Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tour of Homes – Recent Flashbacks

  • Caption - A bit of Wapakoneta skyline: The Courthouse, St. Mark's Church, the back of the Fire Department. Winter 2009.

Earlier this year, I returned to my hometown. It was the first time in three years that I had been back and the first in six years that I didn’t go back specifically to pay my last respects to yet another loved-one.

It was also the first time that the only thing tying me to that town were my memories, and I knew as soon as I saw it again that I needed to hang around for a few days and reclaim it, grab a bit of soil in my hands, walk the streets, tour old haunts, smell the air, remember things, because from the moment I checked into a motel on the edge of town, like any passing tourist might have, the whole adventure felt way too much like “The Twilight Zone”.

My father surrendered to a four-year battle with lung cancer in January of 2003. Argentina, particularly Patagonia, where I now live, is so far from, well, everything, that it’s not as if I can just pick up and rush to Ohio whenever there is a family crisis and I’ve always felt bad and guilty about that. It was a big load on my sister and brother and particularly on our mother, Reba Mae. I should have been there.

Jim, my younger brother moved back from Saint Louis where he had lived and worked for many years. He was kind of ready for someplace else. Fairly recently divorced but hardly resigned to it, he had also quit a long-standing job as a regional manager for a national music store chain and was sort of at odds with his life and himself. He wanted to come back “home”.

In retrospect, I don’t know if that was the best thing for him. But there are times in life when you go with your gut. So he left Saint Louis, traded the Mississippi River for the “mighty” Auglaize – the river of our alma mater – and went back to Wapakoneta to stay with Mom and Dad and lend a hand. My sister, Darla, made the three-hour trip down from Cleveland as often as she could as well, which helped take some of the load off of our little brother, but he was there the whole time for Mom and Dad and bore the brunt of it all.

I did what I could, got back three times during the four years that Dad was ill and stayed nearly a month each time. Somehow it just didn’t seem like enough and probably wasn’t. Despite the sorrow of watching our father slowly waste away, however, those trips were good. My sister, brother and I reconnected as a family and all felt closer than we had in years. My father and I worked out some old issues and were able to express our love for each other. And my brother and I deepened the friendship we had rekindled from the time we were middle-aged, but this time one-on-one, since, as I say, he was divorced and my wife had stayed behind in Patagonia on these trips. So my little brother and I did the things we had never done together in our youth because of what back then had been a big age difference of five years between us.

Now, we went on some nature hikes and long walks together, hit all of the local watering holes, did some shopping, played euchre with our sister and her boys while we got quietly drunk together, and mostly just talked. About anything and everything. About how we felt, about our lives, our parents, our relationships, how we took being – suddenly, it seemed – sort of upper-middle-aged. Even about how now, aged forty-something and fifty-something, the five years between us were meaningless, when once they had seemed like an impossible gap to span.

After Dad died, I went back and spent a month with Mom. Darla was really busy at the time and could only manage to get down from Cleveland a couple of weekends to visit. But Jim and I spent time together just about every day.

He was trying something different. He had become partners with a high school friend of his in a business selling and installing upscale kitchen cabinetry. Since I know my way around a carpentry shop, I tagged along on a couple of the big jobs while I was home, mostly to lend muscle for loading and unloading the truck, manhandling the cabinets into place and holding them firm while Jim’s partner did the fitting and fastening.

It was fun and even a little exciting to work with my brother that couple of days. It made me think how nice it would be if we lived close enough to work together, how great that feeling of being both family and friends was, how much I truly enjoyed his company, how much I admired him for the good and honest man that he had become. I thought how I enjoyed riding in his pickup with him the forty miles north to Findlay where he had his shop, getting a donut and coffee together, sweating the heavy crates off the dock onto the truck, unloading and unpacking on the building site – he, his partner and I working seriously and well all day – taking time out for lunch, a coffee break, a couple of laughs, stopping off for beers on the way back home at the end of the day. It was simple and pleasant, because Jim and I liked each other and got along as friends as well as loving each other as brothers.

Our time with Mom – Jim’s, Darla’s and mine – was strange. Mom wasn’t herself. That’s really the best way to describe it. Jim and Darla both put it down to grief. She and Dad had been together for 60 years. It was natural, they said. But I was sensing more than that. Perhaps because I was coming from so far outside, so far away. The changes in her had been gradual for my sister and brother because they had spent a lot of time with her while Dad was dying. But for me, the difference was clear-cut, like night and day. This was more than plain grief. It was something distinct, something decisive.

