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Category Archives: reflection

Finding (the Other) Donald

Finding (the Other) Donald

October 6, 2016

I took some days off work to spend time with visiting family members. I hoped the time away would ignite a writing spark and allow a few hours to fan it. My brother Will was in from Los Angeles, and our oldest daughter Lindy had come from Maui for the week. My sister Gwen joined the three of us, and we headed–literally–for the hills. That is, we piled into my Subaru with the family dog and hit the road for Mom’s small house in rural West Virginia.

Oh, we had fun, all right. All the glorious, obnoxious, jostling sibling interplay you might expect, served with some serious and dear conversation on the side. Lindy more than held her own. It is not for me to judge whether my husband and our other daughters felt more blessed than deprived in having been unavailable to join us.

Lee family gaiety is of the raucous variety, you see. My family is intense and somewhat chaotic. We are more firecracker than briquette. Our words and personalities tumble over one another with an energy which makes the air crackle. After two or three days, we have each either been smothered in the ample family bosom or we are waving sticks of dynamite in one others’ faces and daring each other to light a match.

Even so, we are a loyal clan. Our family dysfunction is such that we can bait one another well beyond the limits of civility but woe, woe, to the unwary outsider who gives offense to one in our ranks.

Theatrics and egos aside, I can count on my sibs to defend and care for me. This certainty among us has been hard won, and it is precious to me. It is from this maddening and glorious cocoon of family togetherness, this place of teeth gnashing and warm embraces, which I will tell you about finding Donald, a man who was not so lucky.

You could say I stumbled over him.

I discovered him last Saturday. He was sitting on the floor just inside the locked double doors of the church where I see my counseling clients. A spectre of the man he had once been, he was peeking at me from beneath an information table. I’d guess his weight at no more than five pounds.

DIW sits in hallway near door.jpg

Donald’s appearance spoke of haste, neglect, and a lack of dignity. Dead over six years, he still inhabited the cheapest of temporary urns–a black plastic cube. An edge of the clear plastic bag holding his charred remains poked out from under the lid. Shrouded in a gray plastic Dollar Tree bag, Donald sat on the cold linoleum and waited.

I waited too. Surely some reasonable explanation existed for my finding him thus.

I popped my head outside the door of my office between clients, hoping to discover he had been claimed.

Once, the church secretary came upstairs to rearrange the letters on the board above the information table. I said nothing and waited to see what would happen. Yolanda slid Donald further under the table. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she looked into the open bag at her feet before pushing him out of her way and against the wall. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she used her foot.

On Sunday, worshipers came and went, each passing within a few feet of Donald. Did they not wonder about the unexpected deposit in the empty hallway?

Days passed and nobody came for him. On the fourth day, Donald and I headed down to the church office to sort things out. Disaster was narrowly averted when Donald’s heft caused the sharp corners of his box to pierce the flimsy gray bag. I caught him before he fell and exploded in the stairwell.

The pastor and the secretary looked surprised to see Donald. Operating on the assumption that he or a family member had once attended the church, they conducted a little research. This is what they learned: Nothing. Donald had no discernible connection to the church at all. The staff scratched their heads and began researching the proper disposal of human remains.

I had had a cancellation, so I decided to do a little sleuthing of my own.

I was curious about Donald–Donald I. W., to be exact. From the label attached to his little box, I knew when he had come into the world and when he had left it. I even knew the date and location he had been placed in the furnace. I felt somehow embarrassed to know these intimate facts.

D.I.W. Urn Photo

This is what I concluded: Donald had lived with family 1.7 miles from the church. He has surviving family members in the area, including an older brother, now 70, still living in said family home. Either his relations are terribly poor or they don’t give a rat’s ass what becomes of him. Someone had sneaked into the building and abandoned Donald just as one would an unwanted infant.

When I consider Donald’s humiliation, I am overcome with gratitude for the generosity and only slightly deformed goodness which is growing up within and between me and my kin.

Maybe I should not be quite so hard on Donald’s family. They probably deserve some credit for choosing a church over a dumpster.

