Tuesday, August 13, 2019

THE LEGACY OF TONI MORRISON



Many of us Ohioans like to claim, as our own, writer and educator Toni Morrison, who died this past week at the age of eighty-eight. But the fact is that she belongs to the world.
Be that as it may, Morrison was, indeed, born and reared in Lorain, Ohio, a town that forms part of the suburban sprawl of greater Cleveland and that is located about thirty miles west of that great American city. As such, she grew up on the shores of Lake Erie and at the mouth of the Black River. The sights, sounds and smells that first entered her mind and spirit were those of the Great Lakes culture of which Cleveland is a renowned icon.
Nobel and Pulitzer laureate Toni Morrison
To say that Toni Morrison died this past week is actually far from the truth. While she will no longer be delighting and enlightening us with new manifestations of her extraordinary talent, insight and culture, the body of work that she has bequeathed us renders her immortal for the avidly literate. And her life stands as a shining example for all of those who struggle to overcome the culturally imposed barriers of racism, sexism and social ostracism that were so much a part of her writing and her life.
Morrison’s father, George Wofford, moved north to Ohio after two black businessman on his street in Cartersville, Georgia, were lynched by a group white supremacists. Wofford was about fifteen years old at the time and left for Lorain shortly after the murders. Morrison once told an interviewer that her grandparents had been Southern sharecroppers who could neither read nor write. Back then, she said, white people in much of the South could be fined or jailed for teaching blacks how to read and write, so many people of color remained illiterate. As such, and she herself coming from a working class African America family, her hunger for knowledge and education was practically a revolutionary act.
Chloe Wofford (Toni Morrison)  

high school yearbook picture
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, she adopted Catholicism at age twelve. She was given the baptismal name of Anthony, after St. Anthony of Padua, became Chloe Anthony Wofford, “Toni” for short, and the nickname stuck. She married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison in 1958 and had two children by him. She and Morrison divorced in 1964, but she kept his surname.
She was an eager student during her high school days in Lorain. She was on the yearbook staff and the debate team, as well as being a member of the drama club at Lorain High School. After secondary school, she was admitted to the historically black Howard University in Washington DC, before going on to earn her graduate degree from Cornell University. She later returned to the Howard English Department as a professor, before moving on to her career as a gifted editor and writer, as well as educator.
Morrison leaves a rich legacy as a teacher and editor. Would-be writers who benefited from her work Howard and as professor emeritus at Princeton University are surely the better for having absorbed even the tiniest quota of her guidance. And as the first African American woman to hold a fiction editor’s post at the emblematic American publishing company, Random House, she spared none of her meticulous craft and unquestionable genius, in the years from 1967 to 1983, to vastly improve and promote the work of writers of color. Her clients included such names as novelists Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, writer and poet Henry Dumas (whom she called “an absolute genius”), revolutionary political activists Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis, as well as legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, among others.
Morrison's childhood home in Lorain, Ohio.
She literally opened previously locked doors to the publishing industry for numerous black writers and, in doing so, helped spawn a rich new movement in American literature, of which she herself was an eminent exponent. It was while at Random House that her own reputation as a writer of note flourished and grew.         
The important work that she did as a Random House editor focused on black literature as an authentic and rich genre within the vast body of universal literature. She complained that all too often, “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.”
The inevitably shallow question of “why she didn’t write for white people” clearly vexed her, since her books were indubitably universal, voicing the reality of many people of her own race, but also educating whites about the reality of African Americans in the United States. Asked that question in an interview, she once said, “I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you [white people]…If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water.”
But the universality was there! Morrison’s legacy has been bequeathed not only to African Americans, but to America as a whole, and as such, to the world. What is unique about her work is how it has impelled the US to look harder at its history of hypocrisy, bigotry, racism and slavery.
Unlike the angry genius of black writers like Richard Wright or James Baldwin who preceded her, Morrison’s work generates pathos and empathy and does so by simply telling stories in a harshly realistic yet beautiful and compelling way. From stories like her Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved (1987), in which she portrays the desperate plight of mothers whose infants are taken from them and sold into slavery, to her debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), in which an eleven 11-year-old African American girl wants blue eyes so that she can gain the acceptance of a world that caters exclusively to the white majority, Morrison perfectly pictures a reality in which race is a constant and all-pervasive factor, while bringing America as a whole face to face with the travesty of its claims of equality and justice.
Random House days - genius editor.
It wasn’t that the anger wasn’t there for Morrison, it was just that she incorporated it into her own positive philosophy. “I get angry about things,” she once said, “and then go on and work.”
She seemed convinced that great literature couldn’t help but be political. “I think all good art is political,” she said.  “None of the best writing, the best thoughts, have been anything other than that.”
Today, when the current leadership in the United States causes commentators to remind the public daily that “words matter”, Morrison also leaves us with a sage and salient quote. “Oppressive language,” she said, “does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”
In a TV interview, legendary talk show host Dick Cavett asked Toni Morrison if she minded always being touted as the greatest black female writer. She answered that she had no problem being an African American woman writer. Cavett said that he just thought that, as a truly great writer, she might have grown tired of the imposed limitations of those modifiers before the word writer. To which Morrison answered pointedly that all she was tired of was being asked that question.
Quoted elsewhere on the subject, the Nobel and Pulitzer laureate said, “Being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it. It’s richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I’ve experienced more.”
“We die,” Toni Morrison once said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

WINTER IN THE ROARING FORTIES



It has been pouring down rain for three days and three nights non-stop. It’s as if someone unzipped the sky and all the water in the world poured out. Oddly enough, even though everything outside is a soupy, muddy mess, I am grateful. First, because it is raining instead of snowing—although it does occasionally come with snow mixed in but then quickly turns back into rain. Second, because it has been enough rain to finish washing the trees clean of accumulated snow and enough to help melt off part of the twenty inches that were still on the ground from a devastating winter storm a week ago.

