Dad told me he would cook dinner tonight. We would have lasagna with meat sauce, plus steamed vegetables. I told him that sounded wonderful. When I arrived home from work, he took the lasagna out of the box and slid it frozen into the hot oven. An hour later he emptied a bag of frozen lima beans into a pan, and shucked fresh sweet corn on the cob. Stouffer’s makes such yummy lasagna—thank goodness for the occasional frozen dinner. Stuffed and satisfied, I thanked Dad for making dinner.
Mom asked me almost sheepishly after church, “Do you think, perhaps, we could take a drive today? I would so like to see the old Bawden home my grandparents built.” “Of course!” I answered. “I’m sorry the thought did not occur to me before.” Dad’s faithful Suburban lead us by the back roads across the Salt Lake valley to historic Granger, my mother’s hometown. We noted fondly the orange-dotted pumpkin farms and horse corrals and vegetable gardens, and commented on the architectural eras of the homes—1930s bungalow was our favorite. Mom suggested we drive by the house where Dad lived from 15 to 26, from junior high school to his 1962 marriage to Mom. “I moved here 70 years ago,” he observed flatly. Many of those years were unhappy and traumatic for Dad and his siblings due to trouble at home. But Dad was blessed by the influences of Isabelle Bangerter, Grant Bangerter, and Ella Bennion, all of whom built him up, treated him kindly and with respect, nudged him toward a path of personal fulfillment, and influenced his concepts of self-worth and the life worth living. The tension and sadness I felt in the car evaporated as I drove away. A few miles away, there sat the old Bawden house, strong and modest and pretty, built by the family in the late 1800s. I met my great-grandparents there when I was a little boy as the family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. In the 1930s, Mom’s father Wallace built a bungalow nearby, for his new wife’s wedding gift, and there Mom grew up, in the new Bawden bungalow near the old Bawden homestead. Granger was all farmland then, with homes separated by miles of farms. Now it is deteriorating strip mall suburbia. I spent many days in Mom’s childhood home, roaming the empty dusty old chicken coops, breathing the soothing old smell of the oil-and-dust garage, pumping the hand well, hunting giant night-crawler earthworms for trout fishing, and roasting hot dogs on the outdoor cinderblock grill at family parties. When my grandma lived in a nursing home in her mid-90s, the family sold the house to the car dealer next door, who razed the prime half-acre and put in a parking lot. I can’t help thinking of Joni Mitchell’s famous Big Yellow Taxi from 1970: “They paved paradise, Put up a parking lot.” I feel grateful I have memories and photographs of that old paradise.
My great-grandparents’ home in Granger, Utah.
Unlike Dad, Mom seems pleased with a little pampering. She does not feel threatened by being helped. During her recent illness, she was not reluctant to tell me what she wanted and needed. And I enjoyed doing it. “Would you get the mail from the mailbox?” “Will you dish up my dinner? Do you mind bringing it to me in my chair?” “I’ll have mango juice, please.” “Thank you, sweetie—I’m just bossing you around, aren’t I?” I felt happy to be of good utility. And she was sweet and grateful. But now that she is recovering, she treks to the mailbox for the mail and dumps the recyclables into the green container, with no need of assistance from me.
From my home office window, I saw the USPS mail truck drive by. A few minutes later the doorbell rang. I ran down the stairs and opened the front door to find no one there and no packages on the porch and no mail on the javelina snout. Huh, I wondered and literally scratched my bald head. Mom was sitting calmly at the kitchen table. “Mom, I heard the doorbell ring, but nobody’s there.” She allowed a sheepish grin and told me it was she that had rung the bell. At my quizzical look, she confided that the doorbell is a kind of intercom message from her to help Dad get up and get moving into the day.
“I don’t want you to pamper me!” Dad barked. I thought I was just being courteous, delivering his dinner, carting off his dirty dishes. “I can do it myself.” Watching him do it himself is painful for me because it is painful for him. The effort to do the simplest things is enormous and exhausting. But I respect his desire to not want paternalistic pampering. I respect that he does not want to feel old and feeble, that he does want to feel strong and capable, despite knowing that “I’m going downhill fast, Rog.” My opportunity is to affirm him discreetly, to help him with subtlety, to step quietly in without implying my help is needed. So, when Dad is ready for seconds, I get up from the dinner table for an ice cube or the salt, and say with nonchalance, “I’m already up, so can I bring you something?”
Living now with my parents, I cannot fathom the reality that we had no family gatherings with Mom and Dad for 18 months due to Covid-19. My sister Sarah grocery shopped for them every Saturday during those months. I cooked for them on occasion. We always wore masks and washed and sanitized our hands and kept our distance—no hugs (except for “air hugs”). My siblings called Mom and Dad frequently, sometimes daily. Sarah, as a speech pathologist, works at a critical care facility with people who suffer from conditions affecting their communication and swallowing. While donning head-to-toe personal protective equipment, she watched Covid rage through her patients, ending the lives of too many. My siblings and I all understood and respected that if Mom and Dad contracted Covid in their aged and weakened conditions, we likely would lose them, as so many thousands lost members of their families. To keep them safe, we did our little part to stop the spread, following all the recommended precautions, putting philosophy and politics aside in the interest of safety. Mom and Dad received their first Pfizer vaccine at a huge convention center. Hundreds of old and infirm people stood for hours in long lines, walking from station to station around the entire perimeter of the hall—fully a mile. Dad thought his cane would do, but shortly into the ordeal he confided to me, “I don’t think I’m going to make it.” I had him sit down while I ran for a wheelchair. They received their third shot this week at a local health department facility, walking 20 feet past the front door to their seats, with no wait. What a difference between the two experiences! But in all three cases, the nursing staff were so kind and pleasant and helpful. After all the family members were fully vaccinated, we began to visit again. My sister Jeanette recently came to visit from Arizona for a week. We cooked together and played Scattergories and drove to see the fall leaves in the mountain forests. And we broke out the fall crafts: wood pumpkins, a harvest-themed wreath, and a tall scarecrow. My niece Amy joined in, painting the eyes black and the nose orange. How grateful we are to be safe, healthy, and together again.
My first ever attempt at a wreath.
“I wish I could do more for you,” Mom lamented one recent afternoon. “I am so sorry for all the mistakes I made as a mother.” For a moment I stood stunned at the revelation of my 82-year-old mother’s insecurity, especially as incongruous as it was with my memory of reality. Mom gave her whole soul to being a mother. Hot whole-wheat gruel steamed on the table before school, and she served a delicious dinner at precisely 6:00 p.m., every day. She washed by basketball socks and took me to buy my first pair of Levi’s. She gathered us every Sunday afternoon to play games—PIT was a favorite, with six kids clamoring cacophonously for “wheat!” and “rye!” and “barley!” The family car ran night and morning with rides to and from marching band practice, piano lessons, and early morning Bible class. I sat at the kitchen table one evening struggling with my homework, trying to remember the Spanish word for pain—dolor. She surprised me by bursting out protectively, “You know: dolor, just like Delores!” referring to my painfully unrequited infatuation for a girl at church. I never again forgot that word! She nursed me through dozens of ear infections and serious injuries followed by surgeries and staff. She organized a family vacation to the magical woods of Maine, and I have loved loons since. She even gave me an enema (my most embarrassing life memory) when I writhed from what the doctor arrogantly insisted was constipation but was in truth an appendix about to burst. And at 82 she says good-bye with “I can’t wait to see you when you come home!” and greets me after work with “There’s my boy!” Once again she is providing a safe and comfortable home for me, and listens without upbraid to her children in all their multitudinous troubles. “What mistakes?” I asked her sincerely. “I cannot remember any.” Even were they present, and I presume they were, they are long forgotten. We six siblings, and our numerous offspring, all cherish her. It is our turn now to wish we could do more for her.
