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By Teri Blair

This is the first time I’ve done a timed, 15-minute write on my Royal Deluxe manual typewriter. I bought this green machine in Amherst, Massachusetts—Emily Dickinson’s hometown. The man at the shop told me it was the model Hemingway used. Did Emily like chocolate? She like ginger-tasting things like ginger cookies and ginger cakes if memory serves.

My first strong memory of chocolate were the Mr. Goodbars Mom had hidden in her purse. We were allowed pretty easy access to her purse (she wasn’t private about it) and she always shared pieces of her Mr. Goodbar. There was an unwritten understanding if we didn’t ask why they were always hidden there, we’d always get to have pieces. Sometimes she’d shake up the mix and have a Hershey Bar with almonds, never plain. Even now, when I want to buy her a treat she is delighted to be given either.

She told us the story of the Milky Way incident during her childhood, a guilty memory that still taints her love affair with that particular brand. She grew up in Hawick, a tiny town in Minnesota. There was one general story, the type that had the post office in one corner. Her parents would send her to the store for supplies from time to time, and she was always instructed to charge everything to John Everson’s account. Once a month her father, the town blacksmith, would get his itemized list of charged groceries. These would only be the necessities his family of nine needed. There was nothing extra to throw around during the Depression. After Mom charged the Milky Way (and stole away to a private place to eat it), she lived in mortal fear of the impending grocery bill. They’d know then. She’d lied and wasn’t worthy of their trust.

But when the bill came, not a word was said. It wasn’t until Mom was about 50 that she told her dad about it. I remember it. Even though he was a kind, gentle man, she still didn’t want to disappoint him. He smiled, I suppose, and told her in his thick Norwegian accent that it didn’t matter. Knowing him, he probably went right out and bought her another one. He was sorry he couldn’t give his kids more. When they asked him for money when they were children, he’d turn his wallet inside out to show them it was completely empty. After he died and they cleaned out his house, she found that old wallet. She keeps it on her dresser.

They were broke. It was the Depression. They lived on potatoes, headcheese, and lefse. Maybe an occasional chicken some farmer paid his welding bill with. There were bums who came to their door begging for a meal. Her mom made them a plate of their starchy food. Surely no chocolate on the plate.


NOTE: WRITING TOPIC — CHOCOLATE is the latest Writing Topic on red Ravine. Frequent guest writer Teri Blair joined QuoinMonkey in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

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My first bicycle. Royal blue, silver fenders, metal training wheels bolted on to the frame. Practicing, practicing, practicing until I got it right. Riding a bicycle, my first taste of freedom. My second bicycle, a 26 inch with a wire basket in the front to hold my text books. Books covered in brown paper that was once a bag, drawn on, colored on, with stickers and awkward handwriting. I never had good handwriting. I remember learning to ride a bicycle. The scariest part was the space between the wobble from one training wheel hitting the ground, then the other. Or maybe the scariest part was when the rubber actually hit the sidewalk and it felt off balance, like I was going to tip over, fall to the pavement, scrape my knee.

What I remember about my first bicycle isn’t as much about the object as the person who cared enough to hold the back of the seat until I got my balance, the person who ran along beside me when I teetered, who knew when it was safe to let go after the training wheels were unbolted—let go and let me fly. It’s the memories more than the objects. The objects are triggers. When we moved to Pennsylvania, our breezeway was always full of bicycles. Kids and bicycles. There was always one kid learning to ride a bike. It was the way my brothers roamed the streets with their friends.

I don’t remember riding in a group. It was more of a solitary effort for me. A way to get away and be alone. I clearly remember one ride to elementary school. I was so entranced with the ride, with the process, with looking down and viewing my feet turn the pedals, that I forgot to look up, and ran smack dab into a parked car. It jolted me, my text books flew out of the basket and on to the ground. I caught myself before I fell over but that jolt! when the tire hit the chrome fender, I will never forget it. I was embarrassed and looked around to see if anyone saw me fall. Which matters most? The fall or those who witness the fall.

Now that I think about it, my first bicycle taught me to trust. The second taught me how to fly solo, to be faster than anyone else, to not be afraid. My bicycles taught me independence, to trust myself, how to balance when things were careening out of control, how to stop on a dime right before the pothole swallowed me. My first bike was more than a bicycle. It was the beginning of learning to hold the world in the soles of my feet and the handlebar underneath my palms. It was a way to get away from the crowd, time to think, the feeling I’d later experience again when I learned to ride a motorcycle. There is no freedom like being on a two-wheeler, running under the power of your own two feet.


-related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC — MY FIRST BICYCLE

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By Bob Chrisman

When I was eight, I received a new robin’s egg blue, girl’s bike for my birthday in May. I had selected that particular bike at the shop in the South End where we lived. I wanted a girl’s bicycle so I wouldn’t hurt myself every time I slid off the seat when I stopped. That always happened on boy’s bicycles and kept me from enjoying riding.

My father looked at the price tag and shook his head. “I don’t think we can afford this much. Let me talk with your mother.”

At eight years old, I had already heard that one phrase, “I don’t think we can afford this much” so often that I knew I would never own the bike I wanted. That’s the way things worked in my family: you didn’t get what you couldn’t afford and we couldn’t afford much at all.

On the morning of my birthday I ate my breakfast and opened my birthday cards. When I asked if I had any presents, my mother rolled the bicycle I’d picked out into the kitchen. “Your daddy and I decided that you were old enough to have this, even though it cost more than we would usually spend for a present. You’ve got to take good care of it. Okay?”

I leapt out of my chair and grabbed the bike before it vanished. Only when I held the handlebars in my own hands was it real. I had the bike I wanted.

Later that morning I opened the screen door and made sure to pull the bike out before the door slammed. I took it down all the stairs to the sidewalk and rolled it down the hill until I reached Ozark Street which was flat and graveled. Only then did I climb on my new bike and pedal along the street with the wind in my face. I felt so happy and so proud.

My friends congregated up the street and I rode my new bike up there to visit with them and show them my birthday present.

When I arrived, one of the boys said, “Hey, Bobby, why you got a girl’s bike? You a sissy?”

“No, I wanted a girl’s bike because it’s easier to get on and off. That’s why.”

“No, you’re a sissy. He’s a sissy, isn’t he?”

Everyone laughed.

Then the kid said, “I want to ride your sissy bike.”

“No, you can’t. It’s brand new. I just got it and I want to ride it for awhile before anyone else does.” I held on tight to the handlebars.

“Hey, sissy, that’s not very nice. But, I don’t want to ride a blue girl’s bike anyway.”

I turned around to ride home. The kids screamed names at me as I rode away. I’d reached the end of the block when a clunk sounded on my rear fender. A cheer went up from the kids. I crossed the intersection and started pushing the bicycle up the hill. When I was out of sight of my friends, I looked at the rear fender. Someone had thrown a big rock and dented and scraped a place on my new bike. I lost it. I couldn’t stop shaking and crying, but I pushed the bike up the hill, up the stairs and parked it on the porch.

My mother came running out of the house. “What’s wrong? Did you fall?”

I couldn’t speak so I pointed at the rear fender. My mother looked at the damage. “So that’s what you’re crying about? For heaven’s sake, it’s only a bicycle.”

No, it was so much more than that.