Last week was a rough one for the region. The only people grinning were those whose tourist trade depends on the ski slopes of Mount Catedral, located about midway between our house and the town of San Carlos de Bariloche twelve miles away. And even they weren’t all that happy to begin with since the snow storm hit precisely at the start of winter vacation season. With the Bariloche airport shut down due to the snow emergency, thousands of travelers headed this way from Buenos Aires, Brazil and other cities and countries around the world were stranded in the Buenos Aires hub, a thousand miles from here, until the snow let up and the landing strip could be plowed.
To be clear, the seasons here in South America are exactly opposite to those in the Northern Hemisphere. So, weather-wise, June here is like December in the States, July is like January, and so on. We’re now in the midst of our winter season.
No one predicted this big snow. Accuweather’s forecast was for some snow in the high country but only a wintry mix of rain and snow down below, with scant accumulation.
They say that if you don’t like the weather in Bariloche, wait around an hour and it’ll change. But I’ve never found that to be true in the two and a half decades that I’ve lived in the Andean-Patagonian region. The weather may often be surprising. But it seems to me that each stage of the weather moves with agonizing slowness to the next.  Major rains are preceded by three or four-day blows with winds gusting to gale force off of the Pacific on the other side of the mountains. And once it starts raining, especially in late-autumn or early-winter, as well as in the springtime, it can, like now, rain hard for days on end. The most enduring rains that I recall have accompanied the first onslaught of winter, and have lasted as long as twenty days. And in wintertime the rain is occasionally followed by heavy snow.
The same is true when it quits raining. Usually, by late November, the rains are pretty much over until at least March. There are exceptions. Some years you’ll have a damper summer than others, but the norm is very wet winters and very dry summers, although just about anything can happen in between. I can remember one dry season when the rains and snows stopped in October and didn’t return until May. It happened back in the nineties after an unusually wet winter in which we had snow on the ground—sometimes as much as two and a half feet of it—non-stop from June through September. The following spring and summer marked a freakish-bad drought-year for the dense hardwood forests. Centenarian beeches, which require at least twenty-two hundred millimeters of rain a year to survive properly, died by the hundreds. We’re still cutting firewood from some of those dead giants twenty years later.
When new arrivals to the region say—with something like barely muted terror in their eyes—that they never knew it rained so much here, I always tell them that if they can’t stand the rain, they need to move elsewhere. The immense forests, the million and a half acres of Andean woodland national park that surround Bariloche, wouldn’t exist without abundant rain. These are forests so dense and water-dependent that scientists refer to them as “cold rainforests” and they share a lot of characteristics with the tropical rainforests found in the north of Argentina and in neighboring Brazil and Paraguay: abundant ferns, “live” hardwoods, dense cane breaks, and other lush and verdant species.
But despite fairly regular weather phenomena and four distinct and usually recognizable seasons, this remains part of an area of the world that meteorologists call “the roaring forties”. This refers to the latitudes between forty and fifty degrees in the Southern Hemisphere where strong west-to-east currents are stirred up by warm air from the Equator and frigid air from the South Pole, Earth’s rotation, and a scarcity of landmasses to serve as natural windbreaks. As a result, the weather is indeed capricious.
A symbol of this windy region is the “flag tree”—not a particular species, but vegetation that, in the windiest areas of “the roaring forties”, takes on the shape of a flag fluttering in the wind, from having its branches persistently and forcefully blown from west to east as they grow. Also iconic are whacky-weather change ups, usually mountain cold snaps in the warm season of the year, like the time it snowed six inches for my birthday in December, which would be like getting a formidable snow in early June back in my native Ohio. Or like the time I chose summertime as the best time to build a nine thousand-gallon watering tank because it would be warm and dry out, and the workers and I all ended up drinking hot coffee and shivering in our winter jackets because a big wind came and the temperature dipped to near freezing in mid-February, which is like mid-August back home in Ohio.
It’s all part of the intricate climatic tapestry that governs this extraordinarily beautiful region of the world. And if you’re going to make your home in “the roaring forties”, then, you have to be willing to “do Patagonia”, as they say here, meaning that certain hardship is the price you pay for living on one of the last great frontiers of nature.  But sometimes it’s hard to look at these weather phenomena dispassionately and from an objective and realistic point of view. Sometimes, when you’re at your least objective, it seems as if the weather were your enemy and out to get you.
That’s how it felt last week. It was a phenomenon that I’ve only witnessed one other time since I’ve lived here. When it rains a cold hard rain for several days, pushed over the mountains by the wind from the sea. And then, suddenly, the rain changes to a wet, heavy snow, big splotches of snow that, instead of floating down in dreamy flakes, land in fat, sloppy wads that make a slushy thudding sound when they hit the roof. Just as suddenly, the wind stops completely and the snow storm parks above you for the duration.
The snow is too wet to slip from the rough bark of the big trees and there is now no wind to shake it loose from their branches. And so, it accumulates...and accumulates...and accumulates. And you keep thinking that it has to stop any time now, but it doesn’t, it just keeps on coming down and piling more and more weight on limbs and foliage. And then, when it has piled up a foot or more and is exerting a crushing weight on the trees, enormous branches start snapping like twigs and come crashing down. Some trees get top-heavy and tumble over in their entirety.
If you’re lucky, they miss you. If not, they don’t, and it’s all she wrote. This time, the forest showed us its love. It respected our house and vehicles and only slightly damaged one of the woodsheds. But it dropped huge limbs all around us in a night that was a lot like living through a shelling attack.    
By the time the snow stopped, after two unnerving days, over two feet of it had accumulated. It had wreaked havoc with phone and electrical lines and blocked roads everywhere in the immediate region. Then it turned colder and it all froze in place.
That was Saturday and Sunday of a week ago. On Monday, we started venturing out of our dark caves like hunkering animals to assess the damage and to see how to make our way down to the highway and to civilization to acquire fuel and supplies. It took a good half day for two neighbors and me, with my chainsaw, to buzz through and remove enough fallen timber to blaze a trail with my trusty ’95 Toyota four by four Hilux.