Sunday church services focus on what we call “the sacrament” in my Church. The sacrament consists of small pieces of bread and small cups of water, one of which we each eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus. After Covid-19 forced churches to close, Church leaders authorized the men of the Church to use their priesthood authority to provide the sacrament at home to their families and others. While the church buildings are again open for in-person attendance, Mom and Dad have been too weak to go. How pleased and privileged I felt to use priesthood authority to prepare the bread and water, to kneel and offer the prescribed prayers, and to distribute the sacramental emblems to Mom and Dad. After we partook, Mom looked up at me from her chair and said sweetly, “Thank you so much. That was very special.” As a threesome, we discussed how the sacrament serves several purposes. We remember Jesus, his infinite loving sacrifice for us, and his ongoing atonement. We covenant anew to obey God’s commandments, and to love and serve our neighbor. We recommit to repent and to strive to be our best selves. And we express our gratitude for our life and blessings. After our intimate church service, we broke our fast and enjoyed leftover creamy vegetable soup and toasted ciabatta.
The Suburban key would not come out of the ignition. It was soundly stuck. And the gear shift handle flopped around incongruously, like an odd-angled broken arm. The accident in 2018 had totaled Dad’s beloved Suburban, 20 years old, and had just about totaled him. The force of the collision snapped his scapula clean in half—an excruciating injury with a long and painful recovery. Once he began to heal, he joked with his grandchildren that he had broken his “spatula.” Dad could not bear to say good-bye to “my faithful Suburban,” which had crossed the country and pulled trailers and carried the family and the kayaks and the spring-bar tents to extended family reunions. So, he kept and fixed his car, which is as good as new. Almost. With the key now stuck in the ignition, the battery drained and died. We tried the lawn mower battery charger, to avoid a tow to the dealer. Eight hours later the large car battery still had zero charge. Our neighbor, Terry, hooked up his 15-amp charger, which zapped the Suburban battery to 100% in 30 minutes. Dad’s first Lyft took him home from the dealer while the car was being fixed. The repairs accomplished, his faithful Suburban once again sits in the garage, ready for grocery shopping, hauling bags of bark chips, and taking a Sunday drive to see the reddening leaves of Fall.
“Mom,” I whispered to the cute lady napping in the plush recliner. Would you like to come get the mail with me?” “Sure,” she nodded groggily, such a good sport. We small-stepped arm-in-arm out the front door, past the pumpkins and mums, and toward the brick mailbox. Almost there, I suggested, “What do you say we first walk to the corner?” She would rather have not, but came along without protest. At the corner, I ventured, “Should we walk to the next corner, or turn around?” We had done what we both knew was helpful and enough, so we turned around, my arm crooked to fit hers, and tottered together to get the Church News, the bills, and the junk mail. Having exercised, we were ready for a French soup of pureed potatoes, carrots, and onions, mixed with chopped spinach and mushrooms sautéed in butter and salt, enriched with heavy cream, rosemary, salt, pepper, and a bit more butter. Très délicieux!
I had never heard of a “gender reveal” before, and I confess my first involuntary horrid absurd notion was of holding aloft a naked infant for the invited guests to gawk at. Instead, I learned, a gender reveal is a party at which the soon-to-be parents and their guests learn from a trusted person the sex of the coming child, followed by balloons and confetti and thick-frosted cake, colored blue or pink, boy or girl. At John’s and Alleigh’s invitation, family and friends from Utah and Idaho gathered to Mom’s and Dad’s house for the celebration, happy to see each other, pumping hands and exchanging embraces, catching up on news and activities, eating chicken salad croissants, everyone eager for cupcakes with swirled pink and blue icing. Mom and Dad added little cups of deluxe mixed nuts and candy corn. We played cornhole, the always popular bean bag toss game. Then it was time for the revelation (or is it “the reveal”?). John and Alleigh each grasped a cardboard cannon, cameras whirring. On “3!” they pulled the cannon strings and out exploded clouds of blue confetti—and then the whoops and screams of delight. Their first child will be a boy! His two-year-old cousin, Lila, gathered up little fists-full of confetti and announced, “fireworks!” They had been equally contended with the thought of either sex. Their exuberance was not over the baby’s gender, but over the ever-more-real fact that their baby is coming, soon—the happiest of all possible news.
After the big rains, a prodigious paint bulge in the vaulted ceiling plus rain gutters filled with shingle grit prompted a roof inspection, and revealed the need for a new roof. A herd of elephants, it seemed, started tromping overhead at 6:00 a.m., shoveling the 25-year-old shingles to the ground and driveway dumpster below. Somehow Dad managed to sleep through the racket—not Mom and me. The crew covered the curtilage with tarps, protecting the bushes and shrubs, and catching shingles and nails. The sun heated the tarps to such a degree that they burnt to brown the tops of every bush—Dad cut off the dead tops with his electric hedge trimmer. Mom and Dad instructed the roofers remove the old, ineffectual attic vents and fan, which they replaced with a ridgeline vent that looks like thicker shingles. The job was done in a single long day. The vent requires cutting an inch or two in the ridgeline plywood—the vent would not work without it. I poked my head into the attic to verify the cut was there—it was. Not thinking to wear a mask, my throat scratched for hours with insulation dust. Years before, Dad had installed a heat cable to prevent ice buildup on the eves. The roofers tore off and threw away the heat cable with the old shingles, except for two downspout heating elements left dangling from their outlets. The roofing company manager said he would have a new cable installed before Dad paid the bill. I was worried about the company taking advantage of my elderly parents, but the cost was in line with what the neighbors paid for their new roof. Now we can get the paint bubble repaired. Mom and Dad are proud of their home and have worked hard to keep it in excellent condition. They have faced life together in this home, and overcome. Here they have gathered their posterity to celebrate and mourn and strengthen. Sometimes, in the evening, we dawdle around to admire the beautiful yard. Sometimes we sit in the driveway watching the sun set and waving at the neighbors walking by with their dogs. Sometimes we sit on the back patio and stare at the imposing Wasatch mountains, where the mountain maple and gambel oak leaves are turning red. And we listen to the crimson-headed finches sing.
