Do you know the sound of stainless-steelware clanging on a ceramic tile floor, that ear-thumping clatter that causes a physical cringe and sometimes an annoyed bark or expletive? When I hear that awful sound, I jump up from whatever chair or sofa I am occupying and bend to pick the knife or fork up, because Dad cannot. “The floor is no-man’s land,” he looked at me with a rueful chuckle. He cannot bend to pick up the knife, or the onion ring, or the paper between the Swiss cheese slices, or the potato chip that falls to the floor. “This is such a joke!” he laughs, looking at the butter knife on the floor. But his laugh is all wrapped up in sadness and frustration and a growing discouragement, and his reference to the “joke” is chagrined—not bitter or angry or hateful, rather just recognizing the irony and perhaps cruelty but inevitability of one’s late-life dis-abilities. I am certainly not laughing at this life-joke. Watching his painful struggle for every inch of territory crossed, charting his daily deterioration, pains me into my own sadness and frustration and growing discouragement. It just is no fun to watch a loved one march steadily toward the end of life. The beginning of life brings an entirely different set of challenges, which most toddlers handle with a combination of cheerful enthusiasm and intense determination. I invited two-year-old Lila to help me start the cherry cheesecake by crushing graham crackers inside a zip-loc bag, pounding them with our fists and grinding them with a rolling pin, a smile playing on her whole face from the unanticipated joy of harmless destruction. Lila, and her parents, and my parents, and our neighbors (and myself) vastly enjoyed that cherry cheesecake. I felt pleased with the culinary triumph, though besmeared with the butter in the crust having leaked through the seam of the false-bottomed tart pan and puddled smokily in the bottom of the oven for me to wipe up at night when I was too tired and never wanted to see another cookbook or dirty mixing bowl again. But that weariness will have worn off by tomorrow, and soon I will bake a tarte citron or soufflé au chocolat, which we will all enjoy a bit too much.
Crab grass grew tall and broad amidst the chocking lily patch, the two nearly indistinguishable: the tares and the wheat, shoots intermingled and roots intertwined. But I discerned the difference, and determined not to condemn the wheat to a life of struggle against the tares, determined to pluck the grass from the midst of the lily shoots. The tares would be yanked and discarded not at the end of the world, but in the immediacy of now. And I am proud to say I did not uproot a single lily by mistaken identity or carelessness, and the weeded lily patch, sans grass, seemed to sparkle clean and green under the enormous Austrian pines, from which hung a small birdhouse of my nondescript design: four walls and a gable roof. A pair of meek and shy Black-capped Chickadees chattered softly at me for pulling the tares so close to their abode, confident enough to flit six feet away, but feeling too vulnerable to fly to the closer birdhouse. “This fall I want to plant bulbs in all these beds,” Dad enthused to me from his chair, where he watched me weed. “You can pick out the bulbs you want.” How wonderful they would be, I imagined, excited at next spring’s prospect. Dad asked me to cut off a large pine bough that hung its long heavy burden exclusively over the fence into the church parking lot. I did, and dragged it around the block into our driveway for later sectioning, moving then to cut out the old deadwood trunks from the arctic blue willow bushes. Dad thought Brian might like the wood for his fountain pen projects—he cuts branches into sanded rings, the bark still on, for pen pillows and pen beds and ink vial stands, which he posts about for admiring fellow fountain pen enthusiasts. Our day’s chores complete, Mom and Dad and I sat at the dinner table enjoying leftover rice casserole, charmed by the long-beaked hummingbird seated momentarily at the feeder, charmed by the ebullient pretty songs of the house finches, charmed by the chickadee couple flitting from the pine boughs to the hole of their humble home.
Pictured above: new lily shoots with the grab grass carefully removed.
The dishwasher door springs both broke and the heavy door slammed down if not snapped securely shut, and with the anchor broken off the washer tipped forward and the dish-laden trays rolled out with a jarring clang. Brian helped me pull the machine out and install the new springs and pulley cords. Tracy helped fashion homemade counter-anchors from common elbow brackets—and they worked! On advice from the Bosch store, I had bought an expensive new dishwasher base, but was relieved to find the old base had a built-in slot for the new springs, and I was spared the chore of disassembling the washer and the exasperation of not being able to see in my mind how to reassemble the parts back into the whole (an annoying life-long intellectual weakness). As it was, You Tube was indispensable, even to replace the springs. I felt thrilled and relieved we had succeeded in fixing the dishwasher, and thanked my Lord the repair was simpler than anticipated. I had not realized the stress and pressure I was putting on myself to get the machine fixed. But then Brian found a pool of water under the kitchen sink, dripping from a filter cartridge seal, dripping down a hole into the cavity above the finished basement, and we could not find the filter wrench. The bowl I placed under the filter filled overnight and spilled again into the dark void in the floor. Following with my eyes the various colored hoses (blue, yellow, red, black, and white), I discerned how to turn off the water to the filter and close the bladder tank valve—and the drip stopped, just in time to leave for church. Staggering with his cane, Dad wondered if today would be his last day walking to our habitual pew near the front. “My legs just won’t work. I’m getting worse.” Post-polio sets in like a heavy dense discouraging fog that never blows or burns off but grows only heavier and denser and more oppressive, and one’s feet become increasingly thick and leaden and mired in an energy-sapping sink. He made it to and from church, today, with help under each arm. Terry asked me how Dad was doing, not needing my response to see the truth, and knowing my unspoken thoughts as he offered, “I have a good wheelchair. I’ll dust it off and bring it over.” I thanked him, and suggested I would come get it so I could sneak it into the house unseen. Dad thinks he likely will skip the walker and go straight from the cane to the wheelchair. After church and rice casserole and a nap, Mom showed me how the DVD player would not respond to the remote or to direct button pushing—it had swallowed the DVD and refused to give it back. She pried the tray open with a serrated Cutco knife, and the tray stuck stubbornly out, appearing much like a dead animal with its tongue lolling. Remembering the no-longer-used basement entertainment equipment, I brought up the old combination VCR/DVD player, made before HDMI technology, and plugged the red, white, and yellow audio/video cords into the TV. With new batteries in the remote, the old machine came to life, functioning correctly and obeying Mom’s commanding button bushes. She was so pleased she decided the moment was right for an episode of NCIS, which she learned was also a favorite of Gabe’s other great-grandparents, the Scotts. The word “surprised” describes my reaction to having fixed three broken appliance problems in two days—generally I am not very handy. I only wish I could fix the only real problem of these four: Dad’s crumbling legs and feet and disintegrating mobility. The best I may be able to do is to push his chair down the aisle at church to sit near our customary pew, on the front row, where space was left for a wheelchair.
The church responsibility I would like least of all—and every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a church responsibility—is being in charge of recruiting families to clean the church every Saturday morning at 8:00. But Jim does not seem to mind, and called to remind me that my turn would be this Saturday. The six families had last names beginning with the As and Bs, plus a holdover Y. Jim set me to work vacuuming the cultural hall (a carpeted basketball court and social hall). Until my first decade in life, if Church members wanted a church meetinghouse building, they funded the building, built the building, operated the building, and maintained the building with their own labor and funds. In 1971-1972 Dad worked nearly every night on our nascent New Jersey church building, digging footing trenches, laying brick, mountain baseboards, painting cinderblock walls, stretching carpet. Dad had been put in charge of the enormous volunteer project, in addition to his job as an international corporate lawyer, his job as a lay minister, and his jobs as husband and father. My siblings and I have marveled at how he did it all, and did it all ably and well. Everyone that helped with the construction project received a small plaque made from scrap wood trim showing the number of hours worked: Dad’s plaque announced his 312 volunteer hours. Half a century later, the Church now builds and operates its meetinghouses with Church funds, collected from the tithing of members worldwide. But Church members clean the buildings that they attend. My willingness and cheerfulness about rising early on Saturday to scrub toilets and vacuum floors in my Utah church building is one of several built-in barometers by which I can measure my mental health. (The frequency and virulence of under-my-breath profanity is another faithful manifestation of stormy emotional weather.) My cheerfulness this Saturday to rise early and clean the church was a good sign, in contrast to past years where despair and tension and exhaustion kept me in bed. And I only swore a few times when tripping on the vacuum cleaner cord—no one knew but me. Other church members on our A-B (and Y) team were a commercial litigation lawyer, a pediatric anesthesiologist, a happy shy Downs syndrome man, a retired long-haul truck driver, and assorted children. Wielding our rubber gloves and spray bottles, status and position meant nothing—we all put our shoulders to the wheel, counted our blessing of service, and counted our blessing of being together in the community of our Church. And on the other side of the country, my younger brother was scrubbing toilets and vacuuming carpets in his North Carolina church building, his barometer reading gentle spring weather with wisps of clouds in a blue sky.
The FedEx driver jumped from his parked truck and ran into our front yard. I had checked on Dad twenty minutes earlier as he puttered around the yard with a weeding tool doubling as a cane in one hand, and a folded camp chair serving both as cane and emergency rest station in the other. I bolted from my home office and found Dad sitting in his chair, in the park strip, calmly watching the busy Pepperwood traffic go by. “The driver helped me get to my chair,” he commented, telling me how he had again pushed past the limits of his strength and found himself hugging the sweetgum tree, too weak to stand, too weak to make it to his chair fifteen feet away, trembling violently. “I don’t know my limits until I have passed them!” Dad explained. The FedEx driver had walked him to his chair, where he now sat comfortable and calm, as if no crisis had occurred. I was not there when he needed me—and I cannot always be there when he needs me—but someone else was, and that is sufficient. No matter his state of exhaustion, Dad manages to ride the mower. “I’m just sitting,” he insists stubbornly, and I do not argue. With fertilizer applied, the sprinklers fixed and adjusted, and warm spring days, the grass is thick and green and growing fast. Cooking that evening, wearing my apron, I took a break to sit with Mom and watch the sunset. An enormous pile of cut grass in the front yard caught my attention. Dad had found the strength to dump it and mow on, but was too weak to bag it. I asked Mom when the sprinklers would come on. “Now,” she said. That pile of grass would be infinitely messier to pick up soaked with water, so I jumped out of my chair and grabbed a can and tools, running without shoes onto the lawn. I scooped up the grass with a snow shovel and filled the can, too heavy to lift. Dad had joined us while I scooped, and called out, “Just drag the can.” I imagine I was quite a sight, still in my dress shirt and tie, wearing a kitchen apron, sporting brightly striped socks, frantically scooping grass into a can with an orange snow shovel. Sprinkler heads popped up and sprayed me just as I reached the driveway, dragging the heavy can. My cooking called me back into the kitchen. Stanley Steamer had come earlier in the day to shampoo all the carpets, which were still wet, so I wiped my socks clean of grass and dust to not soil the newly-cleaned carpets. Dad told us after dinner that he could not find one of his hearing aids. In the dark the next morning, I slid his recliner from the kitchen back into its customary spot on the now-dry carpet, and searched the cracks of his recliners. I found the lost hearing aid on the kitchen table, and left the pair in a glass cup for him to find when he wandered down for breakfast. Despite another day’s mishaps and adventures, all was well as I drove off to work.
A pair of Mallard ducks dozing happily on the front lawn, waiting for the sprinklers to come on.
