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25 December 2007

R is for remember

Daddy_rock_2 Christmas Day is my father's birthday.

His death at fifty-three in 1980 is the fulcrum around which my life moves. Or perhaps that's not exactly it. Perhaps it is a rivet on which things hinge. No, a grommet through which everything else is laced? Yes, since that would imply a hole, I think that's it. Like Fermat’s last theorem, it will take me 375 years to work it through. I suppose we all have something like that to puzzle out, fill up, patch, lace shut.

I was nineteen when he died. I remember my incredulity the next day when the sun rose, people got up and drank their coffee and read their newspaper and dressed and went to work, just like nothing had happened. I hated them for that. It seemed the cruelest part--that the world could keep on going without him. It was as if we had all betrayed him by doing so. Perhaps you've felt that way about someone who has died, I don't know.

The people who knew him in our hometown are dying, leaving behind people who have no idea who he was. How is that possible, I think to myself? And yet it is possible. We forget people if we don't remember them.

In that spirit, my job is to keep him alive by remembering him, by writing about him, and telling other people about him. And so, on this busy Christmas day, if you find yourself with a few minutes alone, I hope you will read this story, first posted on 37days in December 2005, to help me pass him along. His name was Melvin Digh.

Monogram your pancakes (first posted in Dec 2005)

Surviving a loss and letting go is only half of the story. The other half is the secret belief that we will find, in one form or another, what we have lost. And it is that potential, shimmery as a star on a clear night that helps us survive.” – Veronica Chambers

You can’t make pancakes without breaking eggs.” – Spanish proverb

Daddys_christmas_tieMy father’s birthday is Christmas day. He has been dead for almost 26 years, yet he would still only be 79 years old. Cheated, him and me and my children, and theirs. Dead at 53.

And cheated too because he was born on Christmas Day. Imagine the cheaty cheat you’d feel if your birthday fell on Christmas, especially as a kid—whatever happened to that other day, the one mid-year, where everyone gets together to sing “Happy Birthday” and play Pin the Tail on the Donkey and eat double chocolate layer cake with small sugar trains on top and shower you with gifts and focus on you alone, celebrating the very fact that you were born into the world?

For him, it was all compressed into one relative-heavy day—nothing to look forward to in March or June or August—no, just this one day, his own birth overshadowed by another and, as time went by, overshadowed even more by a large red-suited man with rosacea.

Oh, sure, people would say they had combined your Christmas and birthday present to accommodate both occasions, but I can’t imagine that this convenient fabrication made Daddy feel any better, more special, less cheated.

Show_n_tell_1So, as an adult with a family of his own making, we celebrated Daddy’s birthday at Christmas breakfast—specifically focused on his birthday and marred only slightly, I imagine, by the fact that he had to compete for our divided attention—after all, the loot from Santa was achingly just in the next room (my good lord, man, there’s a General Electric Show ‘n Tell Home Entertainment Center Film Strip Viewer and Record Player waiting for me under that tree!)—and perhaps marred also by the fact that he had to cook it himself. Or maybe he wanted to, always having been known as the best breakfast cooker in the house: grits and bacon, sausage and biscuits with sausage gravy, scrambled eggs, pancakes in the shape of animals or letter with Aunt Jemima syrup. [This was before my stubborn descent into vegetarianism as a teenager.]

I loved those pancakes. No, I adored them. I loved the attention they represented, the personalized creation of batter and fluff, perfectly creating a P and a D in his hand and sometimes a flower or a heart or triceratops or the word “love.”

Grandma would join us, white-gloved to assess the dust; we would put an extra leaf in the table and fold our paper napkins into pointy triangles instead of rectangles, to be fancy. I always thought of it as cozy and realize now that it was actually tight, a table in the small kitchen since we had no dining room, room for only one person to stand and refill juice glasses. Probably my mother dreamed of a house for entertaining the Lottie Moon Women’s Bible Study Group; what she got was a house for raising orange-haired children, giving us the biggest room in the house as a playroom complete with a schoolroom-sized chalkboard for my work as a pretend teacher and eating, instead, at a table pushed up against the kitchen wall. Never mind that the living room sat unused, ripe for space but untouched by human hands, save when the preacher visited.

Bobby_sherman_albumSo, Daddy cooked and we ate, giving him birthday presents at breakfast, wrapped—and this is important—in birthday wrapping paper, not holiday wrap. This couldn’t appear a haphazard, forgotten day, lost in the thrill of that Oscar Schmidt Autoharp and new Bobby Sherman album left by Santa, no.