I have been thinking about marriage, that it is perhaps the most challenging of all human relationships. There is so much at stake, from our personal happiness, our financial security, our sense of place and purpose in the world, to our having a posterity to love and be loved by. Marriage is at once difficult and instructional. Marriage requires consecration and sacrifice, a constant negotiation toward a healthy and fluid balance of power, a vigilance for the welfare of another over the self, and a give-all commitment by both partners to the covenantal promise. I have been thinking that no relationship will teach us more about how to be human, and how to be divine. In marriage is the likelihood of experiencing life’s greatest pains of spirit and mind, and the possibility of life’s greatest joys, and very probably both. I think marriage generally works either to wonderful or to catastrophic effect. I have observed many successful and failed marriages, but none so carefully as Mom’s and Dad’s marriage, now in its 60th year. They shoulder every burden together. They discuss every problem and plan and posterity. They cry and plan and laugh and laugh. They are not two identical halves, by any means, but two congruent complementary components forming an entity complete. Dad does most of the talking, and Mom all the needlepoint. Dad calls “Lucille” throughout the day, telling her his every thought and impression. Mom at times snaps in exasperation, then rebounds with affectionate pats on his hand. Though my own marriage experience cannot emulate theirs, still I feel proud of my parents for sticking with it, for keeping the covenant, for showing the way. For my own part, the continuing opportunity is to keep my covenant with God, with my children, and with the broader family, and to lead a purposeful, contributing life. That is sufficient.
Mom’s and Dad’s neighbor stopped by Sunday afternoon with an invitation to a block party at his house later in the week. Hamburgers and hot dogs plus pot luck salads and desserts. I decided to go—he is my neighbor now, too. Mom and Dad decided it would be too difficult for them to go, so I walked over alone. They thought it would be bad form for me to bring them food from a party they did not attend or contribute to. I understood, but explained that if Darrell offered, I would accept. I received a warm welcome, which was nice since I felt a bit awkward as an older single man in a crowd of contended couples. I met several families: Valentine, Liu, Antonelli, Back, Lundgren, Jarvis, Breen, Callister, Taylor. Nice people all. I fought off creeping distress after learning four names, fearing I would forget them all upon hearing a fifth. Many of them inquired after Mom’s and Dad’s welfare. Fixings for the hamburgers included crisp bacon, grilled onions, and over-medium eggs, and I confess to enjoying my burger very much. The donuts I brought were popular, disappearing as fast as the burgers. Mary Ann asked if I would like to take some food home for Mom and Dad. “Well,” I responded, “I have been instructed neither to request nor refuse.” “Well, then, load up a plate!” she ordered. Dad relished his “most excellent” hamburger, and Mom her blackened all-beef franks.
During gym class, playing volleyball—that’s when it happened. My heart started to flutter and I became weak and light-headed. Sitting on the sidelines with my fingers pressed to my jugular, I managed to count 300 beats in a minute. Then it stopped, and I was fine. I was 17. My doctor trained me to stop the runaway heart-beat using vagal maneuvers, bearing down while holding my breath. Normally, lying on my back was all it took to slow the beat. Fully 40 years later, the vagals would not work, and my friend took me to the emergency room after two hours at 180 bpm. My cardiologist explained SVT—supraventricular tachycardia—a condition in which the electric circuitry of the heart becomes confused momentarily and takes an unintended and incorrect short cut, sending the heart racing. He thought low-dose Metoprolol would do the trick, and it did.
The roofing inspector had come to examine the 25-year-old shingles, and Mom watched from the back yard, seated on the rock wall. She began to feel funny in her eyes and head, stood up, became dizzy, and collapsed. The mortified inspector helped Mom to a chair. Her lip had glanced on a rock and was swollen and red. A brain MRI showed no stroke, no tumor, no inflammation, nothing but a very healthy brain. But the halter heart monitor revealed repeated episodes of rapid heart rate. Mom’s doctor, a neighbor, called me to explain the test results, the textbook symptoms, and the treatment. Knowing all about SVT, I jumped in to inform him of my condition and treatment. We chuckled in astonishment and excitement at the genetic coincidence. “Looks we know now where you got it from,” he said, amused. Chuckling felt appropriate, because Mom’s condition is not a heart defect, just a minor electrical short, and easily treatable, and because after four weeks of tests and consultations and worry, we both felt so relieved to have the answer, and such a positive one. Mom took her first dose tonight, and is already back on the stationary bicycle, albeit slowly and carefully, her fear ebbing, on her way to renewed strength.
Mom texted me to see if I would take her and Dad to Walgreen’s when I got home from work. The object of the outing: sugar-free chocolate candy for Dad. Mom gave me careful directions to the store, and in and around the parking lot. She stayed in the car, but encouraged Dad sweetly with, “Get lots and lots, Nelson.” And we did. Hershey’s and Russel Stover’s, more than a dozen bags in many varieties. “This will last me for six months,” Dad beamed. Along with mixed nuts and popcorn, he likes to munch a candy here and there while reading in his rocking chair late into the night. His only disappointment at the store was the absence of sugar-free chocolate truffles. We stared dejectedly at all the many kinds of chocolate truffles he could not eat. I reassured him I would order some immediately from Amazon when we got home. It’s time to go keep that promise.
Dad suggested we bring home Café Rio for dinner. I suggested we pick up some pumpkins on the way. He protested that it was too early in the season, that they would just rot if we bought them now. I countered that if we bought them in a month they would have sat at the store for that month instead of prettily on their porch, and opined that the pumpkins would not rot until after the first hard freeze. He conceded the point. I parked at Lowes in a handicapped stall with direct line-of-sight to the pumpkin boxes, holding the pumpkins up one by one for Mom and Dad to give me the thumbs up or down for each. We left with four: traditional orange, wrinkled red, white with cream cycle splotches, and a deep green with skin lobed like a brain. At Café Rio, I stood Mom’s four-footed cane in the line. Mom and Dad sat at a table near the menu so I could explain their dinner options. The lady ahead of us moved the cane with her as the long line progressed, to keep our spot. Mom chose the roast beef burrito, and Dad the roast beef salad. Mom hinted she would like a tres leches for dessert, and Dad entreated for a key lime pie (diabetes be damned). “I’m worn out just from sitting there waiting,” Dad sighed as we walked slowly to the car. He had forgotten his cane, and so leaned on my shoulder instead. Back at home, Mom and I arranged the pumpkins festively on the front porch before settling into TexMex and Netflix.
Dad rode off on his mower as I began my gut-tightening planks. (Thank you, planks.) At rep 5, I heard a muffled clang and noticed the lawn mower engine was not running. Outside the window sat the mower without its rider. I knew instantly what had happened. Bounding out the back door, I found Dad on the ground, one leg and half his pelvis in the six-foot-deep window well, where the welded-rebar cover had collapsed from under him. He could not move, despite body-shaking effort. All he could clutch was bark chips, which had shredded his forearms. This notorious window had previously swallowed my sister Sarah and her three-year-old son Gabe (see my story Angel Gabriel). An extrication procedure quickly became apparent. 1) Grab sweat pants behind hamstring and pull, lifting leg and shifting pelvis out of window well. 2) Grab sweat pants behind hamstrings and haul straight legs into kneeling position. 3) Embrace back and chest, and hoist body to hands and knees. 4) Grip under armpits and pull to a standing position. Thank God it worked. The nearest seat was the lawn mower, which Dad shakily resumed, turning the ignition key. “Do you promise me you are safe to ride?” I yelled above the roar, careful not to further bruise his already battered pride. He nodded and sped off. It occurred to me then: this story had a multitude of bad endings, and only one good ending. Mom’s first fall taught me never to minimize a noise or an impression. As a result of learning that lesson, I was at Dad’s side in seconds—but only because I was home early from work and was exercising in the only part of the house from which I could have heard the well cover collapse. How grateful I felt for circumstances to have aligned in such a way to allow my presence and awareness. I would never debase the occurrence with the words coincidence or luck. Miracle will do nicely, thank you.