Two million persons trudged after their liberator, Moses, into the wilderness, where soon they murmured of hunger and thirst and accused Moses of leading them into the desert to die. At least in Egypt they had their flesh pots and ate their fill. So, God promised Moses he would rain down bread from heaven for them, and Manna was born. They awoke one morning and found the buttery flakes distilled out of the evaporating dew, melting away later in the scorching sun, and breeding worms and spoiling overnight. “Man-hu?” they asked each other—What is it? These men and women and children labored a good portion of every day to scrape and slurp enough manna to be filled for the day, manna lying on the ground like so much crepuscular frost. They consumed manna as their daily meal for forty years, grinding and baking it into little oily cakes. I do not like eating the same food two days consecutive, let alone two years, and perhaps we can sympathize with their licking frost every day for forty years, with a very occasional lusty glut on cucumbers and quail. No longer hungry, now they murmured about the monotony of manna, as would I, I am sure, and maybe you, too, sitting at their dinner table. “Our soul is dried away” they wailed upon seeing only manna, manna every day, weeks leading into four decades. What I could learn from their experience, I have wondered, both of being provided for and of complaining about the manna mundane. I have decided I can learn two principal lessons, the first to recognize quotidian providence, the second to choose elevated perspective, because I receive manna every day, tiny flaking flecks left after the night’s dew, in the form of little aids and prompts and truths that bless and build me. Uncountable portions of manna that nourish and connect us to Providence. I will grow weary of it, I know, and will yearn for meat and come to curse the blessing. The question is whether I am smart enough and strong enough both to recognize the manna in my life and to be grateful for that manna despite its endless humble ubiquity. Today’s manna is not getting into a wreck on my long commute and listening to accounts of U.S. Grant’s principled integrity and grit and Mom and Dad enjoying their broccoli rice stir-fry without the spoiled discarded shrimp and sitting by Mom watching the sunset and the lawn sprinklers working after winter and the green grass and the waddling Mallards and the absence of strife and the presence of abundance and the love of family and for Dad giving his big blue walker a try for my sister and this desk and this computer and this Holy Bible translated with brilliance and beauty 500 years ago by the mad King James’ hundreds of scribes and scholars and my comfortable box spring bed and the work that pays the bills and saves for the future and children that love me and call me Dad and the children that kiss my cheek and call me Gwumpa. These buttery bits make life livable, and the questions for me are whether I can see the morning’s manna and can choose to be meekly grateful every day of the long years for its divine source and sustaining nourishment. Some moments I can; many moments I cannot; and every day I try again, even while scraping and cooking and savoring my forty-four thousandth manna meal, my bread from heaven in my wilderness.
Brother Liu rang the door chime and asked me to deliver the Mother’s Day sermon in church in two weeks. Feeling honored, but also intimidated and overwhelmed, I set to researching my Church’s teachings about motherhood, and searching my memory for vivid images of meaningful times spent with my mother. A good place to begin was this simple statement of Church doctrine: “Just as we have a Father in Heaven, we have a Mother in Heaven.” A prominent Church member and businesswoman, Sister Dew, explains that Eve mothered all of mankind when she made the most courageous decision any woman has ever made, to leave the Garden of Eden and to begin the mortality both of Earth and of humanity. Eve modeled “the characteristics with which women have been endowed: heroic faith, a keen sensitivity to the Spirit, an abhorrence of evil, and complete selflessness.” Never married, and without children of her own, she asserts what I welcome as divine truth: as daughters of our Heavenly Father, and as daughters of Eve, all women are mothers. Every time a woman builds the faith or reinforces the nobility of a young woman or man, every time a woman loves or leads anyone even one small step along the path, that woman is true to her endowment and calling and inherent nature as a mother, declaring, Are we not all mothers? I can easily use the word “endowment” to refer to my own mother’s presence in my life. In our weekly family gatherings, Mom taught us children new Church primary songs by writing words and symbols on posterboard. Every morning before school I found a bowl of steaming whole wheat cereal, made from wheat she ground, and creamed with powdered milk she mixed in the blender. On Sunday afternoons, Mom read us wonderful books—like The Secret Garden—while we munched on small quantities of M&Ms. She took us to free concerts and musicals in the park. She was my church choir director for nine of my years in New Jersey. Mom took me to pick wild asparagus, and taught me to make blackberry jam, sealing the jars with hot paraffin wax poured on top. She gave me swimming lessons and supported me in Scouting. She nursed me through endless ear infections, cheered for me when I succeeded, believed in me when I failed, and buttressed me when I mourned. And she drove me all over the Garden State to give me enriching musical, educational, cultural, and nature opportunities. Coming from a rural Utah town, Mom took on the world when she and Dad moved to New York City, living in Greenwich Village, and then to São Paulo, Brazil, for post-graduate school and work, soon settling in New Jersey for a 35-year career. And she relished it all. I have heard endearing stories about children who burst through the door after school, calling, “Mom—I’m home!” At almost 60 years old, I again get to experience the privilege of walking through the front door each day after work and calling out, “Hi Mom. I’m home.” I think the word “mother” is synonymous with “home.” My 20-minute sermon ended with the blessing of living Apostle Holland upon all mothers, “Be peaceful. Believe in God and in yourself. You are doing better than you think you are. Thank you. Thank you for giving birth, for shaping souls, for forming character, and for demonstrating the pure love of Christ.” How relieved yet invigorated I felt after finishing the talk! And Mom seemed happy with my tribute to her on Mother’s Day.
(Pictured above: Mom’s Mother’s Day bouquet.)
Ely discovered water pooled on the laundry room floor and reported the flood to Mom. Together they mopped up the water with rags. Appliance said he could have a new pump shipped from Washing in a few days. I had procrastinated, and needed to wash my clothes that very day. I focused on yard work, putting off my evening trip to the laundromat. But when Terry and Pat, the nice neighbors, stopped by to visit, Mom told them about the washer and the laundromat and they insisted I come to their house to use their washer. “Do you want me to do it for you?” Pat asked kindly, but I do not allow anyone handle my dirty laundry, and told her I would enjoy doing it, thank you. Ely is a housecleaner. Dad has vacuumed the carpets and swept and mopped the floors and cleaned the bathrooms and scrubbed the shower walls his whole married life, but has run out of strength, mobility, and steam. Ely, a delightful, humble, thorough dual citizen, now takes care of what Mom and Dad can no longer take care of. They do not call her the cleaning lady; they call her Ely, their friend and indispensable helper. The house tidied, Brian and Avery arrived with two-year-old Lila to celebrate his 32nd birthday, and I was touched he wanted to celebrate with us. We set up cornhole and ring toss and a PVC scaffold onto which one tosses golf balls joined by short ropes. Lila objected to how my rope-tied-spheres hung from the rungs—“No! Gwampa Waja!” she insisted. She repositioned each hanging rope according to her adorable imagination, delightedly proclaiming the decorated structure her Christmas tree. At dinner, I decided ground sirloin is much tastier than hamburger, well worth the extra one dollar per pound. I had prepared a birthday dessert from my French cookbook—Brian chose chocolate mousse, which I have mastered after many trials. Into the dessert cups we jammed and lighted three candles. Lila made sure her daddy blew them out correctly. An unconventional birthday “cake,” still the result was superb (thank you Julia), with strong Pero substituting for strong coffee. The sun dipped low behind the house, and the air quickly chilled. Dad and I sat on patio chairs listening to the red House Finch sing with happy gusto, perched on a spiny blue spruce nearby. “Listen to that little guy sing!” Dad hooted. We commented on what a happy thing it is—a happy miraculous thing—that nature sings.
“I’ll go with you!” I enthused when Mom showed me her invitation to her 64th high school reunion, for the Class of ’58. I have never once attended my high school, college, or law school reunions, but felt excited about going to Mom’s. But the morning of, she confessed to being very nervous and perhaps not wanting to go. I suggested we just go for an afternoon drive and perhaps stop in at the reunion to see what it was like. We drove through the old dilapidated Magna neighborhood, Mom pointing out “Uncle John’s” house here and “Uncle Jim’s” house there. With Mom hanging on my arm, we entered the high school cafeteria and saw milling around a milieu of gray smiling heads and gnarled mottled hands with an assortment of canes and walkers. Faces mostly were unrecognizable to Mom after 64 years, but looking at each other’s nametags through the bottoms of their trifolds, recognition dawned and faces lit up. “Lucille!” one woman cried. “Valorna!” Mom called back. They were young girls again. Louie Notarianni wandered over with a pleasant hello. “He was so cool then,” Mom whispered to me. “Now look at him!” I guess carrying the cool is harder at 85. “Neil wasn’t very nice,” she remembered, but noted how pleasant he was to everyone now. And her second cousin Gay (with the same maiden name, Bawden) ambled over with a smile and a hug. “When I called in and found out you were coming,” Gay rattled to Mom, “I decided the long drive from Portland would be worth it.” Still sweet friends. Don Lund welcomed the crowd and explained how Doreen Harmon had catered the lunch from Harmon’s grocery store as a gift to her class. Don held up like a waving flag a typed list of 147 Gone But Not Forgotten classmates, 147 out of a class of 200. The list sobered me, knowing Mom was one of a dwindling minority of surviving members of the Class of ’58. Which one of these good cheerful persons will be next to join this list? I wondered. I hoped it would not be Mom, turning 83 this year. The scull & crossbones on the reunion announcement added a macabre touch to the event, even knowing the Pirate was the mascot of Cyprus High. Mom decided she had had enough of a good thing, and that we could “go home now.” I hurried over to cousin Gay, a spritely youthful woman, embraced her (for the last time in this life), and crowed, “The Bawdens are great!” twinkling to her husband that the Iversons were okay, too.
“I’m not feeling well this morning,” Dad muttered, and Mom cried out, “Oh, Nelson! Again? What are we going to do?” She tossed her needlepoint in sudden tears and shuffled to the kitchen, making herself busy with her morning herbal tea and granola breakfast, leaving Dad on his bedroom couch to contemplate the ever more difficult daily ordeal of shoving off to the shower and dressing. I hoped he would feel better after swallowing his medicine with a glass of water. And I hoped Mom could let go of her terrible fear for his welfare. His noon breakfast over, we left in the Mighty V8 for the grocery store. Grill fixings were in order with my son Brian visiting for his 32nd After finishing with produce and meat, I told Dad I would get the dill pickle hamburger chips, and rushed off down the aisle. I put the pickle jar in my cart, and he asked me as he rolled up if I had seen anything else we needed or that looked good to me as I had walked down that aisle. I looked at him, then down the aisle, unsure of what it contained. Focused on the pickle job, I had not seen anything else on the aisle, and reported as much. “I saw everything,” he asserted. “And I wanted everything I saw.” His unbounded enthusiasm became evident as we reached Luana’s check-out counter with three full shopping carts in tow. Home by 3:30 p.m., Dad announced lunch time, and set to work building his onion sandwich. Knowing the strain of walking and bending to retrieve the makings from the fridge, I tossed on the counter baggies with leftover onion and tomato, the mustard and mayonnaise, the sliced ham and cheese, and the multi-grain bread, then ascended stairs to my home office to finish remotely the afternoon’s work. Descending later for a cold water bottle (refilled now at least 400 times), I looked upon the familiar after-lunch scene: a half onion generously deodorizing the house, spiked with the protruding fork Dad used to hold the onion in place while he safely sliced it; the rubber scraper slathered with warm mayonnaise soiling the counter; slices of Swiss cheese exposed and drying in the package because he had scissored off the zipper his fumbling fingers no longer pulled. I have allowed this scene to annoy me a hundred times, and I am tired of being annoyed, and am choosing instead to incorporate into my afternoon routine the washing of a knife and a rubber scraper and the restocking of ham, cheese, mayo, mustard, potato chips, and the wiping down of the countertop with Lysol bleach. One day I will look at the empty, sterile countertop and miss the mess, all those things that will mean he was here with us then. Who else in this world will prepare every day an onion sandwich for lunch at 5:00 pm? There is no one, I am sure. From my desk, pondering the empty countertop, sudden quick shadows passed over the front lawn, shadows of Canada geese flying over the house with their honks and blares and gray feathers.