One of those last birthday (of course, we didn’t know how few he had left), I saved all my tips from working at Joe’s Dairy Bar and bought him a Mickey Mouse watch. Mind you, the crowds at Joe’s on Sunday nights after church were amazingly large (no lactose intolerance among the Southern Baptist crowd), but cheap, so it took a while to save enough for the special edition Mickey Mouse watch with the date on the dial! Imagine! I thought it suited his pixie sense of humor, that crooked smile of his, and he did love it!

When he died, I made sure Mr. Sossoman arranged it on the wrist on top so all those hundreds of people who came to see him in his satin puffy box would smile and nod knowingly. “Yes,” they’d say to themselves, “that Melvin always did have a smile on his face.” The funny, bright red “Merry Xmas” Western bow-tie that he proudly wore with a sly smile to holiday parties is always front and center on my Christmas tree.

That same birthday, I talked Mama into buying Daddy a pair of Lee blue jeans. She balked—“what will people think?”—and I insisted. “He’ll love them. Just wait and see,” I said.

He wore them everyday. He had them on that last harried ride to Intensive Care on Mother’s Day weekend, the unsigned Mother’s Day card we found afterwards in the trunk of his car a most terrible symbol of his suddenly unfinished life and his thoughtfulness, simultaneously.

Daddy went into the hospital that day and only his clothes came back out. I used to see Mama open that hospital bag of his last clothes, closing its top around the whole bottom half of her face, trying to smell him, desperate for his scent after he went underground. I tried to convince her to bury him in those loved, worn jeans and his beloved red plaid corduroy shirt, but she drew the line at the Mickey Mouse watch. A woman knows her limits. I wear that shirt now and perhaps Mama still has those jeans in that bag, taking them out from time to time for a whiff of him, real or imagined.

Daddys_xmas_stocking1jpgDaddy hooked a holiday stocking shortly before he died, having been introduced to the wonders of rug-hooking by a wife who was frantic—desperate even, and with good reason—to provide him with a quiet hobby, one that unlike watching Joe Namath wouldn’t involve excitement, anticipation, movement, stress to his heart. If ever there was a hobby like that, I suppose rug-hooking was it, followed only by sleeping.

So, when Christmas comes, like it inevitably does, my sadness at his leaving magnifies: when I see that holiday stocking hung from my dining room mantel, I both smile at his leaving it behind and I weep for the reduction of his life it represents, a heart patient quietly hooking rugs at the very prime of his life.

And yet, I wonder how much my adoration depends on his loss. If he had been living these 25 years, would I have seen things about him as an adult that I didn’t like and he, me? Probably, just as we all do. So, instead, he has been given a special status—that kind of adored position where time stops so we can’t peek under the curtain and see things with which we disagree as often occurs when we age, watching parents and relatives and friends (and self) too closely over time become people we might not want them to be, or be ourselves.

None of us are immune from that disappointment, that change of heart, that realization, that sudden knowing, are we? Perhaps not, unless we die young. It’s not a good trade-off, and it’s a chance I long to have taken, to grow up with him, warts and all. Maybe then I would have learned to incorporate all that new data, that vision of family from grown-up angles, where Grandpa is no longer nine feet tall, but just usual-sized, for example. Perhaps then I would have learned to be forgiving of those foibles, that fall, that shrinkage in estimation—that human reality, the stuff that really is us over time—to resist those impeachment proceedings of others that we’re prone to. As Deming said, “the greatest losses are unknown and unknowable.” Here’s to knowing.

When my stepfather died 23 years after my father, this time I was ready. He asked me to write his eulogy and deliver it at his funeral and I did all that. It was a fine eulogy, I think, one with a satisfying organizing principle, a rhythm to it like all good speeches, a clarifying sense of closure and rounded-ness. I wrote it on a flight beside a Baptist minister; perhaps his denomination was the final inspiration. Writing it had haunted me during those 37 days while he died—knowing I needed to get on with it, yet feeling bad about announcing the end while he was still in process, knowing that summing up a life is an awesome responsibility, but not yet feeling the sense of it, the way it should add up, until that flight. And then it was done. I had realized the parts and the whole. It was a fine tribute, a tripartite homage to the life of a tall man with a Southern accent, a golfer’s tan, and a dark green Lincoln Town Car.

