I get by with a little help from my friends…

17 09 2008

I dig iconic art.  I wasn’t raised with iconic art in my church unless you consider a semi-tropical river scene in the baptistry iconic art.  I always felt a bit like the baby Moshe being put in a wicker basket about to be floated down the Nile during the 8:30 a.m. sleepy service on Sundays. 

Pictures of our Jesus were not on the walls or in statues – just in those carry- home papers we were supposed to read with our parents.  They were always the same pictures and when I look at them now I seriously hope Jesus doesn’t look like that at all.


 A tad creepy really.


And I didn’t know my heart   had an Arts & Crafts             decorating motif… I thought it’d be a bit more like door at Bilbo Baggins’ Bag End.


When we showed up at the funeral home for Billy’s wake and did the first “walk through”, I noticed that everyone did a little imperceptible shudder…it wasn’t like when my Mom first saw her father “dressed out” in the casket and realized that his moustache had been shaved off while in the hospital down in Tennessee…but it was a shudder nonetheless.

On a side table near the casket was a glass pillar candle with a picture of my dad superimposed over the background of a flag that the funeral home had prepared. It was like the ones you can buy in the grocery store – at least I can buy them in my grocery store in the hispanic section – but I imagine some of you don’t have large immigrant communities in your neighborhood. 

Baptists don’t get into the candle thing so much – at least the way good Catholics do. Sometimes I’m pretty sure when Martin threw the baby out with the bath water there were lots of things that Protestants might think about reclaiming. One explanation of the candle part is:

Vigil Lights (from the Latin vigilia, which means “waiting” or “watching”) are traditionally accompanied by prayers of attention or waiting. Another common type of candle offering is the votive light. Such an offering is indicative of seeking some favor from the Lord or the saint before which the votive is placed. Lighting a candle is a way of extending one’s prayer and showing solidarity with the person on whose behalf the prayer is offered.

Mom has begun to really enjoy her St. Billy candle.  She couldn’t have candles lit around Billy much in the end – he’d freak out thinking they were going to catch the house on fire and would go around behind her blowing them out as soon as she had lit them.  Now, I appreciate that Smokey the Bear mentality but those little battery operated tea lights that I bought them as a substitue – don’t really cut it much.  

For as long as I can remember, when the weather starts to turn cold and the days grow shorter – she enjoys having a candle on her kitchen table to light in the early hours of dawn.  So maybe she’ll be sharing that space with Billy’s face flickering in front of her.  Yesterday something she read got the well of tears pump primed and she has had a hard time capping the flow.  That is a good thing.  She needed that and it is healthy.  I’m a bit jealous actually. And she said she likes to be alone to get it out her way – on her timetable.  What a smart woman.

One of the first days I came home after the funeral, I was at the grocery store and had to bring some friends home with me to share my space.  And in case you don’t recognize them by their faces, know that I’ve got it covered here with the patron saint of hopeless cases on my side.  I know you’re relieved.

worker man hands

11 09 2008

Worker man hands. Stout, sausage like fingers, one permanently crooked from getting jammed with a softball – and he never would have such a trivial thing looked at by a hand surgeon. He just rigged up a homemade finger splint and got on with life. Broad backed hands. Almost like a farmer. A firm grip. The winters took a real toll on those hands with constant exposure to sub-zero temperatures, ice, snow, tools, and gas meters – I NEVER remember seeing my dad wear gloves. According to him, he couldn’t get a grip with gloves.  Again, his famous interjection, “What are you going to do when winter gets here?”, uttered in a middle of a howling blizzard just showing the highland-border-collie-type love of the elements and tireless hard work that characterized his life.

Every year – they’d come back…deep splits on his knuckles, in the creases or on his finger tips. Those open splits were always raw and tender…no matter how much goo he’d put on them at night. They weren’t big – not always noticeable. By the time the weather would turn, he’d usually have a reprieve and slowly but surely, his hands would be good as new.  

I look down at my own hands. After 20 years of on again/ off again, unexplainable blistering, deep under the skin which then turns to insatiable itching, followed by peeling, drying and finally cracking – the genius I am, figures – I have eczema. I’ve tried tracking it over the years and I know it is not solely stress induced.  There have been times where I’m under tremendous stress and I have zero problem.  Then when it flares up, I get those same kind of splits and they hurt like the dickens. If I so much as touch certain things to the tips of my thumbs, it can be riviting pain.  Lemon juice, cutting tomatoes or hand sanitizer are not advisable when they are flare up. 

It will generally take a few weeks before they start to heal up and I can get back to using my hands as normal without having to be very careful with them.  They are still my hands.  The fingers all work, they move ok.  I don’t have a fever.  There is no pill to take.  I just have to wait it out – till they aren’t so tender.  I still have to wash dishes.  I don’t get a free pass every time they bother me.  Certain movements really make me wince in pain.  But I’ll get over it.  Very slowly – imperceptibly they get better.  And my life goes on till the next cycle.  I know what to expect – know what it feels like – know when it is starting up again.

I just wasn’t prepared for this morning.  CNN is the background white noise in our house every morning.  And the whine of the lone bagpiper playing Amazing Grace in memory of those who died in the attacks of 9/11 brought a knot to my throat and instant tears spilling out of my eyes.  My personal wounds are still tender.  I just have to wait it out.  Eventually it will heal over and I’ll be able to go about my business without thinking.

Even in the throws of happy hospice hallucinations – those hands were working.  He was fixing things.  He asked us to hand him tools.  He was having trouble with a gas meter repair and needed another hand.  Glad to help.  He’d do the same for me…split fingers or not.

you want maverick?

