Everyone in the Wrong Places

On a table in the living room
there is a gray ceramic bowl that catches
the light each afternoon, contains it.
This is the room we turned into
the room of her dying, the hospital bed
in the center, the medical equipment
against the walls like personnel.
In Maine, once, I rented a house hundreds
of years old. One room had been
the birthing room, I was told, and I sat
in that room writing towards the bright
new world I am always trying
to write into. And while I could stop
there, with those two recognitions
of endings and beginnings, I’m thinking

of yesterday’s afternoon of errands.
My father and mother were in the backseat,
my sister in the passenger seat,
and I driving. It was like decades ago
but everyone in the wrong places,
as though time was simply about
different arrangements of proximity.
Sometimes someone is in front of you.
Or they are beside. At other times
they are behind you, or just elsewhere,
inconsolably, as though time was
about how well or badly you attended
to the bodies around you. First, we went
to the bakery. Then the hardware.
The pharmacy, the grocery. Then the bank.

~Rick Barot “Of Errands”

For a time, my husband and I were the middle of the proverbial family sandwich – the meat and cheese with condiments while our aging parents were one slice of bread and our young children the other slice. It was such a full time of always being needed by someone somewhere somehow in some way that I barely can recall details of what those years were like.

Mothers with daughters sometimes note the irony of being in the throes of menopause while their pre-teen is adjusting to menarche – we pass on the fertility torch.

As I sort through boxes that have been stored away for over a decade from my mother and mother-in-law’s belongings to find things to help our son’s family get settled in their house, I realize that time could be measured in bowls and vases and casserole baking dishes. They are passed to the next generation for another lifetime of use. We start out being fed, then we become the provider, and wind up being fed ourselves in the end.

I want to forestall that time of becoming dependent again as long as possible. For now, I want to hold my grandchildren’s hands as I try to keep them safe in an unpredictable world. Someday, I may need them to help hold my hand once I lack the strength to walk unaided.

Turn turn turn – there is a season. Turn around and everyone has changed places, blessed to still walk alongside one another for as long as possible.

Great Grandma Emma, granddaughter Andrea, great-grandson Zealand, photo by Andrea Nipges

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…
Ecclesiastes 3:1

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Giving Himself Away

Who loves the rain    
    And loves his home, 
And looks on life with quiet eyes,  
     Him will I follow through the storm;    
     And at his hearth-fire keep me warm;
Nor hell nor heaven shall that soul surprise,    
     Who loves the rain, 
     And loves his home, 
And looks on life with quiet eyes.

~Frances Shaw, “Who loves the rain” from Look To the Rainbow of Grace

Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.
~Wendell Berry from “There is no going back”



On this day you were born,
I thank God yet again
for bringing you to earth
so we could meet,
raise three amazing children,
and walk this journey together
with pulse and breath and dreams.

The boy you were
became the man you are:
so blessed by God,
needed by your family, church and community.

You give yourself away every day with such grace,
loved by your children and grandchildren.

It was your quiet brown eyes I trusted first
and just knew
I’d follow you anywhere
and I have.

In this journey together,
we inhabit each other,
however long may be the road we travel;
you have become the air I breathe,
refreshing, renewing, restoring~~
you are that necessary to me,
and that beloved.

Go Help Your Dad

It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.

Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
Breaking chore he’d forced himself

to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took

so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him

home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—

all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,

help your father, but this
was work we could not do.

He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen, “My Father, Dying” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems.

We will grieve not, rather find                     
Strength in what remains behind;                     
In the primal sympathy                     
Which having been must ever be;  
                   

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

Pouring the sidewalk by hand
Grouting the tile perimeter
In the very bottom, installing a drain
The best dive ever…

Nearly twenty-seven years ago
we watched at your bedside as you labored,
readying yourself to die and we could not help
except to be there while we watched you
move farther away from us.

This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:

harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses,
harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father,
harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods,
harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs,
harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after only a week of marriage,
harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa,
harder than returning home so changed there were no words,
harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family,
harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power,
harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent,
harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house,
harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying of cancer,
and returning home asking for forgiveness.

Dying was the hardest of all
as no amount of muscle or smarts or determination
could stop it crushing you,
taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.

