Tag Archives: Family

Courage at Twilight: The Young Come After

Lila has come to spend the weekend with Mom and Dad and me. Being only two (almost three), she brought her parents along.  I did not mind because I like them, too, in addition to her.  “Come play Legos, Gwumpa Waja,” she sing-songed, and I sat by her little pajamaed body while we pieced together the bricks and sorted marbles by color.  Lila dragged me over to the neighbor’s to push her on the swing with the blue seat.  My sweetest memories of the last year include visiting my three grandchildren in Kentucky, Arizona, and Texas, now in Utah, Idaho, and Illinois.  Their smiles and laughs and cuddles banish fear and distress and fill me with feelings of love and tenderness.  With Lila here, however, at Mom’s and Dad’s house where I live, I find the generations confused, or mixed, in that I am both a grandfather and a child, the “Grandpa” of my children’s babies but still my mother’s “Baby.”  “Are you tired, Baby?” Mom asks when I come home late from work.  She showed me her journal entry from January 26, 1965, when I was seven months old: “Roger is really a big boy.  He crawls all over the floor, coming after me.  He holds onto chairs and things, and stands up.  He also bumps his head plenty.  His favorite foods are applesauce and bananas.  He has a tooth now.”  Dad delights to tell visitors how enthusiastically I emptied the cabinets of their pots and pans and lids, that no sooner had he put them away, then I would take them out again.  And now here is Lila asking her grandpa to plant a garden with her, and to get the tiny shovels.  We dig holes behind the shrubs, and plant rocks.  And she jabbers in two languages, English and Spanish, as we dig and look for rocks to plant, and cover them up “for squirrels to find,” and she runs to drop the blue and red beanbags in the cornhole goal.  Dad is 79 years older than Lila, and pointed out that when I am his age, Lila will be 30 years old.  And I want her to stay two forever.

Courage at Twilight: Paths to the Peak

The Indian Food Fair sounded fun: the food (coconut chicken shahi korma is my favorite), the pulsing weaving music, the dance and gold-threaded dress, the lilting languages I do not know.  I called Hannah to see if she might like to attend the fair with me.  But she would be summiting, she explained, Utah’s Little Matterhorn (also Pfeifferhorn) on the same day with her mother and three brothers.  Dad and I summitted this peak 25 years ago, thrilled to see moose munching on willows by the creek, exhilarated by the perfume of pine and fir on the cool mountain air, charmed by the tinkling rivulet, and finally reaching the boulder-strewn summit to be awed by the Salt Lake valley views.  I felt that familiar nostalgic pang of loss at no longer being part of the equation, the sting of not being invited, even though my damaged feet would not have allowed me to join for the neuromas and surgeries and scars.  I thought of them this morning, wondering where they were on the trail, if they had seen any moose, whether the air smelled of the pine and fir, if their thighs were burning beyond toleration, and hoping their boulder hopping on the fractured ridge line would be safe.  I thought of them looking out over the Salt Lake valley from 11,586 feet, looking down on Salt Lake City, on Liberty Park, on the Indian Food Fair, on me sitting on a park bench eating my tikka masala in the shade.  I thought again how it is my lot and my opportunity, both, to chart a new course, even if alone, to follow different paths to different peaks.  I had invited a new friend to meet me at the park to eat Indian food, and we walked, and we talked, and we swayed to rhythmic melodies, and we enjoyed sitting on our park bench and savoring our tandoor and basmati, and we glanced at each other and wondered at each other’s thoughts and at our futures, and I pondered how paths unexpectedly converge, and split, and find each other again, to wander off.

(Image above of the Little Matterhorn’s fractured boulder ridgeline and summit, from Wasatch Magazine, used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)

Courage at Twilight: The Best Bad Experience

The two Brazilian women had invited us to dinner at a Brazilian restaurant where we looked forward to reminiscing on our many tender connections to Brazil.  They run a small housecleaning business and work very hard scrubbing toilets and mopping floors and scouring sinks and vacuuming carpets to make a passable living.  I had planned to pay for the group, but in the order line they whispered happily to me that they were paying for the group.  I felt grateful for their generosity and mortified by their sacrifice.  I mumbled a feeble protest, not wanting to hurt their feelings or draw attention.  “Não pode ser,” I said—This cannot be.  Would my dad be angry? they wondered.  How could I say that Dad and I would both feel embarrassed without embarrassing and hurting them?  Instead of explaining, I offered a compromise: they could pay for themselves and for Mom; I would pay for myself and for Dad.  They accepted without hurt.  But no one expected what followed.  Dad’s steak and onions came out timely and well (medium), then Mom’s seafood stew.  While Dad munched on his steak and Mom hunted for shrimp, we reminisced over avocados the size of cantaloupes, the colors and smells of the traveling street market feiras, neblinha fog rolling in from the Atlantic and over the big city of São Paulo, the fine falling garoando mist-rain for which we do not have an English word, and the cheerful generous people of Brazil.  And Dad cannot simply resist telling about how when I was born the world had only cloth diapers and he had to wash them out by hand and how they strung ropes across the apartment to hang my drying diapers, but in the cold June humidity they would not dry so he pressed them dry with a hot iron, and I was beyond embarrassment and simply dumbly smiled.  We spoke mostly in that most pleasingly musical language of Brazilian Portuguese.  But our food never came: Solange and Ana and I had ordered several favorite Brazilian appetizers for our meal—coxinhas, bolinhos de bacalhau, esfihas, pasteis, kibe—and they never came.  The owners were vacationing in Brazil, half the cooks and servers had called in “sick,” and the remaining two teenagers ran around overwhelmed and frantic.  We checked with them several times on our orders.  Several times they brought us the wrong orders, meant for other frustrated customers.  Solange pilfered some white rice and black bean feijoada from the buffet, but the rice was only half-cooked—al dente would be kind.  At nearly the three-hour mark, the frenzied young manager came to our table, apologized profusely for the problem, refunded some of our money, offered us free brigadeiro cake and vanilla pudim, and begged us to give them another try on another day with another kitchen staff.  We thanked him.  We laughed at our experience.  We could have vented angry frustrations, but we laughed.  We laughed because we had enjoyed such wonderful conversation, memories, impressions, and stories (even if they were about my cloth diapers).  Solange’s and Ana’s meekness and cheer and forgiving positive spirit made anger and frustration impossible.  And they had received no dinner at all!  But the five of us together for three hours relished company and conversation, generosity and kindness, and had the best bad restaurant experience of our lives.  Solange and Mom hugged a rocking dancing hug, smiling and laughing, and Ana jumped in.  Dad received abraços, too, though he is not a hugger.  And I did not complain at being embraced by two pretty ladies from my birth country of Brazil.

Courage at Twilight: Cabin Fever

“I have cabin fever,” Mom sighed as we finished our Sunday dinner of baked pork chops with mustard-cream sauce and cumin-seed cabbage. “Then let’s go for a ride,” I offered.  Mom would have been satisfied with a brief ride around the neighborhoods, but I drove the Mighty V8 toward Little Cottonwood Canyon, glacier gouged and gorgeous, boasting pine forests, enormous slabs of granite, and a cascading river.  We commented on the incomparable beauty of these mountains as we drove up the narrow winding road, and expressed our gratitude at having these scenes so close to home.  “That’s enough for me,” Mom said as we passed the Snowbird resort.  “I’m ready to go home.  I don’t have cabin fever anymore.”  Back at home, I pointed out how multiple consecutive triple-digit days, and some active hummingbirds, had emptied the hummingbirds’ sugar water quickly, and the feeder hung empty.  We watched a tiny Black-chinned hovering, testing, and not finding liquid food.  Google says the correct mix is four parts water to one part sugar—and not to add red dye—so I refilled the feeder and brought back the birds.  The doorbell rang, and Carolyn D’s daughter delivered a white Afghan, crocheted with time and love and tenderness, for Dad had compiled her husband’s World War II recollections before they died with him, just in time.  Like Dad, Carolyn can no longer walk well, scooting along laboriously with a walker.  But she can crochet.  An hour later a violent summer thunderstorm blew and spat, teasing us unkindly with scant muddy drops that streaked the windows brown.  Dad sat in his kitchen chair, watching the wind whip the trees, and hazarded to Mom, “If you were to wander over here, I would give you a hug.”  In other words, I want to hug you, so please come to me, since I cannot come to you.  In his hoped-for embrace, he expressed to Mom, “You’re such a wonderful person.  I just love you.”

Courage at Twilight: Have I Done Any Good?

Dad hears better from the front church pew, which is cut out on one side to accommodate a wheelchair. Mom sits in the pew, and Dad sits in his wheelchair, the two holding hands with their faces lifted appreciatively toward the speakers.  One eighty-year-young friend of Dad’s observed, “It’s good to see you using a wheelchair, Nelson,” implying how awful it has been to see him leaning into his cane and hanging on my arm and still barely making it down the aisle.  In choir practice before church, we rehearsed the hymn “Have I done any good?” and at night I lay in my bed asking that question of myself, with dark and pressing doubts.  For today is day 365 since I left my life alone and moved into a life with Mom and Dad as an awkward caregiver in their waning—today is my first anniversary, our first anniversary.  Will there be any more anniversaries?  Even before moving into their house, I knew the experience would be intense and trying, not for any fault of theirs, but from the story’s inexorable ending, and from my own character flaws, and that I would tend to lose my sense of self, my sense of direction in life, my sense of fatherhood in my renewed sonhood, my sense of the future and self-purpose, and I knew I would need to write about my experience, daily, to work things through in my mind, to keep from being swallowed alive.  I felt compelled to write, and indeed I did write daily entries for 265 consecutive days before faltering in fog and fatigue.  This is essay #290: 290 shards of shattered glass through which to examine and strain to comprehend my experience in all its complex facets.  If I have not done much good, that failure has not been for lack of arduous effort.  If I have done some good after all, that good was worth the effort.  This post is not pandering for praise or angling for affirmation, and is not focused on self-flagellation.  This post simply poses the question, and makes a way for me to move on in the mission of doing what I can to bring comfort and safety to my parents as they careen toward their end, that the end may be comfortably and safely in their beloved home at the foot of the great snow-topped aspen-clad mountain.  But, still, and always, I shall ask myself that question, and sing the hymn quietly in the darkness to myself at night.

