By Bob Chrisman
The idea of spring cleaning stayed with me through the night, but vanished this morning, when outside, sleet peppered the streets. My tax appointment required me to catch the bus to go downtown. I rushed around and all thoughts about the meaning of spring cleaning disappeared.
As I pulled the front door closed behind me. The sound of sleet hitting the grass and trees sounded like the dry, clacking bones of dancing skeletons. What an odd association. I played with that idea as I walked.
Monday, February 28, would have been my father’s 97th birthday (and the third anniversary of my mother’s death). Perhaps they returned as dancing skeletons to remind me.
My relationship with my father has troubled me for years. I’ve written about it and published the pieces on red Ravine. The troubled times between us and the difficult life he lived aren’t all I remember about him. Perhaps the idea of the skeleton came to me as a spring cleaning of sorts, a chance to pull out the good memories I hold of him and air them.
From my dad I received a curiosity about the world and the people who inhabit the planet. My father observed the goings on around him. He liked to see how people acted in different situations and could predict what they would do. He frustrated me with that ability when he would say, “I can read you like a book.” And he could too, which made me mad.
My father read voraciously: books, magazines, newspapers, whatever printed words he could find. When he attended family gatherings he would collect reading material and retire to a chair where he would spend the time reading.
His greatest pleasure came when he found a box of books for sale. He bought it, carried it home and searched for reading treasures. The contents of those boxes rarely disappointed him because he liked books about any subject. Really he just liked books in general. He passed on that love to me.
He instilled in me the importance of questioning everything, especially religion. We had the Bible in various editions, which the late 1950’s required in the fight against godless communism, but we also had The Book of Mormon and the Quran. Although a Presbyterian, he didn’t believe that one denomination, or Christianity itself, had an inside edge over other religions or spiritual practices.
He knew how to fix cars and kept our used cars in working order. We never owned a new car, only different ones. He bought odd cars like the brown, streamlined Hudson with the plush interior when the cars of the time favored extravagant fins over aerodynamic design.
He brought home a Simca, a tiny French car, and probably the only French car in the entire city. Unlike most American cars, the gearshift stuck up out of the floor rather than off the steering column. When the shaft broke off one afternoon, Dad welded a metal bar in place and would have driven the car forever had the giant hole in the rusted floor board on my mother’s side not allowed water from a giant puddle to gush up and soak my mother’s favorite pair of Sunday shoes.
The last car he purchased before his stroke was a Corvair, the Nader deathtrap. I learned to drive in that car.
He loved the outdoors and took us on long drives through the countryside to see how the land was doing. Despite my hatred of those drives and my frequently voiced wish for Indians to scalp us, I learned to love the landscape around me. Seemingly pointless drives in the countryside bring me peace nowadays.
He helped out the neighbors. The elderly man next door spent a lot of time at a bar. He sang and shouted as staggered up the sidewalk. He fell. My mother would say, “Len, go help him. He won’t make it up those stairs to his house without hurting himself.”
Although Dad left for work at 5:30 a.m. and the neighbor returned home well after midnight, my father pulled on his pants and went outside to help the man home. Frequently my father assisted the wife in putting her drunk husband to bed. He never judged the man and never complained about the loss of sleep.
My funniest memory of Dad involves a Sunday morning church service. As an elder, he introduced applicants who, as a part of the hiring process for ministers, preached a sermon. During the weeks prior to that Sunday, Dad had worked many long hours and not had much sleep. He introduced the minister and then sat down in one of the plush, red velvet cushioned chairs on the platform and promptly fell asleep. My father snored like an approaching tornado.
Aunt Annie, director of the adult choir, motioned for someone to wake him up. Despite a variety of hand signals, no one moved. My father snored his way through a rather lengthy sermon. When the guest minister finished, he waited for Dad to announce the final hymn, but my dad had died to the world.
My aunt asked the choir and congregation to stand and sing. Dad slept on. When the ministerial candidate realized that my father wouldn’t say any final words, the young man approached the podium. “I hope I’m not responsible for Mr. Chrisman’s sound sleep.” My father remained oblivious to the world and to the congregation’s laughter. The minister shrugged his shoulders and walked down the aisle alone to the main door to shake hands with members of the congregation. That incident became a church and a family legend.
As I write, sleet continues to fall. The skeletons dance outside my window. In my mind spring cleaning reveals fond memories of the man I called my father. Happy Birthday, Dad!
About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his family. His last pieces for red Ravine were Exit The Telephone, Desecration Day, and Uncle Howard At The Cemetery.
Other pieces of Bob’s in which he writes with humor and compassion about his family members include: Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters and The Law Of Threes. He also published these pieces about the life and death of his mother: Hands and In Memoriam. And he produced a trilogy about his father: My Father’s Witness, Bearing Witness, and My Life With Dad. Spring Cleaning In The Attic Of My Mind was inspired by the birthday anniversary of Bob’s father and Writing Topic — Spring Cleaning.