I bought this truck used from a mountain guide, but it has been mine since 2001 and I can’t think of any good reason to get a newer one. I’ve had many an offer from guys who wanted to buy it from me and I tell them that barring any prior fatal pickup truck mishap, the Toyota and I will very likely end our days together with a Viking funeral.
So once some timber was cleared and with three neighbors in tow, I dropped the Hilux into all-wheel-drive low and powered through a mile and a quarter of snow-choked mountain road down to the highway, with snow up to the bumper and dragging belly all to way. And then did it all over again, but this time going up instead of down, once we had acquired a stock of provisions and of gasoline for our chainsaws and my generator.
For five days, I generated my own electricity, until the municipal snowplow from Bariloche finally made its way out to us and cleared the mountain road so that the power and light cooperative would deign to venture up from the highway and reconnect us. Bariloche is officially a “sister city” to Aspen. But if you think the services in any way reflect those of America’s winter playground in Colorado, think again.
Electric power lines that long ago should have been placed underground remain aerial and wend their way through dense woodland. A running feud between the electrical coop and National Parks keeps the power company from clearing a strip of land where high and medium tension lines go through. The result is that, as soon as it starts to snow, you can expect to suffer light cuts. And if the snow is heavy, you may well be without power for a week or more. Bariloche is a village, basically in the middle of nowhere, whose population has grown to the size of a city. When I first visited the place in the seventies, its population didn’t reach twenty thousand. Today it’s over a hundred thousand. Infrastructure hasn’t kept pace and municipal services lag far behind demand. A municipal insider told a neighbor of mine that while the city owns eight snowplows, only two or three are ever operable. Since priority is given to keeping open the road to the ski complex on Mount Catedral and to the downtown area, this means that in a major snow emergency, neighbors living outside of the micro-center of town are pretty much on their own.
But this lack of, well, everything tends to make us all a lot more self-reliant. Those of us with four by four vehicles pull out our neighbors and each other. And we clear our own roads when trees are down.
I went to my mechanic’s shop last week to have new contacts placed on my battery cables, but when I arrived, he’d left a message for me to come back the next day. I later found out that since he hadn’t heard from an old friend and client of his for several days and knew the guy lived up in the mountains in a remote area, he tried to call the fellow. When he got no answer, he didn’t hesitate to climb into his truck and make the perilous trip in the snow to the guy’s house. His friend lived up a steep grade on mountain road that hadn’t been cleared. He knew the guy was in poor health, suffering from acute prostitis and a kidney disorder, as well as heart problems, so he was about to attempt to get to the friend’s house in nearly three feet of snow when he saw a provincial highway road grader at work clearing the highway. Mario, my mechanic, pulled up beside the driver, signaled him to stop, and somehow talked him into clearing the mountain road up to the friend’s house.
Mario found his friend holed up with no food, no power, no fuel, no heat and only semi-conscious under a pile of covers, shivering in his bed. He got the guy out of his house and to the hospital where he was checked into the ICU. A few more hours and he wouldn’t have made it. Mario, to my mind, is a hero. Someone who cares. Someone who is always thinking of his friends and clients. Someone who doesn’t stop at worrying, but leaps out of his comfort zone and into the fray, taking charge and doing what needs to be done in an emergency. He’s what it means to be a true frontier Patagonian.
Sometimes I tell myself maybe I’m getting too old for this crap. It’s all too easy to start thinking that way when you’re staring seventy in the face just a few months down the road. But then I realize that I have the privilege of living in a place that doesn’t permit complacence, a place where you have to do certain things just to survive, a place that requires you to stay on your toes and not give in to old age.
In Patagonia, you can’t take living for granted. And, as an old friend who lived to be ninety once said, “It’s a good life if you don’t weaken.”