 

Have I done any good in the world today?

Have I helped anyone in need?

Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad?

If not, I have failed indeed.

 

Has anyone’s burden been lighter today

Because I was willing to share?

Have the sick and the weary been helped on their way?

When they needed my help was I there?

 

Then wake up and do something more

Thank dream of your mansion above.

Doing good is a pleasure, a joy beyond measure,

A blessing of duty and love.

Courage at Twilight: Practicing Balance

“I can’t walk!” Dad began as the home health case manager began his three-hour assessment. I felt proud of Dad for facing forcefully the reality of his condition.  “And I’m going downhill fast.”  Weston listened to everything Dad had to say as he inquired about every aspect of Dad’s health, from medications and mental health and mobility to bowels and balance.  He invited Dad to stand up from his kitchen chair, which required all Dad’s strength and induced level-8 pain in his legs.  “One gets to the point,” Dad explained, “where the pain induces one to not get up from the chair.  But I’m still getting up.”  Weston invited Dad to walk from the kitchen to his living room reading chair, using his cane and the kitchen counters and the piano top to surf to his destination and to point and fall in his chair.  Medical professionals measure balance on a 25-point scale, with 25 being the ideal, and, say, 9 being very concerning.  “The goal is not to get you to the ideal of 25,” Weston explained, “but to get you to from 9 to 10, or 12, or 15, to achieve improvement.  Improved balance always leads to increased safety.”  Dad was not confident he could improve, but promised to give it a try, to do whatever works.  I have talked often with my children about improving their life balance, between work, school, church, play, social life, health, exercise, nutrition, and family, and that our balance shifts constantly with our life changes.  I balanced my life as well as I knew how when I felt utterly crushed by work and responsibility and church and duty and sickness and keeping food on the table and clothes on their little backs and the bills paid.  And at times I teetered and did not balance well.  But not for lack of effort: I worked at balance, practiced it, and grew and strengthened and improved.  So, I teach them today about balance.  Weston taught Dad how to practice and improve his balance by standing in the corner against the walls of a room, with a walker in front, and letting go of both the walls and the walker for seconds at a time, seconds of being supported by nothing but his own balanced strength, knowing he could lean onto the walls or into the walker, wheels braked of course.

(Image by wal_172619 from Pixabay)

Courage at Twilight: The Time Is Six Months Past

I could hear a new voice from upstairs, a raised voice that began with “Hello!” and I knew that Sarah was giving Dad a long talking to. Through Marco Polo I had told her I needed professional advice on how to help Dad, and she had come with resources and with the right tone of voice, the tone of voice Dad learned years ago not to argue with or fight against, the tone of voice that said, This will happen!  When I thought the most important declarations had been declared, I thought I ought to join the conversation.  “Dad, you won’t ever get better.  Getting better is not the goal.  That’s the reality of where you are.  You should have begun using the walker a year ago, not never.  You should have begun using the wheelchair six months ago, not last week.  The goal is to keep you safe.  It’s time you ordered a motorized wheelchair.”  And he did not want to discuss an electric wheelchair.  “But Dad, when people see you zipping around in your motorized chair, they will think how young and active and motivated you still are, and how smart.  When they see you hanging on Roger and leaning on your cane and stumbling all stooped, they think how old you are and how you’re going downhill and how decrepit you’ve become.  The wheelchair is not a humiliation.  What you’re doing now is a humiliation.  The wheelchair is a tool of triumph, and will extend and improve your life and give you new energy and independence!”  And I agreed with every word she said, because they were all true.  She was not angry or rude, of course, just insistent that we face our reality and adjust our strategy.  She softened her voice: “We’re not ready for you to go, Dad.  Your mind is still laser sharp: you read several books a week.  We don’t want you to fall.  We don’t want you to break an arm or a leg or a hip.  We want you to stay safe so you can live in your home for years.”  And I agreed with every word she said, because they were all true.  Dad knew, too, that she spoke truth, insistent and intractable and loving truth.  And he assented.  “I’m not ready to go,” he declared.  “I will do whatever works.”  Home health is coming next week.  Physical therapy is coming next week.  Occupational therapy is coming next week.  Dad’s a fighter, and is not ready to yield the fight.  Dad has time yet, years of time, and we are determined to help him live those years.

(Pictured above: Mom and Dad in 2008.)

Courage at Twilight: Remember-Me’s

“I don’t care,” Mom reacted as Dad explained his concern.  In my experience, peoples’ declarations of “I don’t care!” betray a deep caring about the very things they disavow caring for.  I do it myself, though each time I utter the phrase, I pause to examine why I care so much, and I find that instead of apathetic, I am feeling threatened, or stressed, or vulnerable, and wish I did not have to care so much.  Dad said “I don’t care” when the resident mule deer nibbled all the tiger lily blooms just before they opened—irresistible moist sweet morsels.  He loves to see the doe and her fawns saunter across the back lawn, and delights when they bed down under the low pine boughs.  Mom and Dad and their visiting children and grandchildren never tire of calling out, “Look!  Deer!” at the sleek lithe wild pretty creatures glimpsed through the kitchen window.  I opened the plantation blinds Tuesday morning to see a miniature mule deer covered in creamy spots chewing contentedly on lilac leaves and felt, like Dad, that I did not care if the fawn consumed every flower in the garden.  So, while the neighbor shoos the deer out of his yard, we sit at the kitchen table and stare at them with wonder in our own yard.  Still, I shaved a whole bar of Irish Spring in and around the lily bushes in hopes the new blooms would be spared.  “I have watched them cross the road,” Dad explained.  “They stand at the curb and look left, then right, then cross when there are no cars.”  Hunger and cold push the mule deer out of the mountains that tower above our neighborhood, and once acclimatized they never leave. Those mountains called to us this week, so we drove to the Albion Basin at the very top of Little Cottonwood Canyon to see the wildflowers and to hike to Cecret Lake.  A winter avalanche filled the alpine lake with ice and rocks and mud, the brown piles of ice still melting in July.  We asked the forest ranger about the lake’s name, and he told us that while 19th-Century miners were hard-working and enterprising, they were not necessarily men of letters—they spelled phonetically, and Cecret sounded every bit as correct as Secret, so their Cecret name for the lake stuck.  The glacial basin nestling Cecret Lake is decorated with jagged rock escarpments, pine and fir forests, and wildflower meadows.  The many beautiful flower colors and shapes inspired us: exotic creamy columbine; blue beardtongue and larkspur; purple lupine; pink and red paintbrush; yellow glacier lilies; delicate sticky geraniums; white and pink and red firecracker penstemon; and tiny-petaled blue forget-me-not’s.  “I call them ‘remember-me’s’,” Hannah announced, to my delight, and I pondered how nice it is to be remembered, and wanted, and respected, and loved.  How nice it is when someone cares.

(Pictured above: field of Forget-Me-Not’s in the Albion Basin.)

(Pictured below: the Albion Basin, near Cecret Lake.)

Courage at Twilight: A Straight Hedge

“I’ll tell you what’s on my list,” Dad announced.  (1) He wanted to mix a few tablespoons of cement to fill the cracks where mortar had fallen out of the brick mailbox pedestal when it capsized.  (2) He wanted to trim new growth from the juniper hedge where the twenty-foot-tall trees, covered in powder-blue berries, had begun to infringe on the public sidewalk.  (3) He wanted to hoe the remaining weeds out of the flower garden—the deep-rooted entwining morning glory grows a foot a day.  (4) He wanted to clean the sidewalks of dust and sticks and leaves with his two-stroke blower.  “I’m not saying these jobs are for you,” he insisted.  “I’m just telling you my job list for myself.”  Of course, I knew his body would balk at these jobs, except maybe the mortar.  With a free hour, I went to work with the DeWalt hedge trimmer and carefully, slowly, carved a clean new vertical line against the sidewalk edge, taking care not to leave bulges and not to carve out concave curves.  My critical eye searched out and eliminated defects Dad might detect.  The aromatic trimmings filled a thirty-gallon garbage can.  A smiling walker came along just as I finished the job, and she thanked me.  Then the hoeing and weeding and sweeping and blowing.  Dad, meanwhile, set to on the mortar.  An overturned garbage can served as a stable palette for mixing mortar, a camp chair his painter’s seat, and the grass his paint box with the tools and ingredients arranged.  He mixed and scraped and mortared and rubbed, perfectly able and happy to do the job, and I did not hover, though I admit to watching from my upstairs office, writing.  The new mailbox is in, though Burke had to cut off the back, remove a two-inch ring, then reattach the two pieces of the box with duct tape to insert into the hole.  The old capstone is sledged to pieces and in the city garbage cans, and the new stone installed.  Dad finished the job and sat long in the sun, slathered with SP100, gathering strength for the great labor of standing up from a chair.  I checked the hedge again today just to make sure it was still straight, and exhaled my relief.  In the flower bed, three little ice plants had surfaced, having survived last month’s ice plant purge.  These I transplanted to two orange crocks, where they immediately set to blooming, and I cannot wait until they spread and overtop the rims and cast their bright blooms to the sun.  The blooms begin close as the sun begins to set and the sky dusks.  Excuse me for a moment: I can see Dad needs my help getting up from his chair at the curb.

Dad filling chinks with fresh cement.

 

Rescued ice plants that make me very happy.