Delivering that eulogy was tough going. Tougher than I ever imagined. In fact, spent by the anxiety of watching me choke on words, one of my mother’s friends said afterwards that she didn’t know how I made it through. “I had to take a Xanax just to get to the funeral,” she explained. Later, at Mama’s house, my brother pulled out a pill bottle, asking if anyone needed an Ativan. (Note to self: after always hiding the occasional wine bottle when my Southern Baptist family came to visit, I suddenly realized that perhaps they don’t drink not because of their religion, but because they’re all high on prescription drugs, so just a shout out to them: no more hiding the Mt Difficulty merlot at my house.)

As I looked out from my pulpit into the church, I saw the sons of my father’s friends, looking just as their fathers had looked 25 years before; their daddies then pallbearers for my father’s casket—the one like Hoss from Bonanza was buried in—and now here before me their sons, spitting images and pallbearers again. In that hot-faced moment of recognition, I wasn’t speaking at my stepfather’s funeral anymore, I was speaking at Daddy’s, saying what I needed to have said then, but was too young to know or say. I'll admit that I got momentarily angry at all those people who had continued living while he didn't, including the dead man lying below where I stood. And in that circular moment, I could barely speak; there were moments of real anguish on the part of the congregation (and me), that kind where you feel deeply for the person trying, desperately, to go on, like I felt when Richard Gaylord choked on “God Bless America” that time at the Burke County Fair. There’s a tape of the eulogy; I’ve not been able to listen to it since.

There, there in the front row was the reincarnation of one of my father’s friends—his son, Kenneth, all grown up into him now, the very mirror of his dad. And Ronnie, further back, always true and faithful and representing his recently dead father, having become him. It was suddenly still 1980, that horrible May moment when I reached out like a child to touch Daddy’s casket as he was rolled out of the church, those young 50-ish men in the church for Daddy’s funeral, feeling his loss but even more so, their own sudden vulnerability.

My father’s death at 53 in 1980 is the fulcrum around which my life moves. Or perhaps that’s not exactly it. Perhaps it is a rivet on which things hinge, that holds things together. No, a grommet through which everything else is laced? Yes, since that would imply a hole, I think that’s it. Like Fermat’s last theorem, it will take me 375 years to work it through. I suppose we all have something like that to puzzle through, fill up, patch, lace shut.

Journalist Marjorie Williams died of liver cancer last January three days after turning 47. A writer for The Washington Post, Vanity Fair and Slate magazines, as an “act of mourning,” her husband compiled essays of hers in a book entitled The Woman at the Washington Zoo: 

“Having found myself faced with that old bull-session question (What would you do if you found out you had a year to live?), I learned that a woman with children has the privilege or duty of bypassing the existential. What you do, if you have little kids, is lead as normal a life as possible, only with more pancakes.”

Pancakes made into initials—is there any breakfast food more glorious, more personal, more full of sheer, fantastic, lasting love?

Mickeymouse_watchYes, it’s clear what I need to do: I need to buy myself a Mickey Mouse watch.

~*~ 37days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Find what you have lost.

Cook monogrammed pancakes for people you love. Wear comfy jeans and a plaid shirt and a goofy watch that makes you (and others) smile. Celebrate your birthday whenever you get a hankering to.

Hook a rug to leave behind.

From the last alphabet challenge: R is for Rightness


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What a special tribute on this special day for your father. I'm so sorry for you loss; but love that you have such fond memories of the pancakes. Thank you for sharing your feelings with us. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas.

Today I am remembering, too. Mostly for my friend George, who died a little bit ago. At 15 years old, from a hunting accident. For whom I have been grieving for weeks. And I got sick. Weeks of crying suppressed my immune system, or so my sister said, and I got sick. I was sick on the last day of school before Christmas vacation. Accepting gifts, sneezing, sanitizing my hands, passing out the one hundred fifteen homemade bookmarks that I made for my beloved students. Sneezing/sanitizing again. Passing out the eight banana bread loaves packed in baskets with cinnamon candles I made for my friends. Sneezing/sanitizing again. Giving the homemade coasters with pictures of my friend’s babies on them along with cinnamon pine cones.

I was sick Friday when I came home and passed out in bed after being crabby with my own children. Slept Saturday and Sunday with my wonderful husband covering for me as he always does. Woke Monday and felt good enough to go out and finish the shopping. A black turtle neck for Bob. A jacket for Charlie. Jackets for both of my wonderful in-laws.

Then I cooked for Christmas Eve. Our family, Byzantine Catholic, always celebrated Christmas Eve. I made a ham, mashed potatoes, corn, peas and bread. Probably would have been more, if I felt better, but so it is.