NOTE: WRITING TOPIC — MY FIRST BICYCLE is the latest Writing Topic on red Ravine. Frequent guest writer Bob Chrisman joined QuoinMonkey in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

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By Judith Ford


My grandmother, who was Dutch, did an incredible job of spring cleaning, every March, every year she was alive. No object and no surface was spared a scrubbing. Rugs were taken out and beaten within an inch of their threaded lives; walls were washed with a hard brown scrub brush. Curtains taken down and washed. Every closet emptied, every sheet and towel bleached and washed. Everything dried outdoors on a clothesline. In March, Wisconsin is still cold so things froze out there, pillowcases transformed into wrinkled boards. Socks turned into twisted sculptures. She washed every dish and pot and spoon. Then when it was all done and everything set back in its proper place, she’d cover the sofa and chairs and lampshades in the living room with plastic covers. She’d lay a plastic path from doorway to living room couch and into the dining room. When I was around 11, I asked her, finally, who she was keeping everything so clean for and when would she remove the ugly plastic. (I didn’t say the word, ugly, I’m sure). “The plastic keeps everything ready for company,” she replied. “But, “I protested, “Aren’t I company?” I had never once seen her living room without plastic. “You,” she explained, “are family. Not company.” She didn’t need to add that I, being a rather messy child, was one of the reasons she protected her furniture.


My mother didn’t do spring cleaning. She did like to open up all the windows on the first day the temperature rose over 50–to air everything out. I always loved that, coming home from school for lunch and finding the windows all wide open, the house looking like a toothless, eyeless caricature of itself, the air sweet and chilly. My mother hated being a housewife and did not cotton to cooking or cleaning. She did the minimums and stuck to the 50’s schedule that most of her friends observed: Monday clean and do laundry; Tuesday iron; Wednesday, volunteer work; Thursday, groceries; Friday, light cleaning (a lick and a promise, is what she called it); Saturday was the night my dad cooked burgers and Sundays we went to my grandparent’s house for dinner. My mother did what she felt she must but mostly without joy and often with many sighs. She did seem to enjoy ironing (which I so don’t get) and would sing while she ironed, in a voice like Ella Fitzgerald. Singing over the ironing and walking in the mountains – those are the times I remember my mother at her happiest. Not cleaning. Never spring cleaning.


Well, it’s sort of spring now and I am sort of spring cleaning. I’ve been putting hours in every week to clean my attic. It has to be done. We’re selling the house and moving to the country.

I’ve lived in this house for 28 years, married husband #2 after living alone here with my daughter for 5 years, moved that husband and his daughter in, had another baby, raised these kids until each one grew their feathers and flew off. Also raised a cockatiel, a parrot, four dogs and numerous gerbils and hamsters in this house. Can you imagine the debris? My attic had become a combination museum, closet (huge closet), and file cabinet. Treasures and cast-offs that have trickled down to me from three generations and two family lines. The leftover objects include outgrown clothes, games, books, and life directions. My very first poem, written at age 10. A couple of Jessie’s baby teeth, nestled inside the newborn bracelet she wore in the nursery: “Baby girl, Marks-Szedziewski, 2-19-78.” An envelope containing a curling wisp of very blond baby hair, Nic’s first haircut, 1988, a battered and faded pink pair of tiny toe shoes (mine, from 1955, I think; although they might be my aunt Jeanne’s). A hair curling iron (great-grandmother Nettie’s, late 1800’s). Aunt Jeanne’s bracelets from the 30’s. So glad I didn’t throw those away. Hundreds of notes from Jessie and from Nic: I Love You, Mommy. Mommy don’t tell anyone but I love you best. Thank you for being my mommy, You are the best Mommy, Next time you go on a trip, take me too. Mommy, I hate camp. Come and get me out of here, please!please!please! Nic’s version of Jingle Bells, written at age 4 with a few backwards letters, words scrawled across the page, Jingle Bells Jingle Bells Jingle all the way, Oh What Fun on Al’s True Ride, On the One on Holken Slay. Jessie’s school trophies, soccer and swimming, her camp and sports t-shirts, Nic’s academic medals for top scores in the state on the ACT and SAT at age 9 and 10, his IQ testing done at Northwestern U when he was 5.

The way I wept when the tester called me and told me the test results.

I wish I had known more back then how to feed his ravenous brain, his wonderful mind. So much I wish I could do over for him.


I will be 63 in a month. The past is truly the past. There are no do-overs and no time left for holding on. Time, instead, for letting go. For boxing up, and throwing away, for going to UPS to send Jessie her soccer and swim team t-shirts, to send Nic his Pokemon card collection. Handing the keepsakes over to my grown-up kids, handing over to them the job of remembering.

In the process of this sorting and cleaning, I’ve had to remind myself again and again to let go not only of the objects but the feelings. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve longed to have my children back in my arms, on my lap, longed for one more night of reading in bed with Jessie at age 7, one more night of long conversation at bedtime with Nic when he was 10. One more chance to see each of them for one hour during each year of their growing-up – one more chance to drink in the sight of them, their wispy hair, freckled faces, braces and missing teeth, to listen to their piping little voices more intently, memorize each one of them even more completely.

I had expected that cleaning out all this old stuff would help me clear the decks for this next chapter of my life, and yes, I guess that’s happening. I had anticipated reminiscing. I hadn’t anticipated the wave upon wave of memories to be so visceral, so wrenching, so expanding and swooping and full of love. I am not only clearing the decks; I am also rejuvenating both myself and the attic. Am going through some kind of death and resurrection here. Turning myself inside out and right side out again. Right side out and I must admit, a little trembly.

Spring cleaning is a piece of cake compared to this.




About Judith: Judith Ford is a psychotherapist and writer who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was red Ravine’s very first guest writer, with the piece 25 Reasons I Write. Judith’s other pieces on red Ravine include lang•widge, Mystery E.R., I Write Because, and PRACTICE – Door – 20min. Spring Cleaning is based on a 15 minute Writing Practice on WRITING TOPIC — SPRING CLEANING.

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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.

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An Open Letter To My Father

An Open Letter To My Father, BlackBerry Shots, Minneapolis, Minnesota, December 2009, photo © 2009-2011 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


I haven’t seen my father since I was six years old. He reached out to me that day for the first time since I was a toddler. But I was scared and didn’t want to come out of my room. I was only a child; he had become a stranger. I never saw him again.

I keep a pack of letters tied with red string in a shoebox on the top shelf of my closet. What is important comes in small packages. Snippets of correspondence become family heirlooms; letters are reminders of people whose memories and handwriting I want to remember.

One letter is from my mother, dated August of 2000. I had a hard time that year and (in an extroverted moment) reached out to 7 people in my inner circle. I asked if they would write a letter and tell me what my good qualities were; at the time, I just couldn’t remember. My mother wrote a beautiful letter to me from Pennsylvania, a story about the day I was born.

In the same shoebox is a letter from my father’s two sisters. Several years ago, by an act of grace, I reconnected with my aunts after 50 years, and stood with my mother and Aunt Annette under the Georgia pine over my Grandmother Estelle’s grave (the back story and photographs in Georgia Pine Over My Grandmother’s Grave.) It was a few months later, New Year’s Day 2009, when my aunts sent the letter from South Carolina, and something more:


I feel so badly our family never got to see or know you before now. I know Mother would be so pleased about our reunion. Mother left this ring to me and I would very much like you to have it. She had it a long time and wore it as a pinky ring. This is not much, but I never want you to be left out of our lives. I hope you feel the same about us. Maybe you could try to come for Christmas one year while Annette and I are still here. We are all very much family oriented and want our kids to know you. I’m proud to pass your grandmother’s ring to you, her granddaughter.