Courage at Twilight: A Turtle and a Grebe

I waltzed up the river with strong strokes. Pull-rest-rest.  Pull-rest-rest.  The hen and her ducklings huddled tight against the bank looking every bit the bunch of muddy roots.  How do ducklings love their father drake? I wonder.  He has flown this stretch of river.  “Happy Father’s Day, Dad!” came the texts.  Is that how it is done, I wonder: four small typed words with a diminutive exclamation mark?  I handed Dad a thick old book, yellowed, wrapped in newspaper, in a red paper sack, to thank him for being my father.  Fiorello LaGuardia: the Italian Mayor of New York City who took on the Tammany Hall political machine, and won.  A black-crowned night heron rose from the riverbank with five-foot wings barred black and white, as silent as my waltzing river pondering.  How do his chicks say Happy Father’s Day? I wonder.  With urgent shrieks for regurgitated fish, no doubt, and by leaving the nest!  What a magnificent beautiful creature.  I imagine the carp fingerlings say nothing at all, glad not to be gobbled.  And I baked a pesto chicken orzo casserole and a sticky pudding cake full of dates and walnuts dribbled with hot toffee-cream syrup.  Oh, and first dibs to Dad on my book by Beryl Markham, an early pilot who flew single-props with open cockpits, who flew so intimately with planet earth, skimming the tall tree tops—she could see the waves and smiles of the farmers and they could see hers.  I have reached my three-mile turn-around too soon—I feel I could paddle up this river forever, relaxed and calm, not having the answers, and at peace with that unknowing.  My two youngest played cello-piano duets to Mom and Dad and me, moving us with their beauty and the music’s beauty.  “Rafting the river . . . I remember you naming every single type of butterfly we saw.  You knew everything about them.  And the trees and birds and wildflowers, too.  You taught me to look for the small and simple things, and remember the value they add to our lives.”  Thank you, son.  (I’ll have you write my epitaph.)  Maybe Bullock’s orioles chitter cheerfully to celebrate their fathers, flashing their oranges blacks and whites in their excitement.  I don’t know that little turtles thank their big-shell papas, sunning exclusively on fallen tree trunks, necks and legs stretched out pleasurably, imperiously, a knot of dried algae on one’s back.  I sent my sons-turned-fathers a handmade card with a personal note of admiration and encouragement and a token ten-dollar bill.  Does that count?  Yes, that counts—every sincere expression counts.  “Oh, my dear Daddy.  How I love and honor you and appreciate with deep gratitude all that you do for me.”  Thank you, sweet daughter of mine.  A Clark’s grebe with white face and black crown and piercing yellow beak and piercing scarlet eye dove and dove as I approached, then appeared twenty-five yards behind me.  What a magnificent beautiful creature!  His chicks would easily admire him.  “I love you Daddy!”  That’s how it’s done: with love.  I love you, too.

 

Pictures above and below: scenes from the Jordan River, in Utah, today.

Courage at Twilight: Getting It Right

Yesterday: I was not angling for a pat on the head, but neither did I expect a rap on the knuckles.  I had listened to everything Dad said he would do to get ready for the wedding: string trim the grass along the sidewalks and the rock wall and around the landscape beds; hoe and pull all the weeds and tall grass and wild morning glory vines from the shrubs and beds.  He could do none of it, and I suspected the man he had hired would not show up (he didn’t), so I set to work hoeing, snipping, trimming, raking, bagging, sweating, near collapse from illness and fatigue.  Six neighborhood men converged for a successful second attempt to winch the impossibly heavy brick mailbox pedestal into its hole.  They repaired the broken sprinkler pipe, stacked the sod, and will come back in a couple of days to see how the pedestal has settled, pour fresh cement, and restore the soil and grass.  Dad sat and watched and worried and advised, straight from his bed, without taking his medicine, without drinking, without eating—straight to the job for the long-haul, sitting in the driveway in the hot sun, sweating out his strength, begging on the misery of seizures and exhaustion.  Four friendly Columbians assembled the wedding tent and I stumbled to be friendly in Spanish, treating them to cold Brazilian Guaraná soda (“No es cerveza?”  “No, no tiene alcohol.”)  I finished my work after six hours, and putting the tools away, Dad told me I had done the string trimming wrong.  No “thank you.”  No “looks great.”  No “you did a lot today.”  Like I said, I did the work because it needed doing, and I was proud of the beautiful manicured result—I was not pandering for praise.  But if you expect a job done a certain way, tell me at the beginning of the job; do not wait until the job is done and then criticize the result.  I felt suddenly furious, and announced I was done because I had worked beyond my limits, which I had, and my arms and hands were shaking and my breathing tight and short and all I wanted was to lie down in a cool dark room.  But I found little Gabe (almost four already!) and asked him the question he always hopes to hear: Do you want to bake some cupcakes, little friend?  He measured and poured and stirred and tasted at every step, from bitter cocoa-powder paste to rich batter to sweet butter-cream icing to small spoonsful of sprinkles, the various chocolaty substances fingerpainted on his face.  But Gabe’s all-time favorite game is Hide-and-Seek.  “Nobody wants to play Hide-and-Seek with me,” he bemoaned as everyone worked, and I thought maybe I could find a little hiding and seeking energy for my little friend.  When he counts, he counts fast, and ten “seconds” was barely enough time to bound off and stumble behind a bush, where he found me when I poked up for a peak and he squealed and I laughed and his mama watched us from the kitchen window, giggling.  Gabe took most of the cupcakes home, thankfully.  Later I laid in bed wondering at my still-smoldering anger and how outsized it was to the offense and wondering where it came from and pondering my six-decade relationship with the great man I call “Dad” and learning long ago not to expect praise but to get the job done right and wondering what my three daughters and my four sons think of their “Papa” and whether my expectations were reasonable, and reasonably expressed.

Last Night: And at 1:00 a.m. my sleeping ears began to hear Dad’s far-off call “Rog!” and at the second “Rog!” I jumped from my bed, threw off the loathed CPAP cup, grabbed my 45-year-old homemade brown terrycloth bathrobe and ran to the stairs to confront the whole spectrum of trouble.  But there sat Dad in his recliner, reading, munching, happy, perfectly fine and safe, waving, smiling curiously at me looking distressed in my underwear at the top of the stairs.  I hung my bathrobe on its hook and resumed staring at the dark ceiling, ready to let go of unintended offense, ready for sleep, ready for the last Mary Berry cupcake the next day, a Sunday, a day of rest.

Today: Dad, sitting with me at a round table under the wedding tent: “Rogie, did you do all this work in the yard?  There’s not a single weed in the shrub beds, and they are all raked out so nice and neat.  And the string-trimmed edges of the lawn are perfect.  It’s all perfect.  You have made the hard look so nice for the wedding.  Thank you.”

Courage at Twilight: Cherry Cheesecake

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.

French chocolate soufflé from Julia Childs.

Courage at Twilight: Cleaning the Church on Saturday

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.

Courage at Twilight: Mother

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.)

Mom with Mother’s Day fluffy pillow present.

Courage at Twilight: Class of ’58

“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.

Class of 1958 Cyprus HS Centennial banner, reused from 4 years prior.

 

Class of ’58 reunion announcement.

So Good To See You, Sunshine!

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!

Courage at Twilight: When You Walk Through the Door

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.)

 

Courage at Twilight: I Love You

“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.)

Courage at Twilight: The Good Sermon

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.

(Image by pixel1 from Pixabay.)

Courage at Twilight: Echoes of Anguish

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.)

Courage at Twilight: A Motley Assortment

Home from the grocery store each week, I am appalled at the number of plastic grocery sacks that enjoy single-use lives of less than one hour, only to be discarded.  Sometimes the baggers put only one item in a bag.  At least we take them back to the grocery store to be recycled instead of sending them to the county dump.  Penn State says Americans throw away 100 billion plastic grocery bags per year!  “You know, Mom,” I ventured, “we could take reusable bags.”  She quickly warmed to the idea, and remembered her stack of such bags on a shelf in the garage, where they had sat for 20 years waiting to be useful.   Mom grabbed the stack and threw it in the back of the faithful suburban so we would not forget them the next time we shopped.  At the grocery store the following week, she filled my cart with the dozen sacks, a motley assortment, from Intermountain Hospitals, Public Broadcasting System (Mystery!), Utah Shakespearian Festival, Consumer Reports, and an old canvas bag from Dad’s employer Johnson & Johnson.  Several were small unmarked duffels, and one was printed with red hearts and an assortment of colorful cats and dogs.  These dozen bags held as much as thirty or forty plastic bags would have held, and were easier to carry.  “I’m so proud of us,” Mom crowed as we unloaded the groceries at home, having used not a single plastic grocery sack.  Back to the faithful Suburban I took the bags, ready for shopping next week and every week thereafter.

 

Courage at Twilight: Grandpa Wally’s Whiskers

“My daddy had a thick black beard,” Mom recalled when I apologized for my three-day scruff, though he did not let it grow long.  As a child, she loved sitting on her father’s lap and rubbing her soft little hands on the prickly stubble of his weekend beard.  I learned this because she said to me one Saturday afternoon, “Come here—I’ll show you what I used to do to my daddy when I was a little girl.”  Then she rubbed her soft old hands on my prickly weekend stubble.  I shave on days one and three because on day two there isn’t quite enough to comfortably shave.  I wore a full salt-and-pepper beard to Brian’s college graduation.  But I looked old and heavy and worn in all the photos.  So, I decided to lose weight and lose the beard.  One less beard and 40 less pounds later, I feel better and look younger (relative).  Besides, I could no longer endure the never-ending itching against the pillow.  And I cannot imagine a woman wanting to kiss a man’s lip hair, so I shave my lip on principle.  I shaved my beard one time because a coworker said it looked like an armpit.  Nope—no more beards for me.  I think we will not make a habit of Mom rubbing her hands on my whiskery face.  But she blows me a kiss every night as I wander up to bed and she finishes the nightly news.  “Hey Baby,” she calls.  “I sure love you.”  And I blow her a kiss back.

