The Dog in the Trunk

dog leashCarol was 80 years old and, for most of the past 40 years, had lived alone in the small house she’d grown up in, on a shaded street in a tiny town in Indiana.

She had had no husband. No children. But many years of work at a desk, first in the accountant’s office, then at the concrete foundry. Tallying the balance sheets, recording the accounts. Looking after her elderly parents till their passing. It had been enough.

But as the years streamed by, she understood more deeply the meaning of death (and consequently life), and when she retired from work, the house felt increasingly empty—the air too thin, the TV voices turned up to fill the silence. When she turned 67, she began craving the warmth and attention of another living being, and so she got the dog — a golden retriever for her golden years.

Molly was 3 months old when Carol brought her home, a fuzzy golden bundle, the last female of the litter. Never having raised a dog, Carol found the initial months of puppyhood intriguing and exhausting — the whimpering through those first nights, the sharp teeth nibbling at her hand and, oh, the frustration of housebreaking – the soggy newspapers, puddles in the corner. As a puppy, Molly was a clumsy ball of fluff. As a dog, she grew slender, with a feathery tail and a slobbery grin.

They’d gotten there together now, into old age. Carol had seen Molly through a diagnosis of epilepsy and three surgeries to remove ingested socks. Molly, in turn, lifted Carol’s spirits after a hard fall on the unforgiving church floor, the broken elbow and leg keeping her in the hospital for a dozen weeks.

Now, here they were at the veterinarian’s office. Molly had stopped eating and was vomiting strings of foam.

“Well, girl, it’s time to say goodbye,” Carol said as she sat by the exam table, stroking the gold and graying fur around Molly’s ears. She couldn’t put the dog through another surgery to straighten out that twisted colon, but she dared not think about returning alone to a silent, barren house.

“Thirteen years gone,” she said. “You’ve been a good dog.”

Molly lifted her head to lick Carol’s hand.

When the vet confirmed that the drug injection had worked, Carol walked slowly out to her car in the cold parking lot and opened the trunk. The vet’s assistant followed, carrying Molly’s loose body, and laid the dog gently on the green blanket, which Carol had spread in the trunk. Molly had lain on that blanket on the way to the vet. Neither knew then whether they would go home together again.

Carol had already decided not to bury Molly in her yard, as was the custom for family pets in that town. Instead, she drove the 30 miles to the pet cemetery, where Molly would lie with other family pets beneath a low headstone that would be weathered by wind and rain.

 

March 8, 2016

Insurance

For my daughter on the eve of her departure for college

 

I hand the white plastic card to youInsurance card

over the hard, gray kitchen counter.

On it are embossed the numbers you need:

the ID number,

the group number,

the number to call for health claims and emergencies.

 

What the numbers don’t show,

Daughter,

are the years you have been a part of me.

 

18 chances for me to get it right –

day by day, month by year —

to prepare you:

to feed yourself

and your soul;

to clean your body,

and your dishes;

to organize your room,

and your mind;

to defend yourself,

and your words.

 

Together, we’ve watched the strong women on film:

Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side,

Viola Davis in The Help,

even Rebecca Ferguson in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.

She rides and fights and finally

goes mano a mano

for all us women fighting in a man’s world.

 

This card,

cracked and faded in my wallet,

will now reside in yours.

 

September 2015

 

The Dog Explains (or Why I Ate the Chocolate Cake)

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Dear Big Female,

Look, I know you got really mad at me a couple of days ago, when I leaned up on the kitchen counter and took a bite out of the cake the young male had just finished baking, but you know, I just couldn’t help myself. See, it had been a tough day in the dog world. It was that day after the two days when all you people are around, coming and going, zinging in and out of doors all day long.

After those two days of activity, I’m used to having a day of rest, when I curl up in my white domed house outside and sleep all day. Yeah, it’s kind of depressing, but I’ve gotten used to it. Matter of fact, at this point in my life, I need that day of sleep. And if I get too bored, I get out of my house and run around in circles trying to catching that stump on my backside, just for the hell of it. I haven’t managed to catch it yet. I’ve seen other dogs do it, but it’s easier for them. They have those long droopy sticks on their backsides. I might have had one once too, but I don’t remember.

Our days here usually begin with the opening and closing of doors before I’ve been let out of my crate down in that room with those scary white boxes that bang and hum. Most of the time, you make those machines bang during the day when I’m not in the room, but sometimes at night, after you’ve brought me into that room to go to bed,  the machines are still banging and humming and I see you open the doors on them and move clothes from one to the other. I know these are clothes for everybody because I see them on your bodies on different days, and I’ve figured out which ones you wear for the night when everything in the house gets real quiet. I refuse to get in my own box at night until I see you or that younger female in your night-time clothes. (I know you and she are females because you smell different than those other two, with their shorter hair and harder voices). I figure it this way – I ain’t gettin’ in that box to spend all those dark hours, and some of the light ones too when the air is warmer and the trees have those flat things hanging on them . . . what ARE those flat things anyway? They just look like grey blobs to me.

As I was saying, I’m not gettin’ in that box till I know the house is going to quiet down. And I know the quiet won’t come till you’re in those night clothes. I just hate to think I might miss something, you know. And yeah, sometimes I get funny and refuse to get in the box till it’s YOU who puts me there, not that younger female. Sometimes, I just like to see how much control I have. I’m a dog. I can’t help it.

So anyway, it had been two days of the coming and going. The voices of all of you, the footfalls in and out. First, the door out to that place where you keep those other two big white machines, the ones with the wheels. Those are the machines that come and go, that make creaking noises in the room where my box is. When I hear the first creaks, I know the day is about to begin. After the creaks stop, I wait in my box for awhile, hoping someone will come let me out. If you make me wait too long, I get frantic and scratch at the box, start in with that high-pitched bark that I know will get your attention, until you come to let me out. When you do let me out of the box, though, I just can’t go through the door to the yard right away. I need you to pet me for a while, and I make sure I get you to do that by looking up at you with my pathetic expression and sitting on your foot. You grouse about that, but it almost always works. If it doesn’t, I do my doggie bow – front legs stretched out, head low, tail up. I’ve heard you call it the “downward facing dog” pose and I’ve seen you try to imitate it. Frankly, I can’t figure out why you humans would want to be imitating us dogs; it’s you guys who have all the power.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut back to the day of the cake . . .