It’s as if all that time between us never happened. My trips to the South with Mom to research and explore family history have paid off in unexpected and miraculous ways. During our brief visit, my aunts showed me old family photographs and filled me in on the paternal side of my family. They told me my father had been estranged for 10 years; a dispute had erupted after my grandmother died. I don’t take serendipitous events lightly. I believe we are reunited with the past for reasons beyond our understanding.


Letter From My Mother

A Letter From My Mother, BlackBerry Shots,
Minneapolis, Minnesota, December 2009, photo
© 2009-2011 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


That’s why when I called my aunts on Christmas Day 2010, they told me my father had called them out of the blue; he has cancer. He found out in September 2009, a few months before they mailed the letter with my grandmother’s ring. He didn’t contact them until a year later. During their visit, they told him they had seen me and my mother on a recent trip to Georgia. He did not jump at the chance to reconnect. Maybe for him, the past is the past.

My father was 17 years old when I was born, my mother 16. They divorced two years later—still teenagers. My mother went to work and provided for us. She eventually remarried a wonderful man who became my step-father.  After the age of 6, I never saw my blood father again. And now I find I may never get another chance. Should I write him a letter? What would I say?


Dear ______,

A few years ago on a visit to Georgia, I reconnected with your sisters, my aunts, after 50 years apart. They briefly filled me in on the family history; it made me think of you. I live in Minnesota now, have lived in the West and Midwest for most of my adult life. I try to get home once a year to visit family — for me, home is both Pennsylvania and Georgia. I may be visiting the South again this year and thought it might be a chance to touch base. Maybe we could meet for coffee or dinner.

Your daughter,

__________


I start the letter, I stop the letter. The drafts seem to fall short. What would you say? Should the salutation use his proper name? Or Father. Would you ask him to meet for dinner? Or talk on the phone. What if he doesn’t want to have contact with me? Maybe you’ve been in a similar situation where you haven’t talked to a close family member in many years. In reconnecting with my father’s sisters, it’s as if we were never apart. With parents, no matter how old you are, they are still your parents. Should I send a letter to my father?


-posted on red Ravine, Sunday, February 6th, 2010

-related to posts: The Dying Art Of Letter Writing (Postcards From The Edge), You Can’t Go Back, WRITING TOPIC — MEMORIES OF CARS, WRITING TOPIC — 3 QUESTIONS

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Taco Soup

Taco Soup, BlackBerry Shots, Minneapolis, Minnesota, December 2010, photo © 2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Family Recipes

Family Recipes, BlackBerry Shots, Minneapolis, Minnesota, December 2010, photo © 2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.




Simple Taco Soup


1 lb. lean ground beef
1 can whole kernel corn
1 can Mexican chili beans
1 can pinto beans
1 can kidney beans
1 large can petite diced tomatoes
1 package taco seasoning mix


Brown ground beef and stir in the taco seasoning. Add canned veggies and simmer until flavors are blended — about 20 minutes. Ladle into bowls and top with your choice of cheese, sour cream, cilantro, or tortilla chips.




Top With Your Choice

Top With Your Choice, BlackBerry Shots, Minneapolis, Minnesota, December 2010, photo © 2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Comfort Food - Taco Soup

Comfort Food - Taco Soup, BlackBerry Shots, Minneapolis, Minnesota, December 2010, photo © 2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Sometimes it’s a gift to be a product of a blended family. There are different sets of parents, plumes of siblings, cousins galore. When I was in Pennsylvania a few weeks ago visiting my brother after his liver transplant, part of my Southern family showed up on the doorstep and surprised me. After driving the 10 hours from South Carolina, they literally stepped right out of the front seat of their car and into my brother’s kitchen. They came bearing gifts for a celebration of Thanksgiving. It was the first time in 45 years the Robertson side of the family had been together.

Though I’m not much of a cook, I love easy-to-make meals. One of my favorite gifts was a spiral bound recipe book. Daddy and Judy had handwritten simple recipes they collected from different members of the family. And behind the pages of the recipe cards, they tucked vintage family snapshots.


Like this one:


April 1973

April 1973, Vintage Family Snapshot In Recipe Book, Morristown, Tennessee, photo © 2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


If you look closely, you might spot me there in Tennessee, in a half circle with my paternal grandparents, Ada and Jess, smirking behind that 70’s smile. So many memories.

Back in Minnesota, it’s a lot colder, and I’m a lot older. I pull the ground beef out of the freezer and open the handmade recipe book to Taco Soup. Since I’m late getting home, Liz starts dinner (if you are from the South, you might say “supper”), and I walk right into the middle smell of a family memory. The recipe book makes a creative Holiday gift. All you need are recipe cards, a fast writing pen, and a strong wrist. Food and family photos are a natural combination, a memory maker that keeps on giving.


-posted on red Ravine, with gratitude to my family, Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

-related to post: Memories, Writing, & Family Recipes

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After The Break - 313/365

After The Break, BlackBerry 365, 313/365, Goldsboro, Pennsylvania, November 2010, photo © 2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.





Scorpio birthday
the NightOwl’s idea of fun,
playing pool with Mom.





51014


Note: The night I flew into Harrisburg was the eve of Mom’s birthday. Lady Luck smiled down. We went out to dinner with Paul, won $120 on the push tabs, and had a great time playing pool to jukebox tunes. Mom beat me almost every game. Amelia is a good pool player.


-posted on red Ravine, Monday, November 22nd, 2010

-related to post:  haiku 2 (one-a-day)

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By Bob Chrisman


My mother met me in the lobby of the nursing home quite accidentally. She had taken her afternoon stroll pushing her walker up one hall and down another, visiting other residents she knew from the dining room. She arrived at the front desk as I walked in the front door.

She looked up and smiled. “Never thought I would see you again. It’s been awhile.”

“Mom, I was here last week. Remember? I took you to out to have that roast beef sandwich you wanted.” I waited for her to acknowledge that she had forgotten.

She ignored the question, instead she looked away and down at her walker. “Well, it’s good to see you anyway. Has a week passed already?” She started down the hall in the direction of her room. I knew I was to follow.

I asked, “How are things going here? Did you go to church services this morning?”

“No, the minister is nice enough, but he’s a little too serious for my taste. Too much death and sin to interest me at my age.” She nodded to the women who sat in wheelchairs in the wide hall. Some stared into space unaware of the greeting. Other responded with a soft “Hello.”

“A new woman moved in just two doors down. She’s married to Herbie. You remember Mildred’s husband? You always liked Mimi. Well, the poor thing is two doors down from me. Herbie came to visit a few days ago and stopped by to see me. Shame about his second wife and her poor health. I think she’s mental because all she does is beg people to find her some underwear.”

We passed by a room and she jerked her head toward the open door. “That’s where she stays.”

As we walked into her room I noticed her telephone is on the floor at the foot of her bed. “Mom, what happened to the phone? Is it broken?”

“You might as well get rid of that darn thing. No one calls, except people who want to sell me something. It rings at all times of the day and night and I’m afraid it will disturb my roommate.”

“I thought you wanted a phone. Don’t you call people from church?”

“No, take it out. Might as well not waste your money to pay the bill when I don’t use it. Besides, no one is ever home when I call.”

She sat in her chair. I took my place on the bed.



She had told me not to put a phone in her room at the nursing home. She hadn’t wanted to learn a new number. I insisted that she keep it. I even worked with the phone company to transfer her old number to the new phone. I held onto the idea that she wouldn’t die if she kept in contact with her friends.

