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Posts Tagged ‘mothers & sons’

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


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 Louis Robertson


Scars tell a story, some easily remembered, some long forgotten. My oldest “memory scar” looks like the letter C on the webbing between my left thumb and index finger. I remember getting this scar like it was yesterday, although I think I was three at the time, when I accidentally closed a cap gun on it. It was one of those old western style guns that opened on a pivot to load more caps. The experience seemed so surreal with the cap gun hanging off of my hand as I tried to shake it off.

The second scar I remember well is on my left arm about 4 inches below my elbow. I got this one at Grandpa’s house while cutting the grass with the riding mower. Using the riding mower was something I didn’t do often and something Mother reluctantly allowed me to do.

Uncle R had a Great Dane who was allowed outside on a run (a cable run from the barn to a tree with a chain which hooked to his collar). Over time, he would create a sag in the wire and the constant running wore the edge of the cable to a razor sharp edge. I would use a wooden pole to hold up the wire and mow near the pole as I mowed the lawn. On this day I got a little too close to the pole and knocked it over causing the wire to be dragged along my arm.

I remember stopping the mower, walking inside (trying to keep the bloody arm out of mom’s sight) so I could make it to the bathroom to patch it up and keep mowing. Unfortunately, as blood dripped off my arm, Mom’s “mother sense” kicked in and she made me stop so she could see what was going on. By this time, blood was coursing downing my arm and I knew I was done mowing for the day.

My most impressive scar(s) would have to be from my two liver transplants. The first transplant was in 1993, and the second in 2003. The scar starts in the center of my chest and goes down toward my belly for about 4 inches where it meets a scar that is shaped like a lopsided chevron. The left side is about 6 inches and the right continues to my right side. The transplant team calls this my Mercedes but if pressed they will confirm that it is really called a modified chevron incision.

There have been several things I’ve wanted to do with this scar, including getting tattoos that incorporate it into them. Since tattoos do not work well on scar tissue, I was thinking about getting a dashed line near the scars with the instructions “Cut here.” Another thought was to make it look like a zipper that is opened at the top. I am not sure where I will go with these, but I have over a year to decide.

Other scars I have found make me say, “Where did that come from?” But that is another story.


Frankenbelly 2

Frankenbelly 2, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, August 2003, photo © 2003-2010 by Louis Robertson. All rights reserved.



-Related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC – SCARS

NOTE: Scars is a Writing Topic on red Ravine. Guest writer Louis Robertson was inspired to join QuoinMonkey and ybonesy in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

Louis has experienced medical challenges since he was a teenager. After his first liver transplant in 1993, his perspective on life became more focused and his appreciation for the little treasures life grants increased. When he learned he needed a second liver transplant, his focus moved to preparing his family and children for a future without him. He now is a candidate for a third liver transplant and lives his life watching for life lessons he can pass on to his children. He shared some of those lessons in his piece on red Ravine: Things I Wanted You To Learn.

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By Judith Ford


Image by Jude Ford, July 2009, in front of the Mathematics Building, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, photo © 2010 Jude Ford. All rights reserved.


This is my son, at the door of the math building at the University of Michigan. A month after this picture he’d go through that door to begin his life as a math PhD candidate and as a college teacher. He’d discover the frustration of trying to teach calculus to a bunch of freshmen who wouldn’t give a damn. Who wouldn’t share one drop of the passion he feels for his subject. Years before this photo, he’d told me, with tears in his eyes, that he wished more people could see how elegant and beautiful math was.

Despite the beauty of math, it was never enough.

My son started grad school a month short of his 21st birthday. He was overly ready and not ready at all. He’d had a summer of brutal awakenings, realization upon realization of all he missed out on by being a child math prodigy. Not that he could have avoided being who he was. He was blessed, as much as cursed, with an unusual mind, shunned by children who thought he was showing off, trying to make them feel stupid, when all he was doing was using the language and thoughts natural to him. He had a 30-year-old’s vocabulary by the time he was in first grade. I’m not kidding.