So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe,
we knew your hard work was complete
and what you left undone was up to us
to finish for you.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
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So Necessary

You are alive.

And what is it like:
to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is?
Live a day of it and see.
Take any day and LIVE IT.
Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.

It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. The world is to be opened.

BE ALIVE.
~Frederick Buechner from The Alphabet of Grace

“I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
and that necessary.”
~Margaret Atwood from “Variations on the Word Sleep”

For Dan’s birthday:

the boy you were
became the man you are today:
blessed by our God,
so necessary to your family, church and community,
loved by your children and grandchildren,
and by me
~ever more every day~

In this journey together,
we inhabit each other,
however long may be the road we travel;
you have become the air I breathe,
refreshing, renewing, restoring~~
you are that necessary to me,
and that beloved.

Not Just Any Drunk

I remember my grandfather as a somber quiet man who used to slowly rock in a wooden chair that now sits empty in our house.

Not too long before, my Grandpa drank heavily but he wasn’t just any drunk.  He was a mean drunk.  Surly, cursing, prone to throwing things and people, especially at home.

Grandma used to say he learned to drink in the logging camps and I suspect that is true.  He started working as a logger before he was fully grown, dropping out of school, leaving home around age sixteen and heading up to the hills where real money could be made.  He learned more than how to cut down huge old growth Douglas Fir trees, skid them down the hills using a team of horses, and then roll them onto waiting wagons to be hauled to the mills.  He learned how to live with a group of men who surfaced once or twice a month from the hills to take a bath and maybe go to church with their womenfolk. Mostly he learned how to curse and drink.

He headed home to the  farm with muscles and attitude a few years later, and started the process of felling trees there, creating a “stump farm” that was a challenge to work because huge stumps dotted the fields and hills.  He slowly worked at blasting them out of the ground so the land could be tilled.  It proved more than he had strength and motivation to do, so his fields were never very fruitful, mostly growing hay for his own animals.  He went to work in the local saw mill to make ends meet.

He cleaned up some when he met my grandmother, who at eighteen was twelve years younger, and eager to escape her role as chief cook and bottle washer for her widowed father and younger brother.   She was devout, lively and full of energy and talked constantly while he, especially when sober, preferred to let others do the talking.  It was an unusual match but he liked her cooking and she was ready to escape the drudgery of her father’s household and be wooed.

They settled on the stump farm and began raising a family, trying to eke out what living they could from the land, from the sporadic work he found at the saw mill, and every Sunday, took the wagon a mile down the road to the Bible Church where they both sang with gusto.

He still drank when he had the money, blowing his pay in the local tavern, and stumbling in the back door roaring and burping, falling into bed with his shoes on.  Grandma was a teetotaler and yelled into his ruddy face about the wrath of God anytime he drank, their four children hiding when the dishes started to fly, and when he would whip off his belt to hit anyone who looked sideways at him.

When their eldest daughter took sick and died quickly of lymphoma at age eight despite the little doctoring that was available, Grandpa got sober for awhile.  He saw it as punishment from God, or at least that is what Grandma told him through her sobs as she struggled to cope with her loss.

Over the years, he relapsed many times, losing fingers in his work at the mill, and losing the respect of his wife, his children and the people in the community.  Grandma left with the kids for several months to cook in a boarding house in a neighboring town, simply to be able to feed her family while Grandpa squandered what he had on drink.   Reconciled over and over again, Grandma would come back to him, sending their growing son to fetch him from the tavern for the night.  My Dad would bicycle to that dark and smoky place,  stand Grandpa up and guide him staggering out to their truck for the weaving drive home on country roads.  On more than one occasion, Grandpa, belligerent as ever, would resist leaving and throw a punch at his boy, usually missing by a mile.

But once the boy grew taller and strong enough to fight back, managing to knock Grandpa to the ground in self-defense, the punching and resistance stopped.   The boozing didn’t.

Grandpa sobered up for good while his boy fought in the war overseas in the forties, striking a bargain with God that his boy would come home safe as long as Grandpa left alcohol alone.  It stuck and he stayed sober.  His boy came home.  Grandpa saw it as a promise kept and became an elder in his Bible Church, taught Sunday School and gave his extra cash to the church rather than the tavern.