Sunday, July 14, 2019

REBA MAE – THE TEMPEST – Part Three



There were numerous times when I was a kid that I remember my mother, Reba Mae, demonstrating her deathly fear of electrical storms. I think the reason that this trait stands out in my memory is that, although shy, she never seemed afraid of much of anything. I mean, other than bad weather and driving through the rough South End of nearby Lima, Ohio (where she worked, oddly enough, through much of World War II).
She taught me that I had to stand up to bullies, and throughout the long years in which my father, Whitie, lived through pendulum swings between energetic euphoria and crippling depression, whenever he suffered a decline, she always stepped into the fray and ran his business for him—often for months—until he could get back onto his feet and do it himself. And she always did it with a smile and to the very best of her ability, even if, in private, I sometimes saw her cry.
But storms scared her silly. There was no rationale that would convince her otherwise. When the wind was up, the lightning flashing and the thunder rolling, she panicked.
When I was older, Reba Mae told me that her irrational fear of storms came from a childhood incident and that she was glad she hadn’t passed the phobia on to my sister, brother and me. Indeed, when there were tornado warnings, back when we were teens and she would start pacing the house in the middle of the night, trying to wake up the rest of the family and get us to accompany her to the basement, my sister Darla and my brother Jim would tell her to leave them alone, and I would always mumble, “You go ahead, I’ll be down in a while.” Whitie would just keep on snoring. It was his learned response to everything from fire and floods to riots and insurrection.
Anyway, it seems that when Reba Mae was a little girl growing up in the west-central Ohio countryside, she was out on her pony one humid summer’s day, when cooler air marshalled in a canicular storm of major proportions. She was out in the fields of the tenant spread that her father farmed in Shelby County. The storm came up so fast, with strong gusts of wind, thunder and lightning, and cold sheets of rain, that she had no time to make it back to the house. She could think of nothing better to do than to take shelter under a lone pin oak that stood in the middle of one of the fields.
Now, that pin oak, all by its lonesome in the midst of a field made it the perfect lightning rod, and although it had withstood thunderstorms of every intensity, season after season, for donkey’s years, it picked this particular day to attract a lightning bolt. The fire-bolt hit with incredible, explosive force and split the hardwood tree like some cosmic axe. The expansive force of the explosive blast stunned Reba Mae and her pony threw her and ran off to parts unknown. As soon as she could think straight, she picked herself up and ran for home. She arrived shaken, with ringing ears and soaked to the skin. From then on, it was as if every storm were out to get her. No one could tell her different.
Curiously enough, it was as if some poltergeist were following her around making sure that she was never able to shake that otherwise irrational belief. Indeed, three different TV sets of ours were struck by lightning over the years, until the advent of cable television made that a near impossibility. And the last time it happened, Reba Mae had rushed to unplug our set as soon as she heard the first clap of thunder, but despite that preventive action, the electrical charge followed the TV line in, jumped the breach and hit the plug on the floor before knocking out the apparatus.
I tried to explain to my mother that these things happened because Whitie was a stickler for TV reception and always got our town’s resident TV genius, Tom Cartmel, to install the tallest antenna towers available. The metal-frame towers provided excellent reception, but made our house a high-profile conductor just waiting for a chance to catch a bolt. It was years before Whitie figured out that if you were going to put up an antenna that tall, you needed to have it attached to a real lightning rod buried in the soil so that any lightning that struck would be grounded out instead of following the line into the house. But it was useless. To Reba Mae’s mind, storms were out to get her.    
There was one night in particular that I recall. I was about four at the time. Perhaps that’s why I remember it so well. Maybe because it was the first time I realized how unhinged she became when a storm broke. And that set my own fear aflame, even though when Whitie saw that I was scared of thunder, he had assured me that it was only the cooks in heaven rolling the potatoes around in the bin. It wasn’t until I was a pre-teen that I started going out, much to my mother’s displeasure, and intentionally walking around town in the worst of electrical storms in order to lose all fear of them. In the end, I got so that I actually liked them and found them singularly inspiring.
So on this particular late-summer Friday evening, it was about dusk when a big, loud thunderstorm rolled in, turning it pitch black outside. This was back when the Teddy Bear, a soda fountain and sandwich shop that Whitie and two of his brothers had founded right after the war, stayed open late on Fridays. Whitie wouldn’t get home until after midnight, once he’d finished the clean-up. If he was home, Reba Mae could handle her fear better, but when he wasn’t, it took complete possession of her. Like I say, I was around four and Darla around seven when this happened. We had a TV, one of the first in town, but our mother was afraid to turn it on with all the thunder and lightning. So she sat my sister and I (our little brother wasn’t born yet) down on either side of her on the couch and started reading stories to us from one of the beautifully bound and illustrated Childcraft books in the collection that occupied a shelf in a small bookcase at one end of the living room.
I usually loved it when Reba Mae read to us. She was an excellent reader, who made the stories come alive. But right now, all I could hear was the tension in her voice that had gone suddenly high and thin.  She was halfway through the telling of a story about a little dog with a bone crossing a bridge, seeing his reflection in the water and dropping his bone in the river to bark at what he thinks is another dog with his bone.
It wasn’t a story I particularly liked—I much preferred the one about the stork and the fox—because I always felt sorry for the little dog. I guess I identified because it sounded like something stupid that I might do. After that night, however, I would always identify it with frightening tempestuous weather. Little wonder, since right in the middle of the reading, there was an enormous clap of thunder with rolling aftershocks that shook the house to its foundations. And that was it for Reba Mae. She briskly snapped the book shut and in a voice that was tissue-thin and tremulous, said, “Come on, kids! Let’s go get Grandma and go have an ice cream!” And before you could say Rumpelstiltskin, we were in the car and on the way to Reba Mae’s mother’s house on the other side of town.
Reba Mae, Darla and Danny at Grandma Myrt's
When we arrived, Grandma Myrt was glad, as always, to see us, and, its being Friday, Grandpa Vern was off at the Monkey House playing cards. There was a brief powwow between mother and daughter, and then we were off to Max’s Dairy Bar for ice cream. Max’s, a tiny carry-out frozen custard store on the east side of town, was one of my favorite places on earth back then, which made me feel a whole lot better about the storm. Reba Mae too, evidently, since her fear was assuaged somewhat by being in the company of her mother and by virtue of the fact that Whitie had once told her that you couldn’t be struck by lightning in a car because the tires grounded it out.
Grandma Myrt and Grandpa Vern years later
Even after we finished our wonderful, sweet, soft ice cream treat in lighter than air wafer cones, the thunder was still rolling and fire-bolts splitting the night. So instead of going home, we went back to Grandma’s until time for Whitie to get off work. For Darla and me, it seemed like the middle of the night since it was well past our bedtime. We’d been rousted out in our summer shorts and t-shirts and with the rain the evening had grown cool. Eating ice cream had made us downright cold. Cold enough for our teeth to chatter.
Reba Mae told Grandma Myrt not to go to any trouble, but Grandma said it was no bother, and while she put water on to boil for coffee for them, she spread one of her wonderful patchwork quilts on the front room floor for Darla and me to lie down, and once we had, she covered us each with a warm, scratchy Indian blanket. With the voices of my mother and her mother chatting in the kitchen as background, I drifted into delicious sleep next to my big sister. Had I been able to articulate my thoughts into words back then, the word would have been...safe.    