Pictured above: Wallace “Wally” Bawden c. 1962.

 

The Baker clan c. 1986 with a bearded Yours Truly.

Courage at Twilight: Motorized Shopping

After Luana’s chewing out, Dad agreed to use a motorized shopping cart at the grocery store. He took to it naturally, like a soaring eagle riding an updraft above the wilderness far below—a bit too dramatic?  He took to it naturally, like an earthworm in moist dirt.  Instantly my stress levels have fallen off, since I do not have to worry from moment to moment when his strength will give out and when I might find him splayed on the floor in the cold cereal aisle waiting for an ambulance.  And his own distress has diminished, being able now to enjoy the shopping experience.  In fact, he may be enjoying it too much.  While I use my shopping list to target exactly what groceries we need, he glides leisurely down each aisle dropping into his basket whatever tickles his whim.  In checkout lane, Luana stated more bluntly than she meant, “I see you obeyed my orders.”  He smiled up at her from the driver seat and changed the subject: “Aren’t these eggplants beautiful?”  Dad rode his cart all the way to the car door, happy and with a little energy left, instead of the customary staggering and leaning against me and gasping, “I’m not going to make it, Rog.”  Life just got better for us both.  The only problem is that we have a month’s supply of fresh spinach.  But I am not complaining about the chocolate pudding cups he snuck past Mom, or the yogurt pretzels she snuck past Dad.

Courage at Twilight: Handyman Gabe

Gabe came over on Saturday just as I was rolling out the pie crust dough for quiche shells. He watched me roll the dough onto the rolling pin, unroll it over the quiche pan, and tuck the dough carefully down into the pan.  “I want to bake!” he declared.  “I want to bake banana chocolate chip muffins—with you, Uncle Roger!” like we had done once before.  “I get the bananas!”  No matter how cheerily bright his eyes shone, I could not pivot to baking with him after spending an hour mixing and shaping the dough, and preparing the quiche mix.  And the raw shells had to go into the preheated oven, right now, for seven minutes filled with aluminum foil and ceramic baking beads, and three more minutes without.  He retrieved a green mixing bowl and placed it on the counter, letting me know he was ready.  “Nope,” I begged off, empty of patience and tact.  “I’m not starting another baking project.”  Gabe looked crestfallen.  “But look at all this extra pie dough,” I offered him a ray of hope.  “We can make cinnamon pie-crust cookies.”  I showed him how to roll some of the buttery dough into a ball, press the ball onto the cookie sheet, and poke a depression into the cookie with his thumb, followed with a spoonful of Dad’s cinnamon-Splenda mix.  Gabe was a pro, and soon had most of the dough formed into cookies, which we baked after the quiche shells came out slightly browned, partially baked—they would compete their bake with the ham, cheese, egg, and cream filling.  When I had arranged the hot finished cookies on a plate, Gabe ran up expectantly for one.  “Nope,” I stopped him.  “Before you eat a cookie, you need to take this plate and serve everyone else a cookie.”  The four-year-old, surprised by this important responsibility, took the plate first to Mom, then to Dad—Gabe’s great-grandparents—inviting them to take and taste one of his cookies.  He looked enormously proud and pleased.  The cookies were quickly consumed, and he brought me the empty plate, wearing a big smile.  “Good job,” I praised.  “Now, come with me—I have another job for you.”  Dad had purchased a new showerhead, and had asked me to install it.  Gabe carried the crescent wrench up the stairs into the bathroom, while I talked him through how to change a showerhead.  I removed the broken showerhead and hose, and told him they needed to be thrown away.  “Can I throw them away?!” he asked hopefully.  The deed happily done, I hoisted Gabe up in my left arm, joining my right hand with his small hands to thread on the new showerhead, over a strip of Teflon tape wrapped tight.  “Turn it good and tight,” I instructed, and he did.  I turned the water on, and Gabe pressed his face against the glass where the water pounded.  “Now, go tell Grandpa.”  Gabe raced down the stairs and reported to Dad that the he had thrown Dad’s old showerhead away and put the new one on—and it worked!  I felt pleased at his sense of accomplishment.  “What are we going to do with the rest of the pie dough?” I asked him.  “Do you want to make a strawberry pie?”  He nodded eagerly, and I helped him shape and roll the dough.  His dad helped him spoon strawberry jam into the center of the circle, then bring one side of the dough over the jam to form a semicircular turnover.  I sealed the edges with fork tines, and slid Gabe’s pie into the oven.  When the turnover came out, nicely browned, Gabe glowed.  He let his pie cool, then cut it and took pieces to Mom and Dad, and Sarah and Tracy, who raved and praised, much to Gabe’s delight.  “You did a lot today, Gabe,” I reminded.  “You made cinnamon pie crust cookies, you put on a new showerhead for Grandpa, and you baked a strawberry pie!”  “Thank you, Uncle Roger,” he sighed, self-satisfied, knowing he had learned important new skills.  “Next time,” I offered, “let’s bake banana chocolate-chip muffins.”

(Pictured above: Gabe’s strawberry pie.)

Courage at Twilight: Grandpa Darwin

My children’s other grandfather is dying from his fourth attack of cancer. Tumors like softballs stud his chest and torso.  Prior cancers removed his lower jaw and all but a thin fold of vocal cord.  Family group texts to my children kept me informed of his worsening condition and of the many tender family visits from his eight children and thirty-six grandchildren and twenty-eight great-grandchildren.  Though I have not been his son-in-law for six years, I love and respect the man, and I knew it would be right for me to say good-bye.  Sitting at his bedside, we fist-bumped and we talked and reminisced and we shared our hopes for our families’ futures.  He expressed his love and admiration for my seven wonderful children.  I conveyed Mom’s and Dad’s expression of love and admiration and respect—“Right back at ‘em,” he chimed.  He told me stories of his early life, like when he was a little boy and he and his cousins laid on their grandmother’s down-tic mattress listening to her tell stories of their Mormon pioneer ancestors.  “She was barely 4-foot 10-inches tall,” he marveled.  “We loved her.  But you didn’t want to make her mad!” like when the children tried to ride the sheep.  When I asked what he most looked forward to on the other side, he listed reunions with his father, Charles, who died by train in the shunting yard in 1961, and his mother, Jessie, who died of a stroke the year I married (1988), and many other family members, like his brother Kay, who died of the hardships of homelessness.  I told him I felt very sorry that things had not worked out for his daughter and me, but that I loved him.  “You are family,” he assured me in exhausted whispers, “and I love you.”  He squeezed my hand hard, then let me know he was so tired and needed to sleep for a while.  He stopped eating five days ago—he made it to March 1—everyone has said good-bye—I have said good-bye and god speed.

Courage at Twilight: Beginning to Forget

The photographic mind of my 86-year-old father is slowing its shutter speed, narrowing its F-stop, and the images emerging are beginning to blur. I am accustomed to him telling me the details of prominent lives based on his reading over many decades, the names, dates, relationships, events, places, and joys and tragedies.  Stories still flow, but the names occasionally disappear or bungle.  I always allow a long, respectful pause before supplying a name, if I know it.  And when he insists on Middlesex County College (in New Jersey) instead of Salt Lake Community College (in Utah), I do not correct.  What would be the point—to remind him of his and all humanity’s persistent deterioration?  To try (in vain) to appear as smart as him?  That would be cruel and arrogant of me.  On each occasion when I do supply a name, I find that he is the one that originally supplied me with the name.  So much of what I know comes from him telling me neverendingly about his readings and experiences.  When he is gone, I will feel bereft of my teacher.  I am reading a great deal in an attempt to open my brain on my own, but I observe with chagrin that the names and dates and events already do not stay in my memory—they have fled almost by the time I finish the book.  What do remain inside me are the impressions, emotions rolled up with images my brain has supplied, and admiration and love for the humanity of each person I read about.  While I may not be a useful repository of information, yet I trust my soul has stretched and grown by bringing those people into myself.  These I never forget.

(Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay.)

Courage at Twilight: Baby Henry

The tiny boy in my hands is a perfectly proportionate finely-featured human being in miniature.  His eyes are shifting from newborn gray to paternal blue.  His hair is growing from newborn black to maternal chestnut: lots of it, and curly.  And I am holding him, baby Henry, the child of my child.  In January.  Holding him feels natural—I know the moving parts and the comforting positions, and where he needs support.  At three weeks old, he looked into my eyes—he really did—and gazed at me for a good long time—he really did—and a not-gas-bubble smile began to play in the corner of his moving mouth on one side while he gazed—it really did.  Somehow the world seems good and whole when holding a newborn.  The problems melt away, and love flows.  And I speak in gibberish the infant can understand because the sounds come from a smiling face and a lilting voice and dancing eyes, and those little ears take in the sounds and smiles and glints of light and love.  Until three weeks ago I had one grandchild, the source of my greatest joy.  Now Henry is here, and the stable of my heart has grown to make ample room for him in the manger, and will make more room in April, and more in October, and yet more….

(Above: Henry on a quilt sewn by his aunt Laura.)

Henry on a blanket crocheted by his great-aunt Carolyn.

 

Henry with his wonderful parents John and Alleigh.

 

Yours truly holding the sleeping baby Henry.