Sitting in a Christmas Sunday School program one Christmas Eve, Grandpa leaned toward Grandma and she noticed his face broken out in sweat, his face ashen.

“It’s hot in here, “ he said and collapsed in her lap.    He was gone, just like that, and he left the rest of his family behind while sitting in church, sober as can be,  on the day before Christmas.

Finally everlastingly forgiven, he headed one more time, not weaving or swerving but on the straight and narrow,  home.

Headed Home

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He wasn’t just any drunk.  He was a mean drunk.  Surly, cursing, prone to throwing things and people, especially at home.

My grandmother used to say he learned to drink in the logging camps and I suspect that is true.  He started working as a logger before he was fully grown, dropping out of school, leaving home around age sixteen and heading up to the hills where real money could be made.  He learned more than how to cut down huge old growth Douglas Fir trees, skid them down the hills using a team of horses, and then roll them onto waiting wagons to be hauled to the mills.  He learned how to live with a group of men who surfaced once or twice a month from the hills to take a bath and maybe go to church with their womenfolk. Mostly he learned how to curse and drink.

He headed home to the  farm with muscles and attitude a few years later, and started the process of felling trees there, creating a “stump farm” that was a challenge to work because huge stumps dotted the fields and hills.  He slowly worked at blasting them out of the ground so the land could be tilled.  It proved more than he had strength and motivation to do, so his fields were never very fruitful, mostly growing hay for his own animals.  He went to work in the local saw mill to make ends meet.

He cleaned up some when he met my grandmother, who at eighteen was twelve years younger, and eager to escape her role as chief cook and bottle washer for her widowed father and younger brother.   She was devout, lively and full of energy and talked constantly while he, especially when sober, preferred to let others do the talking.  It was an unusual match but he liked her cooking and she was ready to escape the drudgery of her father’s household and be wooed.

They settled on the stump farm and began raising a family, trying to eke out what living they could from the land, from the sporadic work he found at the saw mill, and every Sunday, took the wagon a mile down the road to the Summit Park Bible Church where they both sang with gusto.

He still drank when he had the money, blowing his pay in the local tavern, and stumbling in the back door roaring and burping, falling into bed with his shoes on.  Grandma was a teetotaler and yelled into his ruddy face about the wrath of God anytime he drank, their four children hiding when the dishes started to fly, and when he would whip off his belt to hit anyone who looked sideways at him.

When their eldest daughter took sick and died quickly of lymphoma at age eight despite the little doctoring that was available, Grandpa got sober for awhile.  He saw it as punishment from God, or at least that is what Grandma told him through her sobs as she struggled to cope with her loss.

Over the years, he relapsed many times, losing fingers in his work at the mill, and losing the respect of his wife, his children and the people in the community.  Grandma left with the kids for several months to cook in a boarding house in a neighboring town, simply to be able to feed her family while Grandpa squandered what he had on drink.   Reconciled over and over again, Grandma would come back to him, sending their growing son to fetch him from the tavern for the night.  My Dad would bicycle to that dark and smoky place,  stand Grandpa up and guide him staggering out to their truck for the weaving drive home on country roads.  On more than one occasion, Grandpa, belligerent as ever, would resist leaving and throw a punch at his boy, usually missing by a mile.

But once the boy grew taller and strong enough to fight back, managing to knock Grandpa to the ground in self-defense, the punching and resistance stopped.   The boozing didn’t.

Grandpa sobered up for good while his boy fought in the war overseas, striking a bargain with God that his boy would come home safe as long as Grandpa left alcohol alone.  It stuck and he stayed sober.  His boy came home.  Grandpa saw it as a promise kept and became an elder in his Bible Church, taught Sunday School and gave his extra cash to the church rather than the tavern.

Sitting in a Christmas Sunday School program one Christmas Eve, Grandpa leaned toward Grandma and she noticed his face broken out in sweat, his face ashen.

“It’s hot in here, “ he said and collapsed in her lap.    He was gone, just like that, and he left the rest of his family behind while sitting in church, sober as can be,  on the day before Christmas.

Finally everlastingly forgiven, he headed one more time, not weaving or swerving but on the straight and narrow,  home.