After years of listening to Heitor Villa-Lobos music during his late-night reading, Dad abruptly shifted to Johnny Mathis. Seventeen tracks repeat every night. Amazingly, I know all the songs—I heard them on the radio growing up. And I learned to like his iconic voice. The CD insert did not include the song lyrics, so I offered to print them for him, from the internet. “You can do that?” he asked. “Of course,” I answered, feeling smart. I pasted the lyrics of the 17 songs into a Word document and handed him the stack of pages half an hour later. He was impressed. The next morning, however, he told me how disillusioned he felt with the song lyrics, which included a lot of “baby baby” and “I need you” and “our love will never die” stuff. I expressed my experience that while popular lyrics are often shallow, the music and the feeling can still be quite moving. Some lyrics are quite romantic and sweet, like in Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine, the beguine being a slow rhumba-like French dance. In the song, the commencement of the beguine dance music conjures powerful feelings of love and romance for the dancing couple. From my home office one morning, I felt tender feelings as I heard Dad’s gravelly waking voice singing Begin the Beguine to Mom, his sweetheart of 60 years:
Let them begin the beguine, make them play
Till the stars that were there before return above you,
Till you whisper to me once more,
“Darling, I love you!”
And we suddenly know, what heaven we’re in,
When they begin the beguine.
Mom received a letter that Dad’s urologist had retired, and to call for an appointment with the new urologist. She called in July for an appointment in September. Arriving home late from work, I saw immediately how exhausted Mom and Dad both were after their appointment. They told me they had waited for over an hour to be seen by the doctor. I felt immediately furious that people who were old and feeble and sick were made to wait an hour past their scheduled time. The exertion of waiting, compounding the exertion of getting to and from the office, left them spent and sick. I sent a complaint to the practice, telling them it is negligent to make such patients wait so long to be seen, the wait itself worsening their conditions. I have prevailed upon Mom to make future appointments for a day and time when I can take them. I am going to have to demand they be seen promptly and not made to wait. Being fragile, the last thing they need is the irony of their care providers jeopardizing their patients by leaving them waiting in exhaustion for their care. I am curious to see if the practice will be defensive or will acknowledge they could have and should have done better, and will do better next time. Fortunately, the care they finally received was acceptable. And a next time may not be necessary. The doctor said to Dad, “Look, you’re 86. If you don’t have prostate cancer by now, you never will. You don’t need to see me again unless something changes.” He renewed Dad’s prescription in perpetuity. True to their character, Mom and Dad did not complain but graciously accepted the blessing of that being Dad’s last visit to the urologist.
Music is always playing at Mom’s house. As a boy, I awoke on Sunday mornings to the sounds of Bach and Brahms and Beethoven filling the house. I associated music with Mom, and with home. On my 15th Christmas, she introduced me to Aaron Copland, whose music was the first to stir my soul in otherworldly ways. I learned to change out dull needles and set the stylus on the vinyl track I wanted to hear. Now, instead of one side of an LP, she places five CDs in the player, and pushes play for five concert hours. I hear the bossa nova of António Carlos Jobim, Von Williams’ Fantasy on Greensleeves, the symphonies of Mahler and Janáček, Copland’s quintessentially American ballet scores, Bartok’s concerto for orchestra, Barber’s concerto for violin, the virtuosic guitar suites of Villa-Lobos, Arty Shaw’s swinging clarinet, Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. . . . I love them all. Her collection has inspired my musical loves, and I have lately expanded her eclecticism with Ceumar, Tó Brandileone, and Cainã Cavalcante, brilliant contemporary Brazilian artists. Music has some mysterious power to move us and to fill the corners of the spirit reason alone cannot seem to reach.
In the grocery store, Mom followed her prepared shopping list—penciled on a yellow legal pad—items grouped by type and store location, and if it’s not on the list she doesn’t need it, because if she needed it, it would be on the list. Dad, listless, followed the whims of his heart and his hunger: Jarlsberg, Swiss, and Gouda, cauliflower and broccoli, fresh salmon and parmesan chicken, frozen pizzas, bags of roasted nuts. Any why not be whimsical with foods that look beautiful and sound delicious and that one is sure to relish? Why not enjoy both the shopping and the eating experiences? Neither approach is inherently correct, of course; both are equally acceptable, and complementary. Mom and Dad each pushed a sanitized dual-purpose shopping cart, for filling with food, and for leaning upon. While Dad meandered among the fresh produce and artisan cheese, Mom and I walked to the dairy cooler via the cold cereal aisle. A pretty middle-aged woman walking by surprised me with a generous smile. Her sleeveless summer dress exposed significant portions of her enhanced bosom. She passed us twice more, and each time that smile. After the third pass, Mom hissed at me, scandalized, “That woman is flirting with you. It’s so obvious! And her boobs are practically falling out of her dress!” Mom’s observations filled me with a sudden and unexpected panic, and I was in junior high again, awkward, anxious, and utterly unable to flirt. She’s flirting with me? I thought, stupefied. Why? I could not understand it. And I could not respond. Even had I been interested, my flashback to adolescent anxiety left me perspiring and paralyzed. Which is just as well—now is not the time or the season. The parking lot sloped away from the grocery store, and Mom and Dad pulled back on the reins, as it were, to keep the colts from bolting. I drove silently home, disturbed at the stirring sensations I have worked so hard to suppress. I focused on seeing how many shopping bags I could carry into the house in one trip, and helped my providentially protective mother put the groceries away in their various nooks and crannies on the pantry.
What I’ve always known—cognitively—is beginning to sink deeply in—emotionally—with emphasis on the word “sink,” and pulling me down with it: I cannot fix this. I do not have the power to heal the illness, to strengthen the tired muscles. The canes and walkers and wheelchairs, the doctor visits and blood draws and MRIs, the heart monitors and blood pressure cuffs, the shakiness and fatigue, the “take your pills” and “drink more water” and the worry worry worry—they are all here to stay. I am riding this streetcar with Mom and Dad to the fim da linha, the end of the line. One day, the streetcar will come to a stop and Mom and Dad will get off, and I will wave good-bye. And then the car will start again and turn some corner and carry me toward other stops. Until then, my power is found in my weakness, my strength in my service. All I can do is cook and clean and comfort, and listen, and love. And this is enough. In fact, this is the job. The job is not to fix anything as we ride the streetcar together, but to be with them for the duration of the ride, and to make the ride as comfortable and peace-filled and happy as my siblings and I can.
My children pooled their resources and purchased an Aero Garden for my Father’s Day gift. Nine little cones, each with their own seeds, sat immersed in water. Upon every garden planting, I struggle to believe the seeds will sprout, but they always do. Months later I have a jungle of basil and dill and parsley. The basil plants needed pruning badly, so I cut them back and dropped the three-inch leaves into a blender with garlic, parmesan cheese, pine nuts, and olive oil: pesto! This was to top the focaccia dough proofing in the oven, warmed slightly by the oven bulb. Mom and Dad and I savored munching on the aromatic, flavorful flatbread. I drove some focaccia squares over to some Brazilian bread aficionado friends, and we enjoyed a taste of pesto over conversation. Ciabatta, sourdoughs from wild yeast starter, Scottish Struan, cheese bread with Guinness, and Challah—they are all fun to make and more fun to devour. And who doesn’t enjoy the therapy of kneading out one’s frustrations while stretching those gluten fibers?