Courage at Twilight: The Lights Is Always On

I pulled into the driveway after 11:00 p.m. on a Wednesday, commuting the long hour after a long City Council meeting.  The garage light shone through the door’s glass panes.  How convenient, I could have thought.  I would not have to gather my things and make my way to the house door in the dark.  Instead, I thought about how Mom had been thinking of me that day and that night, and how she had made a point of turning on the light for me, to make my path bright and easy.  And I thought about Mom and Dad sitting me down first thing every night to ask me about my day, in the process teaching me the consideration of asking them about their day—now, I try to ask them first.  And I thought about how they answer the phone every day to listen to one of their beloved daughters, the troubles and worries and defeats and victories.  And I remembered how Mom was there when I had my tonsils removed (1968), and my appendix removed (1982), gangrenous and tight, and my knee reconstructed and my leg immobilized for six weeks (during the dark ages of 1983), and my hernias patched (2012) and how in their 80s they brought me home to recover from my last surgery (2019), along with a pot of homemade chicken-vegetable soup.  And I remember how Mom gathered us on Monday nights after fried pork chops to teach us a new church song, posterboard prompts held high, and Dad expounded his lifetime of scriptural insights, which bless me deeply every day, and how we ended with donuts or ice cream or rice pudding or little bowls of M&Ms.  And I ponder their devotion and sacrifice and how they deserve my devotion and sacrifice.  So, when I saw the garage light on, I jolted with the sudden but not-surprising awareness that their light has always been on for me.

(Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay )

Courage at Twilight: Valley of Fire

She announced early in February that she was taking the children camping in Nevada where the sun shone warm and the sky vibrated blue and the sandstone grottos would shelter their tent in shimmering desert solitude and beauty.  How wonderful and fun, I thought, but she announced this trip was for her and the children and I was not invited.  So they went camping and I went to work those gray snowy foggy days in February.  The still sandstone dunes radiated rainbow stripes of pinks and rusts and creams with occasional dripping springs and mystic hoodoos and ancient cryptic bat woman petroglyphs and piles of petrified wood and iron-spiked barrel cacti and mellow bighorn sheep and scurrying blue-throated lizards and deep trails of rust-red sand.  These filled and enthused the returning children, who told me brightly all about their wonderful fun adventure, not knowing anything was the matter.  It is February again, and they are there.

(Pictured above: Elephant Rock in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada)

Courage at Twilight: Almonds by the Pound

I am not doing well.  Of course, that sentence is so vague as to mean nothing at all.  Let me see if I can rephrase.  I am feeling acute prolonged distress on account of continuous daily events like watching my father exert all his earthly energies merely to rise from a chair and stumble on the verge of forward falling with each step as he crosses a room and knowing that one fall with a blow to the head or a broken leg or hip would take him from his home and land him in a hospital or assisted living whence he might not return and knowing the finances and the absence of long-term care insurance and that the needs for the little that is left, the needs, the needs, come constantly and persistently and if Mom and Dad are long-term hurt or long-term sick and cannot stay home the bills would take their home from them for we likely would have to sell the home, the home, and then where would our family be? and I can’t even think or ask When will this end? because the only end is a sad and tragic end which I abhor and eschew and don’t ever want ever and so we endure together and we make the best of things which often is pretty excellent though always under pall.  I know I am not doing very well because I am writing in hysterical stream-of-consciousness and I swear frequently under my breath and I am consuming large quantities of lemon-yogurt-covered almonds and milk-chocolate-covered almonds and colorful crunchy Jordan almonds and feel a general awfulness inside and out and the frequent need to sit in a dark quiet room in my recliner under a soft fleece throw.

 

(Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay.)

Courage at Twilight: Yellow Roses

Valentine’s Day is not my favorite holiday: too many painful memories and unrealized dreams.  Though many couples are successful, for me, at 57, the intimate romantic logical vulnerable safe knitting together of two lives seems like an impossibility.  The fabric feels always dangerously close to fraying.  But Mom and Dad have made it work for 63 years, including their courtship.  To celebrate the day, they teetered to the chocolate cottage down the street and bought each other some goodies—for Dad, a box of sugar-free chocolate cherries—for Mom, a one-pound log of rocky road!  Dad also brought home two dozen yellow roses for Mom, her favorite color.  Mom called me at work to wish me a happy Valentine’s Day and to invite me to go to dinner with them. “This is your romantic day,” I demurred.  “You and Dad should enjoy dinner for two.  I’d be a third wheel.”  “Nonsense,” she rebuffed.  “We’d love to have you with us.  We’re a family!”  In the end, I proved useful, carrying plates and drinks and silverware, helping Dad into and out of his seat.  A cheerful vibrant pony-tailed server about my age waited on us.  I could not help but wonder about her circumstances.  Ever friendly, Mom asked her if she had children.  “I have six!” the woman enthused.  Her oldest is serving our Church as a missionary in Costa Rica.  Several of my children served such two-year missions, in Oklahoma, Florida, California, and Mozambique (in Portuguese-speaking southeast Africa).  We had that in common.  I do not know if she is married, but she was waiting tables, and I was being waited upon, and I was with my parents, and we were surrounded by scores of listening people.  Enjoying our meals, Dad reminisced about when his mother worked as a waitress and janitor.  She worked at night cleaning the Kearns building downtown Salt Lake City during World War II.  As a seven-year-old, Dad would accompany her and empty the waste baskets.  The foreman arrived to give Dora her pay.  Dad informed the man he had worked too, and where was his pay?  Without meanness, the man picked up a pencil from a desk and handed it to Dad: “Here’s your pay, little man.”  Dad had thought it “chintzy” pay for the work.  Not to be chintzy in turn, he left a nice tip for the cheerful vibrant mother of six.  “She has a family to support.”  Walking slowly to the car, Mom thanked me for taking her and Dad to dinner.  “I should be thanking you,” I answered.  “Thank you for including me in your Valentine’s Day.”  Back at home, I climbed the stairs to my home office.  On my laptop rested a yellow chocolate rose lollipop, with a ribbon bow, a gift from my vibrant cheerful mother.

Courage at Twilight: Wild Asparagus

Dad stood hunched over the kitchen sink snapping the bases off the thick asparagus stalks, tossing them in the pan.  I cannot see asparagus without remembering the walk through the woods to the grassy field between the forest and the highway in New Jersey where the wild asparagus grew.  Mom carried the basket.  We children searched randomly for the thin green three-foot monoliths and snapped the stalks at the base and laid them tenderly in her basket.  Mom had trained our eye.  And I cannot remember that asparagus field without remembering the thick blackberry thickets along the same highway in New Jersey where we picked blackberries by the bucketful and took them home to boil with sugar and pectin, straining out the infinitude of stony seeds, pouring deep purple goo into pint jars, topping each with a quarter-inch of hot paraffin wax to seal the jars against pathogens.  That black blackberry jam tasted so delicious on crispy English muffins toasted brown in the broiler.  And I cannot remember that blackberry jam without remembering the asparagus walk and how we came home covered in ticks and never again took that wild asparagus walk.  I still love blackberry jam.

(Image above by Christian Bueltemann from Pixabay.)

Wild asparagus in long and spindly:

(Image by DianaRuff from Pixabay.)

Courage at Twilight: Fig and Date Bread

Burt Brothers called to tell us what the repair would cost. We had worried the cost would be higher.  When I poured the windshield wiper fluid in the reservoir the afternoon before, the fluid gushed out onto the driveway.  I struggled to remove the heavy battery so I could see the reservoir and its tubing, and found both tubes (to front and rear wipers) broken in the same place.  I left small pieces of my finger behind reinstalling the battery.  The service project the next morning had caught my eye on Facebook, on the page I follow about the Jordan River, where I kayak and cycle.  But the event appeared to not catch many other eyes, for only two volunteers came, plus the Jordan River Commission Executive Director, who dispensed gloves, trash bags, and garbage pincers.  Our goal was to bag all the garbage at the river-side park before the wind blew it into the river.  I have kayaked around huge floating masses of flotsam on the river, some growing their own vegetation.  The Director thanked me for coming, dispensed some tips about good kayak launches for avoiding dams and portages, and handed me trail mix and fruit snacks.  Returning home, Mom and Dad and I drove two cars to drop off Dad’s faithful Suburban at the garage to repair the tubes, and we continued on in Mom’s trusty Legacy to the grocery store for the weekly shopping.  I felt happy as we arrived at Smith’s, but left the store an anxiety-ridden wreck.  I lost Dad in the store—he was not sitting at the deli where I usually find him when I have finished shopping.  I found him with Mom funneling into Luana’s check-out line—she is their favorite checker, and she always orders me to “take good care of them.”  “I’ll do my best,” I always promise.  Dad began trembling behind his cart—“I’m not going to make it, Rog,” he said.  “I need to sit down—now.”  Luana sent a bagger running for a chair he could not find, while another bagger drove up with a motorized cart onto which Dad collapsed.  “Nelson,” Luana chided (partly on my behalf, since she could get away with it), “the next time you come, you either will use this motorized cart, or you will not come at all!”  Dad nodded and smiled sheepishly, relieved just to be sitting.  He took to the cart naturally, motoring easily to the car.  Unloading the week’s groceries, Burt Brothers called to say Dad’s car was already fixed.  With Dad sitting in his recliner eating his onion and Swiss on multi-grain bread, Mom and I raced off to retrieve the faithful Suburban, good as new, and for a fair price, before the store closed at 5:00.  Mom crowed that she and I were the heroes of the day for retrieving the repaired Suburban.  We celebrated with pizza, salad, and Paul Hollywood’s beautiful fig and date bread.