She had kept the same phone number for fifty years. When she left her house for the senior citizens center, she left behind the heavy black phone with the battered receiver from countless drops on the floor, and the tattered cloth cable that connected it to the outlet. She kept the old phone number.

I bought her a new phone. She hated it. She wanted her old phone, her old house, her old life but she couldn’t have them anymore.



She shook her head. “I’ve tried calling Vera and Anna Lee for the last few days and no one answers their phones. What could my sisters be doing at all hours of the day and night? It’s beyond me. They even turned off those dang machines that take messages. I hate those things, but I would leave a message if I could. I wonder what they’ve been up to.”

I didn’t know what to say so I opted for the truth. “Mom, it’s a good thing your sisters didn’t answer the phone because they’ve been dead for years. I would be very concerned if you talked to them.” I watched her face to see what effect my words had on her.

She looked at the backs of her hands, covered with age spots and bruises, as though too preoccupied to reply right away. “Guess it is a good thing they didn’t answer. I thought they had died, but I wasn’t sure. Sometimes things aren’t so clear in my head anymore. Funny, how I can remember their phone numbers, but forget that they died.” She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes. “Just take the phone out of my room. I don’t have anyone to talk to anymore.”


When I left that day, I took the phone and made a mental note to terminate her service. The phone number I had learned as a preschooler some fifty years ago would cease to belong to the Chrisman family, yet another sign that my mother was dying.




About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his family. For Memorial Day 2010, we published Desecration Day, Bob’s humorous yet moving piece about a grave decoration day that got a bit out of hand, followed in June by Uncle Howard At The Cemetery.

You can see these other pieces of Bob’s in which he writes with humor and compassion about his family members: 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.

Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Growing Older, Goat Ranch, Stephenie Bit Me, Too, and PRACTICE — TREES  — 15min, a Writing Practice on the Topic of Trees.

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By Bob Chrisman



Allen Cemetery on the outskirts of Gower, Missouri serves as the final resting place for my mother’s parents and some of her aunts, uncles, and cousins. Names like Patton, Divelbiss, Pogue, and Williams mark the plots of family members. Every Memorial Day we decorated those graves. As time passed and more relatives took up residence among the tombstones, we didn’t attend to as many of the graves. After my father’s stroke in 1969, which left him bedridden, and my sister’s departure to teach a distance away, we decorated fewer graves because my mother didn’t like to leave my father alone for long.

After my father died in 1984, Aunt Vera, my mother’s younger sister, and her husband, Uncle Howard, joined us for the annual, grave-decorating trip. Neither one of them drove anymore so they gladly came along for the outing and the lunch that followed. I would swing by their house, just up the street a few blocks from where my mother lived, and pick them up.

Uncle Howard had a great sense of humor despite the hardships of his life. He managed to find something funny about most everything. Going to the cemetery provided him with an opportunity and a captive audience. Much to my mother and aunt’s chagrin, my uncle always told me the same story on the way there.

“Bob, did I ever tell you about buying those cemetery plots?”

Although I had heard the story many times in the past, I would say, “No, Uncle Howard. What happened?” With that question he launched into the story.

“Your mom and dad and Vera and I made an appointment with Eldon Lee. You know Eldon Lee, don’t you? He was the funeral director and caretaker of the cemetery. We drove out to Gower one evening. We picked four spaces right in a row. The girls decided that we would be buried boy-girl-boy-girl.

“Eldon Lee put your father’s name down first, then your mom’s, and then he started to write my name. I said, ‘Eldon Lee, hold on. I’m not happy with this arrangement.’ They all looked at me like I’d lost a marble or two, but Eldon Lee put down his pen to hear me out.

“I said, ‘When you die, you lay down for your eternal rest to get some peace, don’t you?’ Eldon Lee nodded his head. ‘Well, how much rest and peace do you think I’d get planted between Lucile and Vera? Not much. I can tell you that right now. You better put the girls together between Len and I so all that chatter between the girls won’t disturb us in our graves.’

“That’s why your mom and Vera have places next to each other.”

He laughed in that mischievous way of his. My mother and Aunt Vera sighed. Aunt Vera said, “Oh, Howard.” No matter how many times I heard the story, I laughed. I could imagine my mother and her sister gossiping in the grave while my father snored on one side and Uncle Howard tossed and turned on the other end.

Uncle Howard had another routine that he started when we pulled up the gravel road into the cemetery. He never failed me in doing this one, which irritated my mother and aunt beyond words. That made it all the funnier because they should have known it was coming, but it always appeared to take them by surprise.

My mother and her sister decided which set of graves we would visit and in what order. My Uncle Howard pointed at new graves we passed.

“Look, Bob, see that one? Hey, you girls, would you pipe down? All your talking drives the ground squirrels away. I’m trying to see how fat they are. Looks like we’ve added lots of new dishes to the graveyard buffet lately.” He laughed.

That stopped the women’s conversation. Aunt Vera usually said, “Howard, that’s no way to talk about the dead.”

“I guess you’re right.” He paused for effect. “But, they’re dead and they don’t care about my little joke.”

Mom said, “Howard, someday you’ll be lying here in the ground and you won’t want someone talking about you like that?”

“You’re right, Lucile, but I’ll be dead and I won’t care. I’m so little and skinny the ground squirrels will be very disappointed when they lift the lid on my coffin. They’ll probably look at one another and say, ‘Ain’t much meat here. Let’s move on.’” Then he’d laugh and I’d join him.


Uncle Howard and Aunt Vera's headstone, photo © 2010 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.




Uncle Howard hit the buffet line in April, 1990. Aunt Vera followed in December, 1993. In February 2008, my mother joined them. My family won’t add any more people because we have scattered all over the country.

On January 1, 2009, I drove up to the cemetery to pay my respects and to remember the stories of my childhood. When I entered the cemetery I found myself looking for the new graves and the ground squirrels. I stood at the graves of my parents and my aunt and uncle. I listened as the cold wind blew through the place. I didn’t hear Mom and Aunt Vera talking. Maybe Uncle Howard’s plan worked. I hope he enjoys his eternal rest in peace.



About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his family. For Memorial Day 2010, we published Desecration Day, Bob’s humorous yet moving piece about a grave decoration day that got a bit out of hand.

You can see these other pieces of Bob’s in which he writes with humor and compassion about his family members: 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.

Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Growing Older, Goat Ranch, and Stephenie Bit Me, Too.

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By Erin Robertson


I wish I could say I was closer to my grandfather, but as the years went on and his Alzheimer’s progressed, it began to get harder just to see him. We watched him suffer so his death was something of a relief. In a time of mourning, I wrote this piece:


Fourteen dozen roses,
cut clipped, and arranged,
spread throughout the pews.
paid precision and prayer
fake sympathy and stares
bore through to the soul
it’s the friends and family
that keep you sane
so dry your tears
try to smile
the coffin is closed
the sermon was said
in the line we file
morbid flags that warn our purpose
march along the silence grows,
sobs muffled out of shame.
gather under the green tent
sit upon velvet thrones of mourning
as a group,
we bow our heads
blessing for the one departed
amens in sync
good wills, remembrance, praise
i whisper goodbye
drop his favorite flower
to decorate my grandfather’s tomb.