Thursday, June 13, 2019

REBA MAE—A PORTRAIT Part Two



My mother, Reba Mae, was a stickler for truth. Of the many lessons she drilled into me from as far back as I can recall, the one most often repeated was that no matter what else you might lose in life, losing sight of the truth was the most grave. You were, she told me over and over, “only as good as your word.” And once you had lied and been caught at it, even if you never ever lied again, you would no longer possess your word or your good name as assets you could bank on. Once you broke your word, you no longer had it. It was no longer yours. You had surrendered it to falsehood and falsehood was what you would be known by from that point on.
Reba Mae with her grandmother, Mary
Landis Cavinder, her mother, Myrtle Cavinder
Weber and her little sister, Marilyn, around 
the start of World War II.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf was one of her favorite stories to tell me when I was small, because its moral was a simple truth in itself, namely, that lying had consequences. I’m not sure she was so insistent about the truth with my sister and brother. Maybe she realized how much I loved storytelling and was afraid that I’d develop a penchant for what Mark Twain called “telling stretchers”. My smart-assed little brother Jim once told someone, “If you don’t know something, ask Dan. Even if he doesn’t know the answer, he’ll come up with one that sounds really plausible.”
As an adult, I learned that we all lie in one way or another. The person who claims he or she “never lies” is lying even as they make that statement. We lie when we spare people’s feelings rather than being blunt. We lie when we tell someone that it’s been a pleasure to meet them even though it hasn’t. We lie when we tell someone how wonderful they look when they don’t. We lie when we claim to love a meal that, frankly, we’ve found it hard to swallow. We lie every time we preface a comment with “Let me be frank with you.” Or when we say we’ve had a wonderful time, when the truth is, we’ve been bored to tears. Or when we tell someone to “have a nice day” and don’t really mean it. We lie when we seek to convince someone we know is dying that they’re not. We lie to defuse awkward moments. We lie not to be mean. But mostly, we lie to avoid our own discomfort or embarrassment. And more often than not, we lie to ourselves as well.
Despite making this belated discovery, however, I still got what Reba Mae meant. She certainly didn’t mean that you should be blunt and cruel. She surely wasn’t. But she did mean that promises were sacred. That deliberately lying to save your skin was an unworthy act of cowardice. That lying to make it appear you had knowledge that you really didn’t possess eventually turned you into a fool and a laughing stock. That lying to cause harm to someone else was unforgivable. That lying habitually and perniciously meant that you were unworthy of the respect and trust of others and that you would eventually not know the difference between truth and falsehood. She meant that if your absolute word wasn’t your credo, then you had nothing, no matter how wealthy you might be, because you would have lost your most precious asset—your good name.
Once when my brother and I were both home at Mom and Dad’s house for a visit, while our parents were sitting in the living room watching TV, he and I were sitting at the kitchen table drinking beer—a lot of beer—and reminiscing about some of the crazy things we had done as kids.
At one point, Jim said, “Remember when we rigged up the water balloons over the neighbor’s garage door?”
“Oh wow,” I answered, “I’d forgotten about that completely!”
So we started remembering how it had come about. Typical boys of those times, we were always bosom buddies one day with the boys that lived on either side of us, and feuding with them the next. It was a kind of miniature Game of Thrones in which alliances and treachery played a predominate role, and added a quota of suspense and thrills to our quiet small-town lives.
Anyway, we’d been feuding for a while with one of the kids next door. No idea what it was about and by the next week it had been forgotten, but right then, it was war! We didn’t think of each other’s houses as belonging to our respective parents. The one on the left was Mike and Monty’s house. The one on the right was Joe and Greg’s. Across the field behind our place was the home of my cousins, Mike, Gary and Terry, a block away was my friend Mark’s, and so on. Our parents didn’t come into the equation.
So one day this neighbor kid comes over and soaps the windows of the bedroom my brother and I shared. And another day he lets the air out of my brother’s bike tires. We didn’t have to ask who did it. We knew. But we wanted our revenge to be perfect. A work of art.
So we hatched a plan, and one evening, when we saw the whole next-door family leave in their car, we put it into practice. We found a way to gently stuff a good dozen water balloons (cheap water-filled party balloons that broke if you looked at them hard) up under the neighbor’s rolling garage door. In our theory, it would be the kid who would be asked by his father to raise the door so the car could be driven in, at which time our foe of the moment would be bombarded by bursting water balloons.
But quickly hatched strategies full of baseless presumptions have a way of not working out as planned. It seems the whole family had been attending the viewing of a beloved family member who had just passed away. And for one reason or another, it was the boy’s father—who was wearing his best suit for the occasion—not the boy, who hopped out of the car and flung up the garage door. The engineering part of the plan worked beautifully, even if the victim turned out to be collateral damage. On raising the door, the kid’s father was drenched by the bursting of all twelve balloons.
The man was, obviously, incensed. He pumped his son about whom it could have been and the kid, of course, gave us up. The man came over the next day, still furious, before Whitie arrived home from work. He told Reba Mae he knew it was us and what all he would do to us if he ever caught us in his yard again. Reba Mae asked how he knew it was us and tried to tell him that she couldn’t believe that it was. So she and the man ended up having a yes-they-did-no-they-didn’t discussion that apparently got pretty heated.