Humans are fascinated with fire. We sit fireside watching the soft flickering lights of the fire’s flames. We feel the pleasant warmth on our face, and the corresponding cold on our backs. We relax, we contemplate. Fire pulls stories from our hearts and memories, imagination from the dark dotted skies. We feel an unseen palpable connection to the mystery of life and cosmos. And the next morning we find fire replaced with cold ash. And what is the nature of ash? Oxygen and carbon plus heat produces a chemical reaction resulting in water, carbon dioxide, and ash. I asked my family that Sunday afternoon what ash might symbolize: something burnt up, spent, dirty, ugly; death, destruction, the end, no turning back; cold; releasing, letting go; mourning, grief, and loss; change, transformation, metamorphosis; refinement. These latter resonated because they are redeeming, like the iridescent shrieking phoenix rising from flame and death and ash. Ancient Isaiah prophesied of One who would “give beauty for ashes,” not reversing the irrevocable fire reaction, going from ash to beauty, not an exchange of one for the other, not a resurrection of ash back to wood. But a gift. Though the world turns everything to ash and dust and rust, there is One who overcame the world, and gives us beauty where only ash is expected. Beauty for ashes. As the family gathered that Sunday afternoon, this is what I taught them, this is how I coaxed from them faith, led them to hope, with the idea that the individual’s life of ash is just that, so much ash, but that beauty awaits us both here and beyond. I handed them each a lidded cup of ash from dried palm fronds I burned that morning, which had fallen from great palm heights onto Jeanette’s back yard, surrounded with orange trees, and I burned the fronds and let them cool, and spooned them into the cups and snapped on the lids, and handed a little cup of ash to each niece and nephew and child, and with that ash invited them to remember Beauty.
(Pictured above, the epitome of beauty, scarlet poppies and other flowers on the grounds of the Mesa Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mesa, Arizona, April 2022.)
I was looking forward to my visit with Harvey, my old mountain man friend and friend to the west desert’s Native Americans. The night before I left, he called to let me know two things, first that he was looking forward to my visit, very much, and second that he and Mary were separating, selling the property, and moving from Enterprise, he to the obscure Arizona town of Eager, and her to the obscure Nevada town of Panaca. When the equity was split, he would receive about $30,000. He paid $40,000 for the house and property almost a decade earlier, before the housing boom, paying in cash, and owning the property outright, without debt. But she decided she needed money, mortgaged the house once then twice, couldn’t make the $120,000 loan payments—she could not say where the money had gone—and filed for bankruptcy, dragging Harvey along. He bought the property free and clear for 40K and sold it for $200,000, what would have and should have been a windfall but was instead a pittance of a retirement estate. Bankrupt. Only a small social security income—a fixed income, as they say. Not nearly enough to pay her debts. Enough to feed him a bird’s portion and to feed his birds, his roller pigeons and his Araucana hens. The birds is what the row was about, ostensibly. He loved his birds. He doted on and clucked to and spoke and sang and whistled to his birds. Enamored early in their first marriage, she now was tired of the birds at the end of their second marriage—his fifth marriage—because she wanted to travel and he, at 85, did not want to travel he could not travel because he needed to take care of his birds—this 85-year-old man that weighs 98 pounds and stoops to four feet tall and that loves his birds and feeds them and clucks knowingly to them. Harvey had become an inconvenient husband. And she had demanded, It’s me or the pigeons, Harv! Well, he guessed he’d keep the pigeons—they were less trouble and loved him more. So now he will lose both his wife and his pigeons, because he is moving far away to live with his daughter, who will treat him kindly and patiently in sync with his tenderness and devotion and love. I shouted at Harvey for the two days of my visit—my final visit to Enterprise and perhaps to Harvey—because when he could not make the payments, the company turned his hearing aids off, and he was deaf, and I had to shout to be heard, hollering after several uttered Hmmn?s and a final nod of comprehension—hunchbacks? NO LUNCH BOX! (the antique I gave him for his 80th birthday)—and if I had stayed another day I would have become hoarse and would have grown too sad. An inconvenient husband, Harvey, friend to Native Americans and knower of their ways and medicines and religion and rituals and pure hearts, Harvey the mountain man, Harvey my believing accepting humble grateful friend. Mom and Dad were kind enough to listen to my grieving when I returned home feeling the doom of human pride and selfishness. Harvey had wondered to me where he had gone wrong in his life—he had done everything he knew to do right—to lose three wives to divorce (two of them twice) and to lose all his earthly means and his tools and clever rustic scrap-wood outbuildings and to be alone at last at 85 without the love he has always craved. Lying in my bed staring at the ceiling fan in the early warmth of spring and remembering back three decades, I saw his beard’s two-foot-long white ringlets, his pet skunk Petunia hiding shyly in his quilted plaid jacket, his hearty chuckle and a good joke, and the glow of the hot rocks he placed in the center of the turtle lodge where the Sun Chiefs sang and blew the pipe smoke and whispered aho!
(Pictured above: Harvey with the tractor of his youth.)
“Tell me about your day,” I ventured as I drove Dad to Smith’s in the Faithful Suburban (also known as the “Mighty V8”). “Oh,” he began, “I had a good day, even though I didn’t accomplish one blessed thing.” I said I supposed one’s perspective of what a good day is might change at different times in one’s life. “Indeed,” he confirmed. “For me, a good day is to survive.” That’s all: to survive. Gone are the days of ebullient striving and thriving. The point comes where mere living is sufficient—as opposed to dying, from viral meningitis or a car wreck or heart disease or aspirating on one’s food or falling down the stairs or eating too much sugar or an abundance of other morose possibilities. Changing the subject, I mentioned I had stopped at the Bosch store to buy a part to fix the dishwasher door, which one day had lost all tension in the springs and fell open with a bang. The belligerent door had already hammered at Mom’s leg, leaving a big long angry purple bruise on her leg. Dad and I had driven to Smith’s with a particular mission in mind: a rotisserie chicken for dinner. And after dinner I slid the dishwasher out and found the suspected chords broken and detached from the springs. Then I discovered that the 1/16 of-an-inch-wide plastic anchors holding the stiff springs in place within the dishwasher frame had deteriorated from their old weld, and the springs floated anchorless in their plastic sockets. The new chords would do me no good with nothing to anchor the springs. Discouraged, I discerned that the door could not be fixed: the integrated plastic anchors had simply disintegrated, on both sides of the door. Things seem to be crumbling all around me, I thought, as the clip that held the dishwasher in place buckled and broke and the machine lurched forward and the loaded dish trays rolled out clanking. Already the first week of May, with already several 80-degree-F days behind us, heavy snow blew at a slant outside the kitchen window from low black clouds. I had arrived home late from work, and did not have time or energy to cook, hence the rotisserie run to Smith’s in the Mighty V8, where Dad motored off in the motorized shopping cart and another older patron quipped, “Drive safe.”
Field grass had grown up through the thick ice plant groundcover in the front flower bed. Dad had sprayed with a product that avowed “kills grass, not flowers,” which did not kill the grass and did kill the flowers, just not the plants. He had spent hours poking at the grass with a long weeding tool, from a seated position. But he finally gave up. “Rog, I have made a decision. I want to dig all the ice plants out.” I began to dig in the dense matt. “Make sure to shake out the soil,” Dad instructed. I did so (and would have done so), tossing the dirtless plant clumps in his direction. I did not look as I tossed them, and was confident I was not hitting him with the clumps, but did toss them in the vicinity of his feet, where the remnant soil filled his shoes. “Roger’s revenge,” I quipped playfully. “Did you know you dig with your left foot?” Mom asked randomly. No, I did not know. I am fairly confident my long life of garden digging has been ambidextrous (or as the local newspaper recently headlined, “amphibious”), but for some reason my left boot liked this job. Dad had stumbled out with all his hand tools, but sat in his chair talking to me as I strained at the earthy tangles. Several times he enthused, “I’m enjoying just visiting and watching you work.” As long as he is happy, I am happy. Using a leaf rake, he pulled the clumps together and lifted them into the garbage can, which I had positioned near his chair. The filled bags were very heavy, and the wheeled can, with four filled ice-plant bags, felt full of rocks. After two hours, we had an 8×9 open space, penned in by old bushes, with soft sandy soil, an empty pretty, space. “I like it just like that,” Mom insisted. “I don’t want any more bushes that you have to take care of.” But Dad and I really wanted to decorate the space with new flowering plants. We took ten-year-old Amy to the nursery, and carefully selected the plants based on tolerance of full sun and low water, plant height, and especially color and beauty of flower. The empty space is now decorated with beautiful flowering plants, seen by every car that passes—a thousand a day, easily—and every person that walks by. They all know: That’s Nelson’s yard; look how nice he has made it. “You did a big job today, Rogie. I didn’t think we would even start this job, let alone finish.” Truth be told, neither did I. Both my back and my attitude held out. We finished at dusk, and I felt too tired to cook, so out came the leftover whole-wheat lasagna Sarah sent over days before, with canned corn and peas, warmed in the microwave. Remembering the ravenous mule deer roving the neighborhood, I ventured into the dark and chill to grate Irish Spring bar soap on and around the plants. Though we like seeing the deer, having our plants eaten overnight would have made us very sad. But the next morning, the plants were intact and happily boasting their blossoms.
(Pictured above: Dad’s ice plants, before the non-killing spray killed them.)
(Pictured below: our new flower garden, before and after.)
We had planned the celebration for months, and on the day of, I awoke too sick to attend. My sisters handled all the preparation and hosting. At the top of stair case, I listened to bursts of laughter amid the general soft murmuring of many friendly voices in catching up and conversation, like the gentle babbling of a booklet tripping down a mossy cascade, and in that gentleness I detected elements of acceptance and respect and affection, and of a love that could turn fierce in mutual defense. I enjoyed my chicken salad croissant and chips, watching through the railing as Dad, 86, launched into his stories, with occasional intervening from Mom. They had met at a church dance, at the end of which he asked for her phone number (“and she gave it to me!”). He called her the next day, and drove her to the university and dated for the next three years, and they married—60 years ago. “I know her much better now than I did then!” Law school over, they moved to New York City, living in Greenwich Village. While Dad was at school, Mom rode the subways just to see where they went. She played violin in a Washington Square orchestra, and during one concert the conductor’s baton hit the music stand and flew out of his hand into the audience. After three days of descending to the street at 5:00 a.m. to move the car the opposite side of the street, Dad sold the car to the bellboy for $50. Then off to São Paulo, Brazil, where I was born, to live in a tiny studio. Mom passed the time by walking me to the embassy library and taking me on every bus route (in the city of then 16 million people) to the “fim da linha”—the end of the line. “I can’t do this,” was not part of Mom’s vocabulary, Jeanette enthused. Dad befriended the city comptroller at school, and invited him to their studio, where they sat at a card table on folding chairs, their only furniture, for homemade pizza, which the millionaire graciously enjoyed. “I loved your mother when we got married,” Dad said, “but I love her more, and differently, today. I never look at her without thinking, ‘I love her.’” (“Even when I’m bossy!” Mom chimed in.) David told how Mom and Dad sacrificed several days to help clean and paint his house, and how their love is literally worked into the very walls of the house. “I want to tell you something,” Dad began, warming up to his life’s witness. “This is important to me.” And he quoted Jesus: “’Be faithful, and I will protect you from every fiery dart of the adversary. I will encircle you in the arms of my love.’ That is how our Savior feels about us.” When I was an infant in Brazil, Dad was assigned to visit ten families who no longer attended church. He had no car or phone, just bus schedules and maps. But he found them, and visited them every month of that school year. Walking home from his final bus ride in Brazil, Dad contemplated his ministering effort. That is when a voice in his mind affirmed, “I accept your offering,” and he felt an overwhelming loving presence embrace him. As I listened and watched through the bars of my separating sickness, I contemplated how close Dad is to walking home from his life’s final bus ride, and of my certainly that he will again hear the words, “I accept your life’s offering,” and will again enjoy that sublime embrace.
