Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tour of Homes 3 – Home away from Home

  • Caption: L-R - Jim, Darla and Dan, in the '90s at the Newland family home on Kelly Drive.
As shopping sprees go, I’ve had better. My sister Darla and I were in the market for some type of monument to mark our younger brother Jim’s passing.

We had been talking about this ever since his sudden death three years before. At the time we had both been in a kind of prolonged state of shock. Our brother – whose name was Dennis James and who was known to us as Jim and to his friends as Dennis – had been one of those guys who are always looking for a good time. He loved life, took his play-time as seriously as his work and liked to party. He looked young for his age. In his mid-forties he could easily have passed for late thirties. When he was unattached after his second divorce, if we were out having a drink together and he struck up a conversation with the barmaid, waitress or some other young woman in the places we frequented, I would always interrupt when he started to introduce me and say I was his “uncle”. I didn’t want to cramp the guy’s style, since I knew I looked fifteen – rather than five – years his senior.

He was always dressed to the nines no matter what the occasion was and he was slender, athletically built and clean-cut. He was a long-distance runner – rather than a jogger – much of his life and although he was a light smoker and enjoyed his beer and Jack Daniels, he couldn’t have looked healthier if he had tried.

  • Caption: Fun guy. Above: A door glass decoration reminds Jim of a "mic" and he spontaneously breaks into song. Below 'bumper-car' fun with friends.

    He had a whole philosophy about the balance of things. I recall once when I was visiting him in St. Louis, where he was regional manager for Camelot Music, he and I had gone for an afternoon jog together and when his then-wife got home she found us both, still in our sullied sweats, sitting at the kitchen table with a six-pack of cold Miller long-necks on the table-top between us and each with a cold one in his fist.

  • Caption: Time out! Jim gets in a little fishing.

“What, you guys go run and then do this?” she said, obviously peevish, pointing at the beers.

Jim grinned, held up his well-chilled brew and said, “Nope, we go run soooo we can do this. Here, have one yourself and chill out.”

Truth be told, my life of tough deadlines, night work, and a tendency toward overweight, as well as toward often self-abusive habits surely must have made most of the people who knew us think that I would die long before him. I was certainly a better candidate for sudden death than he was and my life as a newsman had not infrequently put me in situations where I could easily have died of something other than natural causes. In fact, when I called Pastor Rick Bell at our parents’ church to tell him that Jim had passed away and that he would have wanted his funeral to be in the Methodist Church in our home town and would have wanted him, Rick, to officiate, the preacher got confused, was convinced that he was talking to Jim and that it was I who had died. I realized this when he said, “Where did it happen, here or in Argentina?” Jim had never been out of the States in his life, except when he was sixteen and visited me for ten days in Germany, with our parents, while I was on a tour of duty with the US Army.

So Darla and I were not only in a profound state of grief, but also of shock. All of the grisly details and befuddling bureaucracy did, however, help us come to grips with reality, by chucking us headlong into it. Jim had been living for about a year in the Ocala, Florida condo that had belonged to our late parents. I had spoken to him three days – apparently – before he died and he had seemed fine, if depressed because of some things that were going on is his personal life. Five days after that, Darla received a call from the Marion Country Sheriff’s Detectives saying that Jim had been found dead in the apartment and that they were investigating. Jim had listed Darla, in some papers they found, as next of kin.

Darla flew down from Cleveland and I flew up from Argentina immediately. We checked into the nearby Silver Springs Holiday Inn and for the next ten days, the hotel became our home and the Denny’s attached to it, our dining room and office. Since Jim had died alone and his body had been in the condo a couple of days before it was discovered by a friend and neighbor, the police had to treat the place as a potential crime scene.

The friend had been calling him because he had missed a meeting of the condo board of which they were both members. After several calls she got a little worried, but jokingly – because it seemed unthinkable enough to be funny – said in her last message, “Dennis, this is the third or fourth time I’ve called. If you don’t answer this message, you had better be dead.”

The body had to be turned over to the Medical Examiner. A positive ID had to be done using dental records. A complete autopsy had to be performed. The deceased’s next of kin had to be questioned separately by detectives. The apartment had to be gone over for evidence, etc.

When it was my turn to talk to the detective in charge, he asked me a lot of typical detective questions: Did my brother have any enemies? Did he live alone? Did he have any known illnesses? Was he an alcoholic? Did he use drugs? And so on and so forth. Then he said: “Mr. Newland, we have to investigate, but I’ve seen a lot of corpses in my life and bodies tell you things. For me, your brother’s was a case of sudden death. I don’t think he even had time to react. I think he just had a heart attack or stroke, died instantly and fell over to the left on his bed the way we found him.” Then he added: “The Medical Examiner’s got the corpse. We’ve positively ID-ed him by his dental records. You and you sister have a right to see him but I’m suggesting you don’t.”