When we came in, our mother said, “I want to talk to you two!” And by her tone we knew she meant business. She told us about her discussion with the neighbor man and she said she had better not find out we had anything to do with the caper because she had told the poor man that she was certain that it couldn’t have been us.
We were deeply embarrassed. But instead of fessing up, Jim and I simultaneously put on the most innocent of faces and swore we had no idea what she or the neighbor were talking about. How could she for a second doubt us?
“You’d better not be lying to me,” she said.
“Scout’s honor!” I said.
“Well, just in case, you guys had better stay away from that house for a while. I don’t want to see either of you in that yard, understand?”
We hoped that would be the end of it and that the whole thing would blow over quickly. But then Whitie got home.
Was it us, he demanded to know?
Again we denied knowing anything about it.
So now Whitie started getting hot under the collar. Who did that guy think he was coming over and accusing us without knowing what the hell he was talking about? And where did he get off arguing with Reba Mae about it?
“I’m going over and talk to him,” Whitie said, and Jim and I collectively thought, “Oh crap! Bad idea.” But we went about our business like we had nothing more to do with it, leaving any further discussion in the hands of the adults. It was the neighbor man’s word against ours and we’d made sure no one had seen us. This would be our secret and we’d take it to our grave.
Things escalated. Whitie started having the same yes-they-did-no-they-didn’t conversation with the neighbor that Reba Mae’d had, and when she heard the raised voices and heard Whitie shout, “Are you calling me a liar?” she murmured, “Uh-oh,” and was out the door, since Whitie was notorious for his hair-trigger temper. She had to step between the two men and convince Whitie to go back home, which was no mean feat, and then she again apologized to the neighbor man.
Now, sitting at the kitchen table, laughing about it with my brother, Jim said, “Man, I was so scared Dad would found out it had been us.”
“He’d have kicked the shit out of both of us for sure,” I said.
About the time Reba Mae found out we'd lied to her 30 years
before.
And then we both fell instantly silent because, out of nowhere, Reba Mae was suddenly standing beside us at the table. Now, Jim was in his mid-thirties at the time and I was near forty, but the look on her face had the same chilling effect on us that it would have when we were respectively five and ten.
“So it was you guys who did that!”  It was a statement, not a question. “I swore to that poor man that it hadn’t been you and your father almost got into a fistfight with him over it! You lied to me!
I got the feeling that if the neighbor were still alive, she would have grabbed us each by an ear and dragged us over to his house to apologize.
“Geez Mom,” Jim said, “it was almost thirty years ago!”
“I don’t care if it was three hundred years ago,” she said. “You both lied to me. Swore it wasn’t you. How do you think that makes me feel?”
“Mom,” I said, “give me a break. We were kids. It was a long time ago. And it’s not like we killed somebody or something. It was just a prank, for godsake.”
“I don’t care about that. What I care about is that you lied. You didn’t take responsibility for what you’d done. How do you ever expect me to trust you again?”
There was no convincing her. And we got the cold shoulder from her for a full day after that. Eventually she relented, but it was clear to us that while the incident might be forgotten, it would never be forgiven.
Lyman's, as it looked in the 1930s
Reba Mae was nothing if not a hard worker. It came naturally to her. Growing up on the farm she’d always had chores. She had gathered eggs, helped with the milking, helped her mother in the kitchen. When she graduated from high school she rented her own place, which she paid for waitressing at an iconic local eatery known as Lyman’s Restaurant.
Then, World War II broke out. She was dating Whitie when he was called up and they got married at the end of 1942, just before he was sent to the European Theater for the duration of the war. She wanted a better job, but I’m sure too that she wanted to do something to help the war effort. So she applied for and got a job at a defense plant that is known today as the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center and was known back then as the Lima Tank Depot. Their job at the time was to build tanks and landing craft for the Armed Forces.
Making sure "ducks" were unsinkable
Her credo was, “any job worth doing is worth doing well,” and she strived at whatever endeavor she was involved in to do just that. It wasn’t long before Tank Depot management took notice of this quality in her and made her an inspector. Her job was to make certain that all landing craft were properly sealed so that they wouldn’t sink like a bucket of lead when they hit the water. These were amphibious vehicles known back then as “ducks”. For Reba Mae, like for many other women who worked at the Tank Depot, knowing that their husbands and brothers and boyfriends would be the ones transported into combat in the vehicles they made was surely an added incentive to ensure top quality control.
After the war, when Whitie and two of his brothers opened a sandwich shop and soda fountain called the Teddy Bear, which was to become an emblematic Wapakoneta eatery, Reba Mae made use of her experience at Lyman’s Restaurant to lend a hand, both in food preparation and working the self-service counter. Later, when we kids were all school age and it was clear that a second income was necessary, she worked as a cook in the city school cafeterias, pretty much following the progress through school of my sister and me by working first at the Centennial Elementary School, then at Blume grade school and junior high, and, finally, in the cafeteria of the then-new Wapakoneta Senior High.
I never told her that it was nice to know my mother was just down the hall all day while I was in school. But it was. Even if, as I may have mentioned earlier, her strong sense of ethics never permitted her to treat any of her children with anything like deference over every other kid in school.
My father’s first nervous breakdown when I was five was foreboding of the kind of difficult times Reba Mae would have to face for the rest of her life. But for now, she could still take it in her stride. And even at the worst of times, she never lost her keen sense of humor.