The call went out for bars of soap—850 bars of soap. Soap was our neighborhood’s assignment. Other neighborhoods were to provide toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shampoo, hair brushes, and wash cloths. After the call went out for 850 bars of soap, Mom dropped into her shopping cart 16 soap bars, perfumed with cucumber and aloe, a soft and pleasing fragrance. She sent me to deposit them in the box at Mary Ann’s house. Lifting Hands International has been busy since the Syrian civil war displaced hundreds of thousands. The NGO sends hygiene kits, food kits, blankets, milk goats, and other items to ease the hardships of refugee life. Russia’s ridiculous war in Ukraine has displaced millions of desperate persons, and Lifting Hands has ramped up its work. Tonight, more than 200 volunteers gathered at our local church meetinghouse, lining up with gallon bags into which we stuffed one of each item piled on the tables. The line of volunteers circled the gym/cultural hall as we waited our turn to fill bags. The completed kits were loaded into large black plastic bags, in turn loaded onto trucks. Lifting Hands will load a shipping container and send it to Poland, or Moldova, or Romania for Ukrainian refugees. We all felt wonderful being a part of the service project. I am sure every woman and child receiving a hygiene kit will be grateful. But I could not help but wonder if we were doing much good, or if we were really serving or just joining a 45-minute social event after which we could pat ourselves on the back for doing our part to make a better world. Did the service improve refugee life in any meaningful way? Did the service change me in any significant, genuine way? What real good did our 16 bars of soap accomplish? And what more can I do to build a better world? I suppose that no good, kind act is ever wasted. I want to believe that every good, kind act is cumulative of every other good, kind act, and weighs against the mass of human brutality and pride. I want to believe that our 850 hygiene kits, joined with the 850 kits from each of 850 other neighborhoods—which, by the way, is 700,000 kits—joined with 700,000 school supply kits and 700,000 baby care kits and 700,000 bundles of clothes and bags of books and boxes of food—I want to believe these can be a formidable force for good in the world, even though they cost me only ten bucks and one hour of my time. Do not ever resist performing a small act of good due to its smallness and apparent powerlessness, because no good, kind act is small or weak. By small means are brought about great things, even miracles. Small means: like mothers and father comforting and teaching and building children, like smiles and whistling happy tunes, like cooking dinner for Mom and Dad, sending birthday cards, or visiting great-grandmothers in nursing homes. Do the good.
I was happy to see Sunshine in person on a short trip to visit Amy’s family. And he seemed happy to see me, too, even if I do say so myself. Sunshine ate shredded kale from my outstretched fingers, and clambered right up to a shoulder perch (above). He’s still plenty spikey to pet, but so calm and gentle–and grown up!
My son John and his wife Alleigh invited me to join them on a trip to visit their aunt Jeanette—my sister—in the Arizona desert. Of course, my two-month-old grandson Henry would be coming, and he would not just be with us but would be the center of everyone’s excited attention. In the last eight months, I have not left Mom and Dad for more than one night, and on this trip I would be gone seven. Before leaving, I emptied the upstairs freezer then restocked it with food they could cook while I was away. I even drew a rough diagram showing them which foods were on which parts of each freezer shelf. For example, the bottom shelf had (from left to right) beer-battered cod, lima beans, mixed vegetables, four chicken breasts in bags of two each, and Impossible-brand plant-based “chicken” nuggets. Excited for their beans and franks, they left the hot dogs in the refrigerator. “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine,” Mom reminded me. I called her mid-week to report our outing to the Superstition Mountains where we saw a large yellow-diamond rattlesnake with five rattle segments, and a gray-blue Peregrine Falcon skimming red outcroppings on the cliff walls, and the Boyce Thompson Arboretum with acres of cacti, succulents, yuccas, and trees from the world’s deserts, and how much I loved the tall strange Boojum tree and the huge unlikely endangered Saguaro and the skeletal Cholla and Ocotillo, and how John and I saw a vivid orange-and-black Hooded Oriole and fantastically-scarlet Cardinal. “I miss you,” Mom brooded. “I love it when I hear the door nob turn, and the door open, and your footsteps down the hall, and I love to see you walk into the room with your briefcase and your lunch bag. I just love having you here.” Such affection so freely offered, and me stammering an awkward, “Thanks, Mom,” not adept at receiving or expressing such depths, but still marveling at the love and acceptance and absence of judgement at my weaknesses and joy my mother pours out onto this 57-year-old son of hers, and no less upon my five younger siblings. How lucky am I—are we. And when I asked what they had cooked for their dinners, she described the chopped frankfurters mixed with cans of pork-and-beans and stewed tomatoes—the epitome of hardy simplicity. Returning home after my week abroad, I found the food in the freezer largely as I had left it, the easier now for me to cook. Sarah had brought milk and eggs and Easter treats both savory and sweet. And Mom had been right: I need not have worried. “Welcome home.”
(Pictured above: Sis, Yours Truly, and Mr. Boojum)
(Pictured below: Cactus gardens at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum and in the Superstition Mountains outside Phoeniz, AZ.)
After watching me mix and knead breads and bakes for eight months, Mom and Dad informed me we were purchasing a bread mixer. NutriMill makes a Bosch lookalike for half the price, and we brought one home, along with a “baker’s pack” because I am a baker and a Baker. On my first attempt, I dumped in all the ingredients and watched the dough not mix and the dough hook grab the poorly combined mass and whirl it around uselessly. Hannah (and the owner’s manual) instructed me on pouring in the liquid ingredients first, turning the mixer on low, and adding the dry ingredients slowly. The technique worked. Our first success was Paul Hollywood’s Guinness and Treacle bread. Into the bowl I poured a bottle of warm dark-and-stout beer, tablespoons of molasses, water, and yeast, and turned the mixer to level 1, while Hannah slowly tossed in the dry ingredients: whole wheat flour and strong white flour. The dough hook mixed the trickling flour into the yeasty treacle-beer until we had a sticky dough that the dough hooks pummeled and whipped enthusiastically. While the dough rested and rose, I sat at Mom’s laptop to help her with a Word document: she had made revisions accidentally using the Review tool and felt exasperated by the unwelcome blue insertions and red strikeout deletions. “I promise you, Mom: one button-click and your document will be fixed.” She was incredulous at the simple “Accept All Changes and Stop Tracking” function. That task accomplished, I lifted and hauled off Mom’s cracked and broken chair mat, and laid the new mat in place—the chair casters would no more anchor the chair immovably in the hole. Dad, in the meantime, had noticed how dusty the living room sofas had become, and was struggling with his carpet cleaner to shampoo the floral sofas. “Look how nice they look!” he crowed: the sofas did look bright and brand new. Just as the oven pre-heat bell sounded, I finished hanging the thistle seed sock feeders for the goldfinches, pine siskins, and house finches, which will land grasping the socks and pull and crack the tiny musky seeds one by one. Mournfully, we had discarded the other feeders because falling masses of disfavored seeds attracted a family of rats, and we could not have rats, and so also could not have bird feeders, much to Dad’s sadness. But rats will not be interested in empty Niger husks. The socks happily hung, I peeled the risen Guinness dough onto the 400-degree stone, and the house filled with a most delicious aroma.
“I love you,” Mom called to me after I said good-night and turned to step the stairs to my rooms. “Love you, too, Mom.” I love you. Those three little words convey such daring risk, exposing a fathomless aching hope to be loved in return. Two little pronouns with the world’s biggest word tucked between, mediating, welding. Perhaps many children hear those words from their parents. Perhaps few. Perhaps hearing those words does not matter all that much. Perhaps they mean everything. To my best recollection, “I love you” was not stated in my childhood home. My father did not hear these three words as a child, and did not utter them as a father. But Dad’s love and sacrifice for his children are fierce and burning and unstoppable. He says I love you in so many frequent ways that do not use the words. And he employs other words, like “That was such a great meal, Rog!” or “Rog, you did so much work today!” or “Don’t wash any dishes, Rogie—leave them right there and I will wash them!” though he does not wash them because he cannot, not comfortably, not without energy and strength he no longer has, and not without pain which he endures so cheerfully. But when Hannah was leaving today after a few hours’ visit, he called out to her, “I love you, Hannah.” And she responded, “I love you, too, Grandpa.” That is how love works: articulated and reciprocated. Love practiced always produces proficiency. One day I found the courage to utter “I love you” to one of my children, one of my boys, a teenage boy, and how strange and awkward saying those words felt—how I had to choke and pull them out over and around obstructive anxiety—but I got them out, and often afterwards, because I do love my children, so why not love them openly and enthusiastically and say these three little words, why not sing the words unembarrassingly out, out to that boy, out to all my girls and boys. I had to practice saying those three small words over the course of days and weeks and years, and saying them with my voice still feels both compelling and strangling. But I feel that love, deep and real, and I want to demonstrate and verbalize that love, for I know that refraining is avoiding and damaging and sad—perhaps the greatest and most mournful of lost opportunities—while unfettering the words infuses with confidence and reassurance and comfort. As we express love back and forth, love eases and grows. Too often I stammer out a mere “Love ya Bud!” But when John or Caleb or Hyrum or Hannah or the others end every phone call and every visit with “Love you, Dad!” I know they mean it, and I know they have taken a daring risk to express their love for me and to hope to receive love back from me, and I respond with pleasure, “I love you, too, son. I am proud of you. I have complete confidence in you.” And I do.
(Pictured above: yours truly mountain biking with his son Caleb in 2018.)
I grew up singing “Primary” songs in the Church’s Sunday classes for children. A perennial favorite still is a springtime song celebrating blossoming fruit trees: “Popcorn Popping.” The song has nothing to do with Jesus or the Church, but helps keep the children entertained and orderly: the lyrics and catchy tune never fail to rouse children’s enthusiasm to sing.
I looked out the window, and what did I see?
Popcorn popping on the apricot tree!
Spring has brought me such a nice surprise:
Popcorn popping right before my eyes.
Eye can take an armful and make a treat:
A popcorn ball that will smell so sweet.
It wasn’t really so, but it seemed to be:
Popcorn popping on the apricot tree.
The popcorn is popping on Dad’s ornamental pear trees, in full white-blossom bloom. Strangely, though, as pretty a sight as they provide, the blooms smell more like putrescence than popcorn or perfume. So, I admire the flowers from a distance. Large limbs have occasionally broken away from the trunks, unable to support their own weight, leaving great gaping scars which we painted over to help heal. Dad has trimmed and shaped the trees to better bear their bulk and to provide a more pleasing garden architecture. In a short week, the delicate popcorn blossoms will fall and float away, and the glossy green leaves will take the summer show. In the fall, the leaves will turn a million hues of rusty purple red, perfect for pressing. But tonight, a late wet snow is falling.
“Hi baby!” Mom answered my phone call. I had called in honor of their special day, to make sure they were happy, to praise and cheer them, Mom and Dad. They had driven the faithful Suburban to Burt Brothers for a safety inspection and minor repairs. They had walked next door to Dairy Queen for burgers with bacon and for fries and for a chocolate Blizzard—“They were so good! But the walk about killed your dad,” Mom reported. “And the walk back about killed him again!” But it was a “lovely day,” a “perfect day,” she said, and she was very happy, I could tell. Approaching home near 10 p.m., I turned into Smith’s grocery store and selected a small bouquet of flowers of vibrant colors. Steven had sent a thoughtful happy card. Barbara had brought a lavender orchid. Others had called and texted and Facetimed. Entering the house with my inexpensive bouquet, I cheered, “Happy Anniversary Mom and Dad!” Happy 60th Wedding Anniversary. Sixty years of marriage. As I snipped off several inches of stems and slid the flowers into a clear glass vase, I heard Dad say from his recliner to Mom in her recliner, “I love you, Lucille. You are so wonderful.”