Years ago Mom planted milkweed seeds in a patch of open dirt under the Austrian Pine. The plants are difficult to establish, but once established proliferate and dominate their territory. She likes the shapes of their leaves, the heads of pretty perfumed pink starlet flowers, and the conical green seed pods that brown and break open and spread thousands of fluff-laden seeds on the breeze. But the real reason she grows the milkweed is to attract Monarch butterflies. As a child in Brazil and New Jersey, I gathered Monarch caterpillars and fed them to maturity, watched them pupate and finally break free as butterflies with wet wrinkled wings that vibrate and spread into black-webbed fiery flapping sails. As an adult in Utah, I have helped my children do the same. The Monarch chrysalis is like no other, a soft powdery green with stripes of gold: a living jewel. Although Mom she has not yet seen a Monarch floating above her milkweed plants, still she hopes one will flutter by someday and stop to lay its eggs. I believe it will. For Mom, her milkweed patch has become a symbol of hope: hope for beauty and hope for successful growing up and taking off, a hope and trust in life.
I have been shouting a lot lately. Not because I am a brute or a bully or an offended narcissist, but because the hearing aid batteries seem to go dead every day. Or the hearing aids are not being worn. A person cannot wear hearing aids comfortably, of course, when mowing the lawn—such amplified sound would rattle their teeth and ruin what’s left of their hearing. And there is the surgical mask, which, when removed, catches on the hearing aid and flings it across the church parking lot. What an indignity to continually be shouted at, to have to ask “What?” and “Hmm?” all the time, to miss the happy songs of finches at sunset.
I tended my great-nephew Gabe on a recent Saturday afternoon. He is all of three years old. He lights up when he sees me because I love him and play with him. I light up when I see him because he is adorable and smart and fun and sweet, and likes being with me. On that Saturday we made my daughter Laura’s recipe for banana chocolate-chip muffins—the secret ingredient is sour cream, and these muffins are wonderfully moist and soft. Gabe and I set up our work areas on the kitchen’s center island. Given the attention span and dexterity of three-year-olds, I thought it best to give him his own bowls and measuring implements and ingredients. While I mixed the real recipe, he mixed his own concoction. The secret ingredient of Gabe’s muffins? Colored sprinkles, lots of them. And egg shells. As I was breaking eggs into my batter, he asked for an egg for his. He held the egg over his bowl, smashed it with his little hand, and dropped it into the bowl, shell and all. Mom and Dad watched smiling from the family room. I could hear a faint ringing echo as we mixed batter and talked, and I said to Mom, “Can you hear that ringing?” It turned out to be a hearing aid sitting on a table, reacting to my voice. But Gabe got off his stool and came over to hug my leg with a concerned look on his upturned face. He teared up and asked about the monster making the noise. When the hearing aid explanation meant nothing to him, I tried to reassure him by telling him confidently that there were no monsters in the house because I had eaten them all for breakfast—yum!—and that my favorite one was the chocolate monster—yum! And not one monster was left to bother him. He laughed, looked worried, and laughed again. As Gabe left with my sister and some sprinkle-topped muffins, I told him to gobble up any monsters he found at his house for his breakfast, and he smiled and said okay. Yesterday he left a crayon rainbow drawing on my pillow.
After a 30-year career in New Jersey, Mom and Dad retired to Utah, purchasing a home close to the Wasatch mountains. Loving the beautiful eastern forests, still they yearned to come back home to Rocky Mountain country. After dinner, Dad often retires to a chair on the back patio. Mom joins him there. They listen to the ebullient songs of finches and wonder at their happiness. They watch the mountains in all their moods, under sun, in storm, green with rain, dusted with snow, and desert dry. They remember old adventures: dragging a juniper root off Mount Timponogos and turning it into a red cedar lamp; hiking to Lone Peak with not quite enough food and water, and being aided by other hikers; the moose on the mountain trails; fly fishing for trout during a drizzle; boulder-hopping on the ridge to the Little Matterhorn; parties and picnics with children laughing. Such evenings are the perfect setting to remember good times, talk about how much we love our families, and listen to joyful birdsong.
Dad keeps his lawn green and trimmed and mowed. The lawn gets nourished monthly with the correct kind of fertilizer, and enjoys a haircut twice a week. Donning a straw hat against the sun and potential skin cancer, he drives his red riding mower, curving around the beds of bushes and flowers, happy to be in the saddle. A neighbor commented, “Nelson, you are the most determined man I’ve ever seen in caring for a yard.” One Friday night in spring, Dad asked me if I would fertilize the lawn first thing Saturday morning so that the coming snow would dissolve the fertilizer into the turf. Come morning, however, the lawn was buried in four inches of heavy wet snow. Not wanting Dad to be disappointed, I ventured to push the spreader anyway. With two wheels on the “ground” the spreader merely pushed against the snow. But with one wheel on the ground—the wheel geared to the spreader—and the other elevated, I made good progress. It is often hard to see where one has fertilized because the spreader swath is three feet on either side, and I lose track of where I’ve been. I did not have this problem now because the fertilizer sat on the surface of the snow. Unfortunately, the grains of this particular fertilizer were yellow, and now Dad’s entire yard was covered with yellow snow. Dad was astonished, having never seen fertilized snow. He commented, “Roger—it looks like the whole lawn was trampled by peeing deer.” Indeed, deer are frequent visitors, eating down spring’s lily shoots. Just yesterday I watched a nearby mule deer doe watching Dad as he string trimmed. Now, at summer’s end, the grass is green green. Dad cut the grass again last night. Now it’s my turn to do my job: take the push mower around the places where the riding mower can’t easily maneuver. And empty the bags of cut grass.
Arriving homing from work, I observed Mom ironing white linen handkerchiefs. Not knowing people who use handkerchiefs, let alone iron handkerchiefs, I inquired. She told me that when I was an infant in Brazil—(Dad was a post-graduate Fulbright law student at the University of São Paulo)—she would push me in the stroller down the noisy urban streets to the American consulate to retrieve their mail and to check out books from the consulate library. On occasion, just for the fun of exploring, she would board the street car and ride it to the “fim da linha,” the end of the line, to see what there was to see. Hearing of women who sewed lace, she rode to the fim da linha and walked to the little lace shop. Beautiful hand-sewn lace lined shelves and graced tables. With little money for nonessentials, she chose several thin white handkerchiefs into which were embroidered white vines and leaves and flowers. Nearly 60 years later, she held them with care and ironed them free of their wrinkles. Some of the stitching has come out, but still left are the needle holes and impression patters of where the lace used to be. Beautiful things made by beautiful people so long ago at the end of the street car line.