After I had been let out of my box, the younger male plonked my breakfast down in that shiny bowl outside the kitchen door, the spot where I spend many hours practicing my sad look through the glass. I had already done my tour of the yard, to make sure no intruders had appeared in my territory while I was in the box. Sometimes, I can tell those puffy gray critters with the stripes on their tails and faces have been snooping around again. They leave behind a nasty fishy smell and they never clean up after themselves. You pulled me away once when I had one up a tree and another time when one was hiding under the deck, but they’re enemies, I tell you. All my barking at them is just my fair warning that they’re on my turf and should expect consequences.

That particular morning, the yard was pretty clear of invasion – just a few slugs headed for the garden and those black things that move through the sky. (Some of you people call them crows, some of you say they’re ravens. Frankly, I don’t care what you call them. I just know they make a lot of noise. Between watching them and those other white ones that sit on top the house dropping clam shells on the driveway, I get a crick in my neck.) But that morning, there was that other male in the house, that tall one with the light hair who’s been coming around recently. He stays real close to the other female. They watch a lot of moving pictures on the screen downstairs, in the dark room with the big couch. I’ve convinced you to let me in the house more often, You older people have gotten older too, gotten some of those light hairs on your heads like I now have on my snout and you’re gettin’ a little soft about where you’ll let me be, especially when I practice my pathetic face through the kitchen door or it starts to rain again, like it does so often here. When you fall for my trick and let me in, I figure it’s wise to be polite and I offer my thanks by stretching out in my down-dog bow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo as I was saying, I’ve convinced you to let me in the house more often. The room where the food is served is my next target. I’ve managed to sneak over there from the kitchen a couple times already. The advantage of being an Aussie is my grace. I may be male, but I am dainty, I tell you. The hard brown floor scares me because I can’t get any traction on it like I can the white tile in the kitchen, but I can tiptoe soundlessly from the kitchen to the rug in the eating area without you even hearing me, especially when my toenails are clipped, like they were at that dog hotel you left me at a couple weeks ago, the one where they got me wet and rubbed foamy stuff all over me. I loved the rubbing, hated the wet stuff, and that scratchy, funny-smelling paste they scrubbed my face with. It makes me itch and then you fuss at me for leaving wads of fur on the downstairs carpet from my scratching. Don’t EVER let them use that stuff on me again.

Besides the outside, I figure it’s my job to watch the intruders in the house too. This new male smells pretty safe. He must hang out with a lot of other interesting animals, dogs among them, and he knows how I like to be pet. But the young female is different when she’s around him. She shows her teeth more and changes the way she walks. She likes it when the new male gets really close to her on the downstairs couch, and especially when they start rubbing their faces together. But I just can’t allow anyone to be touching anyone in this house besides me. I get agitated and just have to speak, which usually stops the touching. I suspect you just might be letting me in the house on purpose when he’s here, just so they won’t be touching.

So there was that male in my territory, and the young male, the one who actually lives here, is always noisier and more active when the other one’s around. They wrestle around sometimes like they’re litter mates trying to determine who’s the alpha dog. That morning, they started playing with the little machine that zips around the floor making a loud whine, a smaller version of those white-wheeled machines that make my room creak. For this, the young male holds some sort of gadget in his hand to direct it. He thinks it’s fun to make the thing chase me, and it hurts when it bangs into my ankles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALater that morning, the three of them were moving around the kitchen cutting up round yellow things (at least I think they were yellow; I’m never too sure of my colors) and squishing the juice out of them with another type of buzzing machine. Then they were banging the dishes around and making tantalizing food smells. And then the big male and female went down to the beach with a couple of puffy shirts and some long sticks. I wanted to go with them to see what they were going to do. You KNOW I hate to miss anything. That’s why I follow you wherever you go, even if it’s back up the stairs you just came down. But this stupid band around my neck, the one with the little box attached to it, started beeping when I got to the edge of the yard, and I knew that, if I didn’t stop, I was going to get zapped like I have sometimes.

I usually stop when I hear the beeping, but sometimes the temptation is just too much to ignore, like the time you and the little male put that smelly food out on the upper lawn, where I’m not supposed to go. It had something to do with a project the young male was doing for school. I knew that if I didn’t get to that food first, those brown things with the thin legs and pointy sticks on their heads would get to it first. The taste of that stuff was well worth the momentary zap.

I also needed to go with the young female and her friend because it’s my job to keep my people together. You know, I get really anxious when you all split up and two of you go off one way while the other two go another. It just feels wrong, and I worry that I’m not doing my job. Like when we ran into that bunch of goats on the beach one day. They were wandering in all different directions, the silly things. I know they didn’t belong to our pack, but y’know, something just came over me and I had to gather them up, get ‘em in a tidy group, even if it meant nipping their ankles. You stood by horrified (after all, who would expect to find goats on a beach?) but the owner of the goats knew what I was doing. HE knew, and didn’t mind.

So when the female went off with her male friend, I got nervous. Things appeared to be spinning out of my control, so I did what I always do when it seems that way, especially when that nasty neighbor comes down the path with his big black and brown dog. It’s not the dog I mind because he and I are of similar mind. It’s that human. There’s something wrong with that male – even the female trainer you hired for me once said so, and I can never know when he might decide to throw stones at me again. Never mind that we both saw him beating his own dog with its own leash in our yard that one day when the dog wouldn’t come after he called it. Or he would prowl around our house with his dog if I wasn’t out barking at him. When he comes down the path to the beach, I run madly along the edge of the lawn and bark and bark and bark. Sure, all the running and barking is exhausting, but in the dog world, things must be kept in order.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell after awhile, I got bored with running and barking while the young female and her friend were down at the beach, and you know that didn’t take too long. You know, I’m a smart dog, smarter than those dumb yellow dogs up the street who spend their days chasing the same ball hour after hour. They’re always just thinking “throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball!” It must drive their people nuts. See, I figured it out pretty quick. If I bring back the ball you’ve thrown, you’re just gonna throw it again, and that’s no fun. I was willing enough to learn “sit” and “down” in that class you took me to, but when you got to telling me “stay,” I thought, “Unh-uh. No way. I ain’t doing this anymore.” First off, if I stay, I’m probably gonna miss something interesting somewhere else. Second, responding promptly to commands just means you’re going to be ordering me around all day. In that case, I might as well be as dumb as those dogs up the street. I may be just a dog, but I have to have SOME dignity.