Pictured above: my real life Mom and Dad. Happy 60th!
At various times of the day—like 6:30 a.m., or 9:30 a.m. on a Friday when I work from home, or noon on a Saturday when I am cooking apple cinnamon oatmeal—I hear that shuffling across the floor, one drag longer than the other, and the other more marked than the first, each a pull and scrape across the carpeted floor upstairs: I hear them from the kitchen downstairs, like short fingernails raking a blackboard, like a breeze sighing through bare winter branches, like a phlegmatic chronic cough, like Marley’s chain of evil and despicableness but not of evil and despicableness rather of righteous cheerful painful endurance and enduring every hour of every day of every year into 90 years and of refusing to give in and of fighting to give and to give, to give out energy and love and forgiveness—to let go of anger and pain and absurdity—to give away one’s remaining sins and stubborn imperfections. I laud the man who owns that shuffle, who owns those twisted falling swollen aching feet which make those whispering shuffling sounds. Mom slips on his socks in secret: he does not want his horrid—he thinks—and helpless feet to be seen, to be exposed and known. And I hold my breath and tense my whole body hoping those feet keep on shuffling across the uneven floor, praying those feet do not stop their shuffle in trade for a fall and a crash and an end. I have never shuffled my feet, yet, though my shuffling soul has dragged itself whining but unpretentious through much of its mortality, vertical and moving, weak and slow—moving. My direction is what matters: my trajectory: my desire’s focus. You and I, we keep on shuffling. He shuffles perseveringly on.
Hannah spent the morning with Mom and Dad and me, playing the piano, baking Guinness treacle bread, playing Carcassonne, and warming leftovers for lunch, topped off with last night’s Tarte Tatin (French up-side-down caramel apple pie). She played pretty hymn arrangements and the perennial sublimity of Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune—Moonlight. Mom sat listening on the sofa with her eyes closed. Dad reached the bottom stair just as Hannah finished playing. “That was beautiful,” he complimented her. “I think you played that exactly the way Beethoven would have liked.” Hannah and I glanced at each other and smiled. No one laughed, of course, because the music was so moving and his loving accolade so sincere. The week Dad retired, more than 20 years ago, the law office joined him for a final jog through Johnson Park. One heavy-breathing attorney, O’Shaunessy, panted amiably to Dad as they ran, “You know, Nelson, I appreciate that you are religious. Before you came here, I had never heard the story of Moses and the Ark.” A third attorney asked if O’Shaunessy meant Noah instead of Moses, and a friendly argument ensued, with Dad caught in the middle, not weighing in. Maybe O’Shaunessy was not too far off, though, since Pharoah’s daughter had found the baby Moses floating in a tiny reed ark. And Beethoven did compose the famous Moonlight Sonata. As Hannah left for home, Dad called to her, “I love you,” and commented to me about what a delightful young woman she is. He sat at his computer to type her a note. I had judged him for pressing the mouse button so forcefully and deliberately, like an old person who had grown up flipping toggles and pressing mechanical switches. But sitting later at Dad’s computer to retrieve a “lost” document, I realized his chorded mouse was not functioning properly, and that if I did not lean forcefully into the mouse, it did not respond. I had judged incorrectly, as I often do, placing pride and arrogance before compassion and respect. “Dad,” I called, “I’m sorry your mouse doesn’t work correctly,” and he thanked me for noticing, and I drove to the store and purchased a new mouse with a smooth wheel and a soft clicking touch.
Taylorsville Utah Temple
Church President Russell Nelson announced the construction of 17 new temples, from Montana to Texas, the Congo to Spain, New Zealand to Peru, bringing the total number of temples to 282 worldwide. I drive past two temples under construction every morning and afternoon, one near my home—the Taylorsville Temple—and one near my work an hour away—the Deseret Peak Temple. While I could drive an alternate way, I feel drawn to the temple route, where twice a day I get to see the construction progress. Through the winter, the crews completed the steel framing of the Taylorsville temple, and dressed the ribbed walls with foam-panel insulation. Behind scaffolding, marble and granite slabs began to clad the ground floor, and just today enormous cranes lowered the steel-gray steeple. In Tooele, the Deseret Peak temple shows only the steel-beam super-structure forming the ground floor, mid-section, and tower, the walls yet to be built. These temples are sacred edifices to the Latter-day Saints, Houses of God. There Church members learn about the purpose of life on earth and the possibility of eternal life with an omni-beneficent Father. There we make covenants to be determined disciples of Jesus: chaste, sacrificing, kind, generous, and honest disciples. And there we are “sealed” or joined to our families in eternal unbreakable familial links and bonds. I look forward to seeing what the crews accomplish each day, and I rejoice in the progress toward the ultimate stunning exalting beauty of the final buildings. I wondered aloud to my siblings about this fascination of mine, and realized that the slow incremental transition from the foundation cornerstone to the steeple capstone gives me hope, hope in the life process of slow and careful creation toward a perfect end. Like the temples, I hope my character is being similarly dressed and shaped and polished. I know this: as I age, every act of meanness and gossip and pride and stinginess brings me pain, and every instance of kindness and compassion and generosity and forgiveness brings me pleasure. So it is that I joy in driving by these two temples, twice a day, knowing they will be finished and perfect, in time, and hoping the same for me.
Deseret Peak Temple in Tooele, Utah
(Photos from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Chatting with Mom and Dad one evening, we were all startled by a loud triple chirp typical of a smoke alarm whose battery is expiring. (In my last house, the alarm actually spoke to me, a creepy whispered warning in the middle of the dark and dreary winter night—never in the light of day.) I knew where the 9v batteries were, and retrieved two, just in case. What I could not discern was from which alarm the chirping emanated. I wandered the house, standing under each alarm, growing increasingly agitated at the incessant three-minute chirp cycle. But the irritating chirp always came from somewhere else. Chagrined and swearing now, after checking each alarm on three stories—twice—I stood on a chair inches away from the alarm where the damned ventriloquistic chirp was loudest. I replaced its battery, twice, with no effect. With my head near the ceiling, I abruptly realized the chirruping sprang from below. And there it was, behind Mom’s cedar chest, a real homemade aromatic brass-castered cedar hope chest, built by her grandpa James. A carbon monoxide alarm. As I glared at the thing from up close, it dared to chirp a triple-chirp, in my face. I yanked it roughly out of the wall and changed out the battery—but it continued a defiant chirp. Now I began to worry I might die of carbon monoxide poisoning, and fled to retrieve a different unit, with a red readout screen. I showed a “0” and I allowed a deep breath. Marching down the stairs, I found Mom and Dad and complained about the stupid monitor, at the same time wondering why I was disproportionately distressed. And then I remembered: my new house in Erda in 1998, with three floors of smoke alarms, all connected electrically, so that when one alarm began its screaming, they all bansheed, deafeningly, terrifyingly, and of course, in the middle of the dark and dreary winter night, the children crying in their beds and me frantically yanking out batteries and yanking off alarms and flipping breakers while the crying children stood shivering and crying on the front lawn while the demons screamed on. Oh, I thought, so that’s why I’m upset: that stupid little triple-chirp triggered the trauma of faulty smoke alarms setting off, of course, in the middle of the cold night. Disgusted with the monitor, I banished it to the back porch, where it kept on chirping, until I realized I could simply end the drama by taking out the battery and tossing the cursed object, now powerless, into the trash. Which I promptly did.
The year was 1945, the last year of the great and terrible War, and Dorothy languished from pneumonia. The family thought she would die. Mom was the oldest child, but still a little child. At his last house call, the country doctor said he could do no more for Mom’s mom. But when he came to the house another night, he offered a glimmer of hope: he had a new medicine to try. “I don’t how much to give you,” he hedged as he filled a syringe full with yellow fluid, “so I’m going to give you a big dose.” Six years old, Mom watched the physician inject the fluid into her wasted mother. “We’re just learning how to use it.” Called Penicillin, it showed promise, he said. Professor Alexander Fleming discovered in 1929 that the Penicillium bacterium produced a “juice” deadly to rival bacteria. In the early 1940s, Penicillin had transitioned from a laboratory curiosity to a serious infection-fighting medicine, of special value to wounded and diseased soldiers. Penicillin became widely available to the public in the spring of 1945, just in time for my grandmother Dorothy. Very quickly after the injection, she turned a corner and began her journey back to the land of the living. These 77 years later, Mom asked rhetorically as she reminisced on her childhood, “Can you even imagine the world before antibiotics? People got sick and just died!” How grateful I have been, as I have carried and rocked sick babies in the middle of the night, for the miracle of antibiotics. Without antibiotics, I myself would have died a dozen times over.
(Photo from Scientific American, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
The men of the Church assigned to see to her welfare told Dad she could not be visited. As the lay leader of the congregation, Dad bore responsibility for the welfare of every member of the congregation, whether they wanted to participate in the Church or not. “What does ‘unvisitable’ mean?” he queried. Apparently, “unvisitable” meant she did not want anyone from the Church to visit her. For Dad, the deeper questions were “Why is she unvisitable? What is happening in her life to distance her from the Church and from people.” Sitting at his desk in the law department of Johnson & Johnson, pondering over this unvisitable Church member. A thought pressed itself irresistibly onto his mind: Call her. Now. Having learned to never put off a prompting, he picked up the phone and called her. “Sandy? This is your bishop. I’m coming over right now,” and did not wait for a protest. He found Sandy living in squalor and disrepair, and terribly depressed and overwhelmed. The trees and shrubs had overgrown the house and porch. The front stairs had fallen away from the porch, and the mailman could not deliver the mail. Stacks of newspapers filled the rooms and hallways, with only narrow trails from place to place. She had not read them yet, she explained. The window frames had been painted while open, and remained stuck open, even in winter, when she shoved crumpled newspapers against the screens for insulation. “I will help you,” Dad promised, and he spent the next year helping Sandy transform her living space, which in turn transformed her life. He suggested she start her reading with the next day’s edition, and emptied the house of newspapers and trash, taking many loads to the dump. He cut out the trees and pulled out the shrubs, planting new ones. He cut the windows free of old paint so they could be open or shut with the season. He jacked up the stairs and put rock and new cement under them. He repaired all the plumbing. He painted all the walls. Mom asked him once, “Why don’t you involve the other men of the Church instead of doing all this work yourself?” And he explained that descending en masse to fix the house was all fine and well, but would not fix the occupant. She needed frequent, regular visits of encouragement, acceptance, and assistance. In the course of that year, Sandy began to smile, and to converse, and to return to Church. She and Mom became friends, sometimes hopping on the train to New York City for Broadway’s “two-for” matinees. In telling the story four decades later, Dad was clear it was not to boast, but to teach me this lesson: No one is unvisitable. We just need to ask the Savior how to do it, and He will show us the way. To God, all persons have equal worth, and we can be his hands in reaching out to the unreachable. No one is unvisitable.
(Photo from lily pond at Island Lake in the high Uintah mountains, 2007.)
“It’s time, Dad,” I announced. With winter weather in the recent past, and any remaining snows sure to melt fast, I told him the time had come to park his faithful Suburban in the garage and for me to take my extended turn parking in the driveway, where guests should park their cars. But, before the Suburban would fit in the garage, I had to stow the kayaks somewhere, and just in time for kayak season on the Jordan River. The big car would not fit in the garage with the kayaks leaning against the wall. I was not too thrilled with Dad’s idea about where to keep one of the kayaks, but as I had no better ideas, I gave his a try. Reorganizing the various gardening and cleaning and camping and bar-b-que supplies, I cleared a top storage shelf and heaved up a kayak. To my surprise, the boat fit perfectly on the high shelf, anchored by two stiff bungie cords (so it would not fall on Mom’s cute Subaru). With my Outback parked in the driveway, I exchanged the ice scraper for the windshield visor. Dad’s beloved car will sleep sheltered in the garage starting tonight. He said just yesterday as we drove to the Post Office and then to the grocery store, “I just love my car.”