I am wallowing in self-reproach. Mom fell in the shower. She does not remember falling. She remembers only waking up on the floor, the water sprinkling down on her, the door flung open. And I did not know. And Dad did not know. I asked her at breakfast about the scratch on the bridge of her nose, but she did not know where it came from. As she sat in her Sunday dress, ready to go to church, Dad asked her how she felt. “Not so good,” she said, seeming very tired. I passed it off as a symptom of the sinus infection she is getting over. She told me later about her slumping from her chair. That morning I had awoken with a start when I thought I heard a bang. I could hear water tinkling. Remembering how the shower door clangs when it closes, I thought nothing more of it. We went to church like normal, moving a little slower. I cooked all afternoon to give Mom and Dad a nice Sunday dinner: tilapia poached in white wine with green onions, sauced with creamy mushroom-clam sauce. For dessert I made crepes stuffed with vanilla-cream sauced apples. It all tasted divine. But all I could think about as I cooked and ate and washed dishes was not being there when Mom needed me. I was there, in the same house, on the same floor, in the room next door, with Mom lying unconscious on the shower floor, being drizzled with warm water. But I was not there for her. I could have revived her, helped her up, given her care and attention. But I was not there. All this fancy French food and the effort it took and the palatable pleasure it brought meant nothing. What would have meant something was following through on the waking start and investigating assertively and helping my mother when she needed me. The bruise on her cheek bone is starting to show.
I have asked Mom and Dad to save up for me the little chores they would like me to do when I come home from work. I’m no handyman, but I can do the little things: change a furnace filter, snap in a new smoke alarm battery, carry toilet paper to the basement bathroom, heft the water softener salt into the tank, unclog the corner rain gutter, snip out the old dog wire, tighten a door knob, pull the empty garbage cans back from the curb. These little chores give me pleasure, not only because they are quick and easy, and not only because I am capable of doing them, but also because Mom and Dad appreciate me for doing these little chores: my doing them makes their lives just that much easier.
Nearly a month into this experience, this mission, I began to notice rising feelings of distress. I felt irritable and overwhelmed and stretched—that old rubber-band feeling where any more pull will break the band. My emotional energy reserves were gone. And I didn’t really know why. My sisters encouraged me to have compassion for myself, to realize that after living alone for years I am suddenly sharing space with other people all day every day. Continue reading
Dad loves his yard care tools, especially the power tools. The only power tool we owned growing up in East Brunswick, New Jersey was the push mower, with no power drive, for the half-acre corner lot at 2 Schindler Court (named by the developer-friend of Mr. Schindler of Schindler’s List). Now Dad enjoys a set of DeWalt battery-powered tools, including one of his favorites, the hedge trimmer. He often trims the bushes nicely round. But the trimmer cannot grab and cut the shoots along the ground, and bending and kneeling is out of the question. I, on the other hand, can (barely) bend and (barely) kneel, and I like the small hand pruner. So while Dad shapes the bushes, I kneel on a cushioned pad and reach under the bushes to cut their runners and shoots, leaving a collection of uniquely and pleasantly shaped orbs. The hard-to-get-to places are the ones longest neglected, but turning attention and effort to them yields pleasing results. There’s a metaphor there somewhere.
The negotiated terms of my ouster included me rescuing my children’s artwork from the attic storage closet. I wanted these paintings displayed and my children honored. They had made oil, acrylic, and collage paintings on old plywood, cardboard, canvas board, and posterboard. Many pieces were very good. Determined, I took a framing class at the Tooele Army Depot morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) facility. I learned to measure and cut the mats and the glass, assemble the frames, and apply the backing. I felt joyful and proud to hang these excellent art pieces on the walls of my apartment, which my father came to call my “art gallery.” They included scenes of Lisbon streetcars, Rio de Janeiro’s Cristo Redentor, the romantic streets of Paris, African villages, Korean dancers, and New York City street corners, plus a Panda Bear and a Great Blue Heron. The most venerable painting hanging on my apartment walls was an oil Dad painted in the 1950s of two children, a boy and a girl, walking hand-in-hand down a forest path. To move them safely, I wrapped these jewels in plastic and stacked them carefully in the Mom’s and Dad’s basement. After two weeks, I found myself ready to decorate my two rooms, too small to accommodate all the paintings I had framed. And I suddenly found that my connection to them was touched with old despair. For now, I will gently store them to await a time of greater healing and permanence, when I will take them out and again proudly display them. Now is not the time or the season. They are like so many priceless museum pieces wrapped in protecting plastic and stowed in crates, awaiting their grand retrospective. In the meantime, I have hung in my rooms several of Mom’s beautiful needlepoints, prints I bought on various trips, and the old oil of two children walking through the woods, holding hands.
After I organized my home office, in the former guest bedroom, I received an email from Dad asking if my red office chair held sentimental meaning to me, and, if not, perhaps I should consider getting a new office chair. I bought the cushioned red cloth chair thirty years ago as my writing chair. I sat and rocked in it eight years ago as I typed the first, second, and final manuscripts of my book, Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road, as well as my volume of recent poetry, A Time and A Season. The red cloth has faded, the spring has stretched into a permanent recline, and the paint has been scratched off the wood arms. For years my son Brian used it in his room at his desk; daughter Erin also enjoyed the chair, and repainted the wood arms and legs. But it is showing its age, and Dad thought it might not represent me professionally on Zoom. Time to let it go. I asked Brian if he might like his childhood chair, and he replied in the enthusiastic affirmative. I will miss my old red chair, but it was starting to hurt my back, and I’m so glad Brian will enjoy sitting and rocking in it as he writes his poems and creative non-fiction essays and reads pictures book to little Lila. The old red chair will fit his MFA nicely.
I had intended to accept an invitation to gather with the men of the neighborhood to help an ill neighbor with yard work he could not do. “Bring your chainsaws,” the organizer goaded, “and show what real men you are.” I chuckled, knowing his heart was pure. As I sat with Dad in the back yard, however, and he talked about all the things he would like to accomplish in his yard, I decided to change course. I chose to stay home and help with his yardwork, which I suppose is my yardwork. An impish niggling voice accused me of being selfish for not helping the neighbor. But I shrugged it off and responded, “Nope. That is not my mission. This is my mission: to be here, to help here, to the end. This is missionary work.” And so I got to work pruning trees and weeding flower beds and yanking out the long Virginia creeper vines. A smile on Dad’s face, and his call of “Looks great!” confirmed what I already knew, and made me happy to be so engaged.
During a visit to Gilbert, Arizona to see my sister Jeanette, she took me to a state park near Sedona, high above the desert, with a little trout stream flowing through the pine forest. On the park lawn grazed a squadron of pig-like creatures called collared peccaries, or javelinas. I asked a uniformed park ranger about them—he told me javelinas are not pigs at all, but a cross between an old-world swine (which is a pig, I thought) and a new-world raccoon. I stared at him stupefied, wondering if were joking. Sadly, he was perfectly serious. Of course, such a cross is genetically impossible, for the same reasons a dog cannot breed with a cat, or a chicken with a rabbit: impossible. (Idaho does boast its jackalope, a cross between a jack rabbit and a pronghorn antelope—Google it.) On another visit, Mom and Dad brought back a life-sized rusted metal javelina that sits quietly on alert, on their front porch. When the Deseret News stopped its daily circulation, opting for online distribution, Mom and Dad subscribed to the New York Times, which is tossed every day out of a car window onto the driveway. Leaving the house for work in the morning, I noticed the newspaper, bagged in blue plastic, sitting on the javelina’s snout. I asked Mom about it, and she whispered simply “newspaper elf.” Another morning, I saw from my home office window a man crossing the driveway. Ah, so he must be the newspaper elf. But on Saturday the newspaper was in the driveway. “The newspaper elf doesn’t work on weekends,” Mom explained cheerfully. “We have to go and get it.”