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Christopher, Part I

Image courtesy of hdm1652

Image courtesy of hdm1652

The chime jingled cheerily as Aris pulled open the heavy coffee shop door. He smelled Cara’s hair as she brushed by him. Their chunky winter coats competed for room in the narrow opening. He was about to make a fool of himself.

Sitting now, coffee in hand, he casually inquired. “So, you’ve mentioned Christopher a couple of times…”

A month back, the two had met at the home of an old grad school professor. Dubbed “Mr. Chips,” Dr. Miles could be counted on to throw a big bash every Christmas. It served as an informal reunion for decades of students who would otherwise have lost touch–or never have met at all.

A moment ago they had been talking about hiking boots and the best places to get kebabs. Cara bit her lip and grew quiet as she stared into her mug.

“I loved him.”

Aris knew he couldn’t compete. He sat up straighter. He would listen. He would listen and then fade into the background before she could see through him.

“I gave him the best I had. Maybe more than I could afford…. I acted like I was in control but I was kidding myself. He knew me too well. He knew my strengths, my weaknesses–every contour of my mind and body. And he used what he knew. He pushed me to my limits.”

This was unexpected. Uncomfortable.

“So…he abused you.”

“No, no. It wasn’t like that.

“I don’t understand then.”

“I thanked him for it. I wanted it.” She was looking right at him now.

She wasn’t the person Aris had thought she was. He had to look away.

“I hung on his every word. I wanted his love so badly.” Her voice and expression had become intense. “I just wanted to know I was special to him. I would have done just about anything he asked. Deep down, I knew he did love me. But I was just so needy.”

She deflated.

“I can’t believe he’s gone. I never saw it coming.”

“Lovers, then.”

“No. No. God, no!” Reverie interrupted, Cara came to. She broke into an amused smile.

“I thought you knew. Christopher was my coach.”

Photo credit here

The Big Red Robe

The Big Red Robe

My big red bathrobe is 100% cotton and should smell like a clean towel. Yet for some reason, it has always been a little stinky. Laundering doesn’t help. But according to one daughter, the robe smells like love. Kids are funny that way. And scents are evocative. So I guess I’ll go with that compliment and try not to invalidate it by recalling that another daughter once publicly declared that my armpits smell like heaven.

My Dad died in Feb. of 1990, over a year and a half before our first child arrived. The Christmas before his death from cancer, he and my mother went on a grand shopping spree. I believe he sensed he would not recover.

One of his gifts to me was this red robe. I appreciated the robe but I never liked it. It was so thick, so heavy, so ENORMOUS that wearing it made me clumsy and sweaty. The sleeves were so long I could never roll them up far enough to do dishes without getting them soaked. Mostly, the robe hung in my closet and awaited its true calling.

As our children came into the world, the robe started to come in handy. I wore it as I nursed them. I rocked them in it when ear infections kept them up at night. It was big enough to wrap us both cozily within its folds. When the girls were a little older, we’d sit together inside the robe, each of us taking one sleeve and closing the robe around us. Claire wore it at breakfast so she could smell the love. Wearing it when they were sick helped the girls feel better.

I will never be able to get rid of that smelly robe now. And I no longer want to.

Thank you, Dad.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post click here. For the next post, click here.

Rule # 3: Friends Before Family

Rule # 3: Friends Before Family

This rule has been a particularly difficult one for me. Both as victim and perpetrator. I am hopeful that having outed this rule, I am well on my way to being a better mother, wife, and friend…

When my father passed away from cancer in 1990, a swarm of people came to his funeral. Of particular note was a passel of tearful young men whom he had taken under his wing in recent years and mentored on the job. It had been his pattern throughout his career to guide the young professionals whose interests he shared and in whom he saw promise or an earnest sincerity. In addition to the grief which accompanied my loss, I felt both pride and sorrow at the best parts of my father so generously bestowed on others.

Our yard was somewhat of an eyesore. My father enjoyed organic gardening when it suited his whim but he was never big on shrub trimming, tree pruning, dandelion removal or other basics of suburban yard care. He was largely spared the censure of our neighbors, however. Though eccentric, he was in many ways generous. Much to the chagrin of my mother, who was periodically found lopping limbs high in the boughs of the fruit trees, on her knees doing surgery on the dogwoods or muscling the push mower over our uneven yard; my father spent his spare time having fun.