Mom and Dad and I had just paid our respective income taxes, and the need to be frugal was on our minds and in our conversation. “You know what? That reminds me….” And Dad began his story. It was 1947, and the world heavyweight champion, Joe Louis, defended his title against contender Jersey Joe Walcott. Sonny (Dad, age 11) pedaled the bicycle, with little brother Wiggy (Bill) on board, some 40-odd city blocks, in the cold December air, to their grandpa William T Greene’s little shack: no plumbing, no running water, no furnace, no bathroom, no stove or oven. The place boasted only a hand pump and an outhouse and a wood stove, which served both as heater and cook stove. And he had a vacuum tube radio on which the threesome listened to the 1947 world heavyweight championship boxing match. Sonny and Wiggy tallied the score as the announcers called out the blows. Mom broke into the story here: she (age 8) and her family had gathered around their diminutive black-and-white television, watching the same fight. Sonny counted the blows. Mom’s family kept score, too. Jersey Joe knocked Louis down twice, and had more points, according to Sonny, listening to the radio, and according to grandpa Wally, watching the television, and they felt confident Jersey Joe Walcott would be the new world champion. But in the end the judges called the fight for the incumbent Joe Louis, and the commentators rationalized that only a decisive win could unseat a world champion like Joe Louis. The morning after the fight, Sonny snagged an enormous brook trout from Mill Creek. “Now that’s more like it,” Grandpa Greene cheered. “Let’s cook him up for breakfast. Get some sticks and let’s light the fire.” Grandpa William T Greene, at 80, liked his grandsons, and was happy for their company—and the boys loved him. He told Sonny once that he was afraid of dying. He would not know where to go, or what to do. He would not belong. But later he explained to the boys that the spirit of his long-dead sister had appeared to him, standing at the foot of his bed. “You don’t need to worry, William,” she reassured. “When you die, I will be there waiting for you. I know where you need to go, and I will take you there.” He would join her in 1956 after 89 years on this earth. And Sonny would miss his champion grandpa.
(Pictured above and below: William T Greene.)
When I hear the 23rd Psalm and envision myself walking beside still waters and lying down in green pastures, I do not think of triple-forte fff. But exultation is the spirit of Gordon Young’s arrangement of The Lord Is My Shepherd. Mom had been working her way through her filing cabinet stuffed with choir music—hundreds of pieces—keeping her favorites and tossing the rest. As she began plunking the allegro maestoso introduction on the piano, the music and the memories drew me irresistibly down the stairs and across 45 years to the church choir where I learned to sing under Mom’s enthusiastic and competent direction. I stood behind her now, put aside my usual inhibitions, and belted out “God is my Shepherd. I shall not want.” from memory. Mom pounded out the triplet eighth-note chords, and this 57-year-old returned to 12 and sang the melody. Abruptly and appropriately subdued to meno mosso, I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, very temporarily, for I need fear no evil with my Shepherd with me, providing comfort, preparing my table, and anointing my head with aromatic oil. I confess that my cup ran over as the music washed over me and the song neared the fortississimo fff promise of dwelling forever with the Lord. Suddenly very happy, I thanked Mom for the break from my work, climbed the stairs to my home office, absorbed in emotional echoes of musical memory, and sat at my old desk to write, grateful to my Shepherd.
Mom’s gait has grown increasingly halting and unsteady, and she digs into the floor with each step to assure herself of not falling. At choir practice, she leans hard on my arm to ascend the single step into the host’s house. When I asked her if it were becoming harder to walk, she confessed that “my knees hurt.” Three years ago, she had cortisone shots in her knees, which reduced arthritic swelling and pain. But now the pain was back, especially when enduring the stairs in her house. One day she declared, “I’m not going to the gym anymore, and I’m done riding the bike at home, too—my knees hurt too much.” She asked if I would get the mail for her, and I said “nope” full of cheek, explaining gently (I did not want to seem rude and hurt her feelings) that if she could not go to the gym or ride her stationary bike, she would have to walk to the mailbox, and invited her to keep on going to the street corner. So she walked to the mailbox. Tough Mom. Movement was important for her heart and her general strength. Mom often tells me, “I’m so happy every day when you walk through the door from work.” Sweet Mom. I was not so sure she would still feel that way after I made her walk to the mailbox on her old knees. But she loves me still. I “broke” my knee in high school, bending it sideways in a basketball game and severing the anterior cruciate ligament, the infamous ACL. The non-invasive MRI machine was not widely available in 1982, and to diagnose my injury the doctor shoved a 10-penny needle into my knee, injected contrast, and manipulated the wounded joint under live x-ray trying to discern soft tissue tears—what agony. So, when Mom made an appointment to get shots in her knees, I cringed. She reported later that the doctor numbed her skin with spray, inserted the needles under her knee caps, and injected a syringe-full of liquid—but she felt no pain. Brave Mom. “Come back in six months, not three years,” the doctor instructed. Mom is already walking better, and we will see about the stationary bicycle. That night Mom and I delivered the results of my latest baking adventures—pains au chocolate (chocolate croissant rolls) and bacon fougasses (flat bread shaped like a leaf)—to several neighbors. She was happy to be my delivery buddy and to get out of the house for even the humblest of adventures. Fun Mom. Back home in her recliner, it was time for her favorite daily ritual: a bowl of Farr chocolate ice cream, which, of course, I cannot resist either, though I add milk for a thick chocolate shake.
(Pictured above: leaf-shaped Fougasses–the French answer to Italian Focaccia–with bacon and onions.)
For over a century, my Church has preached a ministering program called “home teaching,” where Church members, two by two, visit with assigned families to make sure their temporal and spiritual needs were being addressed. At the awkward age of 14, I was Dad’s home teaching companion, and he was the “bishop” or unpaid lay minister of our large congregation—he knew all the Church members and their many problems and hardships. He saw on the records the name of a young woman he did not know, Continue reading
The men of my Church historically were divided into two groups or quorums, one for the older men and men with leadership responsibilities (called “high priests”), and one for the younger, less-experienced men (“elders”), where each could relate best to his peers. Dad has been a high priest from his mid-20s, having been assigned to lead larger and larger congregations. The Church recently merged the two quorums into one, for the purposes of (1) eliminating an age hierarchy within a single priesthood, (2) giving the younger men the benefit of the older men’s wisdom and experience, and (3) becoming a more cohesive group of “priesthood brethren” focused on church instruction and service. For Dad, at 86, the combining of quorums has been counterproductive, and he feels anonymous and isolated and invisible, due to age and condition. His legs do not work, so he staggers and uses a cane, and rising from his chair takes all his strength. He raises his voice a bit because his ears do not work, and he uses hearing aids. But in the minds of some, the cane and the voice and the hearing aids and the trembling effort indicate both physical and mental decrepitude. In quorum last week, Dad raised his hand to comment, the lesson topic being faith in Christ. The young instructor did not acknowledge him, calling on others with raised hands. He raised his hand several more times, but was ignored. The elderly gentleman sitting next to Dad got the instructor’s attention and demanded, “Nelson has something to say.” But the instructor said the class time was up and he had not been able to call on everyone for comment. “I used to be relevant,” Dad lamented to me when I returned from my weekend trip, “but I don’t matter anymore. The teacher thinks I don’t know anything, that I’m an old useless fuddy-dud.” In my 30-year career of professional acquaintances, Dad remains the most intelligent, learned, and discerning man I have ever known. He graduated top of his class from the University of Utah law school, received a master of laws (LLM) in international corporate law from New York University, and worked a 33-year career as legal counsel for a major international corporation. He presided as lay minister over congregations from 200 to 2,000 souls for 35 years. He reads a book a week during his late-night solitude. He holds his own discussing the world’s great philosophies, histories, religions, and personalities. But at age 86, with his stumble and his cane, his voice and his hearing aids, he feels invisible to his younger peers. Actually, “invisible” is the wrong word, for they are aware of him. But they misjudge, seeing him as irrelevant and obsolete. He thinks he does not matter anymore. And it makes me furious.
(Pictured above: Dad circa 1972.)
It is a Friday night, and I am home alone in my upstairs office, reading, and writing, and I am not out with friends and I am not being entertained by superheroes. Every hour upon the half, I roll out and fold over a butter and bread-dough laminate—24 layers—for tomorrow’s chocolate croissants, and between rolling I am reading the Selected Speeches and Writings of Abraham Lincoln. I bought a copy for myself after reading another Lincoln biography, but Dad was so excited to dive into the book, and cannot read without a yellow highlighter (like I cannot read without a yellow highlighter) that I gave him my copy and bought a second for myself. Already I have learned the words “vulpine” and “hagiography” and learned that Mr. Lincoln was not merely the stoic statue of still photographs, but faceted and furious and considerate and cutting and desperately sad and brutally patient, and witty, and he loved to tell stories, for stories will tell the truth faster and longer-lasting than the truth itself. Dad told Lincoln stories at the dinner table, but he looked very tired; he had seemed tired all day. When I first saw him this morning, and asked him “How are you today, Dad?” he responded with his characteristic “Marvelously well, thank you!” But later he confessed to feeling “very poorly” and tired and weak. When I finished my work day, he said he would go outside to blow the rock wall clean of pine needles and leaves and dirt. And I began mixing my dough. I kneaded and listened, tense, and soon heard a desperate bellowing from the back yard and rushed out the door to see Dad, on his hands and knees, sinking to splay on the concrete, shaking with vain exertions to move. I managed to lift him back up onto his knees, and in a huge joint effort he inched up the arms of a patio chair high enough for me to kick another chair behind him, where he sat, trembling and pale. “I fell,” he observed flatly. Despite his state, he insisted on mounting the mower and cleaning up the grass. Between bites of chicken and broccoli, he told us, “I think my legs just collapsed.” Feeling traumatized, I blurted, “We need to have a conversation. You cannot work in the yard if you are feeling weak and I’m not here. If you fall when I’m not here, you’re not getting back up, and it will be an ambulance and a hospital and who knows what!” Inside my head, I screamed, You’re not allowed to be stubborn! To be stubborn is to die! I had felt terror at finding him helpless on the patio concrete, at my not being strong enough to muscle his bulk off the ground, of his visible deterioration week to week, of knowing this is a one-way track with a finish line I don’t want to cross. Seeing that my fury came from my fear, I could forgive myself and forgive him and calm myself into a nice family dinner. It is a Friday night, and Dad is watching the Jazz game from his recliner, and I am reading and writing and rolling out my croissant dough, and after the rolls bake tomorrow, Dad and I will go outside together with rakes and shovels to do a little yardwork before dinner.
My son John explained to me that he allows himself only five minutes of social media time each day. He is accountable to his wife Alleigh. I felt proud of him for recognizing how social media distracted him from weightier life matters, consumed hours of time better committed to real learning and real recreation and real entertainment and real human interaction. After watching the documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix (I wrote to my children about it), I resolved to reform my social media and game-app habits. I uninstalled Solitaire—I was on level something hundred, after thousands of games. Quitting Solitaire was hard, like quitting caffeinated soda or chocolate. I stopped checking 37 times a day (is that all? you ask) for Facebook likes and WordPress visits and Instagram hearts, opting instead to check once or twice a day for family photos and life updates, and to make and respond to personal comments. I no longer scroll. Those visits and likes and love emojis have such a power and pull toward measuring life and success by their numbers: lots of visits = high value; just a few likes or hearts = low worth. Very quickly I could decide I am not liked, I am not worth much, I am unattractive, or out of shape, or obtuse. Such falsehoods and lies. Besides all this, I had lost my power of concentration and focus, interrupted unceasingly by smartphone lights and sirens, in the guise of blinks and dew drops—my days were fractured—so I turned off light and sound notifications except from the most important and least disruptive apps. And, I do not want some algorithm deciding for me what political and social views I should have and which products and services I should want to buy. I have intelligent, respected friends who decline to use Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram, and they are no worse off for it, and perhaps better off for having lifted their eyes up from their phone screens, to experience the world. So, instead of browsing videos and reels tonight, I am going to watch The Great British Baking Show and choose a decadent dessert recipe for tomorrow, I think chocolate croissants—from scratch.