_________________________


This next poem was written roughly about the same time. Death, and its morbidity, was frequently on my mind. I wrestled with the idea of an afterlife or the concept that something so pure can be torn into sinful shreds.


death,
it comes on tar-dipped wings
dragging down the weightless soul
perfect when?
no longer flawless
as it flies
with heavy wings
down to hell,
to meet
judgement day has long since passed
fail or pass
the side you wish

death it comes on tar-dipped wings
dragging down the weightless soul
perfect then,
no longer flawless
anguish may have plagued you then,
but now,
you can be free.
whispers of unspoken trial
jury, angels, demons
judge of neutral boundaries
find you guilty,
innocent child
whichever way
you tend to walk,
you will be happy now
life, you may have suffered
dying, you might have been in pain,
but death, Sweet, death
it always comes,
exactly when it’s supposed to come.


_________________________


At a time of peak adolescent anguish, my friend –and thereby, I got tangled up with people who were not as they seemed to be. Often, my poems are free verse; however, I tried my hand at some resemblance of “Traditional Poetry.”


Enemy in someone you like:
Everyone wants to know
what’s behind the face you show
we all see your pride
you modestly try to hide

the smile that plays across your face
has seemed to find its place
but your moods change like a clock
the swings impossible to mock

a bipolar symptom waits to strike
find an enemy in someone you like
more outbreaks, in succession,
betray the mild marks of depression

your friendship is a weight to bear
it seems that no one wants to care…
your ‘quirks,’ they draw the curious
they come to mimic the delirious

they make a mockery of your ills
stunned by the bouquet of pills
a bipolar symptom waits to strike
find an enemy in someone you like.


_________________________


I don’t remember why I wrote it, but the first couple lines were running through my head for quite a few days, and I decided to elaborate on it in my 9th grade English class. My friend and I had been discussing the change in society and how people are satisfied being mediocre and achieving nothing. I guess I had big dreams back then, too.


my modern art wonder
of the twenty-first century
is torn straight from the pages
of a young man’s book
the whispers spoken
of wild ventures
swallowed by some
corporate gain
the mind-blowing drugs
destroy the naive
open portals onto new levels
swimming hallucinations of
teenage ideals
and the real world
collide with a splay of
colors only the
high can see
disappointments inspire
push onward or settle for less
business world stays on
the fast track for life
stuck in a job with no career
working up to work out
it’s got no end
it’s the truth that will slap
a truth we all know
the world as the jungle it is



Leaf Of A Ginkgo – Erin’s Tattoo, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, May 2010, photo © 2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


I have yet to visit my grandfather’s grave site, years after his burial. I wanted to commemorate his passing in my own way. As a horticulturist, he loved all plants, but most specifically the ginkgo for its unchanged history. Rather than ink myself with a cliché R.I.P/tombstone tattoo, I came up with the idea of a falling ginkgo leaf. Its importance would be known to very few, preserving my grandfather’s memory.




About Erin: My name is Erin Robertson and I am a graduating senior from Susquehanna Township High School. Later this year I will be attending Temple’s Honors College to pursue a Doctorate in Psychology (because I am rather ambitious). My life has been full of adventure and I have met many unusual people and experienced quite a lot for someone my age. My life, the environments I find myself in, and the people I know, have all served as inspirations for the creative outlets in my life. I focus on poetry as a big way for me to express myself and my emotions.

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By Bob Chrisman



After my father died in 1984, my mother made semi-annual trips to Southern California to stay with her step-sister-in-law, Aunt Gladys. Uncle Roy had died a couple of years before my dad did. I would fly out to spend some time with them and then accompany my mother home.

During my first visit, Mom and Aunt Gladys announced their desire to decorate Uncle Roy’s grave at the VA cemetery in Westminster, California, near the Pacific Coast. At 90 my aunt had stopped going. “I’m not as quick on the highway anymore. I’ll leave that to you.”

We loaded the car with grass trimmers, scissors, throw rugs, plastic buckets, dishwashing liquid, sponges, old rags, and rolls of paper towels. My aunt directed my driving.

“Take that exit. Now be careful, Bob. A lot of these people aren’t paying attention. Lucile, look. Honey, did you see those mums in front of that grocery store? Weren’t they beautiful? Roy loved mums.”

I moved into the right lane to head back to the store. Aunt Gladys wanted mums. And my mother would want to make Aunt Gladys happy. One right turn, three left turns, and 15 minutes later we pulled up to the store. They climbed out while I parked.

When I caught up with them in the store, they had removed all the pots of deep red mums from the rack and lined them up for inspection. My mother and my aunt handed me the mums they eliminated as possible choices.

“Here, put this back where it belongs.” While I redecorated the mum display, they narrowed the choice down to three.

“Bob, you pick the one you think is the best one.”

I chose, but my choice wasn’t the best one so they bought the one they had already agreed on.

That done, we headed toward the cemetery.


A sign greeted us at the entrance:

The level of the cemetery has been raised by several inches. If you have trouble finding the gravesite of a veteran, please contact the manager located on the property.


We drove to the spot closest to Uncle Roy’s grave. My aunt and my mother tottered across the grass. I, the beast of burden, unloaded the trunk and followed.

“Now, he’s here somewhere. Lucile, you don’t think they’ve moved him, do you? That sign said something…”

“No, Gladys, they only put more dirt on top of him.”

I found the spot. “Here it is.” I dropped all of the grave decorating equipment and took the bucket to get water.

As they spread out the throw rugs, Aunt Gladys said, “Lucile, I don’t remember the grave being this far from the road.”

“Gladys, it’s always been here.” Mom yelled at me. “Don’t fill the bucket too full. We don’t need that much water.”

They had donned their gardening gloves and hats and set to work. They trimmed the grass around the stone. They scrubbed the marker with old rags and dried it with the paper towels.

“Roy and I bought an in-ground vase. I can’t remember exactly where it is, but I’ll find it.”

She pulled out a knife with a long slender blade and stabbed the ground like Anthony Perkins slashed at Janet Leigh in “Psycho.” Stab, stab, stab.

“Aunt Gladys, please stop.” Mom didn’t say a word. Stab, stab, stab.

“I need to find that vase. It’s buried here. They better not have removed it. We paid good money for it.” Stab, stab, stab.

“Wait. Put the knife down. I’ll go to the office and find out where the vase is.” Stab, stab, stab.

My aunt worked up quite a sweat. “Okay. I’m tired. Why don’t you go to the office. We’ll keep ourselves busy while you’re gone.”

I ran to the car. I knew they wouldn’t wait long to do whatever they wanted to.

I drove to the office. As I entered the building, the air-conditioning hit me in the face like a block of ice. The hot and humid outside air vanished in a room where you could have hung meat without it spoiling.

A cheery young woman asked, “Hello. May I help you find your loved one?”

I smiled. “My aunt is stabbing her husband’s grave with a knife to find the in-ground vase. To avoid injury to her, can you tell me where the buried vase is located?”

The woman’s mouth dropped open.

“Let me speak to the manager.”

She disappeared only to return with a rotund man dressed in a robin’s-egg blue polyester, double-knit suit. The exertion of walking from his office to the desk had turned his face beet red and he mopped his brow with a white handkerchief.

“I’ll show you where it is.”

I asked, “Do you want me to drive?” I wasn’t sure he would fit in the rental car.

“No, I’ll take my car. Suits me better.”

He climbed in a huge car, exactly the same color as his suit and rolled down his window.

“Lead the way.”


When we arrived at the gravesite, I pointed to my aunt and mother busily working.

“That’s them.”

He nodded and waddled off, wiping his head and neck as he went.