After I got tired of barking along the lawn’s edge, I came back up to the kitchen door and pulled the usual stunt: park myself outside the glass, perk up my ears, cock my head slightly to the right, and look into the kitchen with my big brown puppy eyes. (OK, OK, so I just turned 9, but you know we dogs are always puppies, till the day we die.) This trick almost always gets to the young male, and I hear him say, in a tone as pathetic as my expression, “Mom, look at puppy. Isn’t he cute?” And sure enough, one of you will come to the door and let me in. Sometimes, when the older male is home, even he will fall for it. He’s the one who first started letting me lie on the floor by the downstairs couch while he watches his own moving pictures.

So like a charm, my pathetic pose worked that afternoon, and in I came to watch and sniff while the young male banged around the kitchen concocting more food and more tantalizing smells, this time with something smooth and dark brown that involved eggs.

They say dogs like these things called eggs, but I don’t know. I never had a chance to eat one before. Blueberries and strawberries, yes. Even spaghetti. Those long strands wrapped themselves around my snout. I used to pick blackberries off the vines at the beach, but gave up because I didn’t like getting scratched on the snout by the thorns. Give me a piece of bread and I’ll pick it up tenderly in my teeth and tiptoe away, so no one can steal it from me before I have a chance to eat it. I may be a gregarious dog, but I fiercely protect my food. And I know that, when one of you drops something on the floor and loudly shouts “Oops!”, you’re not fooling yourselves. Or me. I know that’s my signal to come get the food you’d like to feed me without feeling guilty.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo there was the young male, mixing things in a bowl with yet another one of those noisy machines, this one with silver things that clattered and spun around. This food didn’t appeal to me at first. The smell wasn’t quite right. But then he poured the stuff in a pan and stuck it in that big hot box, the one with the window in the door, and left the kitchen. Awhile later, he came back, opened the door, and pulled out the pan, setting it on the counter. You didn’t see this because you were somewhere in the house that I’m not allowed to go (yet). But I noticed. And sniffed.

After another little while, the young male came back and took the thing out of the pan, setting it on a plate. It looked to me like a dark round loaf of bread and smelled warm and slightly sticky. Then he did it again – poured more dark stuff in the pan, put it in the hot box, and – when the bell dinged – pulled it out and put it on the counter.

While he was doing all this, the female and her male came back to the house, and once again doors were opening and closing, people came and went, up and down stairs, in and out of rooms. So much commotion. I had a hard time keeping up with it all.

Eventually, the female and her male settled on the couch downstairs to watch their moving pictures (but mostly they were rubbing faces), the young male went off somewhere I couldn’t see, and you went downstairs to the room where you often sit staring at a glowing screen and talking to yourself. I decided to lie down where the young female and her friend were. Someone had to keep an eye on those two. (Better me than you, eh?)

A little while later, I awoke to voices – yours, the young male’s, and a new voice I’d never heard before. It was coming out of a small box you were holding in your hand and then laid down on the desk where you were sitting. You and the young male were peering at the screen and talking to each other and to the voice in the box. You have to forgive me – I was sleepy and confused by this strange voice with no body, and so I had to come into the room and bark. Loudly. And when I did, you got up from the chair, pulled me out of the room by that band around my neck, and then shut the door in my face! Well, I thought I’d better speak louder, to let you know I was there, ready to be of service in case you needed protection from that voice in the box.

And just then, that bell rang, the one with the two tones that mean someone new is here. Now this is a noise that just sets me off. Something about the tone hits me at a place I cannot master, just like the sounds the young female makes with her fingers on that big black box downstairs, the one with the white sticks. The sounds from that box make me sing. This bell makes me bark.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo there I was, barking downstairs, frantic because people were jumping up and moving, the young male ran up the steps to open the front door, which is what makes that bell stop ringing. A minute later, he came back down the stairs into your room. The voice in the box was still talking to you. Then you ran upstairs and then came back down to talk to the young female and her friend, who were slowly getting off the couch. The young male was still listening to the voice in the box and pushing buttons to change the pictures on the screen at the desk. Then the young female and her friend went upstairs, you went back to the desk and continued to talk to the voice in the box, and the young male went upstairs too.

I was getting dizzy watching all this and I finally decided to go upstairs to see what was going on. That’s where most of the pack was. I could hear the voices near the front door – the male friend of the female was putting those things on his feet that you all put on when you’re getting ready to leave, and usually leave me behind. The only time I ever get to leave this place is when you put me in one of the big white machines with wheels and you take me to that place where they look in my ears and try to poke something in my backside. Oh, I fight that, I do! Even after you wrap that blue thing around my snout and two of you hold me down in a corner of the room. Or you take me to that place with all the cages and other dogs, where I get lots of attention and play time. I pretend not to like it and grab your leg with my front legs when you turn toward the door to leave. I can’t have you thinking that I really want to be there, but if you let them scrub my face with that stinky scratchy stuff again, I just might decide I really don’t like to go there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo what with all the noise and commotion of the people at the front door and all that running up and down steps and the bell and the buzzing, beeping, clattering machines, and the smells still wafting from the kitchen, well – I don’t know what took hold in me. As you know, I have never put my paws on the kitchen counter before. Oh yes, I’ve done my circus dog act, prancing on my hind legs when there was something particularly luscious-smelling there. But I’ve never made contact with the countertop. Even when I’m overcome by the doggie devils, I’ve tried to rid myself of them by bashing an empty milk jug around on the porch or by charging insanely around the flower beds in the yard.

But this time, they got the best of me. Up I went on my hind legs, my paws rested on the counter, and before I knew what I was doing, my snout was in the brown loaf the young male had made. One bite, that’s all it was. And it didn’t even taste good. Too sweet. Not a hint of meat.