So after the detectives and the crime scene cleanup team were done with the condo, Darla and I started the grueling task of going through Jim’s personal effects and papers and getting a lawyer to handle his estate, while we waited around for the coroner to be done with our brother’s body and to hand it over to us. This all happened starting on December 14, and no amount of pestering could make the Florida Medical Examiner hurry things up. But finally, in a dead heat with the Christmas holiday, the body was turned over to the funeral home we had contracted and was cremated.

Christmas Eve found us still slipping and sliding through the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky on an icy, snowy I-75. I was driving. We were in the Taurus station wagon that had been our parents’ last vehicle and that Jim had taken with him when he moved to Florida. The scent of his Marlboros and pricey cologne still lingered there and was somehow comforting to me as I steered the big car through the chilly darkness.

Our baggage and some family things we had taken from the condo were in the back. In the hidden lockbox under the floor in the rear end compartment of the wagon were two small, sturdy cardboard boxes. The largest one contained a metal urn with our kid brother’s ashes in it. The smallest one contained the ashes of Jim’s beloved cat, Stinky, custody of whom he had gotten when he divorced his second wife. This box, with the cat’s name on the lid, we had found on a little pedestal beside Jim’s bed. The cat had died about the same time as our father had in our family home in Ohio, next to the bed Jim was sleeping in while taking care of our parents. It didn’t seem right, somehow, for Stinky’s ashes not to travel back to Ohio with his owner’s.

  • Caption: Jim and Stinky playing. Inseparable.
So, we ended up holding Jim’s funeral on New Year’s Eve Day. I recall quipping that a party animal like he was would have found it amusing to have all of his old buddies gathered in church for his funeral on an ultimate party-day like December 31st. I also told a story. It went like this:

When Jim was about four or five, we lived half a block from a soft ice-cream shop. It changed hands a few times, but I think back then it was a Tasty Freeze. Anyway, Jim was always little for his age. Darla recalled how he weighed about the same for like three years straight when he was a little boy. He was so small that when Mom gave him a quarter to go to the ice-cream place, he couldn’t see over the lip of the little self-service counter. So he would reach up with his coin and, tap-tap-tap, peck on the Formica counter-top and call out, “Heeeeey! I’m heeeeere!”

The girls who worked at the place thought the little tow-headed kid was about the cutest thing they’d ever seen, so they would hide out in the back for a while, spying on him while, increasingly frustrated at the lack of service, Jim would tap harder and harder and shout louder and louder, “Heeeeey! I’m heeeeere!” until they finally waited on him.

I said that, in a way, Jim had been doing that all his life. He was always saying, “Hey watch this, big guy,” whenever he did something daring or clever or just plain funny. He enjoyed great physical grace and poise and was something of a show-off, but a really likable one, a natural comic, the kind of guy that was popular and that everybody wanted to hang out with. But also the kind that it was hard to be truly intimate with, a fiercely private person who covered up his deepest feelings with a truckload of wise-assed attitude and carefully learned savoir faire.

  • Caption: Jim in the Ocala National Forest in 2001.

Shortly before he died, on one of my visits back home, he said: “Hey big guy, I don’t know how you’ll take this, but you know what I’ve always wanted?”

“No what?”

“For you to write something about me.”

“Like what?”

“Like, you know, how you feel about me.”

“Well, hell, y’dumb ass, you know how I feel about you. I love ya, y’dipshit.”

“Yeah, no, but I mean…seriously, how you see me, y’know?”

He never mentioned it again, but I know that this was important to him, for people to like him and see him in a positive light and it was devastating to him when they let him down and didn’t seem as committed to him as he was to them.

So after the funeral service, when both his ex-wife – who had left him because she “needed her own space” – and the woman whom he had most recently lived with (and who had left him six months earlier for similarly vague reasons) came with tears in their eyes to ask what we were going to do with the ashes, it was with a kind of cruel, ugly glee that I told them it was a family affair and private.

And it was. Later, on that chilly, windy, last day of the year, Darla, her two boys and I spread the ashes at an undisclosed location, in a ceremony of our own devising, and to which only we were privy. I was only sorry that our cousin, Don, had already left after the funeral and that I hadn’t thought quickly enough to invite him along, since he had been a second big brother to Jim when I wasn’t around and I knew he deserved to be part of this farewell.

Anyway, now, three years later, we had decided that we needed to give Jim some kind of marker, some minimal “shrine” to which friends and family (and ex-wives and ex-girlfriends) could go and remember him and pay their respects. The “where” wasn’t really a matter of great debate. Jim had told me that often after both of our parents died, he had gone out to Greenlawn Cemetery to “visit” them.