When I arrived at the throw rugs, grass trimmings and dirt covered both women. The manager stared at the ground, his jaw agape.

Aunt Gladys said. “Honey, we don’t need him. When we couldn’t find the vase I paid for…” she looked up at the manager. “…we simply dug a little hole and planted the mums on top of Roy.” She looked very happy. They both did, but the manager didn’t.

“You…you can’t do that.”

“Can’t do what, young man?”

“Can’t go around digging holes in the cemetery. It’s…well, it’s grave desecration.” His color had grown much redder. Sweat poured off his face. His handkerchief looked sopping wet. “It’s against the law to dig holes here.”

“If we had been able to find the vase, which, I will remind you again, we paid for, my sister-in-law and I wouldn’t have dug this hole.”

He took out a pocket knife. My aunt grabbed her knife, prepared to fight.

He stepped next to the stone. He jabbed in the ground and dug out some grass.

“Here. Right here.” He stood up with a smug smile on his face.

My aunt ignored him. “Lucile, look. It was right there all the time…under a foot of grass and dirt.”

“Next time, ladies, please don’t dig a hole.” He snapped his knife shut and waddled back to his car.

“I think I’ll report him. Grave desecration? What a bad attitude these young people have.” She extended her hand to me. “Help me up.”

With both of them on their feet, I brushed off their clothes. I gathered everything, wrapped the knife in an old rag and dropped it in the bucket. I packed the stuff in the trunk.

When I went back to help them to the car, I heard my aunt ask, “I think we did a lovely job, don’t you? Roy would be pleased.” My mother agreed.



About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his mother, her three sisters, and their influence on his life. Desecration Day is about his Aunt Gladys and his mother. Other pieces about his aunts include Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters and The Law Of Threes. He published two pieces about the life and death of his mother — Hands and In Memoriam.

He also wrote a trilogy about his father: My Father’s Witness, Bearing Witness, and My Life With Dad. Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Growing Older, Goat Ranch, and Stephenie Bit Me, Too.

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By Lita Sandoval


Let’s just say that 2009 has not been my best year. I was laid off from my job in January. I accepted a position for another job soon after I was laid off and it turned out to be a terrible situation. I quit within three months. To add to the stress of finding a job, I got kidney stones twice, caught two teenage girls trying to steal my car from the driveway, and even had my garbage can stolen!

I am fortunate I have a temporary part-time job, which basically has saved my life. I make just enough money to pay bills and only have enough left over for a few extras. I’ve been thinking about how I am going to afford Christmas gifts for my family. I cut my list way back to gifts for immediate family only. My daughter also wants to give gifts to her friends—six of them.

I decided that I would make gifts for everyone. And I wanted my daughter to make gifts for her friends, too. Together we made jewelry for her friends. It was fun spending time together picking out beads and deciding which friends would like certain beads and colors. The whole idea of making gifts together was definitely cost effective, but what came out of that experience was a great bonding opportunity. It was also fun watching my daughter’s creativity explode. We can now check six people off the Christmas list!

My father helped me to decide on very special gifts I will be making for my sister, niece, and daughter. My father is always heavy on my mind during the holidays. He passed away seven years ago. The man was a fabulous cook. Family and friends still salivate when they talk about his amazing marinated steaks or his incredible paella. I thought it would be cool to gather all of his recipes, re-type them, put them in a beautiful box and give them to my sister, niece, and daughter for Christmas.

It has been an incredible experience going through those recipes! It was like going back through a time machine. I can look at a recipe and associate a special occasion with the meal my dad prepared. On many of his recipe cards, he wrote little notes that made me remember his wicked sense of humor. He named dishes after himself or altered the name of something that would incorporate his name.

Some of his notes were just cool, like the one on his paella recipe. He named it Paella Al Al. My dad’s name was Al and if you speak Spanish, you get the humor in the title. At the bottom of the recipe card it says:

Recipe from a restaurant at La Carihuela – a fishing village on the Mediterranean outside Torremolinos. 1984


While going through the recipes, I found one of my favorites: my dad’s Tequila Shrimp. I had never attempted to make this particular dish. I decided I would make the Tequila Shrimp and take it to a party I was invited to.

I used to love going to the grocery store with my dad and helping him find just the right ingredients for his meals. Going to the store and picking out ingredients for the shrimp dish with my dad’s very particular eye was important. I was excited to put it all together. I took out the special cazuela my dad gave me and took care to make sure the tequila shrimp not only tasted good, but looked good. I think I succeeded.

I hope my sister, niece, and daughter will think of my dad when they try out one of his famous dishes. It really is a wonderful legacy that he has left all of us. What better way is there to connect with family and friends than to sit around a table with a wonderful meal? And because I saw that my mom had her own little box of recipes, I’ve decided I must put hers in with my dad’s. Most of her best recipes aren’t written down, so we made a date to sit down and write them all out.

Needless to say, my stress of holiday gift giving has gone by the wayside. Jewelry has been made, recipes have been written out and precious time has been spent being with, thinking of and enjoying time with family. It seems as though my year has ended so much better than it started out.





Dad Grilling, photo of Al Sandoval (Lita’s father) grilling
steaks at home circa 1966, photo © 1966-2009
by Olga Sandoval. All rights reserved.







Tequila Shrimp

  • 2 lbs. cooked shrimp
  • 2 oz. Tequila
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ cup fresh lime juice
  • 3 garlic cloves crushed
  • 1 bay leaf broken up
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • Dash black pepper
  • Garlic salt to taste

Mix well and add to shrimp. Coat well. Add:

  • 1 lemon and 1 lime thin sliced
  • 4 pearl onions thin sliced
  • 1 cup black olives sliced
  • 2 Tbs. chopped pimiento
  • 2 roasted, peeled, chopped green chilies

Marinade in refrigerator for at least three hours.






Lita Sandoval is a native of Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is a local blogger (currently on hiatus) known as Adelita—she made the top five “Best Bloggers” in Albuquerque the Magazine’s Best of City 2009, and for the past two years she’s been in the top three bloggers in the Alibi‘s Best of Burque—who writes about the funky hometown she affectionately calls “Burque” (pronounced boor-keh, extra roll on the “r”). She’s also a jewelry artist (check out her work at her Etsy shop, although she warns that she hasn’t had time to add much to it lately but will in the new year) and collector of many unusual things. Her teenage daughter keeps her on her toes, as do her rowdy dogs, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Etta James. Her favorite saying is, “Oh sí liar!”

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It’s so quiet. Mr. Stripeypants is down by the reflective heater, listening to me type. When I think of my birth, I think of a young girl, my mother Amelia, only 16 years old. I think of Augusta, Georgia in the 1950’s, Broad Street, one of the widest streets in the world, window shopping, my grandfather hanging out at the White Elephant bar. My mother tells me I had a thick head of black hair and the photographs bear that out. One in particular has me sitting in my grandfather’s lap. He is smiling, I am smiling, in a frilly dress and patent leather shoes.

I once thought I was born out of wedlock but that was another erroneous belief. It wasn’t until a few years ago when Mom and I were talking about her relationship with my father (whom I haven’t seen since I was about 6 years old) that she told me she married my father first — it wasn’t until later that I was conceived and born. I had thought until that time that she married him because she was pregnant. Nope. That’s how I began to learn how important it is to ask all the questions you have for your parents while they are still alive. Their memories may be fading, but at least you will have their version of what happened right from the horse’s mouth.