And just then, the young female saw me. All the noise at the front door had stopped and she had come back into the kitchen. She shouted my name and grabbed that band around my neck to pull me away. And then, the last doggie devil was let loose in me. I turned my snout and tried to grab her arm with my teeth. It was my food, you see. I had to protect it. I missed grabbing her arm, but she shouted, “No! Bad dog!”

And with that shout, the doggie devils disappeared and there I was, shoved rudely out the door to the porch, banished from the smells, the kitchen, and, sadly, from my pack of people.

Later, I heard the young male and female telling you what happened, gesturing toward me and the broken loaf. I saw the young male standing stiff, arms firmly crossed, with a hard, hard look on his face. The female was pointing to that spot on her arm where my teeth grazed her skin. I sat looking through the glass, feeling very, very sad. Even after 9 years, enough years to render me older and wiser, sometimes, the devils still win.

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Thank You, Jennifer and Jason

It’s August 23, a Friday, and where we live, the kids still have 10 days of summer vacation before they go back to school. I have to say that the kids have had a grand summer. Lots of time off, sleeping late, visits with friends for swimming and parties, soccer for the boy, sleepovers for the girl, golf outings for both, their first trip to Yosemite (before the fires). And a Mom (and Dad!) making it all happen. Paying the bills, driving the car, cheering them on. Good for them.

But a hard season for me.

Tired of being in the house. Tired of being in the car. Tired of being surrounded by bodies. When you’re a mom, any time your children are anywhere within earshot, a measurable portion of your brain is ALWAYS in monitor mode. It’s rather like being on call 24 hours a day, all week, every week.

As a basic introvert (the cool thing to be now if you measure all the attention given us recently), summer for me is one long, slow leak of energy as from a battery. Constant. Relentless. The drips of energy slowly draining the tank.

This is the reason moms count down the days till school starts, the reason moms like this one do a happy dance when the school bus pulls away from the curb on that first day of school.

It’s not that we don’t love our kids or enjoy being with them. Never that. (OK, so maybe when they’re whining or rolling their eyes at us we don’t necessarily LIKE them.) But when they overstep their boundaries, pervert their privileges, and need to be grounded, it’s as much a punishment for the parent as it is for the child. Maybe more so. When your parents said, “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” they were right.

It’s tough to balance the daughter pulling away to spend more time with friends and the ongoing thrill of the first boyfriend and the son seduced too often by the ubiquitous screens – TV, computer, and any other flat surface with moving images, especially animated ones. (Some day, Bill Gates and the ghost of Steve Jobs will have to answer for creating a nation of zombies.)

So it’s no wonder some parents prefer going to work somewhere else. If co-workers roll their eyes or whine, you at least know you aren’t responsible for their bad behavior. You can chalk it up to their own bad parenting. (I’m convinced that we’d never have gone to war in Iraq if Saddam Hussein weren’t the victim of bad parenting.)

But it’s not just the kids that siphon off strength. It’s the additive effects of worrying about elderly parents far away, changes in job responsibilities, the dripping showerhead needing repair, and the dog commanding as much attention as possible to make up for all that was denied him last school year.

So on this Friday afternoon, when I’m so mentally tired I can’t string two sentences together coherently, the best I can do is slip into that space of escape known as the local movie theater. “We’re the Millers” won out over “The Butler” because I just didn’t want to think about class, race, and power structures, the things that go on in secret in the halls of power, even if the story involves the ubiquitous Oprah. Enough of mental gymnastics.  I’ll leave those to my academic colleagues for now.

I wasn’t expecting much from “We’re the Millers.” Apparently, few others were either. There were only three of us in the theater this afternoon. The move presents a conventional story – a group of down-on-their-luck people who learn to become a loving family. Lots of plot twists, R-rated language (and gestures), and the seductive stripper scene where Jennifer Aniston proves she still has it. Not Oscar-worthy (despite the coy look Jennifer and Jason Sudeikis give the camera after a remark about the dual roles they play in the movie), but very clever, worth the price of a matinee. I laughed at the scenes and admired the finesse of the actors. As their story unraveled on the screen, so too did my dark mood, and that too was worth the price of admission.

So thank you, Jennifer and Jason. Thank you for reminding me that family life is always challenging, but not without humor, and that “parent” is a role, not a person.

Golden Chains

The small box arrived in the mail on a Tuesday. In it was the gift my mother had sent for my daughter.  It wasn’t her birthday.  There was no special occasion, at least we didn’t think there was.

Mom had called a week earlier to ask if she could send my daughter this gift.  Now in her elder years, she is methodically going through the house sorting through her belongings, deciding what to do with the items accumulated over 80-some years of living.  In the course of cleaning out her jewelry collection, she came across a golden whistle on a long golden chain.  This is the gift she wanted to send to my 12-year-old daughter.

I remember that whistle well.  Once upon a time, Mom had given me an identical one strung on a black silk cord.  She had originally bought four of these whistles, one for herself, one for each of her three daughters.  Always concerned with appearances and good taste, she chose the whistles because they looked like jewelry. If you didn’t look closely, you’d miss the slot on the surface where the air could pass through with its shrill song.  You might think it was just a slender gold pendant worn to complement an outfit.

When the box arrived and my daughter opened it, I recalled my phone conversation with Mom. She had said, “It’s for when she goes somewhere.  You know.”

She gave no further details.  The implication was clear. What’s left unspoken is often more powerful than what is said. The unknown people you meet in unfamiliar places.

That whistle would have been useful for my mother on a day she went shopping in the early 1950s. While shuffling through blouses on a rack in a clothing store, she felt something tug at the back of her skirt.  She turned around to see a man running away.  Perhaps he was only after her purse.

My whistle would have been useful one October evening in 1989, but I didn’t have it yet. I had gone out for a walk at dusk to work off some steam from an argument. It was fall in the South, but the air was still heavy with humidity and the leaves had not yet begun to turn.

As I walked the broad main street, the sky slowly darkening, I sensed a presence trailing me across the boulevard. I glanced back to see a thin, ragged man keeping pace across the street and a few yards back — dark, dirty shirt, a fraying pair of shorts, muddy worn shoes, and a baseball cap on his head.