Mom said to me soon after I moved in, “I’m old, and I can’t do much, but I can do laundry and I like to do laundry. Would you let me do your laundry? I would like to do that for you.” I felt inclined to decline, and demurred. Dirty laundry is a sensitive subject for me. Returning from a five-month separation in 2014, I gently insisted on doing my own laundry. Home from my eviction, I found I could not allow her to handle my dirty laundry, though she wanted to. I could not let myself be vulnerable in that way. Now, with my mother’s request, I am trying be vulnerable enough to allow her to do something for me that she can do and wants to do and likes to do, even though I like doing it, too. For me, separating the colors from the whites and putting in the soap and running the machines is fun. And I like folding the clean clothes and putting them in their organized place. With Mom’s offer to wash my dirty clothes, I have come full circle to my childhood. Mama is taking care of me again. How tender that she wants to. After thinking it through and breathing deeply, I said to her, “Mom, I would be very appreciative of you washing my dirty clothes. Thank you so much for offering.”
In July, just before I moved, Mom told me about how she and Dad sat in picnic chairs in the driveway every evening at 8:45 to watch the sun set, enjoying the colorful clouds. I texted her one night that I would go stand by the apartment complex fence at 8:45 to see the sun set over the Tooele valley, in solidarity with her. While she gazed toward the Oquirrh mountains to her west, I looked toward the Stansbury mountains to my west, each with peaks over 11,000 feet. As July moved into August, our sunset time came earlier and earlier, today already at 7:45. Sitting there in the driveway, the three of us, on our picnic chairs, we waved at neighbors driving or walking by, talked about the day’s work and news, and admired the brilliant colors. With the worst California fires in history, Utah’s sun became an orange-poppy sphere that we could stare at without discomfort for the thick smoke. As the sun dipped behind the mountains one evening, Dad announced, “I can see Venus!” I looked and looked for several minutes, but could not see the “first star.” His cataract removal and lens implants seem to have given him telescopic eyes at age 85, while my 20-20 eyes (thank you Lasik) still searched for the pin point. As the sky darkened, Mom told of when she was six years old and sang at a neighborhood talent show, in the church building, and for the occasion her mother made a dress for her out of rolls of white crepe paper stitched together, with red paper trim and pink paper hearts. Then Dad led us in a round of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and told me how wonderful my mother is (which he tells me every day, and she is). Soon the automatic sprinklers popped up, and the quarter moon shone a rich orange through the smoky sky.
The arctic willow bush tends to grow wildly, a thicket of unruly blue hair. And twigs die and turn brown in the midst, marring the uniform soft blue. Dad has always diligently pruned out the deadwood. This weekend he asked me if I would find that one elusive dead twig and cut it out. After a pine branch attacked me (see prior Pruning Pine Trees post), I wrestled my way into the willow tangle in search of brown. Like with the pine tree, once on the inside I found much invisible dead wood to cut out. I threw each brown branch onto the lawn, cut them up in short lengths, and filled an entire garbage can. Stepping back from the bush, there was that elusive brown twig still peeking through. Finally I found it. What a different removing the brown made to the quality of the blue. Nature is full of instructional principles, like how cutting out the dead keeps the living healthy and beautiful.
One of my purposes is to make mealtime easy, healthy, and pleasant for Mom and Dad, by cooking dinner for them. For two years I have enjoyed cooking for them occasionally on a weekend. Now it can be every day, if wanted. It brings me pleasure to bring them pleasure. I have always wanted to learn to speak French and cook French. I study French lessons on Duo Lingo once or twice a week—I may become competent in ten years so. And after watching Julie & Julia in 2020, I bought the 50th anniversary edition of Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This week we enjoyed (1) quiche in a buttery shell with green onions, mushrooms, spinach, and ham, (2) salmon soufflé, (3) crêpes with Splenda-sweetened fresh fruit and almond whipping cream (for my son Caleb’s 22nd birthday “cake”), (4) carrots and parsnips glazed in a buttery sweet sauce, and (5) cream of mushroom soup, all from Julia’s book. I have fun cooking delicious, appealing food, and we all enjoy consuming it. The recipes were hard at first, but have become second nature with repetition. Dad sent me an email today, “I will be cooking dinner tonight.” These six words implied so much: (a) I can cook, too; (b) I want to cook, too; (c) I love to cook, too; (d) I can do things; (e) I want to share the load; (f) thank you for your cooking; (g) I want to take a turn; (h) I want to do something nice for you like you do for us; and, (i) isn’t it wonderful how people take raw ingredients and make such creative, delicious dishes? So, tonight he cooked delicious “saucy pork burrito rice bowls” with ingredients and recipe provided by Hello Fresh. When I asked if I could be his sous chef, he said sure. As the three of us sat at the table with our fragrant rice bowls, Dad remarked, “We made this, together, didn’t we Rog!” We did. And it was very tasty.
Preparing for the move, I wondered which room would be best for my bedroom. The basement bedroom is my favorite guest room because it is cooler, darker, more quiet, and more private—cave-like. The west-facing room with its big windows grows hot in summer. The other room has four bunk beds for when the grandchildren were younger. I decided that the basement would not do: if something went wrong in the night, I would not be able to immediately hear and respond. I consulted with Mom and Dad, and we decided to take the bunk beds down and move my bed in. They offered to let me use the larger (hotter) bedroom for my home office. The ceiling fan and window blinds will ease the heat. How gracious Mom and Dad were to volunteer this arrangement—it will work beautifully. The bedroom is simple, with my bed, dresser, and nightstand. The office has the only other furniture I brought: my 30-year-old first-ever kitchen table that my daughter Erin later refinished with black legs, dark wood-stain top, and painted flowers and vines, for my desk—at this desk, I typed the manuscripts of my book Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road; a wood filing cabinet; a glass-doored book case for my current journals, writing projects, and reading list; and, the tall driftwood specimen Dad carried off Mount Timponogos in the 1950s and transformed into a gorgeous lamp. It sits on my great-grandfather Baker’s low, round, oak table with lathe-turned legs. I feel like I have come home.
When church services ended, Mom led me to choir practice, held in the home of a neighbor. The director was thrilled to have a new bass, and gave me a choir folder with my name on it, filled with favorites like Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Consider the Lilies, and John Rutter’s I Will Sing with the Spirit. Mom was the ward choir director when I first started singing at the age of 12 in our New Jersey ward. I learned from her so much about the beauty, complexity, and dynamics of choral singing and conducting. She held this position for nine years. In my forties, I was asked to direct the choir in my Utah ward. I borrowed Mom’s choral music library, cleared the mental cobwebs, and put to work all the knowledge she taught me decades before. At the same time, I sang in a wonderful Salt Lake City community choir, learning even more. I have not sung with the church choir for a long time. While choral singing can be uplifting and therapeutic, too much pain kept me away from people for too long. I am happy to be singing again in the ward choir. And as Mom expressed in choir practice today, “I am so grateful to be singing.” Amen.