He and I had a conversation just a week ago, about his intellectual differentness. He pointed out to me that he’d met a lot of really smart people in the honors math program at the U of Chicago, from which he’d graduated last June. “There are a lot of people out there who are way smarter than I am,” he said. “I don’t think I was all that unusual when I was a kid.”

I disagreed. “Yes, dear, you really were different. It was obvious by the time you were 2. You learned things in big huge gulps. At a rate that wasn’t usual, that was, frankly, a little scary. And you didn’t know how to play with other kids.”

“I still don’t.”

“That’s what was scary to me when you got tested and those scores came back so freakishly high. I knew you were going to be lonely.”

“I don’t remember ever not being lonely.”

“Kids your age were intimidated by you. By third grade, they’d started avoiding you.”

“I thought they all knew this secret thing that I’d somehow missed out on. I thought math could make up for that. I thought it would solve everything. I was pathetic. I never learned how to be a human being.”

“How brave of you to see that,” I think I said. “So now what do you need to do?”

“I don’t have a clue,” he answered.

There’s ivy growing over the top of this door, up at the right hand corner. Brings to mind the academic cliché of ivied walls and the idea that this door, being partly occluded, is yet another incomplete solution, leading to an unknown and no doubt imperfect path. Math, a career in math, still won’t solve my son’s life or end his loneliness.

See the way he holds his arms and shoulders. His uncertainty and discomfort are obvious. And that he’s trying to be patient with me as I take his picture. He squints at me. He frowns. He knows I’m doing a mom thing that, for some reasons not clear to him, I need to do.

Does he know how my heart hurts for him? How much I wish I could soothe away the pain in his face with something as simple as a hug and a bedtime story. How these things, too, are mom things that I can’t help feeling. He doesn’t need to know. I don’t tell him and I try not to let him see.

He tolerates my hug when I say good-bye. He doesn’t hug back. He doesn’t hold on. His gaze, over my shoulder, already fixed on that door.

It’s trite to say that when he walked through that door he walked into the rest of his life. But I want to say it. So I am. He did. He walked into his adult life without a clue. Which is the only way possible to walk into one’s life. And interestingly, the only way that is, in fact, a kind of solution.


Judith Ford is a psychotherapist and writer who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was red Ravine’s very first guest writer, with her 25 Reasons I Write post. She joins ybonesy and QuoinMonkey in writing about Topic post WRITING TOPIC — DOOR. Judith’s other pieces on red Ravine include Mystery E.R. and a writing group practice I Write Because.

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By Bob Chrisman

 
 
 

BOB FATHER & SON 1958 IMG_1798

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.”

 
 
 

BOB FATHER 1968 IMG_1792

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.”


BOB IMG_1781

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.

BOB IMG_1780

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.'”

BOB IMG_1782

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.


BOB IMG_1787

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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By Bob Chrisman

 
 

May 2, 2009 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of my father’s death. He died physically that day, but he had died to most everyone a long time before that. In March 1969 he punched the time clock as he left work. He felt a numbness speed through his left side. He stumbled to a doorway to brace himself and waited for coworkers to find him.

They brought him home because he told them to take him there, not to the hospital. They carried him from the car, up the three sets of stairs and into the front room where they sat him on the sofa. My mother called an ambulance. “I’m going with your father. You drive up later.”

My world crumbled that day when God answered my prayers and struck my father down. I hated him for a variety of unclear reasons. He didn’t love me. He wanted nothing to do with me. He wasn’t good to my mother. Despite all these vague, but strong reasons, the guilt built inside me. I asked myself repeatedly,  “What have I done?”

The doctors ran tests. They diagnosed a relatively small stroke and couldn’t understand why his physical condition didn’t improve. He had retained his mental faculties.