With heavy snows and sub-freezing temperatures just three days ago, today reached 65 degrees, made warmer by the bright sun and blue sky. I found Dad settled heavily in his recliner, looking exhausted, which he was. He explained that he had worked “all day” in the yard, raking out thick mats of pine needles and milkweed stalks from the landscaped beds. He had reached above the rock wall and stretched the rake as far as he could—he can no longer climb to the terrace. “Can you help me?” he wondered, asking me to pick up the piles and compact them in the big garbage can. I used the technique my son Brian taught me, scooping a snow shovel underneath the pile and pinching from the top with a rake, then picking up the pile and dumping it in the can. Before long, the piles were gone, and the can was compacted and full. I jumped up onto the terrace and quickly raked the area Dad could not reach, filling the can beyond the brim. “Doesn’t that look nice and tidy?” he asked, pleased. He was thrilled to have worked in the yard after the long winter, though he characteristically worked too hard and too long and barely made it staggering back to the house, to settle heavily in his recliner, too tired even to eat. But Dad came outside and sat in a chair to watch me finish the work he once did, to crow over the tidy beds, and to sigh at his beautiful snow-capped mountain view. “Isn’t the mountain just beautiful? Lone Peak is now a designated wilderness area. There are no maintained trails.” He had climbed to Lone Peak 20 years earlier, exulting on the 11,253-foot peak, neglecting to take enough food or water, and making it back thanks to nice young hikers who noticed and shared. “Did you hear they just found a wolverine in those mountains? A wolverine! Here!” We had seen the story on the news, of game wardens in a helicopter filming a black wolverine racing through the snow in that wilderness. They trapped it without injury, anesthetized it, measured and weighed it, radio tagged it, then released it, excited to track its forest wanderings. Relatively little is known about wolverines, but the solitary aggressive carnivores often roam 15 miles a day in the most rugged mountain wilderness. “I just love sitting here looking at the mountain,” Dad said as I went in the house to cook dinner. He had me leave his tools outside, ready for tomorrow’s spring yard work.
(Pictured above, a view of Lone Peak, from YouTube, used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
The ophthalmology technician was pleasant, respectful, and competent as she walked with Dad toward the examination room, chatting along the way. Mom commented to her how cute her name was: Lexi. Lexi laughed and explained freely that before she was born, her infant brother Alex had passed away. When she was born, her still-heartbroken parents named her Lexi, in memory of Alex. I wondered silently if it were a good thing for a girl to be named after her deceased brother. But she felt honored by her name and proud of how she came by it. Lexi invited Dad to sit in a chair and put his chin on the machine. “I hate that machine,” Dad protested, but Lexi reassured him, “We’ll get through it together.” She administered numbing and dilating drops, and instructed him on the procedure. “Blink…Hold open…Good. Blink…Hold…Good.” She held a gentle hand on the back of his head to support the position his arthritic neck resisted. With the pressure test and glaucoma examination over, Lexi congratulated him: “See? You got this!” “That wasn’t bad at all,” he agreed. “It’s the other machine I hate.” Lexi promised Dad he would not have to do the peripheral field-of-vision test with all the blinking lights and needing to push the button with every light and not being sure if that was a light and whether he should press the button because he wasn’t sure and not being able to move fast enough and feeling anxious and frustrated. “We won’t make you do that one again for a while. Your eyes look great. No damage from diabetes. Keep up the good work. And your new lenses have grafted nicely. You’re seeing 20/20!”
Scott came to the house to help Mom and Dad prepare their tax returns. Dad had all their documents ready. Fifty years ago, Scott served as a young missionary in São Paulo, Brazil, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Dad and Mom presided over the mission for three years, becoming much beloved by the 200 missionaries. And here was Scott, five decades later, their bonds of affection intact. From my upstairs office, I could hear the tender tone of their conversation, their occasional laughter, and place names in that most beautiful language of Brazilian Portuguese: Piracicaba, Juiz de Fora, Itapoã, Rio Grande do Sul, Curitiba (some of their fields of labor). They remembered fondly old friends like Helvécio and Saul Messias and Camargo. After an hour, Scott drove away in his black BMW sedan. “That big BMW was part of Scott’s required profile at Price Waterhouse Coopers,” Dad explained. “Now he teaches at the University. It was very nice of him to come see us.” Dad has spoken to me many times about his own “profile” as both an international corporate attorney for Johnson & Johnson, wearing the compulsory navy-blue pinstripe suit, one identical suit for each day of the week, while also being a lay minister for the Church in New Jersey. As part of his ministry, he visited many people in poverty, and he decided his car should be as humble as theirs. He drove to work and to church and on family vacations in a 1970 Dodge Dart, in which I learned to drive, with “three on the tree,” meaning a three-gear manual transmission with the shifting lever on the steering column. That clutch was touchy and stiff, you can take my word for it. But I mastered that clutch, and did not roll back on the hill into the shiny new black Trans Am with red racing flames. Later in his career, Dad upgraded to an Oldsmobile 98 (hardly a luxury Lincoln or Cadillac), which he drove one evening to the projects in New Brunswick to visit a fraught Church member. Upon leaving the squalid high rise, he found a gang surrounding his Olds, the gang leader sitting on the hood. “Hello,” Dad said pleasantly. “Can I help you?” The gang leader sauntered over, opened Dad’s suit, and removed his wallet from the lapel pocket. “Thank you very much,” he sneered and swaggered away. Dad spoke up: “I am a minister. I have just been visiting Sister Morales, who is a member of my Church and my flock. She needs help, and I was seeing what I could do for her and her children.” The gang leader turned, handed back the wallet, and said to Dad, “Have a nice day, Minister. Thanks for coming.”
(Very nice photo of very nice 1970 Dodge Dart courtesy of Hemmings, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Dad’s running days are over, as are his cycling days. In fact, even his walking days are over. His walker days, however, have arrived, though he still refuses to use the big blue walker. During his jogging career, Dad ran 13 marathons. His training regimen included running seven miles a day during his lunch break, and 20 miles on Saturdays. He and other Johnson & Johnson attorneys and executives enjoying running together in Johnson Park along the Raritan River. After changing into his running shorts one day, he bolted from the locker room to join the jogging group. One attorney in the group, a woman, commented to him, “Nice shorts, Nelson.” He looked down to find himself wearing only his tight red underwear. In his hurry, he had neglected to slip on his running shorts. Darting back to the locker room, he soon returned more appropriately dressed. The group set off, and no one said another word about it. To Dad’s credit, he did not mind telling us children the story, many years later, including both horror and the humor of the episode.
From my seat in the choir loft, I looked out upon a sea of 500 faces. Panning slowly, I looked at the details of each face, especially the eyes. And I could tell that all these people sitting in church on a Sunday morning were good people, wanting to do their duty to each other and to God and the Church. Many couples sat beside each other, their children by their side, or alone where their children had grown. A number of adults sat without partners. Like mine, each face held a story of heartache and loss and grief, and joy. I pondered how their stories are not part of mine, and how my story is not part of theirs. We may cross paths from time to time, but we do not walk the same specific path together. I experienced again the sensation that I would walk the remainder of my path alone. The possibility remains that I might meet a compatible companion, who I now cannot imagine—it might happen. But to flourish in this present moment I have to let go of that ephemeral possibility. Several times I have worked hard to make a relationship happen, but these fabrications have always failed, painfully. In this and other oceans of faces, good faces, I have found no face or soul to belong to. And that is just as well. I have written elsewhere about my setting out to find wildlife in nature, how the harder I search, the less I find. I have learned that when I relax, and breathe, and labor faithfully without expectation, when I prepare myself and allow nature to arrive on her own terms, she and her creatures arrive, beavers and bullfrogs, muskrats and turtles, herons and kingfishers, wild iris and rose. As with nature, so with natural relationships: I must relax, and breathe, and labor faithfully without expectation—I have to be prepared for the universe to arrive with her abundant blessings. For the present, my job is to get used to being alone, to sacrifice and to love alone, to contribute alone, to maintain spiritual standards and practices alone, to be healthy and fit alone, to cook and eat gourmet meals alone, and to forego the pleasures and pains and joys of intimate companionship. My opportunity is to learn the lessons of living from my particular life. Your opportunity right now is to sing with the choir, I thought, emerging from my reverie. To end the long church conference, the choir director led Mom and me and the choir in singing Be Still, My Soul, arranged by Mack Wilberg. The women sang with one clear voice, to which the men added another, moving together into a pleasant perfect eight-part harmony. A spirit of beauty washed over the ocean of faces. After the benediction, Dad walked slowly beside me toward the exit, his arm heavily upon mine. Stepping through the door, we saw that the snow had begun to fall, and remarked upon how beautiful it was, and how cold upon our bald heads.
(Pictured above, Utah’s Jordan River from my kayak.)
Dad always has words of wisdom for me and for all his family: lots of words, and lots of wisdom. When he says, “You know, Rog…” I know a sermon is coming, and I flinch and tighten and brace. We are eternal beings of tremendous power. We are not weak beings sent to earth to become powerful. We are powerful beings sent to earth to learn humility and love. Love is the greatest power in the universe. By refusing earthly power and choosing kindness and humility and love, we demonstrate to God that we are worthy of the greater power he wants to give us in the eternities. I have asked myself many times why I have this ungrateful selfish resistant reaction, when his words are so gentle and so profound and so true. Yet, every time, I cringe. God has given us the secret for knowing how to live in this mortality. He has told us that we can put our trust in whatever leads us to do good, to be fair, to walk humbly. Pursuing the spirit of goodness, we will find that God will share himself with us, will enlighten our minds, with strengthen our spirits, will fill us with hope and joy. We can always trust impulses to do good. I have been listening to Dad’s impromptu sermons for decades, and have been recoiling for just as long. After a particularly good sermon to which I was particularly stiff, I doubled down to answer my own question. And the answer came. Putting my emotional walls up is a self-protection mechanism. I do not need protection from the message or its delivery, for the messages are redeeming. But I have discerned my problem: hearing Dad’s expositions hour upon hour, day after week, month after year, I often feel both tired and trapped. Jesus said, “He that sent me is true. I do nothing but what the Father has taught me. I do always those things that please him.” We can trust God the Father, for he is true. We can trust Jesus the Beloved Son, for he does and says only what the Father instructs him to do. I love the Father and the Son for being true and trustworthy and loving and good. I love a good chocolate chip cookie, homemade, with butter, brown sugar, pecans, and Ghirardelli dark. I can easily eat three or four or five, with ice cold milk, in one sitting. In fact, just dispense with dinner and go right to the delectable dessert. Dad’s teachings are similar to my cookies: rich, sweet, and satisfying. But I am immersed in them constantly, whenever Dad and I are together. Were I to forego dinner every evening, and be required to eat only the most delicious cookies instead, unable to seek other food, soon I would grow weary, reluctant, resisting, resentful, and even ill. The analogy is imperfect, but simply put, I may have too much of a good thing. Jesus knows us intimately and infinitely. He ascended above all things. He descended below all things. He is in all things, and through all things, and round about all things. This describes his atoning sacrifice, because of which he comprehends all things. He knows us. He is there for us, working within us, at every moment of our existence, wanting to bring us to him. One day, Dad will be gone, his voice silenced but in my journals, where I have recorded his sermons and stories. And my world will seem achingly empty and bereft. I will miss his teaching above all things. I think I’ll have another cookie.