I knew she had been through a lot. Dad had toughed out the cancer. He had always been competitive and when the doctors said they figured six months to a year was the likely progression for the type of cancer he had, it had pissed him off. Three years after he was supposed to have been long dead, he was still looking the white-coated fortunetellers in the eye and asking, “What next?”

Lung cancer is a cruel illness and toward the end he was doing a lot of morphine. It didn’t sit well with him and he acted strangely. Mom would place his food on the table in front of him and he would say, “What’s this?”

“That’s your supper, Honey” she would say, placing his knife and fork in his hands.

He would look at the silverware in his fists and say, “Well, what the hell am I supposed to do with these?”

It must have been trying, and certainly exhausting.

Once Jim said he had received a desperate call from her.

“Your father’s backing up all over the house.”

“Backing up?”


“What do you mean, Mom, by backing up?”

“Just what I said. Norm’s walking backwards all over the house.”


“How should I know? If I knew, I wouldn’t be calling you. I’m afraid he’ll fall down the basement stairs or something.”

So Jim left work early and drove the forty miles down from Findlay to Wapakoneta in under half an hour and strolled in through the back door of the house to find Mom sitting at the kitchen table with a half-cup of cold decaf in front of her and the ol’ man, sure enough, walking backwards around the living room with the remote control in his hand, as if searching for someplace to parallel park so he could watch some TV.

Jim walked up to him quietly, gently, like you might do with a skittish horse and, by way of greeting, said, “Hey Dad.”

“Hey Jim,” the ol’ man said back.

“How’s it going?”

“Not s’bad.” And then after a little pause, “Better than the friggin’ alternative.”

Dad backed up toward the couch, aimed the remote and turned on the TV set. Then he just stood there, still pointing the thing at the screen.

“So tell me, Dad,” Jim said gently, “uh, what’s up with this reverse gear thing?”


“What’s the deal with this walking backwards thing?”

Dad look away from the TV at Jim with an expression that held something like suspicion and said, “What d’you mean?”

“Well, uh, you’re walking backwards…”

Dad looked down at his feet and back at Jim and said, “Wuh, how the hell d’you want me to walk?”

So Jim stood up, placed his arm lovingly around the ol’ man’s skinny waist and, as if this were the most normal thing in the world, patiently gave him some walking lessons, walked him all over the house, around the living room, up and down the hallway, as if he were teaching him the steps to a new dance. And after that, the ol’ man could walk just fine again.

Then Dad sat down to watch TV and Jim smiled at Mom and she smiled back and mouthed the word “thanks”. But the whole thing was really heartbreaking.

We all hoped that after Dad was gone Mom would have a few good years to enjoy in relative peace. The ol’ man had been nothing if not careful with his money. There were investments, a couple of properties, insurance, and as frugal as she was, she could live out her days without having to worry about finances.

But Dad had talked her into retiring when he did and so, for the last 15 years or so, her sole occupation had been seeing to him, taking care of him, responding to his every whim. And in the last four years, she had become his live-in nurse and care-taker. Now with him gone, she literally didn’t know what to do with herself. She had always been a prodigious reader – fifty books or more a year. And she had enjoyed going out to eat, going to the local spa, shopping with her younger sister, traveling to Florida for the winter each year. But suddenly, nothing seemed to interest her.

I started working on her, giving her pep talks, telling her that her life was all hers now, to do with as she pleased. She could travel, take a cruise, sell the condo in Florida and go wherever she wanted, a different place every few months, all the places she wanted to see. She could go with friends or on her own, go to Phoenix, the Bahamas, Europe. She could come down and visit me in South America. Stay as long as she wanted. Hey, there was an idea! Why didn’t she come spend some time with Virginia and me? And she would seem to be listening, would get an attentive – if distant – look on her face, but she wouldn’t respond.

“Mom,” I would say, “you can do anything you feel like doing. You know that, right? You have the chance, the means, and the right to do whatever you darn please! Take up painting again, open a little shop of some kind, anything at all.”

I tried to get her to write down her feelings, a journal that would be only hers. Start out writing about the weather, which, country girl that she was, had always interested her. And then write about whatever came to mind – thoughts, memories, people, places, sort of like word snapshots.