I continued walking at the same pace, thinking he would turn down a side street, or perhaps outstrip me in his own need to get somewhere. But he kept the same pace for several blocks, the same distance behind me, across the street.

To test his intentions, I picked up my pace slightly, hoping it was simply a coincidence that the man was walking in the same direction at the same clip.

He crossed to my side of the street and continued trailing me at the same pace.

I quickened my step again.

Now half a block directly behind me, he sped up too.

With growing panic, I turned a corner to a side street, mentally working out the blocks back to my apartment building, hoping to lose him in the neighborhood. I knew where I was. I hoped he didn’t. It was growing darker and my heart had begun to flutter, my breath coming shallower.

He turned the corner too.

Clear now that he meant harm, I sped up again, hoping to make it to the back entrance of the building before he caught up to me. I turned the next corner and tried to keep to the shadows of the old trees lining the street.  Ahead I could see my apartment building, the fluorescent security light bright above the back door.  Running now, I cut through the gravel parking lot, heading for that light.

I almost made it.

In the empty parking lot, just a few yards from the back door of the building, the man sprinted to catch up and grabbed my arms from behind, pinching them tightly together.  I twisted and struggled against his grip. When I started to scream, he pulled a dirty rag from his pocket and shoved it in my mouth.  Then he ripped the gold watch from my wrist, the watch I’d been given only a few weeks before.  My screams had brought other residents from their apartments into the back doorway, and the man ran off into the blackness with my watch.  I staggered into the building, and the landlord called the police, but we all knew the futility of a search for the thief.

***

In the box my mother sent, there wasn’t just a whistle.  Along with the real chain, there was an invisible link from mother to daughter to granddaughter.  The whistle and chain were golden, but the legacy is not. A clothing store in 1952. On a sidewalk in 1989. Even now, my elderly mother knows she needs to watch out for her granddaughter.  Fathers and grandfathers also pass on objects for their sons’ protection, but they are likely weapons, not whistles.

When my daughter opened the box, she held up the chain and said with amazement, “Oh, a whistle!”  I gazed at the innocent expression on her face, her hazel eyes not yet clouded by the pain of experience. I decided not to darken her delight with the shadow of the reason for the gift.

My mother sent my daughter a golden whistle.  My spouse and I signed her up for tae kwondo.

She’s Still There

I originally wrote this in January 2008. Now, on this holiday, I post it here in thanksgiving.

To mom — I’m glad you’re still here.

***

 “Nothin’ wrong with me!” she said, sitting in a chair in the living room four days after Christmas. Five days after she had fallen, when she had been trying simply to climb the two steps up from the living room to the hallway in the house she’d lived in for 46 years.

“Nothin’ wrong with me!” she repeated, chuckling, after each test the physical therapist tried on her.

“Show me how strong you are,” the therapist said, kneeling before her on the Oriental carpet, the rich red of the fibers setting off the gray of his pants and hair. He was easily twice as tall as she was. Kneeling before her seated figure, his head was still six inches above hers.

She hadn’t always been so small. But she was certainly never tall, her five feet three inches increased by high heels of great variety over the 85 years of her life. So many varieties that, as her five children grew up and left home, she overtook their closets to store her shoes, even installing a floor-to-ceiling rack on the inside of one of the closet doors. Any number of black high heels to be worn with her collection of cocktail dresses. Some of the shoes had beads, others ruffles. One pair of clear plastic pumps, a modern incarnation of Cinderella’s glass slipper. Gold, silver, patent leather, straps, slingbacks, pointed toes. Three pairs of pink satin shoes, one with pretty little bows on the heel strap. These she gave to one of her granddaughters the day before the physical therapist came.

She’d come home from the hospital that morning, three days after she fell, insisting that she be released because she had company coming. It was the day of the Christmas gathering.  All the children, their spouses, and the grandchildren would be there, 24 people in all, counting great-grandchildren. Santa was to make a guest appearance, bringing his bag of gifts.  She couldn’t miss the party.

There was nothing they could do for her in the hospital anyway. Monitor her vitals, administer the pain meds. The X-ray had shown multiple fractures of her spine, but none of them were new, and it wasn’t as though the doctors could do anything about them. What can you give to an elderly woman with advanced osteoporosis except drugs to keep her comfortable?

She hadn’t wanted to go to the hospital. She hadn’t bothered to go the first time, when she fell and broke her pelvis several years before. She’d been trying to reach a top cabinet shelf in the kitchen and had pulled over one of the kitchen chairs, the ones with wheels, to stand on. The chair rolled out from under her and she was stunned to find herself lying on her back on the linoleum. She hadn’t gone the second time, after she slipped while walking around the pool in the backyard. That time, she didn’t even tell my father what had happened. He had a tendency to fuss in a stern tone when he was anxious and she didn’t want to hear that.

But this time my sister tricked her into going. It was Christmas night, the night after she fell, when it became clear that the pain of the fall would not let up.  After dinner, no longer able to tolerate her moaning from pain, my sister convinced my father to call an ambulance. Dad had written off the idea of taking her to the hospital the night she fell.  He and my sister had been able to stem the bleeding from the gash on her elbow, and neither Mom nor Dad had thought it necessary to go. The most the doctors did for the previous falls was to give her painkillers while they waited for her body to heal. You didn’t need to go to the hospital for that.

This time, though, as Mom was sitting on the edge of her bed after dinner Christmas night, they called the ambulance. Then my sister went upstairs to put Mom’s shoes on her.

“We’re going for a ride,” my sister told her.

“Oh?  Where?” Mom asked in puzzlement.

“To the hospital.”

Mom didn’t argue.

***

The initial X-ray showed several fractures. The CT scan enumerated them: Old compression fractures of T6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 12, and possibly L3. Volume loss of 10% to 30% in several disks. Osteophytes at L1 and L2. Something called Schmorli’s node at the endplate of L5. Protruding discs in the lumbar spine, with a vacuum phenomenon of L5-S1, all indicating degenerative disc disease. In short, her spine was slowly disintegrating.

No surprise, really.