Monday, May 27, 2019

REBA MAE—AN INTRODUCTION Part One



I’ve been an orphan since July 22nd, 2003. I was going on fifty-three when it happened. I guess a lot of people wouldn’t call that being orphaned. But consider for a moment that many people are never prepared for losing their parents, no matter when it happens in life.
Reba Mae - 1941 - aged 18
I think sometimes for expats it can be particularly bad because you don’t get to see your parents often. In my case, once a year if I was lucky and a couple of times it was several years between reunions. Not only does that generate a lot of regrets, but it also means that you tend to freeze your loved ones in time. In your mind they never age. But then they do. And then they die.
I have friends my own age (which I’d rather not talk about) who still have one or both of their parents. If their parents are still well and happy, which some of them apparently are, I admit that I envy my friends that blessing. If mine were alive today, my father would be ninety-seven and my mother ninety-six. People actually live to be that age nowadays, some of them quite well.
My mother Reba Mae died the same year as my father Whitie did. They were both eighty. Reba Mae was the last to go. Whitie preceded her by six months. I can’t be sure, but I think that might have been a kind of pact they had. I mean, they had been together for sixty years. And from the time he was in his sixties, Whitie was always saying that he hoped he went before she did, because he “didn’t know what he’d do without her.”
Hearing that, a stranger might say, “Aw, isn’t that sweet?” But, believe me, that wasn’t the kind of romantic thing Whitie might say just to be sweet. He really didn’t have a romantic bone in his body. At least none where anyone could see it.  Example: One year for Christmas, he got her a lightweight aluminum snow shovel and put it under the tree with a red bow on it. To be fair, that same year he also got her a pretty tweed coat with a Russian black squirrel collar. But...you know.
Lennox School on the Hardin Pike 1933-34 - one of the one-room
 schools Reba Mae attended. That's her, the one with the banana
 curls just in front of and to the right of the teacher. She was 10.

 (Courtesy of WDN and the Linda Knerr Collection) 
Clearly, although Whitie did have a funny sense of humor, whenever his perennial depression let it shine through the clouds for a moment, the snow shovel wasn’t a prank. It was like, “Okay, what’s Reba been wanting? A new coat and, oh yeah, a lightweight snow shovel!”
When my sister Darla, who was about eleven or twelve at the time—and quite precocious—pointed out that a snow shovel for your wife was about the most thoughtless gift she could imagine, Whitie countered that he didn’t see why. She’d been wanting an aluminum one for years. He knew because he’d had to listen to her bitch about how damned heavy the coal shovel was when it was full of snow. So, he indicated, buying her the shovel she wanted seemed to him to show that he was thinking of her.
“Besides, don’t you think the coat I got her’s pretty snazzy?” he wanted to know, “I sure do. That’s a genuine Russian black squirrel collar on it too.”
So no, his talk of wanting to die before she did wasn’t a sweet nothing. It was pragmatic, practical, because when he said he “didn’t know what he’d do without her,” he actually meant that if she weren’t there to tell him where it was, he literally wouldn’t be able to find his ass with both hands.
I’ve written a lot about Whitie over the past few years since his death. Anyone who has read any of those musings knows that my relationship with my father was, to say the least, conflictive. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t love him. On the contrary, perhaps I loved him more than was good for me and struggled with his apparent lack of empathy for me and with never seeming to be able to achieve any perceptible level of approval from him.
Reba Mae, her older brother Gene and their little brother 
Kenny. Country kids.
His importance to me, nevertheless, should be clear from the fact that, although this is supposed to be a story about my mother, I’ve spent a not small part of the first paragraphs of it talking about my father. But that’s not an error. It’s a given, because the all-pervasiveness of his influence on my mother’s life, let alone mine, would be difficult to overstate.
Suffice it to say that his death—and his dying which drew out agonizingly over the course of several years—proved highly traumatic for me. Much more so than I could have imagined, since throughout much of his life and mine, I’d heard him talk a lot about wanting to die, and hearing his successive therapists opine that he was indeed suicidal when at the lowest levels of his half-century struggle with manic depression (or bi-polar disorder as it is described today).
Perhaps this was because his way of facing the inevitable demonstrated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what I had always suspected. Even when his doctors claimed he was suicidal. Namely, that as a suicide, Whitie was a phony. That he didn’t survive long years of combat during World War II because he had a death wish. That when he came face to face with death, when it grabbed him by the throat and sought to choke the life out of him, he latched on and choked it right back, even though he knew it was futile, that he was hopelessly out-gunned. So it was that, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, although they told him they figured he’d be dead in six months, he fought it for four years.
The symbiosis between my parents was palpable to me as a child. Not so much when I was small, but surely by the time I reached my pre-teen years. Despite being the good and loving parent that she was, no one had to tell me by that time that Whitie was Reba Mae’s favorite “child”. Although “favorite” is perhaps not the right term. He was the “child” who most required her help and who most fully absorbed her attention. To my siblings and to me, Reba Mae set the tone for our relationship with her by saying, “I’m not worried about you. I know you’ll always do the right thing and make the right choices, ones that’ll make you proud of yourselves and make your father and me proud of you too.”
Now, we all handled that crushing responsibility in our own way. It was probably toughest for Darla, because she worked hard at being the model daughter, the straight-A student, the best musician, the best she could be, in fact, in every extracurricular endeavor, a popular girl in school as well—a leader. She made it look so easy. But when we became adults she once admitted to me that it had been almost overwhelmingly hard.  
Our little brother Dennis James (or Jim as we called him at home) seemed to have the healthiest attitude. It was like, “Great! It’s all up to me so I’ll do whatever I want.” And boy, did he ever! He literally did it his way practically from the time he was a very little boy. And yet, a lot of the erroneous choices he made, and that lonely feeling of performing on the high-wire without a net, haunted him and caused him great suffering later in life.
For my part, I just mostly muddled through in every respect except my music and my writing. Those were areas where I was in my element, if badgered by self-doubt all the same. Because I took my mother’s demand for commitment and self-governance dead seriously, I was doing that high-wire act from the outset, and always with the nagging feeling that I was screwing it up. That I would, ultimately, fall from grace, and let everybody down. Those self-doubts and constant misgivings turned me into a fiercely independent and often secretive and taciturn teen—a stage when one of my favorite pop songs was Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock (I am an island)”. If I was screwing up, I was doing it in private and without asking for help from anybody.
This was the exact opposite of how I had been as a little boy, when I drove my mother nuts with my worrying about every little thing and constantly asking her if I was making a mistake, being bad, endangering my health, sinning, and so on. She had trouble recognizing me as a teenager. And although I’d driven her to distraction as a worry-wart kid, she wouldn’t have minded having that kid back again, I’m sure, from the time I was thirteen or so.  
The month of May always brings back Reba Mae to me more than any other time of the year. First there’s Mother’s Day, and then, a few days later, on the sixteenth, her birthday. It’s a time when I try to remember her out of context, as if she were nothing to me. In other words, without seeing her in the reflection of my own passions and biases.
Reba Mae (right) with her parents (left)
and siblings, Gene (rear), Ken and Marilyn
Although I’ve always been a storyteller, I think my mother’s death was the first time that, in a flash, I could see a person’s life from start to finish, and realize that each individual’s time on earth is just that—a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. In between, there might be rising action, climax and denouement before the inevitable end. Or there might be an anthology of short stories, a sort of life storybook, with a series of beginnings and endings, comings and goings before the last page is written and read. Or in some cases, a life will seemingly flat-line from beginning to end and barely make a ripple. But in those cases, I always suspect there is some underlying secret that no one else will ever know, but that piques, like nothing else, the curiosity of writer types like myself.
Reba Mae was a very internal person. Her younger sister Marilyn once described that as a trait of the Weber side of the family. What she actually said was, “We Webers are all a bunch of tight-lipped krauts.” But in Reba Mae’s case, I could sometimes see a glimmer of her rich inner world, into which she never intentionally let anyone, and especially not Whitie. That was where she lived in the quiet moments. It was her survival mode. Since although she sought to keep it simple on the surface, she was a highly cerebral woman.
Given half a chance, Reba Mae could have been just about anything she wanted to be. She was intelligent, creative, curious and witty. She was also beautiful, a real knockout when she was young. But she was also almost pathologically shy in her younger years, and under-confident throughout most of her life.


