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) 


Saturday, April 27, 2019

BACK TO THE FOREST PRIMEVAL—PART TWO



Cured by electrocution, the arrhythmia was over with and I regretted not having done this ten years before, instead of living a decade of uncertainty in which one day, I would feel just fine and the next I was tired and weak, with my heart hammering out of time and in wild syncopation.
Now I was good as new and took advantage of my renewed health to improve the quality of my hikes along the mountain road leading up to our rustic neighborhood from the highway. I was back up to a couple of miles nearly every afternoon and was feeling great. I was also ready to start hiking in the forest again.

When I speak of the forest, I’m not talking about the bucolic rural woodlots that I hiked and hunted with my grandfather when I was a boy, back in Ohio. Those were what my Grandpa Vern referred to as “clean woods”, meaning that most of the underbrush had been cleared and that a lot of the trees were second-stand timber, although there were indeed, I recall, some really impressive Ohio hardwoods—oak, pin oak, elm, hickory, sugar maple, and star gum, among others. And they grew on the largely flat surface of the west-central Ohio landscape, which made for relatively easy hiking.
This piece of natural native Patagonia forest for which I am the private warden is as different as night and day from those woodlots back home. It features towering trees and dense underbrush that, even where it permits you passage, snatches at your clothes and skin, and in places, completely blocks your path—unless you take the precaution of carrying along a machete—with impossible tangles of dog rose, blackberry, Spanish broom and thorny scrub surrounding wall-like islands of canebrake. It is also topographically challenging, with steep slopes, deep ravines and soaring crags. It was wonderful to be back there again, although, for the moment, when I first returned, I stuck to the logging trails that my assistant and I have kept open throughout the years in order to gather and truck out firewood.
But then, less than five months after my arrhythmia had become nothing more than an unpleasant memory, I had a really stupid accident. I slipped on the ice and free-fell six feet into our patio, landing on a rock, breaking a rib and puncturing a lung. I won’t go into detail. I talked about the experience thoroughly here at the time:http://southernyankeewriter.blogspot.com/2018/08/brush.html  
Suffice it to say, however, that I didn’t realize I was having massive internal bleeding until too late and nearly bled out. It had reached the point that when I was in the ambulance slipping from consciousness for the umpteenth time in several hours, and just after I overheard the rescue worker who was with me in the back of the vehicle tell the driver to step on it because he couldn’t find my pulse anymore, I remember thinking, “This is way easier than I always thought. You just close your eyes, go to sleep and don’t wake up anymore.”
Recovery from this really idiotic mishap has turned out to be quite prolonged, and I’m still not a hundred percent cured. But I’m doing about a thousand percent better than I was at first when fluid in my atrophied right lung made me feel like I was drowning whenever I had to climb an even moderately steep incline. Since then, I’ve gotten back, little by little, to taking my afternoon walks with my wife the two and a half miles down to the highway and back up to our home. At first she had to patiently wait while I gasped for breath every hundred yards or so on the inclines. But lately I’ve had to stop less and less and have been breathing ever freer.
So much so that, in recent weeks, I’ve finally returned to tasks that I’d had to suspend and delegate, like gathering, sawing and splitting firewood, a job I’ve always enjoyed and that has helped keep me in shape, since we need about eight or nine cords of wood a year to survive the cold season. As such, I’ve also returned to “the forest primeval”.
At first it was like sneaking into a place where I didn’t seem to belong any longer. Everything looked strange and overgrown. But little by little, the familiarity of it came back. For all intents and purposes, as its warden, it’s as if the property belongs to me. And that made my return a little like in certain of my dreams when I’ll walk through a door into a vast and amazing landscape and suddenly come to the realization that it was there all the time and mine to explore and enjoy.
This seventy-odd-acre forest is wild and uninhabited, but I know it from top to bottom and from side to side, so many years have I been walking and protecting it. Except for the occasional intruder or my assistant Daniel and his son Matías, I’m usually all alone here. And this is why, as much as a place like this can, it feels like mine, or at least like I’m borrowing it for as long as I can, or for as long as I live.
I feel a pang of sadness for this year that I’ve lost. I love this forest and have, literally, fought for it on occasion. But then I tell myself that I’m lucky to be coming back at all—lucky, in fact, to be alive. So I start walking my old rounds again, checking for intruders’ tracks, trying to detect places where standing timber might have been cut, looking for holes in the perimetric fencing, while making mental notes of where fallen deadwood is down so as to come back later with my truck and chainsaw to cut it up and haul it home for fuel.
There’s more of an excuse than ever to linger here, since, right now, I’m in charge of a new fencing project. This involves nearly six hundred sixty yards of new chain-link and barbed-wire fence in a place where it was never necessary before. It’s the boundary between “my” forest and the property of the late former Nazi SS Captain Eric Priebke.
Priebke had lived a quiet life in Patagonia after escaping to exile in Argentina following World War II and was a respected community leader in Bariloche, the ski town located twelve miles from my home. He had never tried to hide his identity and it wasn’t until he was already elderly that new interest in him was raised when US newsman Sam Donaldson did an exposé on him, identifying him as the officer in charge of the Ardeatine Massacre in Italy during World War II.
Donaldson even traveled to Bariloche, looked up the former SS officer and interviewed him. As he had been all his life, Priebke proved open and unrepentant—except regarding the two people he himself had executed to show how it was done and who he said still haunted him. He had been following orders, he indicated, and, in his memory, the 335 people he and his men had slaughtered were “terrorists”, not innocents. He ended up being arrested by Interpol, fifty years after the fact, and extradited to Italy, where, after a four-year process of appeals and trial, he was eventually convicted of war crimes. He died in captivity, in Italy, aged one hundred, in 2013.
Anyway, after Priebke’s arrest, we very seldom saw his family out this way anymore, so the visible face of the property was Don Pedro, the caretaker, with whom I became friends. Late last year, however, someone evidently leased the land from the Priebkes to open a nautical club, since, both their land and the land I administrate open onto a broad strip of lake front. The internal roads on the Priebkes’ property were broadened and a lot of brush cleared. This left the southeast boundary of “my forest” vulnerable, and we started to see cross-border paths being hacked open in the dense thicket.