Felt too sick to go to my brother-in-law’s house. So Tom took the boys there. Bob was here giving the boys their presents, and stayed when they left. He is their godfather, but he was my friend long before that. So we went to the family room and played on the boys’ brand new pool table that Tom and I put together last night at midnight. The one we had to call Dan and Abby over to help turn over because it was too heavy. So wonderful to have neighbors you can call at 11:30 on Christmas Eve to help you turn over a table that ways expressly, “It takes four adults to turn this over without breaking its legs.” I know, I highlighted the important parts of the instructions before beginning this project.

So I played pool with my friend that I haven’t been with in years. I see him every week. At the boys’ hockey games, or over for supper, but never see by himself. I got to be Ramona with Bob, instead of Nick’s mom with Alexander’s friend. It was so fun. We played pool, had some beer, ate some Chex Mix, but mostly were. Were the friends we used to be. Friends we had the intention and effort to be.

So, yeah, I may be sick at Christmas. But I am so glad to be sick. Because I got to visit with a friend I haven’t seen in so long. Me.
Not anyone’s mom, not anyone’s teacher, or wife or anything else. Just me. A girl who likes to drink beer and win at pool. Who tires of winning and then prefers to teach pointers of pool. (All geometry, of course.) A girl who hasn’t fallen on the floor laughing for such a long time that she forgot how it was, but was so glad to remember.

oh Patti! nobody can move me like you do. the real blubbering only happens when i'm reading you. but then again, nobody makes me feel as sane as you do, either. thank you. thank you, Melvin, for Patti Digh.

reading of your loss makes me feel mine

thank you

My mom was buried 25 years ago yesterday. I was 22, a senior in college home on Christmas break. I worked the second week of that break and went back to school in January never missing a class. Life went on without a blip.

I felt like I had a double life. My close friends all knew and had made the trek to be with me, but I can remember telling an acquaintance at school, "Well, at home, my mother died." As if somewhere else she hadn't...

Today my kids gave me a beautiful angel and Christmas decorations emblazoned with the bright red cardinals my mother loved. And while I napped this afternoon my husband surprised me by making me lemon meringue pie from my mother's recipe.

I am overwhelmed.

Her name was Carol Terese Mary Schrenker Connor.

Thank you Patti, and Melvin, for 37 Days.

When my Uncle passed away, in his late 40s, I remember getting the call at home. I was only in high school. I didn't know what to feel, but I knew I felt loss. I went out on our deck, overlooking Lake Champlain, and looked up at the blue sky and there was only one feathery cloud. I don't remember much about my uncle, but I still remember the image of that cloud.

This is a lovely, lovely story. Incidentally, I started blogging after (& because of) losing my father, too. Also too young at 58 from a tragic accident. I share many of your feelings, including the anger at life going on - right away - when something so enormous had just happened. I felt like I was out-of-body, floating here but not really *being* here, for a long time. It was as if I watched life around me as a movie i wasn't much interested in anymore. I've oft lamented that were it not so painful, it would be fascinating, this metamorphosis as we grieve. Incidentally as well, I have hopes of turning some of my own musings into a book, though I await my family's readiness (& approval). You have such a beautiful gift for cutting to the core and fleshing out the *real stuff*. Sometimes, I'll admit, I can't even read you when you first appear in my inbox. For some things - like say, oh, deep soul-searching - great preparation must be made.

I was most attracted to your recent plea for an assistant, but then realized I mostly wanted it because I would very much like to know you. Whether or not I'd be a good assistant is another thing altogether, though I do like order. :)

Thank you for sharing your heart's language. The tears choked back all day yesterday beg to be let forth - I go in search of a box of tissues.


Victoria - thank you so much for writing - I hope your holidays were merry, too...

Oh, Ramona - the story of that young boy is heartbreaking. My thoughts and prayers go out to you and his heartbroken family. And your story of visiting with yourself after so long is really beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing that with me...your tribute to George is beautiful. We have so, so much to learn from young people. (And I hope you are feeling better)

Mary-Sue - and you made me cry with that last line. Thank you for your lovely note.

Carrie K - peace to you.

Oh, Terri - I'm so sorry for your loss, and so glad for the wonderful way your family remembered. Thank you for sharing her name - there is something about naming that is important, isn't there?

Jillian - thank you. Those touchstones are sometimes unlikely, but very important, aren't they? thank you for this image...

Laura - I was so moved by your note on many levels. Many thanks for sharing everything you did. And, by the way, you don't have to be my assistant to know me... ;-) ! I'm so sorry for your loss...

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