Courage at Twilight: Three Old Cars and a Pocket Watch

Dad went to his father Owen’s house soon after Owen died.  Living so many years alone, Owen had accumulated hordes of stuff which filled the house in choking piles and stacks.  Dad emptied and cleaned the house, taking truck load after truck load to the dump.  He felt that cleaning the house was a way to give his father deserved dignity after death.  Owen’s brothers had told Dad that the house and everything in it belong to them, not to Owen or his children.  Dad had acceded without argument, and had asked if it were acceptable for him to clean the house, to which they agreed.  Owen did not have a will, so Dad appointed himself personal representative of the paltry estate.  Owen had a small life insurance policy, the proceeds of which Dad gave to his mother to pay delinquent utility bills.  Owen had owned three old cars.  Probate law at the time allowed for the disposition of one car without going through probate.  Dad spoke with the clerk of the probate court, explained that Owen’s only assets consisted of these three junk cars, and asked if he really needed to go through probate court to get rid of them.  After a moment’s reflection, the kindly court clerk suggested the law could be read to allow for disposition of all three cars without involving probate, so long as the cars were disposed of one at a time.  So, dad quietly sold the cars.   A new law student, Dad mentioned this procedure to a law professor, who thought it a novel legal interpretation.  Owen’s horse Bomber and prize-winning bull terriers had long since been sold.  Left to Dad was Owen’s 1907 Elgin pocket watch.  I have seen and held that watch—it is a work of art.  Left to us now of Owen are the photos and the stories, which I am grateful to have.  Though grandpa Owen died three years before I was born, I love him through those stories and photos.

 

 

Courage at Twilight: A Single Tear

I sat on the edge of Mom’s bed. She was 35 years old.  And I was 10.  A single tear coursed slowly down her cheek as she confided to me in that quiet private place that her father had died.  My grandfather Wallace.  We had lived with Wallace and Dorothy a scant two years earlier, where I started 3rd grade while we waited three months for our lagging visas.  Dad had been “called” by our church to “serve” as a “mission president” in Brazil.  Translation: Mom and Dad had been invited to work on a volunteer basis leading a group of younger volunteer proselyting missionaries sharing the Gospel of Jesus, as representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Dad took a three-year leave of absence from a generous Johnson and Johnson, and Mom and Dad and three young children, including me, made the long voyage to São Paulo, Brazil.  It was October 1972.  We left behind the tear-stained face of grandpa Wallace, locked in mortal battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  Dorothy had tried every healing remedy she heard of, including a grape juice diet—after two weeks, her sick husband threw the offered juice across the kitchen in disgust.  Wallace fought hard to stay alive until Mom returned home to Utah, and he almost made it.  He passed away in April 1975, and we returned in July.  Mom did not travel to the funeral, deciding instead to dedicate herself to the mission and to her young family, which then included a new baby.  As I sat on the edge of Mom’s bed and watched the lone tear drip down her face, I felt the peaceful warm elixir of great sadness mixed with great hope, the sadness of love and loss, and the hope of healing in Jesus and the promised reunion of resurrection.  During his 62 years, Wally (as his friends called him) had organized the construction of church buildings by church members, had led a congregation of thousands as a lay minister, had driven a milk truck and school bus and hay wagon, had picked tomatoes and peas and sugar beets for church welfare storehouses, had been “daddy” to my mommy.  Though I last saw his face when I was eight years old, I do not remember his tears of knowing good-bye, but rather his gentle playfulness, his chicken coops and carrot rows and hand-pumped well, and his scruffy smile at me upon his lap.

Pictured above: my grandpa Wally in 1962.

 

My family preparing to leave for Brazil in 1972.

 

My grandma Dorothy in 1962.

Courage at Twilight: A Can of Stew

Dad’s father, Owen, retired early from Utah Oil Company. He lived in his parents’ home, an old, run down, small shack of a shelter.  He paid rent to his siblings.  The house had few amenities.  It had no water heater, so he bathed in cold water.  The stove did not work, so he cooked on a hot plate.  Only the top oven element worked, so he baked under the broiler.  The toilet water tank was broken, so he flushed by pouring water from a bucket into the bowl.  He had no clothes washer or dryer.  The heat for the house came from a coal boiler, which worked only after building a fire hot enough to burn the coal—often, the house had no heat.  Owen lived alone.  He made all his own meals, which included no fresh vegetables or fruits.  He washed his underclothing and socks in a bucket of cold sudsy water agitated with a toilet plunger; his shirts he took to the dry cleaner.  In his early 20s, Dad visited his father one afternoon, and Owen asked if Dad had any money with him.  Yes, Dad said, some.  Father asked son to go to Safeway, please, and buy him a can of stew, confessing he had not eaten for three days, for he had no money.  He had eaten only oatmeal for days before that, until the oats ran out, and he had not eaten anything since.  When he did have money for food, his staple diet consisted of bacon and eggs and canned goods.  (Where were Owen’s well-to-do brothers? I wondered with a trace of anger.)  As a result of these privations and habits, Owen’s health deteriorated.  One afternoon, he called Dad to take him to the hospital—he felt very poorly—where the doctor ordered a chest x-ray.  “Take a deep breath and hold,” the radiology nurse instructed.  Owen growled back, “What the hell do you think I’m here for?!”  He was at the hospital because he could not do exactly what the nurse wanted him to do: breathe deeply.  He felt he could hardly breathe at all.  Dad got his father settled in the hospital that night, and told him he would be back the next morning to check on him.  Ten minutes after arriving at home, the hospital called: his father, Owen, was dead.  Owen was only 59.  Owen’s father, Nelson, died at age 62, also of heart disease.  Dad and his brother Bill sat in the hospital room with their father’s body, late into the evening.  They both felt a spirit presence in the room, and commented softly to each other about it—somehow, they knew their father had stayed with them in that room in their grief.  In a moment, they sensed that Owen had left to go where the spirits of all good, humble, broken men and women go.  After graduate school, Dad took up jogging, and ate nutritious foods, so he would not have to die at age 60 of heart disease.  Now, at age 86, he remarked to me sadly, “I feel sorry for my father.”  I shudder to remember that I am the same age as Owen when he died.  How grateful and fortunate I am to have my father still alive, still a pillar of strength and love for the family.

Pictured above: My grandfather Owen with Dad (b. 1935; this photo c. 1939)

 

My grandfather Owen Nelson Baker, Sr. (1901-1960)

 

My great-grandfather, Nelson Baker (1871-1933)

Courage at Twilight: Pianos

My daughter Hannah came to stay the night with Mom and Dad and me. We baked mince pies and banana chocolate chip muffins; we watched an episode of the delightful new All Creatures Great and Small; we birthday shopped around the valley; she played Mom’s baby grand piano.  When she began to play on Friday evening, Mom and Dad both quietly stood from their family room recliners and shuffled into the living room to hear her play, so beautifully, Clair de Lune, by Claude Debussy.  Her touch and phrasing added to the piece’s natural sublimity.  After baking on Saturday morning, Hannah played piano variations of our Church’s sacred hymns.  Dad, stepping down the stairs in time to give her a good-bye hug, praised her: “I heard and loved every single note you played: so pretty.”  I took piano lessons until I was 17, mastering Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair, another of history’s most beautiful compositions.  Practicing on the New Jersey baby grand was sometimes painful for the other family members as I struggled hundreds of times through difficult passages.  Hannah’s mother found a 1911 upright grand, which had survived a fire and been dropped on a corner, for $500, and I plunked its keys for over 20 years.  On that piano I dreamed up dozens of lullabies: gifts to my children.  I have told the story of their composition elsewhere on this blog.  Living now with Mom and Dad, for some reason I do not play the piano.  Perhaps the thought of creating music is a gray shadow of older years when my heart carried music.  Perhaps I have lost my touch and talent.  Perhaps I am emotionally empty.  But one evening Mom asked me to play.  I felt somewhat startled, both at the thought of playing, and at realizing I had not played for six months.  I sat down with my lullaby book and played and sang the old songs that opened my heart then and now.

Pictured above: Yours Truly playing the piano in about 1986.

Pictured below: Hannah and Lila recently playing Mom’s baby grand.  My grandmother Dorothy played the piano, as does Mom.  If Lila learns, she will be the fifth generation of pianists in the family.

Courage at Twilight: Sleds and Toboggans

On Christmas Eve 1941, Dora shooed Nelson (barely turned 6) and his siblings, Louise (7) and Bill (4) up to bed: “Santa will not come until after you are in your beds asleep.” After sleeping for some time, Nelson awoke and, thinking it was morning, woke his siblings: “It’s Christmas morning,” he whispered.  “It’s time to go downstairs.”  In fact, Nelson had awoken after being asleep for a very short time, perhaps one-half hour.  The children stepped quietly down the stairs to see the presents Santa had left for them under the Christmas tree.  Instead, they saw their mother putting presents under the tree.  The main object they observed was a new Flexible Flyer sled.  Dora turned from the tree and saw the children spying from the stairs.  “You get back upstairs and go to sleep!” she bellowed.  When morning had really come, the children came down the stairs to see their new sled.  Christmas night had brought new snow, which the morning’s cars had packed down on the Millcreek Canyon road.  Dora bundled the children up and drove them to the top of a straight portion of the inclined road.  She instructed the children that she would drive to the bottom of the hill and signal when they could safely launch.  From the bottom of the hill, after the several cars had passed, she waved at the children, and they took turns flying down the icy road on their new sled.  Whichever child had sledded down would pull the sled back up the road.  Bill, being small, had the benefit of sliding down on each run and being pulled back up the hill by his older sister or brother.  Sometimes a car would begin to drive up the road after the sled run had begun, and the rider would have to steer off the road to avoid the car.  Thirty years later, Mom and Dad bought a Flexible Flyer for my siblings and me, and we passed many shrill happy hours racing down the hill at Johnson Park, in Piscataway, New Jersey.  Whether sitting or prone, we could twist the cross-bar to navigate handily around tree trunks, though once Dad took us down the hill on an old wood toboggan that did not steer well and he crashed us into a tree.  We all tumbled off, thrilled with the adventure and mishap, but sad for the cracked toboggan.

Pictured above: the Baker Flexible Flyer, still in use after 50 years.