In her 85 years, she’d had 8 pregnancies, raised 5 children. Shopped, cooked, cleaned the house, hosted parties, waited long nights while my father worked, living in the three-story house they’d bought when I was 2.  They continued to live in the small town my father grew up in, the town her family had moved to during the Depression when she was 13. He had his accounting business, served for awhile in city government, and helped with his own family’s beer distributorship. She’d worked as a bookkeeper for a dress shop before they married and always had an interest in fashion. She had accepted the customs of women in our Midwestern town after World War II: try to marry well, follow the Catholic church in raising however many children you ended up having, meet your responsibilities, bear your pain in silence. She never said she was bored or unhappy. At their 60th wedding anniversary party, she stated simply, “It could have been worse.”

But she always loved to go to the big city to shop, especially at Christmastime when the lights twinkled brighter. In the nightstand by her bed, I once found a small black binder, its cover flaking from age. In the binder were her handwritten notes from a class in fashion modeling she’d taken before she married. She and a friend from the dress shop would take the bus to the city, more than an hour away in those days, to attend the class. I remember her telling us three daughters the proper way to place our feet when we were having our pictures taken.

Most of the time we were growing up, she was obsessed with house and yard work. I recall the sharp stink of the ammonia we’d use to wash the crystals from the chandelier in the front hallway, and the way the silver polish would make my fingers wrinkle.  I remember the pattern I developed with the mop on the kitchen floor, wetting one square of tile at a time, all the way down the stairs to the basement. I can still see Mom from my bedroom window on the third floor, as she’d carry the bedsheets from the basement, where the washing machine was, to the clothesline stretching along the driveway to dry the sheets in the sun. Or the cold January air. She still puts those stiff cotton sheets on all the beds, though she doesn’t dry them on the line anymore. Too many stairs from the third floor to the basement and back up. I remember hanging out those sheets myself, clamping each flapping end to the line with a wooden pin.

I have told my own children how we’d rake copious piles of leaves each fall, after which we’d toast hot dogs and marshmallows over the flames as the leaves burned in the stone fireplace in the backyard. I can still recall her mowing the 2-acre lawn with the push mower all summer long. I wrote a freshman English paper once in which I described her typical attire for mowing. Barefoot, she’d wrap herself in a beach towel emblazoned with the label of a Budweiser beer bottle, which we’d gotten from Dad’s family’s business. Mom was still shoveling snow just a few weeks before her latest fall.

***

It’s New Year’s Eve as I write this, and I slouch in my desk chair wondering what the New Year might bring for her, for me. At this time next year, will I be unpacking from another holiday visit? Will she preside over the family party as she always has, dressed in the latest find from her favorite discount store? Even though she had just come home from the hospital, she didn’t wear just any old robe to this party.  She put on her double-breasted blue velvet one.

Will she recognize my face when I turn to talk with her on the couch? My father thinks her macular degeneration is what caused her to miss that step when she fell. Last year at Christmas, she cried as she told me how she’d curtailed her driving because she couldn’t distinguish the red and green on the traffic lights.  She often can’t make out the faces of people who approach to speak to her at church or in the grocery store.  But she knows her children, their faces and their voices. To comfort myself now, to distract myself from the fear of losing her, I conjure up the image of her as the physical therapist talked.

***

When she’d come home from the hospital, my sister and I helped her walk into the house. We weren’t a physically close family growing up – never ones to link arms or give hugs — so it felt awkward to touch her. I was afraid we’d hurt her, tear her fragile skin or bruise her once-full arms or hands, the joints no longer able to straighten after years of kitchen work. Though she was present and alert during the party, she seemed diminished in her chair, able only to watch and listen, rather than serve and joke as she had always done before.

When we were children, she had orchestrated the holiday activities, from playing Christmas records – Andy Williams singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – while we decorated the tree, to urging those of us who could sing to gather around the piano at the family party, where my sister or I played “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O, Tannenbaum.”  Those who couldn’t sing were given other tasks. To her own mother, my grandmother, she gave the job of playing the triangle. This time, as I looked at my mother sitting in that same chair my grandmother had sat in, the wing chair next to the piano, I remembered the Christmas before my grandmother died.  Grandma had grown so feeble that she had to be carried into the house by my uncle.

***

Now, on the day I conjure up in my mind, the first time the doorbell rang, it was the home health nurse. The next time it was the physical therapist. Dad and I spent the afternoon standing sentry during the nurse’s exam and the therapist’s assessment. We watched intently, answering questions and fetching supplies.

In the living room, the nurse began her session , and while she spoke, my father, who had been trying to put a good face on his anxiety for days, shifted into the role he knew best – providing the facts and discussing the business details. My mother sat in her chair, body sagging, her face drawn, trying to mask the fear that had taken up residence in her green eyes. With each health problem she or my father had encountered in the past few years, that fear flared fresh in her eyes.

The nurse took Mom’s blood pressure, her pulse, and listened for breath sounds. She examined Mom’s hands and feet, noting their temperature and circulation but never commenting on the toes, many of which were splayed from having been crammed into pointed shoes. She showed us the report of the CT scan and talked about the side effects of the painkiller.  She scheduled in-home aides so Mom could bathe and have her sheets changed.

As the nurse changed the bandage on Mom’s elbow, she asked if we had some antibiotic cream to apply to the cut, which was still draining.  Neither Dad nor I could find any in the house, but Mom suggested that we locate her jar of “Grandma’s salve,” her homemade concoction of olive oil, beeswax and rosin that she swore was the cure for any skin problem. She had even applied it once to the cancerous lesion on her foot. The nurse was kind and complied and Dad went off to find the jar. I marveled at the nurse’s sensitivity and the way she worded questions to allow my mother to maintain her dignity. With each reassuring response from the nurse, my mother’s face began to relax.

“Nothing wrong with me!” she said.

After more than an hour, the doorbell rang the second time, and I ushered in the physical therapist, a tall, lean man who drove up in his pick-up truck. He and the nurse exchanged information and, while the nurse finished her tasks, I escorted the therapist around the house so he could identify dangers that could impede Mom’s mobility or cause another fall. I purposely mentioned that she’d been shoveling snow recently, knowing that he would tell her to stop. I knew she wouldn’t hear that message from me.