On our last voyage to the grocery store, Mom ensconced a flat of vanilla cream sandwich cookies in her full cart, and I watched them lustily as they made their way to the kitchen pantry. The sugar and the fat are the problem: I am determined to stay unheavy and unfat and unflabby and to not come down with diabetes. The first night I was valiant in resisting the temptation of sweet creamy crunch. The second night I snuck two, which was allowable because my childhood allotment was three cookies so two could not possibly do me any harm. The third night I carried off three to my bedroom, breaking off tiny nibbles to extend the pleasure. Three was acceptable because the childhood allotment has long since taken on moral weight as the universally correct number of cookies for a human being to consume in one sitting. The fourth night I lifted four, a guilty excess of the universe’s cookie threshold, and I knew I was in trouble. If one could not stop at three, after all, when would one stop? On the fifth day, I carried the half-consumed package to Mom and explained, “Mom, these cookies are causing way too much trouble.” She looked worried. “They are just too good, and I’m going to eat all of them if you don’t do something with them.” That is the way it works for me: if I can resist buying them and bringing them home in the first place, I can abstain. But once they are in the house, I am powerless. Mom grinned and promised, “I will hide them from you.” I swear, I will not hunt them down as my sisters and I might have done in decades past. I felt instant relief that the exquisite cookies would tempt me no longer, and instant remorse for having to say good-bye.
I had seen around the house a transparent resin cube with an unfurled orange rose magically carved inside. A cute knick-knack, I thought. I have encountered such sculptures in souvenir shops, and wondered how they were done, by what computer-guided techniques and machines. Mom saw me admiring the embedded rose, and announced proudly, “My daddy made that. When he was a shop teacher at Brockbank junior high.” I asked her how in the world he had done it. “He said it was easy. He used a rotary tool to drill up into the cube, making the petals and leaves, then brushed dye into the empty spaces. We had dozens of these in our house when I was a girl. This is the only one left.” I admire the rose-in-the-cube every day now. What I had judged cheap kitsch now was transformed into family treasure, blooming on my filing cabinet. Tokens like these are to be cherished and admired and saved.
Word circulated that a neighbor was moving and for the men of the church to report at the neighbors’ house on Saturday morning at 10. Mark is a family practice physician who has treated Mom’s and Dad’s posterity for two decades since their retirement, and Julie has a PhD in nursing and works with sexual assault victims and law enforcement agencies. While 20 other men grunted over boxes and furniture, Julie set me to work wrapping dozens of framed family photos in protecting plastic. I started with a portrait of the young couple with their first child, a laughing toddler, and progressed through the family portraits as more children joined the family, which grew to a unit of ten souls, always smiling, huddled with mother and father, and growing again to welcome spouses and new laughing toddlers. Seeing the photos brought me happiness for them. But a part of me mourned that I will not have what they have—my family photos will be without father or without mother. Though we are devoted to our children, we are inexorably apart. I have delightful family photographs from earlier years as our family grew, but they are incomplete since 2015. “It is what it is,” I commonly hear from people coping as best they can with their particular set of life circumstances. I frequently acknowledge to my staff that “the facts are what they are”: I can choose only what to do with them. A corner room in Mark’s and Julie’s house was piled high with items slated for the local Deseret Industries thrift store. In one corner sat a sleek black 27-inch flat-screen television, in good condition. I had been looking for just such a television for Primus, who had only an old gray 10-inch TV as deep as it is wide. As a man picked up the television to cart it to the waiting truck, I quickly asked Julie, “May I give this television to my disabled friend who has practically nothing?” telling just enough of his story to convey the need. Primus came to this earth with a form of muscular dystrophy that overdeveloped his brain’s left hemisphere and underdeveloped the right. He is brilliant at absorbing and discussing books on history and politics and religion and biography, having read over 5,000 hefty books, but he cannot use a can opener. And he is frequently bullied. Primus met and befriended me one day, and we have enjoyed long discussions over pizza dinners since. The nursing professor welcomed me to take the television for Primus. And Primus was very happy to receive it. I moved the tiny old TV, on which he has watched his movies for a decade—the characters’ heads must be all of an inch wide—and set up the “new” TV. The DVD player began Robin Williams’ Jumanji in an instant improvement to Primus’ quality of entertainment life. I walked Primus through the remote-control functions and left him to enjoy his movie. In church the next week, Mark handed me a small tub of dark chocolate fudge and a card from Julie signed “With Gratitude” thanking me for wrapping their many family photos, so rightly precious to them, and I felt equally grateful for the enriching experience of helping and being helped.
Though Dad is newly mobile at the grocery store, I stick with him to help open the produce bags and reach for the fresh produce in the higher bins. “We don’t need cauliflower,” I mentioned. “We have two at home already. Same with spinach.” I left him at the butcher counter, free to exercise his whims, and tooled through the aisles, quickly crossing items of my list. Herbal tea. Chicken stock. Frozen peas. Strawberry jam. We met up at the check stand, where he told me that every time he stopped to look up at a shelf, another customer asked him, “Can I help you reach something?” or “Can I get something for you?” While I thought about how many shelves are still inaccessible to persons in wheelchairs, he thought about the kindness and goodness of most of humanity. Danny helped us bag our multitudinous groceries into the motley assortment of reusable sacks, and asked cheerfully, “Can I help you to your car?” Seeing how happy he was to help, though I did not need his help, I said, “Sure, Danny. Thank you very much.” He took my cart while Mom and Dad leaned heavily on theirs, and began loading the bags into the faithful Suburban. “You have a great day!” Danny cheered as he took off with our carts. In the car, we remarked on Danny’s cheerfulness and friendliness. He lived his life with a mental disability, but did not let it slow him down or darken his day. We discussed how this Smith’s grocery store welcomed disabled employees, and how they shined and flourished there, brightening our day and easing our effort, adding to the pleasant environment at the store. After I carried the reusable bags to the kitchen, Mom and I unloaded the groceries, and I noticed a new head of cauliflower and another carton of baby spinach. It seems that at the Baker house vegetables come in threes. Time to get cooking.
(Photo from Smith’s Facebook page, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Arriving home from choir practice, I found Dad sitting on the edge of his bed in his undergarments. I needed to leave immediately to get Mom to church on time, and I could not come back to get him right away because the choir was performing, and I was singing in the choir. “You go ahead and take Mom to church,” Dad read my mind. He seemed very tired, and without Mom to help him with his socks, and exhausted from yesterday’s long funeral, this Sunday seemed like a good day for him to rest. Mom and I had been sitting in our customary pew for only ten minutes when Dad appeared in the aisle beside us, hunched over his cane. Surprise understates my reaction—I was shocked. Mom and I leapt up to allow him into the pew (we could never have climbed over him to join the choir), where he huffed and heaved to regain his breath. He had walked to church with his cane in one hand and an umbrella in the other. “I tried 100 times to get my socks on,” he whispered, a bit too loud, as the young men distributed the emblems of our Lord’s body and blood. “I was collapsing—I wasn’t going to make it.” That is when a teenager in white shirt and tie jumped from his car and grabbed Dad, walking with him to the church doors. “You don’t really need my help,” the boy reassured as Dad leaned on him hard, “but I’ll just stay with you until we get into the church.” The boy helped him past the doors and down the chapel aisle to our bench. “I must have tried 20 times to get my socks over all of my toes,” he bemoaned. “My knees are still hurting.” After his breathing calmed, I reached over Mom and patted him on the knee, giving him a thumbs up sign. He smiled and brightened at my recognition of his heroism. “After you left, Rog, I realized how much I wanted to be in church.” Yes, I say heroism. Walking 50 feet to the mailbox is a major effort, taxing him for hours, and he had just walked 20 times that distance. “I only have this much strength in a day,” he gestured a distance of two feet, “and I have totally used it all up.” How many times have I decided ambivalently that I was too tired or discouraged to go to church? And this old man, nearly lame from post-Polio—this old man, with a big heart full of love for his Savior and humanity—he wanted very badly to go to church and worship, and he defied his circumstance and went.
(Pictured above: a fairly typical church meetinghouse of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Image used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Mom and I left Dad at the kitchen table half-dressed, his suspenders dragging to the floor, to have his breakfast of Quaker granola (hardly sugar free, but he doesn’t care anymore) and to finish buttoning his white Sunday shirt. Always a suit and tie man, he has given up on ties, or rather on his shoulders, which he cannot raise to fold down his shirt collar, and on the collar button that cannot find the button hole under command of his trembling fingers. We found him in pretty much the same state an hour later after choir practice, with ten minutes to get him ready for church. “I’m slow, aren’t I?” he said to me with a grin. “I know it. I’m like a tortoise.” Mom and I exhaled exasperated sighs. “I’m slow but I’m steady.” And that he is. Steady in his love and acceptance and absence of judgment and discerning intellect and in his love of chocolate chips. I rushed outside to sweep the snow off the faithful Suburban, to shovel and salt the driveway, and to turn the car on and turn up the heat setting and the fan, all in time for Mom and Dad to hop in, or rather to creep up and in. The church meetinghouse is just around the corner, but we insist on seatbelts, even though Dad’s seatbelt clasp cannot find its latch for his stiffened hands and shoulders and back, and in frustration he let out an “Oh, for cripes’ sake!” which I have learned is a euphemism for “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” which I will not tell Dad, for he loves and reveres Jesus Christ, his Redeemer, his Savior, and has spent his life in Christ’s service, and he would never in a century take his dear Lord’s name in vain. I stood by his car door, knowing not to shut the door for him, but merely close it to the mid-point so he could reach out and shut it himself. In the men’s priesthood class after sacrament services, an ancient welcoming sympathetic man gestured Dad to a chair next to him. I could tell that the chair looked a long way down as Dad turned to point his backside to the chair and joked to his friend, “Point and fall, Brother, point and fall.” Having pointed, he allowed himself to fall into place, where he enjoyed the group’s discussion about exercising our particles of faith.
Snow fell and temperatures plunged as I stood before the Planning Commission into the night instructing on the Utah laws of conditional uses and open and public meetings. Brian and Avery had offered me their guest room should I decide to stay the night, sometime. Well, sometime was tonight. I texted Mom and Dad, and drove the three miles from City Hall to Brian’s apartment, which had been my apartment for the six years preceding his arrival, the apartment to which I moved when divorce drove me from my home. The walls of that apartment watched six years of pain and coping and enduring and learning to live instead of aching to expire—of figuring out how to flourish. Entering that home tonight and making my bed and eating and bathing and sleeping there felt surreally strange. My little girl was nine years old when I moved out. I told her mother that our divorce would rip the little girl’s heart out. “She’ll be fine.” No, she won’t be fine: this will tear her heart out. “She’ll be fine….” A young woman now, her little girl heart still yearns for reconciliation, and I am unable to tell her why it cannot be—she has lost those dreams, compelled to make her own. Brian and Avery were so kind to me, with dinner and conversation, bedding and a towel, and snacks. And little Lila rejoiced as I stepped through the door and hugged her and read books and played blocks and Hot Wheel cars and watched Mr. Rogers snorkel and tell the world why we need to protect our oceans, both for the exquisite ocean life, and for ourselves. Driving the short distance to work the next morning, in ice and snow, I realized how much I preferred my one-hour commute with its biographies and histories and meditations over these familiar three miles with their echoes of anguish.
(Pictured above: my apartment, a blessing, built for the manager, but rented to me.)