When I headed toward her, I saw her pop the toothpick into her mouth.

But, then I turned to go upstairs. Surprised, she said, “No kiss?”

“Ummm, no,” I said. She never mentioned it again but I think dad caught her eye and nodded, acknowledging silently that I’d climbed another rung on the ladder toward adulthood.

Mom was very prudish, embarrassed if anyone talked about body parts and she certainly didn’t tolerate her kids walking around in any state of dress that would not be considered “fully clothed.” On the day of my wedding she took me aside and confessed she probably ought to tell me about the birds and bees, “but you probably know more about it than I do, anyway.”

That, in its entirety, was her version of, “the talk.”

So, it was quite surprising when eight months later I brought my new bride home from Oklahoma to Wisconsin to meet the extended family. On the first night in my childhood home as a married man I found an apple on the bedside table. I picked it up, looked it over, shrugged, and put it back.

The next morning, I asked mom why she’d put an apple by the bed.

“It’s a contraceptive,” she said.

I laughed. “Was I supposed to eat it before…or after?”

“You were supposed to eat it instead,” she said.

I told that story in her eulogy. At the Lutheran Church in Rio, WI where we all grew up, population 788. My dad told me the population stayed at 788 because “every time a young lady has a baby, an older man leaves town.”

I delivered dad’s eulogy in the same room, 21 years later. It was the room where I preached the youth sermon – from the wrong pulpit, I learned later. In our divided chancel, only an ordained minister got to preach from the big, ornate pulpit that was high and lifted up. I could use that one legitimately now, if I ever get invited to preach there.

It’s the same room where I acted in Christmas plays – vying to be a speaking star, or an announcing angel and not just a silent, costumed figure filling out the scriptural cast. It was the room where I wore the costumes mom made, and later the coat and tie she picked out.

It was the room where she sat as the bride’s mom when my sister married, and as a grieving daughter-in-law when my grandparents were buried.

When I was a high school junior, I came home from a dance after the football game and woke my parents up to tell them, “I’ve committed the ultimate sin.”

They shot straight up out of bed and took a second to compose themselves before mom – who gave birth to my sister before age 18 – asked me tentatively, “Um, and what was that?”

“I asked a freshman to the homecoming dance,” I said, not understanding until later their audible expulsion of relief.

I know special holidays like Mother’s Day are made up. But, at least it’s a reminder to do or say something special to your mom at least once a year. Take advantage of it.

By the way, kids, Father’s Day is June 16.

Didn’t we just DO this?

Ornaments

Photo ornaments trigger memories worth lingering over.

“Didn’t we just DO this?” I asked my wife rhetorically as I opened the plastic bins containing our Christmas decorations. Appropriately for the season, they’re big red bins with green covers.

I’d already hoisted the gloriously pre-lit Christmas tree and assembled its three parts to reach seven feet toward the ceiling. An old friend, now in at least its fifth season with us, it brings unalterable joy because when I insert pole A into receptacle B, the lights come on. Glory.

Married nearly 43 years, we’ve accumulated lots of ornaments for our tree. Glass, plastic, wood, hinged, felted, furred, tacky and holy, most carry special meaning because of who gifted them to us, our circumstance in life at the time and because each ignites a special memory.

Of all our special ornaments though, none are more precious than the very simplest. Prompted by a children’s project at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas where we attended when I was a seminary student, we’ve made simple paper ornaments with our children’s picture on them – and now our grandchildren’s.

This night, as I sorted through the decorations, untangling hooks and surreptitiously dropping the Mickey Mouse ornament back into the bin, I reached for a nearly ragged paper ornament featuring a tow-headed 10-month old. I reached to hang it onto the tree for the 39th time and a realization of how quickly time passes washed over me like a fog rolling in on an early morning bike ride.

I’m not sentimental about things. I’m not a big historical preservationist. If there’s something in my closet you want, take it. But moments that seared themselves like a hot grill into the raw meat of our minds are precious and I’m going to keep them, and I’m going to cherish them.

I don’t know what brings certain things to mind. Circumstances, events, smells, accidents, the way sunbeams, thick enough with dust to walk on, lay a slanted beam across a field. But when that precious memory comes, when it invades your conscious self and demands that you stop whatever you’re doing and linger there awhile, do it. Don’t resent it. Don’t hasten its passing. Don’t regret the time you devoted to it when you could have been doing something “more productive.”

We hang nice ornaments, too. Colorful glass, embossed and shiny plastic, wooden figures. But it’s the simplest ornaments, made by the kids or featuring the kids, that we appreciate most. Simple, like the manger.

I’m kind of a scrooge until the last couple of weeks before Christmas. I resent the trinketized trivialization of the season. But if I will trudge through the motions riding the momentum of tradition it will hit me. That moment when I realize how much I’ve lived and what a glorious wonder each of those photo ornaments represents.

And my ice coated Scrooge heart melts and I’m awash with the blessedness of Christmas again. Merry Christmas to you, and may every happy memory be a carol in your heart.

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.

Don’t Blink

At the doctor’s office this morning I looked down to fill in the remaining blanks on the form at the receptionist’s desk. It was my first visit so, of course, they wanted to confirm my willingness to sacrifice my first born if necessary to pay their bill.

The office computer had auto-filled some of the information and I just needed to fill in the rest. Staring up at me in simple black text over the white paper form were the identifying factors that would enable them to track me down should I limp out of there with their charges unredressed.

One simple number struck and confused me: 63. I thought at first it was “Question No. 63,” but it was on the first page and the form wasn’t that long. Then I thought it might be a part of my address, or something to do with the third of June. Of course, all of that flashed through my mind in a second before I realized the number represented my calendar age – the number of years since I emerged large and in charge from my mother’s womb.

I would have shaken my head except it’s still wobbly atop my neck from my bike accident, the reason I was at the doctor’s for a follow-up.

Seeing that number reminded me of when I was being transferred from one emergency room to a more capable trauma center three weeks earlier. The medic riding in the back of the ambulance with me called ahead to the trauma center, alerting them that he was about to arrive with a “63 year-old-male, with head injuries.”

“Poor sucker,” I thought. As best I could, since I was strapped to a neck board, I craned my eyes to look round the ambulance because I thought I was the only one riding to Winston-Salem. Turns out I was alone. Then I realized he was talking about me.

Sixty-three? When did I get to be sixty-three? Except for the momentary and exceptional fact of a fractured skull and several vertebrae, I felt 40. Sixty-three was my dad. Sixty-three was grandpa when I was a kid. Sixty-three was plaid pants and knee socks in gray walking shoes, and dinner at 4:30 for the discount.

Sixty-three was not me.

During the first third of my life, I always looked younger than my actual age, and it bugged me to no end. When I was 25 I was married, living in the second house that I’d owned and a college girl came to my door to look at some furniture we were selling.

I opened the door and she said, “Is your mother home?” It took my wife three weeks to re-inflate my pride.

Twenty years later I stood at the register to order a coffee and cinnamon role at Bojangles and the server repeated into the microphone, “One senior coffee and a cinnamon role.” I tried not to cry because my associate who was with me was too busy laughing.

In twenty years I went from “Is your mother home?” to being offered a senior discount.

And now the paper says I’m 63. The mirror agrees. My body nods affirmatively. My mind shouts vehement denial. Goodness, I’m embarking on new ventures infused with still developing hopes, dreams and plans. To quote Buzz Lightyear, I’m setting sail, “to infinity, and beyond!”

I turn to my wife, a wrinkle of concern still lining her forehead as we await the doctor, and ask her to verify the identify of the patient on this form.

That’s me? Age 63? How did we get here?

Don’t blink.