“You’re gonna think I’m crazy,” he said, “but I’ll get to thinking about things and I’ll go out there, and, y’know what I do? I sit down on top of their headstone, I light a cigarette and I talk to them.”

“What do you say?” I asked.

“I just sit there and tell them all of the things I always loved about them, and everything I hated. And when I’m done, I feel a lot better. People go by and look at me like I’m nuts, sometimes, but I really, really, feel a helluva lot better afterward.”

So like I say, it wasn’t a question of “where”, but “what”.

Darla and I had taken a week’s vacation together in Florida. It was the first time in six years that I hadn’t come back to the States to mourn the death of a loved one and we were celebrating. We met in the Miami Airport – I on a flight from Buenos Aires, she on one from Cleveland – rented a car and headed across the State via Alligator Alley (where I-75 runs east to west through the Everglades wilderness) to the Gulf. We paid a pleasant visit to Sanibel and Captiva Islands, then visited our Aunt Marilyn – our mother’s younger sister who has always been like an older sister to the two of us – and her husband, Virgil, who were vacationing in northern Florida, and then headed north for Ohio.

It was in central Kentucky that I started getting “the itch”. I’m talking about my hometown itch, that feeling that grabs me when I start seeing countryside I recognize, when the air starts smelling like home, when the farms start looking like the ones surrounding our town. And suddenly, I was in that trance I get into when Wapakoneta is within my reach. Like an old fire-horse, I start heading for the stationhouse and the devil himself can’t stop me.

It was late and cold and raining torrentially and threatening to turn to snow. We were both hungry and tired. But I just kept on driving. Once we crossed over from Kentucky across the bridge over the Ohio River into Cincinnati, I was on automatic pilot, headed for Wapakoneta an hour and a half to the north.

Darla was quiet. She could tell something was up. My behavior begged an explanation. I said: “I thought maybe we could get to Wapak tonight and tomorrow morning see if we can find that stone-cutter.”

“Which stone-cutter’s that?”

“You know, the one that used to be there next to Leland Stroh’s house. The older guy’s dead, I think, but maybe his family took over the business.”

We checked in at the motel where I had stayed when Jim died. It was, back then, what I had fondly referred to as the “Worst Western”, but was now under new management and had a new logo as a Comfort Inn and had improved greatly. We had something to eat at the Bob Evans that stood where the Chalet Inn once had. The Chalet had never been, to my mind, a particularly good restaurant but it had been where people held their fanciest events. It had been there that we had held a surprise party for our mother on her sixtieth birthday, and the venue for Mom and Dad’s golden anniversary with all of their old friends, many of whom we saw there for the last time. It was funny, I thought, that I had never had any special liking for the Chalet. It had always been, I felt, overpriced and overrated as restaurants went, but now I missed it, seeing the Bob Evans chain store there in its place.

We turned in right away after supper, but I couldn’t get to sleep until quite late, despite having driven all day. I read, took notes for something I was writing, checked e-mail on my laptop and looked out the window of my room at the rain mixed with snow falling steadily through the halos of orange light from the sodium streetlamps in the parking lot, while listening to the big 18-wheelers swoosh by on I-75 hauling freight north to south from Detroit to Miami.

By the next morning, the rain had stopped, an icy north wind had kicked up and everything was fast drying off and turning cold. Darla was unimpressed and would rather have been still in Florida, I think. But for me the north wind was the native breath of home and the chilly blue sky with ragged snow clouds still scudding across it cheered me. After partaking of the motel’s “continental breakfast with original sausage gravy” (which I gave a miss, though I did have a do-it-yourself waffle), we were off on what I figured Darla would consider my ‘wild goose chase’. And she would have been right. I had no idea what I was doing. It was mostly an excuse to drive around town and “see the sights” while pretending to be looking for something. I was a newsman, after all, and hadn’t even bothered to look in a local phone book to see if Wapak Monuments, the place I was hunting for, still existed.

It didn’t, as it turned out, at least not in the little shop next to the Stroh residence on the far end of the main street out near the County Fairgrounds and not far from Greenlawn.

“So we’re done here, right?” Darla said. Which was Big Sister for, “Let’s quit dicking around here and head for Cleveland.” Which is what we did. By mid-morning the “city tour” was done and we were back on I-75 heading for the Ohio Turnpike.

The idea of waiting three years to put a marker in Greenlawn for Jim was that it was something Darla and I wanted to do together. So now, in Cleveland, her adopted hometown, we set off on our lugubrious shopping spree. The places we visited dealt in what the late and inimitable Wapak undertaker Charlie Siferd would have referred to as “underground novelties”. The first of them was a veritable “underground supermarket” that displayed every imaginable kind of cross, star, header, footer, angel, inscription, stone, urn, vase, plaque, vault, statue, statuette, mantle and monument imaginable. But not what we had decided we wanted: namely a stake, with a plaque, something in bronze that we could just drive into the ground in our family plot with an inscription in memory of our brother.