My Dad spent his evenings and weekends building enormous Heathkit televisions in the family room downstairs. Dad insisted on commandeering muffin tins and other containers to hold the tiny electronic parts, and he was loath to relinquish them no matter the inconvenience to others. Touching his stuff was punishable, and it was difficult to avoid.

The smell of solder is forever in my nostrils. I can still see the hard, colorful plastic blobs with the little wires sticking out of them. Some of their coverings were slightly chewy. Diodes? Cathodes? Oh, what were they called?! I’m sorry, Dad, I did not inherit your gift for technology, and blobs are blobs. Yes, of course I played with them when you were at work. And it’s a wonder I can write at all given my amusement with the properties of lead solder.

My Dad might have looked like a real martyr if you didn’t know better. His labor could have been a noble or even sacrificial undertaking if it had been part his effort to keep food on the table or save for our college tuition. But in my house, nobody was fooled. We all knew he was having a grand time. He relished tinkering alone after a long day at work. He built the TVs for free and then gave them to our neighbors for the cost of the kit alone. I am not joking. He didn’t clean up after himself either.

My Dad was amazing, really. What he lacked physical strength, he more than made up in intellect, curiosity and confidence. He fixed cars; he fixed wiring; he fixed plumbing. He fixed it all. But only when he wanted to. Which was usually on weekends. And infrequently for us. Our household was boring and routine, and he needed a new challenge. Or perhaps a more appreciative audience.

The “Friends First” rule had other unfortunate variations, as you will see in time.

But I think that is enough serious stuff for the moment. How about I break things up with something lighter next time?

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post click here. For the next post click here.

Don’t Tell Your Father

Don’t Tell Your Father

This rule was a non-starter, and I’m surprised that someone as intelligent as Mom would even try it.

Dad earned the money, and he determined how it was spent. He had a budget for everything, and he expected Mom to keep all expenditures within the limits he had designated. I’m not sure his expectations were always realistic. For one thing, he wasn’t generally the one doing the shopping, so he may not have been aware of what things cost. Secondly, his idea of “need” versus “want” didn’t overlap too well with Mom’s.

If my Dad said the grocery budget was $X for the week, God forbid Mom should go over it. If she couldn’t make ends meet, she was just not being frugal enough, gosh darn it! My Dad had grown up shoeless in Texas on cornbread and beans, and he just didn’t understand her frustration. My Mom claims that we did not, in fact, have chicken and dumplings for dinner ALL. THE. TIME. but that’s how I remember it. Budget food. Blobby homemade flour dumplings swimming in chicken broth with celery, carrot slices, and chicken bits. Gross! I might have grown to like it in time if it hadn’t been such a staple.

Culinary matters were usually not too terribly contentious. Where things got a bit hairy was when it came to clothing. My brother was the youngest child, and he remained completely content with utilitarian items for many years. But my sister and I started realizing that our wardrobe of Sears Toughskins high waters, striped turtlenecks and Keds left a lot to be desired. Other girls had maxis, minis, and go go boots! And then there were halter tops, bell bottoms, and, sigh… Avon!

Mom understood the seriousness of the matter. A girl from the suburbs of D.C., she knew we needed to have a little “something” now and then to make us feel pretty and keep us from feeling like oddballs. Periodically she’d give in to her impulse to buy us some coveted item which had caught our eye. “Don’t tell your father,” she’d say conspiratorially, “It’s our little secret.” We were thrilled! Mom was our heroine! Yay!

Everything was great until Dad went to balance the checkbook and take care of the bills. What was Mom thinking?! Did she really think he wouldn’t notice?

“Carol!”

“Yes?”

“You’ve gone over budget again!”

“Oh my! How could that have happened? I was being so careful!”

And so it went. Dad puffed out like a rooster and Mom eating crow.

Dad used to confide in me that Mom needed his close supervision because she was like a child, and she just might not be bright enough to balance a checkbook. I knew Mom was dumb like a fox.

In her way, my mom was a very powerful woman. She still is. I give her credit. But in time, the words, “Don’t tell your father” caused me to decline the treat. The price was just too high.

This post is part of a series called Family Rules. The prior post is here. The next post is here.

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