The physical therapist was casual in his approach to Mom. There was none of the stuffiness or condescension that professionals sometimes retreat to with their clients. He told her directly that she was in serious trouble and that she had strained her back extensively and had to protect it. And then he began his exam.

“Show me how strong you are,” he told her, grasping her hands. One after another, he took each of her hands, her feet, her toes, her arms and her legs and asked her to push or pull against his hold.  Each time he appeared pleased and said “Good, good!” He helped her stand and watched her walk using the walker we had borrowed from a neighbor. He took her to the kitchen, positioned her against the counter and worked her through a series of exercises that would strengthen her back and “booty,” as he called her bottom. She was so small against him, her head not even reaching his shoulder, but she became determined to do what he asked, seeming to sense the power and freedom in it. She pushed against his grasp, lifted her arms, squeezed his arm hard. He called her a “tough old bird.” By this time, her mood had lightened considerably and she became the good patient, trying hard to show him what she could do, what she, yes, still could do. When he asked her what her goal was for physical therapy, she said she wanted to be active again, even doing things like raking leaves.

I know her time is coming. She knows it too. But as she spoke these words to him, sitting again in the chair by the piano, I saw it once more – the face of my mother. Not the old woman who had overtaken her. My mother.

She’s still there.

In Search of Meaning on Veterans Day

Veterans Day

Image via Wikipedia

Veterans Day. It’s one of “those” holidays. Those random days scattered throughout the year that seem nothing but good excuses for stores to offer sales. Mattresses at Memorial Day. Lunchboxes at Labor Day. The only reason I remember Columbus Day is that it’s the only weekday in October that I don’t get any mail. Hallmark hasn’t yet figured out how to capitalize on these holidays. You can’t really wish anyone a “happy” Labor Day. So each November, I glance through the list of office closures in the local paper and think, “Ah. Another day the kids have off school.”

It’s not that I don’t think the day is important or that I don’t want to honor soldiers. It’s that the day seems to have little bearing on my life.

But this year, my daughter asked me if I would come to hear the Veterans Day concert at her school. Her elementary school had Veterans Day ceremonies in previous years, but it was this, her first year in middle school, that the ceremony took on direct importance for her. She’s in the choir now, and the choir was one of the groups performing for the ceremony.

When she first mentioned it, I tucked the idea of attending in the back of my brain. Most days, I’m lucky to be able to lay a plan in the morning that actually plays out by evening. I routinely adjust my plan as the day progresses. As the principal manager of our household, I never know when the furnace might go out, a child might get sick, or the neighbor might pick another fight with our dog. Tucked away in my brain, the thought of the event got crowded out by many other things, not the least of which is my need to hunt down an hour of solitude whenever I can.

But on Monday night, my daughter mentioned the event again, and so I went through the pretense of writing it on my calendar for Tuesday morning, only to find that she had already written it there. It seemed to mean a lot to her.

So off I went next morning after dropping my son at his bus stop. I hadn’t had time to shower and hoped I could sneak in, be seen by the daughter, and sneak out again to run the morning’s errands and make it home for a shower before lunch and laundry.

Hurrying into the school, I glanced around the parking lot and recognized a friend coming along the sidewalk. She was wearing a dark suit, hat, and heels, which I slowly realized was her military uniform. She’s a nurse in the naval reserves and was coming to the school, where her son is also in 6th grade, to be honored during the ceremony.

We entered the school, chatting about the gathering. She told me that her son was embarrassed that she was coming in her dress blues, but she told him that, if she were going to come, it would be in uniform. After her appearance at the middle school, she was heading to the elementary school, where her second son was also attending a Veterans Day ceremony.

“Man,” I thought.  “Veterans sure are in demand today!”

I walked with my friend into the gym. She went to find a spot near her son’s class and I took a seat next to another mom I knew. The choir was warming up, the student orchestra and band were arrayed in their chairs, but there were few other adults present, and I wondered why this ceremony was so special that my daughter wanted me there.

Then the rest of the students bustled in, filling the bleachers with their noise and commotion. The racket died down when the principal stood to begin the program. He announced the purpose of the gathering and introduced the band director, who organizes the ceremony each year. While these two men spoke to the audience, I glanced around the gym, noticing a few other adults in military uniform. The one closest to me was a woman in fatigues and combat boots.

The program began with six students reading poems. All girls. Each one read unintelligible phrases about love, an end to war, and other clichés. Oh, God, I thought.  Please let this program be short.

Then the band director announced the Marine Corps color guard from the large Army base nearby. I perked up as five soldiers in service dress marched into the gym from the hallway. The room was silent save for the clicking of their polished patent leather shoes on the gym floor, and the gentle jingle of the medals on the director’s jacket. I studied their stiff frames and impassive faces under low-set white hats, looking for any expression that would clue me in to what they were thinking. There were none.

The first soldier carried a wooden rifle, the second, a long pole from which fluttered colorful ribbons embossed with the names of dozens of units. Next came the soldier carrying the American flag, and another shouldering another rifle. The director marched quietly alongside, reciting the orders in a low voice. Lockstep, they reached the center of the group, where they turned toward the audience and stood at attention. Then the band director told us all to rise, and we sang the national anthem as the band and orchestra played. After the singing, the soldiers placed the banners and flag in their stand and marched to the side of the gym, where they stood at ease through the rest of the program.

Battle Hymn of the Republic

Image via Wikipedia

The band director then presented the orchestra’s tune, and introduced the servicemen and women in the audience, having each of them stand for applause. He showed a video about the history of Veterans Day – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — and directed the band in a medley of military service songs, one for each branch of the service. Anchors Aweigh, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and so on, even including the song for the Coast Guard on his own battered but clear trumpet. The choir ended the program with another patriotic song, and the color guard returned to retrieve the flag, marching as before, clicking shoes, jingling medals, in front of a silent audience. Before they removed the flag, the band director pulled out his bugle. He explained what the instrument was and its importance in military routines. Then he played Taps, and the soldiers removed the flag and carried it out of the gym, ending the ceremony.