I decided to nip the problem in the bud before there began to be unauthorized camping and campfires and furtive pilfering of green trees for posts and fallen trees for firewood. I have an excellent relationship with the Buenos Aires investment firm that owns the land, so I contacted them requesting funds, and within a week, we were clearing a work-path along the property line and I had called in a surveyor to properly mark the fence-line.
There are only two ways to get to that boundary line—from the highest point on the land and from the lowest. Entering from the highest means plunging immediately into dense thicket and woodland. It’s a place that lives in almost constant twilight and where your perspective is short-range and intimately in contact with soaring hardwoods from which you often can’t get back far enough to see their tops.
The native forest is interspersed with compact patches of exotic Douglas fir—known locally as Oregon pine—that thrives in this mountain soil. It has been seeded in parts of the woods by the wind and birds that have carried it from the property that borders on the other side of this one, and that houses a now defunct hotel, built in the late nineteen-forties when this was all still part of Argentina’s first and largest national park. Back then, not nearly as much was known about preserving native species and the European descendants who created the hotel grounds catered to their Alpine and American nostalgia by planting pine, and sequoia among other types of exotic trees, with no clear knowledge of or regard for how they would propagate. There are now some magnificent specimens of these trees, and anyplace that any native trees are cleared, the firs seem to be just waiting to take over.
Argentine preservation purists detest these non-native species and see them as a plague. But I take them without prejudice and consider myself fortunate to be able to enjoy both the native woodland and the groves of Douglas fir that remind me of visits to the pine forests of Michigan when I was a boy and those of Germany when I was in the Army.
Approaching the southeast boundary line from the lowest part of the forest is a completely different experience. In this case, I enter by the main gate. There is an internal road, covered in grass and leaves,  that plunges headlong into the woods, rises and curves to the west, and then descends sharply parallel to the lake, which is on the other side of a wooded ridge, hidden from view. The road snakes east, then west, then almost straight south through pine and beech forest, and, finally, further downward to the lowest point on the property. This is a marshy area known locally as a mallín—grassy, spongy lowlands that are pleasant, flowered meadows in the spring and summer, and that turn to boggy swamps in late fall and winter when the rains come.
Entering the mallín after almost a year of not getting back this far into the forest, I recall the first time I came to this sector so many years ago. You emerge suddenly from one of the darkest parts of the woods, into an immense clearing. The feeling then and now is like standing in the nave of a roofless cathedral, the tall spires of towering hardwoods on high-rising hills all around. These are southern beeches, a live species that, despite the snow that often blankets the area in winter, never loses its leaves. There’s another species, often called the Patagonian beech, that grows higher up in the mountains (elevations of above two thousand seven hundred feet), and that loses its leaves in winter after treating spectators to a color show of brilliant reds.
Standing here now, it has only been a few days since the iconic Notre Dame de Paris burned, destroying a millennium of architectural splendor. In one of the newscasts about the fire, I heard experts say that there were no longer trees large enough in France to reproduce the beech-wood beams that had held up the structure of that great cathedral for centuries. I scan the wide circle of tall beeches surrounding me now on every side. It is a veritable and breathtaking natural cathedral, and for the time being at least, I have the privilege of being it’s grateful congregation of one.