Monday, February 27, 2012

Tree of Life

After losing both of my parents in a matter of 2 months, I'm now more than ever reflecting upon the transience of life and what remains when everything is done. The Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life is a film by Terrence Malick whose earlier work has exhibited an ethereal quality--grass blowing in the wind, long takes of actors staring across empty fields, etc.  I'm not sure how to describe this movie. Is it a montage, a series of vignettes, moody, emotive? But more important than what it says are the questions the film forces us to ask:
What is this about? Where's the story?
--spoiler--it has no traditional storytelling arc.

Tree of Life is flash memoir. Moments. Ordinary. Riven. Island. A mother's voice. A father's criticism. The look from a younger brother. Trust. Betrayal. It is about the threads of life that weave in and out of all of us.

I couldn't stop thinking that the house in the film reminded me of my Aunt Jane's house in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. I remember climbing the creaky stairs up to the second floor and peeking into her bedroom while she slept--bald as a jaybird, her wig resting on a mannequin head. It was said she'd lost all her hair, traumatized over the death of her youngest son from leukemia.

We drove past Aunt Jane's house after the graveside service for my mother last week. The street was narrower than I'd remembered, the house small compared to two-story houses of today, and the backyard shed was gone. As we drove by I heard whispering, the voice of the mother and son from The Tree of Life:

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. You were made from dust, and to dust you will return.

Friday, February 24, 2012


These unremarkable moments, they come and go, then disappear into an abyss of moments, similar in their familiarity. Staring into pure nothingness.

Yet, I am made up of these moments of the ordinary.

The laundry, the rising and lying down, the steady rhythm. A day like any other day, one right after another. When sometimes all that gives it shape is a cup of good coffee, the #78 arriving soon after I cross the street, or a robo call from the library letting me know a book I requested is now in.

If all we aspire to when writing memoir is the monumental or heroic, the turning point or plot twist, then we are likely to overlook the mundane, which is actually the flesh and bone of existence.

Sitting around a table at Shotzy’s Bar in Upper Sandusky, Ohio after Mom’s graveside service we shared simple remembrances. Mom never had to write a resume or beef up an application. There were no bullets, no highlighting her accomplishments. Her life revolved around husband and home, and as noble as that may sound there is no glory. Not enough to fill a funeral homily. She baked cakes! She liked to knit! She was killer at dominos!

Unless one can claim first place, best in show, or any other distinction, the above looks scanty, even pathetic, like using tweezers to extract the meat in crab legs. It’s good, just not enough of it.

And, of course, there is the glossing over: she was the BEST mother; she was ALWAYS there for us; she loved me.

Yes and no.

She was what she was. Despite her own Depression-era childhood, despicable poverty. Despite the curse of mental depression her mother suffered and then was visited upon her sisters and herself. Despite disappointment with herself and her children, frustration that even after gaining financial stability, she couldn’t be happy. Mom succeeded in living out a suburban, middle-class version of a Checkov tale. Unremarkable.

And we didn’t understand how great it was.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


All this going back and forth to Ohio—I’m ready to be done, to go back to a normal routine. I need to eat a salad to make up for all the eating. A run would put some miles between the long drive there and back. Regular stuff like washing my hair and a long bath would help to transition.

Back & forth.

There & back.

What is normal and what is routine about a life now changed, cleaved into separate parts?

Before & after.

I want to go back to before. Before Dad died surrounded by family and before Mom died alone in the hospital. Stop time. Make up for lost time. Rewind.

Here & now.

I’m left with this side, the rest of what is to come.

Forever & ever.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ode to the Summer of '49

Every family has one—the odd relative. My husband had a great uncle who because of seizures never worked. One day walking home from school my husband, a little boy, saw the man laid out on the lawn. He kept walking and never mentioned it to anyone, afraid his great uncle might possibly be dead.

Back then society had a way of accommodating an idiosyncratic or oddball. They were often referred to politely as sick, though the illness they suffered had nothing to do with a three-day flu. Or their behavior was shrugged off as just “their way.”