Reba Mae's maternal and paternal families: 
(Left rear) paternal grandparents Salome (Leninger) 
and John Weber, followed by her maternal grandfather 
Job Cavinder, and by her father Vern Weber. 
(Middle row left to right) Maternal grandmother 
Mary Landis Cavinder, holding Reba,and Reba's mother's 
sisters, Edith, Flossie and Ruth. Kneeling, her mother's 
brothers, Jesse and Ivan, who is holding
Reba's brother Gene
Because she was so beautiful and intelligent, her shyness was often mistaken for haughtiness. Nobody could understand why such a gorgeous and very apparently smart woman would have anything to be under-confident about. So when she lowered her head and walked by somebody like she hadn’t noticed them, some people took offense and described her as “stuck up”. It wasn’t until they got to know her a little that they realized her reluctance to engage was all about not knowing why anybody would be interested in talking to her, so best not to make them feel obliged to say hello if they didn’t want to.
Reba Mae's father, Vern Weber
Reba Mae was the daughter of a tenant farmer. My grandfather, Vern Weber, was the son of immigrants. His parents were Germans from the Alsace Lorraine. My mother would sometimes reflect that it made her sad to think of her grandmother, because the only thing she could remember was that her Grandma Weber was an unhappy woman who never smiled.
They had a small farm of their own near the village of Glynwood in west central Ohio. When Grandpa Vern first married my grandmother, Myrtle Cavinder, who herself grew up on a farm near Jackson Center, he built them a bungalow on his father’s property, figuring he would one day inherit the farm. Instead, when his parents died, according to my mother, the farm went to a couple of old bachelor uncles. It caused bad blood in the family and apparently had something to do with Grandpa Vern’s sister, to whom he didn’t speak for twenty years or more.
Long story short, my grandfather ended up working as a tenant farmer within the farmland empire of another German immigrant, Charles Herbst. He worked three different farms for Herbst in Shelby and Auglaize Counties before eventually moving to the Auglaize County seat, Wapakoneta, my home town, once my mother and her older brother Eugene reached high school age.
Egg money helped make ends meet.
So, Reba Mae spent her childhood in the countryside. She grew up during the Depression, so times were tough. But thanks to the fact that they lived on farms, her family always had enough to eat. And between the thirty dollars a month that Herbst paid for living expenses, the money my grandmother made selling eggs and a small share of the crop harvest and dairy production, as well as my grandfather’s skill as a small-game hunter, they managed to make ends meet.
But until her family moved to town, Reba Mae never lived in a house with electricity or running water. She attended the one-room schoolhouse nearest to whichever farm they were living on and did her homework by the light of a coal-oil lamp. School was always at least a mile away and she either walked it or rode her Shetland pony. The homes she lived in always had an outhouse, a hand pump in the kitchen sink and a woodstove for cooking and heating. The one modern convenience was always a telephone, a wall-type device that featured a crank-operated ringer box with a fixed mouthpiece and a detachable cone-shaped audio handset.
That life instilled my mother with an inherent love of animals and nature in direct conflict with a distaste for any and all things “rustic”. Although she deigned to live in a cabin at the Buckeye Rustic Resort on Lake Manistee in Michigan for a week’s vacation once a year, that was the limit of her stomach for life in the wild. While she was frugal and unassuming as an adult, she wanted every comfort and modern convenience money could buy...including a lightweight aluminum snow shovel.
(To be continued)