I was born not long after my Uncle Jack drowned in Clarks Hill Lake. He was only 18. Another assumption I made was that people were sad when I was born, still mourning the death of my uncle. Mom was quick to correct me, told me how joy-filled everyone was when I came into the world. What was it like for a 16-year-old in the 1950’s to birth a child? My father wasn’t a good provider. So my mother left him when I was two and went to work to put food on the table for us. Once she started showing, they made her quit high school, something that would be unthinkable today. They also made her quit her job in the Boy Scout admin office because they thought it would not be a good example for the boys to see a married woman that was pregnant.

It does make me realize how far we have come as women since the 1950’s. I recently heard a woman speak who was a stewardess on Northwest Orient in the 1950’s. She’s written a book and they were interviewing her on MPR. She said they had strict height and weight restrictions on stewardesses and you had to periodically “weigh in.” She also said you had to wear your hair a certain way, could not have dentures or partials, or wear glasses or contacts. Can you imagine the uproar today if those kinds of restrictions were put on American women?

But back to my birth. My earliest memories are not until I am about 6 years old. But once I went under hypnosis and remembered my birth father throwing me up in his arms and catching me, a loving gesture. I was an infant, all smiles. When I think of my birth, I think of my grandmother, too. And wish I could ask her what it was like for her when I was born. My mother tells me that nursing was painful. It makes me want to ask other women if nursing is painful for them. I never hear anyone talk about it. Much like I never hear people talk about miscarriages.

There are so many opportunities for women to be shamed. Are they good mothers, do they nurse, have they miscarried — many things which are out of their control. Did they have a natural birth or was labor induced. All of this falls on women, women who become mothers. A few years ago, my mother and I tried to find her step-sister’s grave. She died shortly after birth and my grandmother had scraped together the money for a marker. It was a rainy Georgia afternoon when Mom and I wandered through the Babyland area of the cemetery and finally stumbled upon her overgrown marker. There was an angel engraved into the stone.

Mom pushed the grass away with her foot, umbrella in her other hand, and I snapped a photograph. It was one of my first ventures back to Georgia to dig up the family history, interview my mother and other family members. The journey has led to many emotional ups and downs, most good. I felt happy that we had found the baby’s grave. And wondered about the circumstances of her birth. My grandmother is no longer here to tell me. She was unlucky in love in her early life. But the last man she married, Raymond, was a sweetheart. I felt so happy she finally found a man who would be sweet to her, someone she deserved.

You know what’s odd? I more remember the circumstances of each of my sibling’s births than I do my own. I was 4 years old when my brother came home from the hospital in Tennessee. I was 14 when my youngest sibling was born. We remember more than we think we do. If the right question is asked, a jumble of strange seemingly unlinked thoughts and emotions pour through the mind and heart. And that only leaves you to wonder more — what will be the circumstances of my death?




-Related to topic post WRITING TOPIC – 3 QUESTIONS. [NOTE: This is the third of three questions mentioned by actor and writer Anna Deavere Smith in an interview with Bill Moyers (see link). She talked about the questions in the context of interviewing people and listening to them. The three questions came from a linguist Smith met at a cocktail party in 1979; the questions were, according to the linguist, guaranteed to break the patterns and change the way people are expressing themselves. QuoinMonkey, ybonesy, and frequent guest writer Bob Chrisman take on the three questions by doing a Writing Practice on each.]

-Also related to posts: PRACTICE: Have You Ever Come Close To Death? — 15min (by ybonesy), PRACTICE: Have You Ever Come Close To Death? — 15min (by Bob Chrisman), PRACTICE — Have You Ever Come Close To Death? — 15min (by QuoinMonkey), PRACTICE: Have You Ever Been Accused Of Doing Something You Didn’t Do? — 15min (by Bob Chrisman); PRACTICE: Have You Ever Been Accused Of Doing Something You Didn’t Do? — 15min (by ybonesy), and PRACTICE — Have You Ever Been Accused Of Doing Something You Didn’t Do? — 15min (by QuoinMonkey), PRACTICE: Do You Know The Circumstances Of Your Birth? — 15min (by Bob Chrisman), PRACTICE: Do You Know The Circumstances Of Your Birth? — 15min (by ybonesy), and two Guest practices False Accusation, Almost Dying.

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Moms are the best
to hug and to nestle
My mama’s bad ass
She can arm wrestle







Bobbi goes up against MOM...

Bobbi versus Mom, in the First Annual Arm Wrestling Holiday Championship, December 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.





...and the winner is MOM!

And the winner is Mom!, photo © 2008-2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.





The holidays are just around the corner. We have tamales to make (after Thanksgiving) and biceps to beef up. Last year Mom beat at least five of us—my two daughters, myself, Dad, and my sister Bobbi—in a jolly game of arm wrestling. Mom is 83. (Did I mention she’s bad ass?)

What’s on your list of things to do before the holidays? And, what family traditions are you most looking forward to?

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By Bob Chrisman

 
 
 

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Father & Son, circa 1958, St. Joseph, Missouri,
photo © 2009, Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.

 
 
 
On May 3, 1952 I arrived to take part in the family drama. My parents celebrated their twelfth wedding anniversary the week after I was born. Dad had turned 38 in February. My sister would turn ten in September, followed by Mom’s 37th birthday the end of November.

As a child I adored my father, but around the age of five I didn’t want him to touch me. I would scream if he came close. He loved to come home from work and rub his unshaven face against my cheeks until they turned red. I hated that. I hated him.

My father exploded at odd times. Seemingly benign topics of conversation would cause him to yell and pound the table. Although never physically violent, his fits scared me and made conversation with him unpredictably frightening.

Not a particularly outgoing man, he withdrew more from social interactions. At family gatherings he would collect all the reading material in the house, find a comfortable chair, and read and sleep the afternoon away.

My sister left for college when I was nine. My father grew even more distant. His only ally had left the house.

The first craziness that I remember occurred one Sunday afternoon. My sister had come home. My grandmother had come to town from the farm. Our car pulled up in front of the house and I went to the door.

My mother was yelling. My father, half in and half out of the car, shouted at someone. I looked to see who they were screaming at and realized they were arguing. I had never seen them argue like that. “Sis, come here. You gotta see this.”

From behind me I heard, “What the hell?” She nudged me. “Shut the door. We don’t want them to know we saw.” I closed the door.

Five minutes later, Mom walked into the house and threw her purse on the bed. When she noticed us staring at her, she sighed, “Len will join us later. He has something to do right now.”

Twenty minutes passed before he returned home and sat down at the table. No one said a word about what had happened between them.

 
 
 

Years later my mother said, “Your father got scared when you started to first grade. He knew someone wanted to kidnap you kids. They planned to snatch you at the Frosty Treat.” The Frosty Treat was a popular, after-school, ice cream shop. Without any explanation our parents had forbidden us from joining our friends there. I didn’t think much about it. By the time I started school, I had grown used to these commands. The new order was, “Come home directly from school.” I obeyed.

My mother told me that Dad has accused her of moving the pillows on their bed to make him crazy. “We only had two pillows. I never understood what I had done.” Although these episodes continued through my childhood, she never talked about them.

When I asked about the argument on that Sunday afternoon, my mother swore me to silence. “Your dad said an angel descended into the church and stood next to him during the service. It communicated telepathically and told him to watch himself. The man next to him had been sent to see if he played with himself during church. I told him he was crazy. That’s when he yelled at me.”
 
“Mom, that’s nuts. Did you think of going for help?”

“To whom? God? I prayed for your dad night and day.”

“How about a psychiatrist or psychologist?”