But the 40s and 50s was also the era that brought us One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. In my book Orphan Girl I wrote about Marie James who narrated a hellish existence as a patient before escaping from an asylum in Wisconsin. I know the field of mental health has made progress since then. In the 1970s the pendulum swung the other direction. The doors to institutions were flung open and during the bleak Reagan years the majority of homeless on the streets were former patients now receiving no to little treatment. Let’s face it: there really is no good time for someone suffering from mental illness or behavior-related symptoms.

I blogged last week in “Once More to the Lake” about my parents working at the Wild Waves Motel. Well, in going through Mom and Dad’s stuff and packing things up either for the storage unit or Goodwill I found a poem penned by DeForest Ward’s brother, Uncle Willy. He lived in his own cabin at the Wild Waves motor court and contributed by helping out as a maintenance man. Drawing upon my childhood memory of Uncle Willy, I remember him as odd. A bit not of this world.

Anyway on the back of a Wild Waves restaurant placemat he wrote a poem that I’ll share here, which gives us a glimpse into what it must have been like to work summers at Wild Waves:

I take up my pencil to scribble this line,
About some people I knew in forty nine.
About the cooks and dishwashers, too,
And I don’t overlook the cornhusking crew.
The waitresses helped in the kitchen as well,
And enjoyed the summer at Wild Waves Hotel.
Helen and Sue made salads with zest.
Stella made pies as good as the best.
We will not forget Homer and Delores,
And that good food they put before us.
And you’ll remember as this you read,
Carolyn Olson whose nickname was “Swede”.
Also Joan Webb who from Circleville came.
She couldn’t be different with another name.
Nan Johnson who from Akron you know.
From Oberlin came the girl we called Jo.
From Texas were Loraine Clayton and Louise Hearn,
Who drank black coffee straight from the urn.
While Charlie Grenzebach, who buried the fishes,
And Connie, his wife, both helped with the dishes.
William lived in a cabin with Babs his wife.
He could fix anything with a screwdriver and knife.
“Jan” was a nickname for Janet Soutter.
This group wouldn’t be the same without her.
Miriam Titus, Marjorie Cupp, and Shirley Spoon,
You’d see at the table most every noon.
With the cabin girls was one named Helen,
What she’ll do next there is no tellin’.
Sarah and Ann were office girls,
Who never wore their hair in curls.
Gusta made beds and swept the rooms, too.
They looked quite nice when she got through.
Mrs. O’Donnell was forever doing her share.
She assisted the cook and cleaned the tin ware.
Nancy was hostess and the manager’s daughter,
And of all the suitors that ever sought her,
She married a lad named Hoke from the city.
That helps to complete this little ditty.
A girl named Pat was there to assist her.
On her days off they certainly missed her.
This little story would be incomplete,
And I would find myself quite indiscrete,
If I failed to mention my mother so dear.
She comes to the table each day with a smile,
Which makes you think that life’s worthwhile.
Soon this staff will go their separate ways,
And our thoughts will go back to other days.
For well we know that in September,
This summer will be but a thing to remember.
--Bill Ward

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Once More to the Lake

In college my mother and then later both my mom and dad worked at Wild Waves motel along the shores of Lake Erie at Mitiwanga, Ohio. Motel is perhaps a euphemism. By the time my parents started taking me and my brothers and sister up to the lake, the place was getting ragged around the edges. The newer duplex cottages were all right, except the beds sank in the middle and the lamps had the dimmest bulbs ever. Worst yet were the original cabins made out of logs. Yup, little log cabins which might sound quaint if they weren’t infested with wood spiders. The one-room cabin was roughly the size of a double bed—so very little walking space. You slept pretty damn close to those spidery walls.

Wild Waves had definitely seen better days.

Situated between Vermilion and Huron along Route 6, Wild Waves at one time sported a dining room where guests could get their lunch or dinner, tennis courts, and a fine sand beach. There was also shuffleboard and a pingpong table constructed out of cement. On bluffs overlooking the lake were Adirondack chairs, the kind made out of metal and painted festive colors like green, pink, sunflower yellow. Stairs zigzagged down to the beach where there was a narrow dock that extended out into the water. Kids could run and jump off the end. At a corner, scratched into the cement was a name and date frozen in time. Ted ’52.