The woman who waited on us couldn’t seemed to think “outside the box”, as it were, and looked at us with such suspicion that you would have thought we had asked for an illegal firearm or a half-kilo of blow. She said flatly that no such thing existed. So we decided to go elsewhere.

At the other place, the “showroom” was a much more modest one. A quarter the size of the first one, discreetly arrayed with a dozen samples of tombstones and adornments and nothing else. But the woman in charge was a real go-getter. She took us into her cramped little office at the back of the shop and started going through catalogs of photographs until she came up with what we were looking for. A solid bronze stake and plaque.

But then she said: “Have you checked with the cemetery to see if they’ll allow these.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “Never thought of that. Since it’s something you just stick into the ground.”

“Oh, well they’re real particular about these things. I mean like mowing issues, or how deep it goes into the ground, or if the person named is actually buried there. Stuff like that.” So she generously called information, got the number for Greenlawn Cemetery in Wapakoneta and called up.

“Who am I speaking to? Sam Ruck?” She raised her eyebrows and made a questioning gesture with her free hand in our direction like asking if we knew the guy. I shook my head no. So she proceeded to ask Mr. Ruck a long series of technical questions. After hanging up, she said, “He said you might want to stop out and talk to him personally, but it doesn’t sound like a problem.”

But she wasn’t very convinced about the stake idea. It was too easy to knock over or uproot and it was unnecessarily expensive, she thought – twice as dear as a nice footstone. Why didn’t we consider a ground-level stone, something the maintenance workers could mow right over without damaging it, and so on? She showed us samples in different materials and had started to convince us, but then came the clincher. All of their stones were done in Pennsylvania and even at the most urgent, delivery would take ten or fifteen days, maybe longer depending on backlog.

So we were back to square one. This was not going to be something we could do together before I left and if I left before it was done, Darla was going to have to find a way to get a 200-pound stone from Cleveland to Wapakoneta and get it installed by herself.

Plan B: No problem, I’d go back to Wapak and find somebody local to do the job. And while I was there, I was thinking to myself, I would do something I had been thinking about ever since my parents and brother had died: A Tour of Homes.

In Look Homeward Angel, Thomas Wolfe said, “…you can’t go home again.” But maybe he got it wrong. Maybe some people never really leave, no matter how far away they go.

To be continued.


Hispanic New York Project said...

Great memoir, deeply felt, wonderfully written.

JoAnne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JoAnne said...

As I read the 'Tour of Homes' segments of your Wapakoneta memories, for a few moments in time it feels like Norm, Reba and Jim are still here with us. Your narrative about Greenlawn created images in my mind of that dreaded biology leaf collection! I recall the bike rides to the cemetery to collect the leaf specimens there and all along Auglaize Street on the way home. And now, my only connection to Wapak is the plot of ground in that cemetery, where my dad is buried. I sometimes drive past our old house on Court Street that Dad remodeled and the 3 homes that Dad designed and built after I left Wapak...architectural proof of his existence. I agree with you..."Maybe some people never really leave, no matter how far away they go."

Dan Newland said...

Thank you, Claudio, for your kind comments and for reading me.

Dan Newland said...

JoAnne, I'm glad I was able to touch this place in you. It makes me feel that I have succeeded in putting across the sentiments and universal places that I am seeking to portray and which I think are not only common to those of us who lived in Wapak back then but to everybody who lived in the small-town American society of the fifties through the seventies. Thanks for reading me and for your heartfelt feedback.

Gabriela said...

Oh, Dan... after reading your stories about your mom and dad, and your brother Jim, I have to say that you taught me a lesson. I've just undergone my mom's passing away (just three weeks ago), and I couldn't have found better relief for my soul than your stories. I've felt so identified with your feelings...

Thank you, Dan!

Dan Newland said...

Thank you for sharing your feelings. I'm sorry for you loss and send you my condolences. If this piece has in any way been a comfort to you I feel privileged.
My warmest regards to you now and always.

elaine mccormack said...

Dennis was married to my sister, I sure won't say which wife she was! I know for fact that she loved him with all her heart and misses him to this day. I have been to his grave site and am thankful I had a physical place to go and pay my respects to him. I think of him often, always fondly. He had an irrepressible sense of fun and a quick wit. I won't forget him. Thanks for giving me a place to visit him in Wapak.

Dan Newland said...

Elaine, I, of course, know which wife's sister you are, and thank you for reading this blog. I know that he truly loved her too, if for no other reason, because he told me so.