“We took care of our own problems.”

 
 
 

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My Father, circa 1968, St. Joseph, Missouri, photo © 2009, Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.

 
 

Physical problems plagued Dad during the late 1960’s. The grain dust at work irritated his one good lung and caused severe asthma attacks. I can close my eyes and hear the gasping sound as he struggled to breathe. I can see him sitting at the kitchen table, his mouth wide open and his neck muscles strained, as he inhaled.

My mother walked twelve blocks in the dark to the pharmacy to buy the “breathing medicine.” She never asked me, her teenage son, to go. As soon as she left, I crawled under my bed and hid. I didn’t want to hear any calls for help. I’d fail him. I always did.

He underwent hernia surgery in December 1968 and a re-do in January 1969. He stayed off work until March. Two weeks after he returned to work he suffered his stroke.

Chaos erupted. My mother stopped being a mother and became a devoted wife. I resented his stroke because it hadn’t killed him and because it took my mother away.

Somewhere in the years that followed, he gave up. Not that I blame him. His life beat him down. The stroke and residuals destroyed what little will he had left.

It ended any chance I had to talk with him about what happened between us, to ask him questions, to make my accusations, to hear his side of the story. Even if he hadn’t lost his mind, I couldn’t have talked to him, so great was my hatred. On May 2, 1984, he died of old age. A birthday “present” I can never forget.

I’ve always felt incomplete as a man because he didn’t teach me the secrets that fathers pass to their sons. Even now, after decades of searching for that knowledge, which I doubt exists, I still feel inadequate.

 
 
 

Recently a psychic said, “Your father asks you to forgive him for what he did to you.”

Without hesitation I replied, “I have forgiven him. He needs to forgive himself.”

I joined forces with my mother. I disliked the failure I thought he was. I sometimes treated him with no dignity because I thought he deserved my contempt. Perhaps most importantly, I hated him because he didn’t love me enough. But then, I never gave him a chance. Like my father, I must forgive myself for all the things I did and didn’t do in my relationship with him. Only then can I truly bear witness for my father.

 


About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his mother, her three sisters, and their influence on his life. My Life With Dad is Part III in his exploration of a trilogy series about his father. Part I, My Father’s Witness, was published on red Ravine in August, followed in September by Part II, Bearing Witness.

Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters, Growing Older, Goat Ranch, Stephenie Bit Me, Too, and The Law Of Threes. He has also published two pieces about the life and death of his mother — Hands and In Memoriam.

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By Bob Chrisman



I possess no physical evidence to offer in defense of my father. Family stories and my own fragmented memories comprise what little I know of him. Fifty-seven years have blurred much of what I remembered, but I will bear witness for him.

At a trial, the court clerk would instruct me to raise my right hand. “Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” I would hesitate before I answered. I don’t know the “truth.” I only know my truth. But the court doesn’t want to hear my doubts. The only answer to the question is, “I do.”


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My Father – 8 Months Old, circa 1914, Missouri, photo © 2009, Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.



On February 28, 1914, my father, Len Chrisman, became the first child of H.T. and Annie Chrisman. In September of that same year, H.T.’s gall bladder ruptured. The resulting infection killed him. My father never knew his father, not even from stories, because his mother didn’t talk about the man.

Several men courted the Widow Chrisman. A local banker, my father’s favorite, asked her several times to marry him, but she refused.

When she remarried in 1920, she chose a widower, William Hecker, who had seven children. By all accounts, including some from his children, he was a very angry man. Mr. Hecker stipulated one condition for the marriage. “You must promise that you’ll never favor your son over my children.” She promised, and she never broke a promise.

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My Father In His Baby Carriage, circa 1914, Missouri, photo © 2009, Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.

My father rarely talked about the mother of his childhood. I remember him saying, “She married him because the children needed a mother. She felt sorry for them.”

The step-daughters resented her. Ruth, the oldest, had already married and left home. Fern and Gladys soon followed their oldest sister’s lead. The remaining daughter, Myrtle, who was my father’s age, loved both her new stepmother and stepbrother. The teenaged stepsons, Ralph and Glenn, took after their father. They hated my dad because he had been an only child with a mother all to himself. The remaining step-son, Everett, died in 1926. My father rarely spoke of him, except to say, “He died too young.”

Early in the marriage they lived in western Nebraska. One day the boys roped my dad and dragged him behind a horse through cactus patches. “I never cried. Mom pulled the needles out of my bottom and back with a pair of pliers. I didn’t cry then either. I never let them have that satisfaction.” His voice remained flat as he told the first part of the story, but cracked when he said. “You know, my own mother didn’t say anything to Dad Hecker or to the boys.”

A high school teacher offered to send him to college and pay his expenses. My father wanted to go. “Mom and Dad Hecker listened politely. The last thing he said was, ‘A brilliant mind like his shouldn’t go to waste.'”

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Widow Chrisman & Her Son, circa early 1900s, Missouri, photo © 2009, Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.


“Mom answered as soon as he finished, didn’t even take time to mull it over. ‘None of the other kids went to college. Len doesn’t need to go either.’ It wouldn’t have cost them anything. I left the room because I was so mad at her.”

Her decision doomed my dad to a lifetime of farm labor and blue collar jobs. He worked at a dairy. He worked in a foundry, a meat packing plant, and finally in a grain mill. He never fit in with his fellow workers. He read too much, thought too much.

My father met my mother in the mid-1930’s. She lived down the street from his parents. The two became friends. In the late 1930’s he traveled to Oregon to pick fruit because local jobs didn’t exist. His traveling companions were his future brothers-in law. He wrote letters to my mother. She saved them, called them “love letters” even though they contained no obvious expressions of love, other than “Love, Len.”


I asked my mother why she married him. At that time, he had been bedridden for five years. “Did you love him?”

She dodged the question. “I promised myself that I would marry someone like my dad.”

“Was Daddy like him?”

“No, he was nothing like my father. I felt sorry for Len. He needed me.” I cringed. My heart hurt. She hadn’t loved my father. I didn’t ask any more questions because I didn’t want to know the answers.


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My Father Dressed For A Tom Thumb Wedding, circa early 1900's, Missouri, photo © 2009, Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.


In 1942, my sister was born. My father loved her. She was his special child.

In 1943 his stepfather died, but not before he secured a promise from his wife to watch over Ralph. My father never understood why she agreed to put up with someone who had treated her so rudely, a man who cussed and swore about everything. Maybe she felt sorry for him because his vision was so severely impaired. Whatever the reason, she took care of him until her death 32 years later in 1975.

In 1952 I arrived. Unexplainably, my mother laid sole claim to me. She excluded my sister and father from taking care of me. I was her child. The possession of my life had begun.

For the first five years I slept next to my parents’ bed in a crib, then on a tiny rollaway bed. Our four-room house didn’t have any extra rooms. My father added two rooms, moved my sister to a new bedroom and moved me into her old room.

He lived his early life abandoned and betrayed by the people who loved him or should have loved him.  He had no protector, no father. Long after he died I complained to my mother about the kind of father he had been. “Don’t be so hard on him. He never learned to be a father because he never had one himself.” My father and I never had a chance to have a normal father-son relationship. That’s all the truth I know for now.




About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his mother, her three sisters, and their influence on his life. This is Part II of a series of three about his father. Part I, My Father’s Witness, was published on red Ravine in August. Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters, Hands, Growing Older, Goat Ranch, Stephenie Bit Me, Too, The Law Of Threes, and In Memoriam.

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