OK, half an hour, I realized. Not bad. A better ceremony than I was expecting, seeing as how patriotism often turns into maudlin sentimentality. I learned a thing or two about music, history, and the reason for the day. But as I left the gym that morning, I got to thinking. What did any of this have to do with me?

 ***

During these days of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we constantly hear the drumbeat, and it says these brave men and women put their lives at risk to protect your freedom. Your freedom.  And I began to ponder whether that was really true. Have the many soldiers in our many wars really been protecting MY freedom? How can that be?

I barely even know anyone who’s a soldier. The closest I come is my nurse friend in the naval reserves and a student in one of my classes who’s in the ROTC.

For that matter, I don’t even know many veterans. One grandfather served in World War I, but he died when I was young and I barely remember him. My dad enlisted in the Navy in 1942, when he was only 17. He told me that he enlisted so he could control what happened to him. If he’d waited to be drafted, he’d have had no control over his destiny. He spent most of the war years in officer training, and by the time he was commissioned on a vessel to the South Pacific, the war came to an end. Although he was never in battle, he claims his place in Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.”

My two brothers were of the age to serve in Vietnam, but had draft numbers so high they never got called up. We never talked about that war in my small Midwestern town, though it was on the news and in the headlines constantly when I was in high school. In my protected environment, the most I knew of Vietnam was the POW bracelet that my best friend wore as a fashion statement.

So how could it be that more than 6,000 American soldiers have been killed in our current wars, but I don’t know anyone serving? How is it that politicians and the military can say they’re protecting my freedom? Isn’t that the reason we’re given for any fighting? Protecting our freedom. Making the world “safe for democracy.”

I suppose that, had Hitler triumphed in World War II, our democracy might indeed have been threatened. Maybe that’s part of the reason that war is referred to as The Good War.  Despite our best efforts, though, Korea was divided and South Vietnam fell, but neither of those outcomes seems to have hurt our democracy, or my freedom. If you confuse democracy with capitalism, you could say that the Iraq War might have been necessary, but I can’t quite justify that interpretation. Some wars really do seem futile.

And yet, war is continuous. Counting insurgencies and civil wars, there are currently 30 to 40 wars raging around the world. Year after year, decade after century, they go on. In some cases, like World War II, the cause seems clear and the bad guys are obvious. In many others, the point of war seems simply to be the fighting. Over territory. Over power. Over the right to dominate.

In his book The Wonder of Boys, Michael Gurian, a researcher of the development of girls and boys, says that, historically, “war and soldiering was a very dramatic way to hook adventure up with mission – individual effort with collective good. It was the way to say to a boy, ‘Your life gains ultimate meaning by its sacrifice’” (Gurian, page 32). War does seem primarily to be a “guy thing,” but not exclusively. Catherine the Great took on the Ottoman Empire, and women are routinely conscripted into the Israeli Defense Force. Of the American soldiers killed in Iraq, more than 100 are female and two of the people honored at the Veterans Day ceremony were women.

So, then, what am I — someone as close to war as is the Earth to the sun — to make of Veterans Day?  In my head, I understand the desire and need to honor our soldiers and the work they do. Some of it is truly noble. This day, though, was baffling, and it was in trying to find the meaning behind it that I recalled another baffling day a decade ago.

 ***

 In the summer of 1998, I flew with my husband, a native of Japan, from our home in Minnesota to Honolulu so he could attend a professional meeting. We took with us our daughter, who was then only 18 months old. It was our first visit to Hawaii, and we wanted to see some of the most famous sights – Waikiki, Diamond Head, and of course, Pearl Harbor. Our daughter had been born on Dec. 7 — Pearl Harbor Day — which is also my father’s birthday.

Shortly after we got to the Harbor, my husband felt ill and went to lie down in the first aid station. So I took my daughter in her stroller to the Arizona memorial, and then we wound our way through the cramped, shadowy spaces inside the naval museum, looking at the many cases displaying missiles, bombs, and other weaponry. Historic, yes, but not very interesting for a small child.

Hawaii is a favorite vacation spot for Japanese tourists, who come to America because the goods are cheap, and the museum was crowded that day with dozens of Japanese, moving and chattering in groups, pointing and snapping photos. My daughter and I seemed to be the only Westerners there.

Isoroku Yamamoto

Image via Wikipedia

As I rounded a corner along one of the dim passageways, I noticed a photo high up on the wall, a framed black-and-white portrait of a Japanese military officer in full uniform. I peered up at the sign posted below the photo, which identified the man as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. I’d heard the name many times. This, of course, was the architect of the famous attack.

Yamamoto is an extremely common name in Japan. When Americans would ask my husband if he were related to the Admiral, he would tease them and say, “Yeah, he’s my uncle!” But I’d never seen the man’s face before. So I stood awhile looking up at the photo, pondering how this man and I could end up having the same surname. With my light hair and blue eyes, no one would ever mistake me for a Japanese, that’s for sure. I wondered if the Admiral would be as amused as I was.

Suddenly, I became aware of a high-pitched woman’s voice shouting near me and looked down to see a middle-aged Japanese woman bending over my daughter in her stroller, smiling at her and shouting “kawaii! kawaii!” (“cute! cute!”). Then she looked up at me, saying something I couldn’t understand, smiling and nodding. My Japanese was lousy then (still is), but I knew the word “kawaii” and understood her to be admiring my beautiful and, from her viewpoint, very American daughter.

At that moment, I was struck dumb, and not just for the lack of a common language. There I stood in a landmark in my own country, yet in a room over-run with the descendants of the very people whose actions had made this place so necessary. There I stood, beneath the photo of the Admiral, bearing the same name as the man whose actions gave birth to this place on a day my daughter would later claim as her own birthday. I had no words to tell the woman the significance of our brief moment together. I had no way to tell her that I, too, was a Yamamoto, and that my daughter also had the blood of Japan in her veins.

The woman chattered loudly at me for a few more minutes, gesturing toward my daughter and smiling. I nodded and smiled. It was all I could do.

The meaning of that moment is – still – more powerful than I can fathom, even a dozen years later. It is because of that particular war, and the veterans who fought it, that I was able to stand there that day with my daughter, trying to understand the heart of the Japanese woman in the museum. Perhaps this is the moment I should thank the veterans for.