Courage at Twilight: Lemon Cupcakes with Kids

Two loaves of bread were rising—different recipes—and the oven was preheating to 425. My son Brian had brought his family for a weekend visit; he and Avery are both delightful adults.  And of course, my granddaughter Lila is one of the great joys of my advancing life.  Gabe (age 3) had come over to play with Lila (age 2) for a couple of hours.  After playing Legos and blocks and hide-and-seek for a while, he importuned, “Can we bake?”  I already had two bakes going, and did not think I could handle a third.  But Gabe asked so sweetly and sincerely that I could not say no.  “Okay,” I said seriously, “but we can’t make two cupcake recipes—we can’t make real cupcakes from my recipe book and your cupcakes from your imagination.  If we’re going to bake cupcakes, we’re going to follow the recipe.”  Sensing my resolve, he nodded his consent.  He and Lila sat on bar stools at the kitchen island.  They each measured out and poured into the bowl the various ingredients, with my hands guiding theirs: flour, sugar, lemon zest, baking powder, milk, melted butter, and eggs—Gabe cracked the eggs expertly, with not a speck of shell escaping.  He did politely insist on one imagination ingredient, which actually mixed in perfectly: colored confectionary sprinkles.  Gabe and I held the mixer together, but Lila declined, not liking loud machines like vacuum cleaners and blenders and electric beaters.  But they wanted to be, and were, involved in every step, including licking the beaters and spoons.  Mom and Dad looked on in amusement and adoration.  After the children placed the cupcake liners into the tin cups, we carefully dolloped the batter into the liners and slipped the tray into 350 degrees.  While the cupcakes baked, we mixed the icing, made from a lot of powdered sugar, a little milk, and the juice of one lemon.  How proud the children were of their iced cupcakes, excitedly licking the tangy icing off the multi-color cakes before biting in.  Mom and Dad and I enjoyed our cupcake, too.  An hour prior, I had thought I did not have the energy or patience to bake cupcakes with two little children while simultaneously baking break.  With the cupcakes done and decorated, and devoured, I realized that the increased tenderness I felt for them, and my lifted happy spirits, would have gone tragically unexperienced had I demurred.  As it is, I will always remember baking lemon cupcakes with Lila and Gabe, and I hope they will remember baking lemon cupcakes with me.

Courage at Twilight: A “New” Bicycle

Dad and his sister Louise and brother Bill had been telling their mother, Dora, that they wanted a bicycle for Christmas.  Other children in the neighborhood had bicycles, but Dad’s family did not have a bicycle, so they asked their mother for one.  Dora acquired an old bicycle for their Christmas, but she told them they could not ride it until they painted it, because she did not want anyone to know that it was used.  They rode it anyway that very Christmas day.  But later they did paint the bicycle from a small can of bright red paint.  The man at the paint store told them to stir and stir and stir the paint, which they did obediently for a long time.  With the children’s paint job, the bicycle still did not look new—but it certainly was red.  Soon after they started riding the bicycle, something punctured an innertube, and the tire went flat.  The children walked the bicycle to the service station and asked the attendant how to pump up a bike tire.  The man took the nozzle of the air compressor and showed them how to push it onto the stem of the inner tube that poked out from the rim.  But he neglected to tell them how long to pump the air.  When the man left, they put the compressor nozzle on the stem and simply held it there, air pumping all the while.  They held the nozzle in place until the tire suddenly exploded.  Dejected, they walked the bicycle home and told their mother that the tire blew up.  “What do you mean the tire blew up?” she barked.  Of course, she helped them find another tube for the tire.  Dad taught Bill how to ride the bicycle, but he did not think to teach Bill how to stop the bicycle.  Dad got Bill going down the inclined street, and Bill rode faster and faster on his right-angle approach to the busiest road in town: State Street.  “How do I stop?  How do I stop?!” Bill began hollering.  Fortunately, Bill rode into a fence and fell over, unhurt, instead of riding out into certain death on State Street.

(Pictured above, right to left: Dad, Louise, Bill, circa 1950.)

Courage at Twilight: Cleansed and Renewed

Every conscientious parent knows what it is like to feel exhausted and empty from continual grinding parenting, whether you’ve one child or ten. I remember feeling mind-numbingly tired, and seeing the dinner dishes still needing to be washed, and washing them, and it is close to midnight, and the baby is sick and crying and throwing up.  And I am worried to death about the baby, and about my children having friends and finding God for themselves and learning to drive, and about the $200 million lawsuit waiting for me the next morning, and every morning, for years, and though the claims are specious, I still have to fight like my life depends upon it, for years and years.  And somehow we make it through, and suddenly we are attending high school graduations and weddings and birthday parties for pure little grandchildren just learning to smile and to walk and to talk, and the children are moving away.  I have raised seven children—and, of course, parents are never done being parents to their children.  My mother raised six children, at the time of this 2022 writing aged 57 to 41, and at age 82 she has not stopped being a mother.  Observing her children struggle with the challenges of parenthood, Mom related to me one late night in New Jersey, when she was still doing her household chores.  The television was on, broadcasting a PBS symphony orchestra concert, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #1.  The beauty of the music and the performance—the first movement—suddenly gripped her and washed through her, and she wept and wept as the music played beautifully on.  She has forgotten the particular pains and worries of that day, but does remember that life was hard, and that she was feeling tired and overwhelmed and discouraged.  But after this experience of being moved by music, she felt cleansed, renewed, strengthened, happier, and better able to carry on.  The loads remained just as heavy and tiresome, but her ability to carry them had increased.  Perhaps nothing is more important for a child than having parents who know how to renew their energy and strength so that they can again put on the parental yolk and redouble their efforts on behalf of those children.  And in the meantime, crank up the Mahler.

(Pictured above: the Baker family, circa 1969, with yours truly at the keyboard.)

(Pictured below: a more recent gathering of the Baker clan.)

Courage at Twilight: A New Doll

After Mom turned six, in November 1945, her mother and father informed the children that there was no money for Christmas presents that year. The parents were sorrowful and resigned, while the children—Mom being the oldest—naturally felt disappointed.  Still, they were used to not having many material things, so the news was not a shock or a trauma, just a disappointment.  Though they were poor, they did not think of themselves as poor.  They did not have many possessions, but they were tender and loving with each other and enjoyed the richness of home and family, church and community, music and literature.  With this radiance, the children rapidly reconciled their disappointment and looked forward to Christmas morning nonetheless.  Christmas was still a happy, hopeful season.  Sauntering slipper-footed into the living room on Christmas morning, Mom saw a new doll in the corner, meant for her.  She joyfully picked up the doll, not having expected any gifts at all, and began to love it and play with it.  Soon, however, she discovered, with a sinking feeling, that the new doll was in fact last year’s doll, made up to look new.  Mom’s mother, Dorothy, had clipped locks of her own auburn hair and sewn them to a band, which she stitched to the doll’s head, concealing the band with a new little bonnet.  After her realization, Mom regrouped and was happy about her new doll, feeling gratitude for her mother’s efforts during a challenging era to provide for her and her younger siblings.  The orange and peanuts in her stocking added a measure of pleasure to the day.  Knowing Dorothy so well (she passed away at age 96), I was moved, thinking of her cutting off lengths of her own hair to make a gift for her little girl.  Of course, this was only one of infinite sacrifices Dorothy made for her children.  My mother, in turn, made infinite sacrifices for her children, as I have done for mine, and as my children are beginning to do for theirs.  And so it goes.

(Image by Christiane M. from Pixabay.  Sadly, no photo of Mom’s doll is known to exist.)

Courage at Twilight: A Warm Blanket and a Smile

You may remember our homemade greeting cards made from pressed leaves and flower petals, with the message “You Are Loved” artistically rendered inside.  The cards were included in humanitarian hygiene packages sent to refugees around the world.  The same NGO, Lifting Hands International, combined with our local Church leaders to organize a blanket drive.  On a Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., we could drop off new blankets, which would be distributed to refugees the world over.  After Mom announced told Dad and me that she wanted to participate, she and Dad drove off to Target.  Leaning heavily on their shopping carts, they shuffled the miles and miles to the back stacks of the bedding section.  Mom picked out a fluffy gray fleece, queen-sized, wrapped in a charcoal ribbon, and brought it home with a smile.  Before the day of the drive arrived, the community had already dropped off over 100 blankets.  At 11:00, Mom trundled off to her trusty Subaru, hugging her blanket, and drove off to make her contribution.  I felt very proud of her.  A blanket is a small thing.  A thousand blankets are a thousand small things.  And every small thing matters.  But there is nothing small about my mother’s heart.

Afghan refugees with their new warm blankets.

(Photo from Lifting Hands International.  Used pursuant to the Fair Use doctrine.)

Blanket Drive Update: Lifting Hands International received 414 blankets from Mom’s community for Afghan refugees.  Here are photos of the drive organizers and blankets, used with permission.