Deforest Ward had built the motel during the depression. The automobile meant people could travel. Indeed when his first wife got sick, he drove her to Florida when it wasn’t exactly a vacation playground. He took her there for the cure along rough roads or no roads at all. But the heat and damp did her no good and they returned to Ohio where she died. He was still a young man. So he began to build on property one log cabin at a time. He hired a girl from Oberlin College with a degree in dietary science to run the hotel restaurant. Helen eventually became his wife. They raised 2 kids: Nancy and Bill, who in turn lived nearby and helped out in the family business, raising their kids at the lake. It was Ted, Bill’s son who helped with the new dock, signing his name into the wet cement.

Father and Mother Ward hired college students to help out in the kitchen and diningroom or in housekeeping, or in Mom’s case, to run the front desk. I imagined that in its day Wild Waves had been a busy enterprise. But in the mid-60s when we were visiting Erie was the most polluted of the great lakes. Scientists had declared it a dying lake. Industrial waste on the Cuyahoga River had ignited, catching the river on fire.

News like that didn’t help bring in the tourists. Also the times were a-changin’. Families with money were beginning to travel further—like maybe Florida. Cabins the size of a pill box with rotting log walls didn’t appeal to the new middle class. Sometimes we were the only visitors at Wild Waves. As a kid I’d walk down to the beach and find all sorts of junk washed up—not the least dead fish floating in the water. The cement dock had crumpled, huge gaps between the sections, some parts tilted upwards with ends submerged. It was a green seaweed-slimed ruin.

Teddy was killed in 1967, during the Tet Offensive, a casualty of the Vietnam War.

Those glory days at Wild Waves were quickly evaporating. The tennis courts were riddled with tree roots, the paint on the pingpong tables had flaked, the Adirondack chairs were all rusted, left out in the rain. The cottages still stood, but the log cabins were used to store old furniture, shrouded in dust. Keeping up with the place was getting harder and harder for Father and Mother Ward. They eventually sold out and moved into a three-story house that once held the restaurant and diningroom—until that house was taken by the lake during an especially fierce winter storm that eroded the bluffs.

We stopped going to the lake or if so just for a quick visit to see the Wards. The Wild Waves that once was was no more. Bill’s family had scattered and Nancy and her husband Hoke kids had all grown up and left. Even the lake had changed. Not dead, but it seemed tired like a toothless old man. The economy was in shambles from 1970s’ recessions. The Vietnam War recently over had not given us dignity with honor. Teddy’s name was slipping into obscurity.

A few years ago my husband and I stopped there. It’s still standing, rickety cabins and all! It remains the Wild Waves, though the clientele rents on a weekly basis and are mostly transients. The front office is now a bar where on weekend nights the locals along Route 6 pull in for a quick drink. Once again I walked across the gentle sloping lawn, past the pingpong table a monument to the durability of cement. I climbed down to the benign shore of the lake, now healthy and recovered. The dock was a remnant of its former self. Decades of waves had sculpted the wood pilings into disjointed stumps. Under an open sky I was surrounded by shadows.

Nancy the last of the Wards died last year. And now Mom and Dad are gone too. There’s nothing left but those endless waves, those wild waves washing over Ted ’52.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rita Ann Myers

Rita Ann Myers
1924 - 2012

Rest in Peace
Gone on this St. Valentine's Day to be with her beloved Harold

Thursday, February 9, 2012

An Alternate Plane of Reality

In the Great Divorce C.S. Lewis conjectures that what we sense is reality might actually be a dim mirror of a realer reality. That’s right. If we think this is all we have: the here and now—think again. Behind this world is another where the sky is bluer, the grass greener. I know this comes across as sentimental “over the rainbow” and there is no way to prove there is a parallel universe.

There is no bridge that connects us.