Finally, one day as we were coming back from eating out in the city of Lima, fifteen miles north of town, she asked me to pull over and let her take the wheel. “If you keep chauffeuring me around,” she said, “I’m going to forget how to drive.” So as we drove along through the still barren, tired-looking, late-winter landscape of rural central Ohio, I started my spiel again. How she should start thinking about getting out, traveling, going places, doing anything active at all. She could, I reminded her again, do anything she wanted to.

To my surprise, she said, “I can, can’t I? I really can do whatever I want.” Then she paused pensively and said, “The problem is that I can’t find me anymore.” She waited for a response and when she didn’t get one, she glanced over at me and said, “Y’know?”

“Not exactly, Mom, what do you mean?”

“It’s hard to explain. It’s like, I’ve lived you’re father’s life for so long that I’ve actually become him. I mean, I’ve been Norm for such a long time now that I can’t find Reba anymore.” She glanced my way again. “Does that make sense?”

“Sure it does, Mom. But that’s why you have to start doing something about it.”

She avoided the topic from then on, however, and no matter how many times I suggested she come spend some time with my wife and me in Argentina, she changed the subject. Shortly before I was to return to South America, I stepped up to the plate again.

“Tell you what,” I said, “in November or December, when it starts getting cold up here and warm down there, I’ll fly up here and get you and we’ll both travel down to Argentina together. How does that sound?”

She turned to me, then, took my shoulders in her hands the way she had when I was a kid and she was about to give me a stern talking-to, locked her eyes on mine and said, “Look, Danny, get this through your head, because I’m only going to say it once: That’s not going to happen!

This was March. She fell ill in May and died in July, just seven months after Dad. So I was back again for the funeral and stayed over a month with my brother and sister, straightening out all of the legal questions of our parents’ deaths, the will, sale of their house, what to do with their belongings, a sad difficult time, but also one in which the three of us grew even closer than before.

As we took care of clearing the house and getting it onto the market we also spent a lot of time remembering how it had been growing up together. We went through old photo albums and had some laughs, and cried together and did a lot of comfort eating and drinking together. We talked about how strange it was to suddenly be the older generation, to no longer be anyone’s “children”, to suddenly be disconnected from our town and childhood.

But once we got through it all, there was a kind of relief, to feel that nothing like this was probably going to happen again for a very long time. Now we would get back to our own lives with the happy thought that we would probably have lots of opportunities to enjoy each other’s company in the future.

Nevertheless, our parents’ dying changed things. Changed the permanence that we had once perceived. Both Darla and Jim talked about coming down to South America for a visit. Darla did. The first time in the more than thirty years I had been an expatriate. And we had a great time vacationing together in Buenos Aires, Río Negro, Chubut, southern Chile. She told Jim that he just had to do it too.

But Jim had issues. A new relationship that had gone bad. A partner who ran the business into the ground and left him stuck holding the bag. A decision to pull up roots again and move down to Mom and Dad’s condo in Florida. A monumental effort to change something, everything about his life, to start fresh and get happy again. He got a new job, made new friends, tried new things, but nothing seemed to click. Then his girlfriend came down, moved in, spent six months, decided it was over for her – when he had thought it was forever – and left as suddenly as she had come.

We talked often. Long phone conversations…hours long. He kept trying to start over, find something to get excited about, but he couldn’t seem to tear loose from his sorrow and loss – Mom, Dad, his faltering friendship with his business partner, the relationship with his girlfriend gone sour, it all got him down and he couldn’t seem to get back up.

That December, two years after Dad and Mom died, he called me to wish me a happy birthday. I said, “Do yourself and me a favor and come down for a visit. No, not a visit, a stay. Just stay as long as you like, a month, a year, the rest of your life. But come now! Maybe we can start a business together, bring tourists down from Ohio…I don’t know, whatever. But we’d be together.”

He was quiet. Then he sighed and said, “I am going to come down. Honest, Big Bro’. I’ve got my spanking new passport right here by the phone. But I just started this new job and wouldn’t have much time right now…”

“Leave it,” I said. “Leave the job. Come down here and we’ll figure out something else to do together.”

He sighed again. “Look, Dan, I’ll be down this year, don’t worry. But I’m going to go next June when I’ll have more time.”

That was December 9th. On December 12th, he died in his sleep. He was 51.

So anyway, as I say, this year, three years after Jim’s funeral, I was back in town again. The excuse was that everything had happened so suddenly that Darla and I hadn’t had a chance to arrange for some sort of monument for him, but the truth was that I needed to go back to my hometown again, browse among my memories for a while and come to terms with my past. At age 59, it was high time.

(To be continued)