Stake Blanket Drive2    Stake Blanket Drive1

Courage at Twilight: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

 

Whenever Dad says, “That reminds me of something,” I know a story is coming—a story I have heard many times before—a story as good on its fifth telling as on its first.  Some of my favorites are of his maternal Grandpa Greene.  William T. Greene, an immigrant from England, lived in Utah’s Great Basin in the first decade of the 20th Century, on a ranch on the Ute Indian Reservation, near the town of Vernal.  He was a sheriff there, and his philosophy toward outlaws was to make peace or make arrest.  If the outlaws would agree not to cause trouble in his jurisdiction, he would leave them alone.  If they made trouble, they went to jail.  Grandpa Greene knew Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but he never arrested them because they never caused him any trouble, and were even friendly to him.  In his old age, Grandpa Greene lived in the Salt Lake valley, in a two-room shack with no plumbing and no electricity and a wood stove for cooking and for heat.  Dad loved his grandpa.  As young boys, Dad and his brother Bill would ride their one bicycle, with Nelson pedaling, from 1700 South to 5900 South on 900 East—more than 40 city blocks—to see their Grandpa Greene.  He was their friend, and treated them as equals.  Dad had heard his sheriff-grandpa was good with a six-shooter pistol, and asked him about it.  Grandpa Greene answered, “You bet I was good.  When I was younger, I could shoot a silver dollar right out of the air.”  Dad’s uncle Forrest was an eye witness: Grandpa Greene would have someone flip a silver dollar high into the air, and he would draw and shoot a hole through it.  A true story.  Grandpa Greene taught Dad how to catch trout with his bare hands from the stream meandering through the meadow near the shack.  The technique involved wading quietly upstream, gently feeling under the bank for the tails of the trout.  Pointed upstream, the fish did not spook at the touch of Dad’s fingers.  He slowly moved both hands into position under the trout, and suddenly lifted it up against the bank’s underside, slipped his fingers into the gills, and brought the fish out, tossing it flopping onto the grass.  Dad grew so good at this technique that he once caught two trout at the same time, one in each hand.  His brother Bill was there, and affirmed the story.   A game warden stopped by one day and barked at Dad and Bill about what they were doing, and threatened to haul them off to jail for poaching.  It turns out he was a friend of Grandpa Greene, who had told the warden to give Dad and Bill a good scare as a practical joke.  One day, Dad caught an enormous fat native Brook trout, and ran proudly to show it to his grandpa.  Grandpa Greene exclaimed, “Hey!  Now that’s a trout!  Let’s cook it up for our breakfast!”  And he started a wood fire and fried the fish in butter and salt in his iron skillet.  That every child had a Grandpa Greene.

 

(Photo courtesy of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.  Used pursuant to the Fair Use doctrine.)

Courage at Twilight: The Joy of Violins

Mom’s elementary school music teacher Mr. Jeppesen hosted a music open house to which he invited all the children and their parents. One by one the teacher brought each child, including Mom, a 4th grader, to the piano where he sat.  “He was an older man, shorter, kind of hunched over.  He was a very good pianist, and he was very kind to me,” Mom remembered with fond appreciation.     Jeppesen plunked a few notes on the piano, and asked Mom to sing them.  The teacher then told Mom and her parents that she should play the violin.  Her father, Wallace, agreed, and took Mom to the music store to buy a very used violin, still at considerable expense for the struggling family.  Mom was a slight child, and the music store employee suggested a half-size or three-quarter-size violin.  Wallace said they would take a full-size violin, which is what Mom learned to play on, and grew into.  “We lived way out in the country, with no cultural advantages,” Mom explained about her joy to be playing the violin.  Sometime later, when Mom needed a better violin, Wallace found her one.  This is the violin she grew up with, played at the University of Utah, and took to Brazil in 1972 when she and Dad led a group of about 100 Church missionaries for three years.  At the end of their mission, they packed the violin in a shipping crate with other belongings, but upon opening the crate in New Jersey, the violin was gone.  The family pooled resources for Mom to purchase another violin.  With that instrument, she played in several community orchestras, including Highland Park (NJ), Bound Brook (NJ), Washington Square (NJ), and Murry (UT).  Covid-19 canceled rehearsals and concerts, and put an end to Mom’s public career.  She pulls out her violin once in a while, like during the Christmas holiday.  My granddaughter’s parents suggested Lila might like a violin, so I made one for her out of a cracker box, a yard stick, packing tape, spray paint, thumb tacks, and string.  And she loved it.  Pretending to stroke her strings with a red soda straw, Lila stood entranced as Mom played her real violin to her little great-granddaughter.  Mom just may have inspired another generation of Baker violinists.

Courage at Twilight: When Mom met Dad

At a family party, we asked Mom how she and Dad met. She related how she met him at an Institute dance in late 1959.  Institute is the name given by my Church for an organized opportunity for religious instruction and for social interaction, mostly for young single adult members of the Church.  Mom was about 20 years old, a freshman at the University of Utah.  She remembers, “He was standing there, leaning against a door frame, looking very cute in his navy-blue suit.”  It was the suit he wore on his mission to Brazil (1956-1959), and was well used, but “still looked great.”  Mom’s friend, Dolores, whispered to her, “That’s Nelson Baker.”  Dad asked Mom to dance, and before the evening ended, asked for her phone number.  The very next day he called her on the phone, and came to visit her at the bungalow-style house her father built for her mother in 1932.  Mom and Dad went out a lot, to the movies, to dances, to visit with Dad’s mission friends, to the Frost Top for shakes and fries.  Dad drove her every morning to the University of Utah, where they both graduated with bachelor degrees.  “Your mom was very beautiful,” Dad boasted.  Sitting in his music appreciation class one day, on the third floor of the David Gardner building, he looked out the window to see Mom standing on a street corner waiting for a bus, to go to her elevator job.  Seeing her there filled his heart with sweet feelings.  They married on April 5, 1962, in the Salt Lake Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and will celebrate this year their 60th wedding anniversary.  Of course, they can get on each other’s nerves, but they are eternally devoted and kind to one another.  Now, that’s love.

Salt Lake Temple, in Salt Lake City, Utah

Courage at Twilight: To the Edge

Mayo Clinic

Dad contracted polio in the early 1940s—so we believe—a mild case.  His left leg developed with smaller muscles and no ligament support in the arch of the foot.  Without thick homemade orthotics, he walks with his ankle bone on the floor.  Ouch.  Still, with resolve and grit, he compensated and persevered, taking up jogging as a health-hobby.  He typically ran seven miles during his lunch break at work, and often 20 miles on Saturdays, for two decades.  He clocked 13 marathons, and one 50-mile ultra-marathon (“I never got tired!”).  For years, his resting heart rate was about 35 bpm.  In his eighth decade of life, however, even walking has become nearly impossible.  And not just due to the weak leg and foot, or from age, but from post-polio syndrome.  No matter his exercise level, he cannot seem to strengthen, but continues to deteriorate.  The Mayo Clinic says post-polio syndrome is characterized by progressive muscle and joint weakness and pain (check), general fatigue and exhaustion with minimal activity (check), and muscle atrophy (check).  I have to remember, as we go to the gym, to walk the fine line between strengthening and debilitation, between rejuvenation and exhaustion.  The last time we left the gym, he clung to my arm and worried, “I don’t know if I can make it to the car, Rog.”  But Dad has such determination (“I am a fighter!”), and together we understand his desire to push himself right to the edge, to do all he can do, without tumbling over the cliff.

(This blog, author, and essay have no relationship with, and do not represent the views of, the Mayo Clinic.)

Courage at Twilight: Movie Night

Tonight’s dinner came frozen out of boxes and bags: breaded pollock; cheesy scalloped potatoes; mixed vegetables. And I am not at all embarrassed to announce that we loved it and ate our fill.  Mom, Dad, and I sat at the dinner table—a family—conversing and looking forward to our after-dinner movie.  I have taken pleasure in showing Mom and Dad some of my old favorites, like Nacho Libre (2006) (because it is so absurd and makes me laugh and Jack Black is brilliant) and George of the Jungle (1997) (because it is so absurd and makes me laugh and Brendan and Leslie make such a cute hopeful couple) and Chariots of Fire (1981) (because of integrity and grit and glory and love and the thrill and cheer of victory against the odds).  During the Christmas holidays, we enjoyed Albert Finney’s Scrooge (1970) and George C. Scott’s A Christmas Carol (1984) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), always moved by the miracle of a changed heart.  Tonight, we watched The Scarlet Pimpernel from 1982, chuckling at Percy Blakeney’s foppish façade, sad for the tragedies of the French Revolution, and happy for the happy ending.  Missing Julia Child’s cookbook—I showed them Julie and Julia (2009), too—I baked a French chocolate soufflé during the movie, cutting the sugar with stevia-sweetened chocolate and mixing one part Splenda with one part sugar.  I am always so pleased and relieved when my baking adventures end well.  Pulling the jiggling masterpiece out of the oven, I felt quite over-the-moon giddy that the chocolate soufflé turned out perfectly, not quite a custard, not quite a cake, not quite a pudding—a pleasant satisfying piquing converging in-between of all three.    And I relished the reward of Mom and Dad loving it and asking for more.

Courage at Twilight: Memory Foam

Dad announced his hips hurt when he slept, the mattress was too hard, and he was driving to R.C. Willey that very day to buy a memory foam mattress topper so he could sleep better.  The topper came folded tightly in a box.  We unwrapped and unfolded it, laying it out on the floor.  It looked terrible, all lumpy and crimped and uneven.  “Unfold on flat surface; allow to expand for 48 hours,” the instructions read.  “Forty-eight hours!” Dad exclaimed.  But by evening, the memory foam seemed evenly expanded, and we positioned it on the mattress and made the bed with pretty cotton flannel sheets that Mom liked.  As Dad climbed into bed at 3:30 the next morning, after reading and munching (and napping) since 11:00 the night before, he sank quickly and comfortably into the three-inches of memory foam.  Before long, though, he wanted to roll over, and found himself stuck in the conforming crater.  To make matters worse, the flannel sheets grabbed at his cotton pajamas like Velcro.  He could not move.  Mustering all his strength, he pushed and pulled himself out of the foamy abyss.  Instead of sore hips, that day he complained of intense pain in his chest between his ribs (left side) when he breathed.  Doctors and EKGs and imaging and blood tests ruled out a heart attack or stroke or blood clots in his lungs—he had simply pulled some muscles, though it hurt like hell and felt like death knocking at his door.  Back at home, he and Mom pulled off the “damned” memory foam topper, and it has sat on the floor in a crumpled heap since.  Maybe I will try it on my bed.

 

(Photo from Amazon.com.  Used pursuant to the Fair Use doctrine.)