My husband likes to tell me that my version of how something came off is simply my narrative, my overview. His postmodern opinion is that there is no objective one truth. Versions of what we think happened are as varied as the number of people who contribute their side of things.

I believe my mother has crossed over. She’s fully engaged somewhere else other than here. Where she is mixing up biscuits, making cole slaw, cleaning out cupboards, searching for her rain cap. Harold is with her—and at the same time so also is her mother. Her sister Gwen doesn’t have polio and her sister Mary is not quite as fat as she actually was.

In this alternative plane of reality Mom can exist in many dimensions. She can live in Upper Sandusky, her hometown, Columbus, where she attended Ohio state, and Dayton and Centerville where she and Dad raised us kids—all these places together and all at once.

Time has no second hand.

Place has no boundaries.

Our revels have now ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped temples, the great globe itself,
Yes, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with sleep.
--from The Tempest

Monday, February 6, 2012

Mad Men & Memories

We don't have cable so when we watch Mad Men it is on disc--immersed in a whole season at once. We just finished Season 4, so I'm still in the 1960s: the avocado-green wall phone and the plaid jumper Sally wore.
I think I was Bobby's age when the President was assassinated. Don and Betty Draper would be in their late 80s today.

As I was cleaning out my parent's house last month I made all kinds of discoveries. Like most kids (I'm referring to myself here) I never once thought of my parents as people. They were Mom and Dad. What they did before me really never entered my mind. Their life consisted of station wagons, split two-level houses in subdivisions named Spanish Trace, North Village, or Highmill Estates. They were first of all parents, then perhaps golfers or members of the country club, or the ad men on Madison Ave.

The notion that they had sex, addictions, or a secret past was the stuff of TV dramas and not particularly anything to do with our family.

Yet in packing and unpacking the house after Dad died we discovered Mom had changed her name. I came across her birth certificate. What's this? I asked. Was your real name Lorraine? Mom told us that in her early 20s she decided to change her name to Rita. Even later after that she preferred to go by her middle name Ann.

I imagined Bobby and Sally middle aged and post-menopausal packing up their dad's belongings and coming across his box of secrets, finally realizing their dad was Dick Whitman and not Don Draper.

Also in Mom's stuff, in a photo album, were some pics of Mom with another man, a man who shared her last name. I turned the photo over and on the back was written: Joe, my half brother.

By now Mom had downward spiraled into dementia. It didn't take long after Dad died. It was just like she. Let. Go. But before she completely went away I was able to ask her about Joe and she confirmed that, yes, her father had been previously married and had one son from that relationship. Of course as I held that photo of Mom and Joe I realized none of it mattered. Most likely Joe was dead. My grandfather and grandmother are long gone. And, now, my mother was disappearing.

Lorraine. Rita. Ann. Has traveled to another place and taken all her secrets with her. I'll never know the full extent of who she was.

All I can do is imagine. Watch shows like Mad Men where the characters are alive, undead, dancing, and drinking, and lying, unable to face themselves, hoping to some day forget who they are.

Mom is already there.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Different Kinds of Memory

I'm dealing with my mother who is downward spiraling into dementia/Alzheimer's. For Mom it is all about memories.

She remembers working at the lake during the summer while in college. Ask her and she can tell you the name of the lady who used to live down the street--and her dog's name. Mom can recall her chili recipe by heart--just not swallow the food.

We're back to the basics, again. After a medical crisis, she now needs to relearn how to sit up, swallow, and eat. We have to cue her to hold a spoon. Oddly enough all these actions that used to come automatically are stored in our memory locker and when we lose the combo we've no longer access to the contents.

So as someone who teaches memoir, don't take for granted the small things, This is especially important for when crafting flash memoir. For Proust it was cookies.

Today try to recall a simple pleasure. Is it enjoying a cigarette on the fire escape, hot dog Saturdays, a walk to the lake, or opening mail (not junk mail, but a real letter or card)?

That one  pleasure might link you to others and before long you have unleashed a chain of memories. I just wish Mom could remember to swallow--even as she looks at me and says, "I think I'll have a glass of wine."