We drive 200 yards to church—walking is just not an option. I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. First, a little context. Our local church units are called wards. The ward one attends depends on where one lives. So, moving from Tooele to Sandy, my church record was transferred from the Westland Ward to the Crescent 18th Ward. A bishop presides over each ward. Every ward member is given the opportunity to contribute to the ward’s functioning (e.g., teaching youth classes) and to minister to the ward’s members. All ward members serve voluntarily, without pay. My first Sunday in the new ward, the bishop stood at the pulpit and invited to stand, telling the congregation of several hundred that I was new to the ward, and that I had moved in with my parents to help take care of them. As I stood up, I resisted the almost irresistible urge to tuck in my shirt and pull up my slacks. I am what I am; let them see me. I felt the unusual nature of my situation: an older single man moving in with his octogenarian parents. And I was sure Dad felt chagrined and being identified publicly as needing to be “taken care of.” But these are all good people, many of whom approached me after the meeting to welcome me enthusiastically into the ward. “I’m Brad.” “I’m Ann.” “I’m Bishop Callister.” “So glad to meet you. Your parents are such wonderful people.”
John Wayne stayed in Tooele, and Hannah went with her mom. But Brian and Avery came and to help me unload the truck. Lila (almost 2) ran around talking and playing and exploring and shyly approaching Mom and Dad, her great-grandparents. I had communicated, I was sure, with Mom and Dad about where I thought it best to store my belongings: in the main basement room against the east wall. In fact, I had not discussed it with them. I had only imagined discussing it, and had fabricated, apparently, a memory both of the conversation and of their assent. But this was not the storage location they preferred: putting my stuff there would turn their family gathering place into a storage room. I was stunned, not at their preference—it is their house and their space, and my obligation and opportunity to respect them. Rather, I was stunned at my having transformed the fantasy of my unuttered thoughts into the reality of a memory of a conversation that never took place. Dad pointed me to a small unfinished area of the basement I was confident would not fit my belongings. But I did some quick organizing, laid down my 2x4s, and got ready to bring in the boxes. I applied a wide strip of amazingly adhesive plastic down the stairs to the basement and up the stairs and down the hall to my room. I did not want the boot traffic and black dolly wheels to ruin the light-colored shag. Clanking down the stairs with boxes of books on the dolly was a chore straining our arms and legs and back. Brian and I were sore the next day! On the moving-in side, Brian and Avery were my heroes. By night’s end, I was, simply, exhausted, took two Aleve, and fell like a boulder into bed. But not without remembering sheepishly my first new-home blunder, committed before even moving in. I will need to be extra careful to clearly communicate so as to navigate my space while not infringing on theirs. Fortunately, Mom and Dad are generous, flexible, and forgiving.
Moving day finally came. I rented a 16-foot Penske truck from Home Depot, with a dolly—I was not going to schlep all those boxes of books one at a time. My son Brian (31) and daughter Hannah (15) volunteered to help me load the truck. I had been so focused on packing and cleaning that I neglected to ask for help loading the truck. Brian brought a friend he met years earlier in Oklahoma during his church missionary service. His Chinese name sounds like John Wayne, and he invited me to just call him that. Brian, Hannah, and John Wayne were heroic! We loaded a thousand boxes (actually 100) and a few pieces of furniture I am keeping. Most of my furniture and household furnishings I am leaving for Brian and Avery to use, since I will not need them (or have room for them) at Mom’s and Dad’s house.
Many poignant thoughts struck me as I drove the big truck away from Tooele to Sandy. (1) I am mourning leaving my apartment—my home. No matter how good the new circumstance, we often grieve the circumstance we leave behind. (2) Living alone in an apartment after 27 years of marriage was not my choice. But making that apartment my home was my choice. And I made it a beautiful, comfortable, safe, peaceful, happy home for myself, and for my children when they came to see me. (3) I struggle with transitions, that place of belonging neither here nor there, neither now nor then, of belonging to no place and no time. I am glad this transition is ending. (4) The last day in one place is as strange as first day in another. (5) I did it! I made it! I lived alone for six years after a traumatic divorce. And I made it through. Intact, even! Stronger! I emerged from a long, dark tunnel of trauma into the light of life and love, and even created my own light along the way.
My church encourages its members to have on hand one year’s supply of food in case of emergency. The Covid-19 pandemic affirmed that food storage isn’t a fool’s errand. After being counseled my whole life, and after six months of Covid, I finally started acquiring food storage. Not just staples, but things I would enjoy and that would be good for me. Canned: refried beans; sweet potatoes; mackerel; sweet corn; green beans; mandarin oranges; spaghetti sauce; diced tomatoes; black beans. Baking: flour; sugar; brown sugar; baking powder; corn meal; cassava flour; vegetable shortening; a gallon of vegetable oil; a gallon of corn syrup. Spices: garlic; onion; cinnamon. Bouillon cubes for chicken and beef broth. Pasta: angel hair (my favorite). Bottled water. Powdered milk. A stove in a can. Two hundred tea candles and pint-jar lanterns. I hope I don’t have to find out how long these stores, combined with their own, would last Mom, Dad, and me. But I have them just in case, in boxes, on shelves in Mom’s basement cold storage room.
I packed 30 boxes in one night. Packing boxes is such an odd life experience. Into each box I put my books, my genealogical records, my decorations, my journals. I seem to have more books and binders than any other type of possession. I cannot bear to part with the good books I have read, so into the boxes they go, with the label “Books: Read.” My latest favorites: The Plover by Brian Doyle, about a scarred sailor on a small sailboat who takes on several characters and through them heals his wounds; and, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, about the pervasive systematic racist policies of U.S. Government agencies that caused African Americans to suffer gross inequities in housing availability and affordability, safe neighborhoods, good jobs, adequate incomes, quality schools, clean environments, loan and mortgage equity, wealth generation, and military benefits. Each book has walked me in the shoes of great men and women, has taken me to new realms of science, has filled me with joy and sadness and that sick feeling that comes from reading about human cruelty. And when my bookshelves are empty and the boxes are full, I feel empty and bereft, as if my compartmentalized personality has been divided into boxes with labels, packed away to be loaded onto a truck and driven to my knew home and stacked in a corner of the basement until this new chapter, of which I have barely turned the first page, has ended (and I hope it is a long chapter). Then, I will carry the boxes again, still unopened, to some other domicile, where they will be unpacked and their contents organized on shelves and tables until my children come to care for me.
I didn’t go to Wal-Mart for boxes. I went there for snacks, including cheddar fish crackers, for a day trip to see Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with Hannah at Tuacahn. But there was the cheerful Pepperidge Farms lady collapsing boxes by the dozen, happy to give them to me when I asked. Packing is always a daunting task, and it starts with building boxes. With Ken Burns’ 20-hour Jazz playing b-bop and avant-garde, I started folding and taping flaps, and tossing the boxes in a heap. I feel so sad for genius Charlie Parker, playing sax music from heaven while drugs dragged him down to a living hell, with death at 34. At DVD’s end, the living room was a heap of empty cracker boxes, about to be filled with books I may never read but yet carry around by the decade. My life feels about to be reduced to a stack of heavy boxes marked “books.” But mine is a good life: I will have a safe, loving place to live with, and care for, my generous parents. Safe places—that is what we should be building. I guess it starts with building boxes. Forty down; so many to go.