They transferred him to the university hospital in Columbia. My mother took the bus every weekend to visit him…a four-hour ride each way. He improved a little. I saw him one time there. He took his walker and accompanied me down the hall when I left.

When he came home months later, the ambulance people carried him up the stairs to the house and placed him in a wheelchair in the front room. His entire life centered on the front room and his bedroom. In three years he lost his mind.

 
 
He didn’t know me anymore. His son flew an airplane for a living. One day he said, “My son doesn’t come visit. I think you’d like him.” Even though I hated him, I wish he had remembered me. It hurt that he created another son who he admired.

He thought my mother was his mother. His repressed anger at her burst out. She told me the first time it happened. He screamed at her. “You keep me a prisoner in this bed.”

She bowed her head. “I’m embarrassed to admit that I threw back his covers. ‘If you can walk, then get up and walk.’ I stood where he couldn’t see me and watched as he struggled to sit up. He couldn’t. He couldn’t even roll over.” She started to cry.

“I couldn’t bear it so I covered him up. He had that scared look that people get when they realize how bad things really are. I couldn’t look at him. I ran to the back porch and cried my eyes out.”

 

For several months, he visited the circus in his mind. I would sit on his bed and he would ask, “May I have some cotton candy and peanuts?” He would ramble on and on about the men on the trapeze and the elephant.

Next he moved to his paranoid phase. My mother (who he still thought was his mother) had joined a conspiracy against him. “Get the gun. Shoot her. Get the gun while she’s out of the room.”

“Daddy, we don’t have any guns in the house. Never did.”

“Yes, it’s in the second drawer. Now, go get it.”

I looked in the drawer. I carried the drawer to his bed and dumped its contents. “See, there isn’t any gun. We never had a gun.”

“The bitch hid it. They know I won’t stand for her abuse.”

I put the drawer away and left the room. I never told my mother about that incident.

 
 

People forgot him. He became a fixture to me like a piece of furniture that held painful memories. I avoided him, didn’t talk to him for almost 10 years. Why bother?

The afternoon of May 2, 1984 he died. By the time I made it home, my mother had removed all signs of his illness…15 years boxed up and carried to the basement. The hospital bed disappeared. The commode vanished. I felt like I had entered a twilight zone. “Where is all the stuff?” I asked.

“Your uncle helped me take it all to the basement. Your father’s dead. No use in keeping those things around.”

People who attended the visitation the night before the funeral acted surprised. Some of them had known my mother for years. “We thought she was a widow. We didn’t know that your father was still alive.” In many ways she had become a widow in March of 1969.

 

We laid him to rest at the cemetery in Gower on a gray, cloudy day. The minister conducted a short, graveside service. I waited for someone to lower the casket into the vault. No one appeared. The mourners left for their cars.

The most profound sadness filled me. Once again he had been abandoned by the people who said they loved him. I hadn’t loved him for years, but I couldn’t leave him all alone. I wanted to stay with his coffin until they lowered it and covered it with dirt.

My mother yelled, “Get in the car. The ladies of the church have a lunch waiting for us.”

I looked at the box that held the body of the man who had been my father. The sadness kept me from leaving.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. “What’s wrong with you?” My mother pulled on my arm.

“I don’t want to leave him here by himself. Can’t we wait until they lower the coffin into the grave? He must be lonely.” I could barely speak for the tears.

“Don’t be silly. He isn’t here.” She pulled me to the car.
 
My last memory is this: his gray metal coffin rests on a shiny chrome frame, the canopy of the viewing tent flaps wildly in the wind, clouds move across the gray sky and shadows run over the green grass and tombstones. I wish I could say his death ended our troubled relationship, but it didn’t. More of the story remained to be told. I must recall it now to bear witness for my father.

 
 
 

Bob Parents Gravestone IMG_0942 auto

R.I.P, Gower, Missouri, January 2009, photo © 2009 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.

 
 
 

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 his first piece about his father, Part I of a series of three. 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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