6 09 2008



father knows best

1 09 2008

Ubiquitous donut shops.  There are probably hundreds of them around the country – but they aren’t Chuck’s.  The six stools that line the bar is the seating of choice even though there are tables.  One carton of milk with one donut.  No more, no less – but there was an exception.  That is what he remembers.  The time he got two.  

That wasn’t the only time he got to go there…over the years it has to number into the hundreds of times.  He doesn’t remember them all.  He doesn’t remember the ones that she remembers.  Even if they remember the same one – there will be different details, different nuances.

Over the years I’ve been fascinated by the gymnastics people go through to create perfect memories.  Elaborate schemes to make some impression on the gray matter.  I keep coming back to the fact that I can’t control WHAT a person remembers.  Some of the best memories aren’t pre-calculated.  

My dad wasn’t setting out to make some kind of impression on his grandkids.  He just wanted to give them a treat.  That is what they remembered.  I don’t know if my kids remember the efforts my parents went to in order to  make a trip to visit us in Spain.  That was a huge deal to my parents – getting passports, packing for a long trip, traveling overseas, bringing suitcases of just presents.  Photos might trigger memories for the kids but the ones that spill out without missing a beat are the simplest things.

It’d be refreshing if we’d all just chill out a bit with our families a be a bit more like Homer Simpson.  “Donuts. Is there anything they can’t do?”

an open letter to my nieces and nephews be they tulley or mcniece

30 08 2008

There are moments of brilliance in all this gray…I must stay sharp and attentive or I’ll lose sight of them all. There are quiet times around a table that my mom has great clarity about things long since lived. I had quizzed her just the other day about when they were engaged and got a mixed story. She didn’t think that they’d gone to a Cubs game but to some other game in Chicago.

Well with the internet at hand I just figured a good journalist does their best to facts check. The Sox were out of town that weekend in 1947 and isn’t it a bit bizzare that someone has taken the time to post the schedules from that long ago? The Cubs did play that day…and knowing what I do about our family – I don’t care how love sick my father may have been he would NOT have spent his hard earned cash on celebrating his engagement with wasting money on Sox tickets. It would NOT have been. And since most of this is memoire anyway – and the things about that day don’t hang on exactitude…I make the rules.

But there are times when I can cull more and more detail from her jumbled mind too – when the stars line up, when her blood sugar is good – I don’t know that there is a formula I can follow so I grasp and run when they tumble out of her mouth and call it gospel truth. There are times I feel a little like a detective – hearing the story 5 times in the space of a relatively short amount of time – I just cross check facts – if she repeats the same thing 3 times, I call that verifiable. So today’s recounting still had some of the same components plus a few others…two quite contrasting as a matter of fact.

When she got her diamond – they went to the apartment where she lived with her dad, and brother…her dad was over the moon and quite expressive and didn’t let them out of his sight till he prayed a blessing on them. That would be my Grandpa Cummer.

Next was the parade, then stopping by Billy’s house to show his folks. His dad, a civil engineer by trade had a holiday from work. July 4th…and he was busy hanging wall paper in a small bedroom upstairs. I can see my mom (motherless remember) looking for anyone to share in her joy – running up those dark wooden stairs. James Robert McNiece had his head down with probably a board stretched across two wooden saw horses making exact cuts in the wall paper to make it fit. She plopped her sparkely left hand down and said, “What do you think about that?” wiggling her left finger. And his reply was, “You’d better move your hand or I’ll cut your fingers off”…and as she told me the story she laughed and said, “It sounds like something your dad would say”…and to that I say amen and amen.

On one side I’m blessed with warm fuzzy sentimentalism from my dreamer grandfather – the watchmaker, jeweler, theologian, chess player, chocolate ice cream and oreos for breakfast- kind of guy. There will be much to say about him in the future – he was one of the most important people in my life for millions of reasons that you’ll hear all about. Then the other strand of my DNA has this seemingly cold, stoic, gruff, steel-eyed, no nonsense whammy from my dad’s family. And I see myself perfectly in that blend – delicate as it is.

So in an effort to really understand history so we understand ourselves better – I say I’m sorry I’m not warmer and fuzzier when you think I should be – but move your damn hand before I cut your fingers off. I still love you all – but telling you once in your lives is plenty. Get over it.

p.s.  Just in case I ever make it to the Oprah show – I kept doing everything I could to keep fact checking the Cubs game thing…then I found her “diary” from 1947 and they DIDN’T go to a game that day.  It wasn’t until the almost 12 days later…and it was the SOX.  My apologies to Billy for saying “he’d never”…

Here’s to you!  An Irish funeral prayerDo not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there, I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow; I am the diamond glints on the snow. I am the sunlight that ripened grain; I am the gentle autumns’s rain. When you awaken in the morning’s hush, I am the swift uplifting rush, Of quiet birds in circled flight. I am the soft star that shines at night. Do not stand at my grave and cry. I am not there; I did not die

karma, chakra and chi…oh my!

13 08 2008

Six months after she’d given birth to my dad – three months shy of her 24th birthday, Eva died of meningitis leaving four children under the age of five. Her unmarried “spinster” sister, five years her senior, came from the Southern Illinois village of Ellis Grove to become a housekeeper for her recently widowed brother-in-law. After all that’s what you do when you’re family.

Vera didn’t make that journey alone. She had to bring along four unmarried brothers and her elderly widowed father, Eli Harris since their housekeeper / cook was moving away and they weren’t about to lose her! Best counts puts about ten in that household for her to deal with. A neighbor across the alley, Mrs. Jascoviak who had no children, volunteered to care for baby Billy all day long, returning him at night to sleep in the “boarding house”. I don’t actually know how long that went on – a year or less perhaps- or longer…it didn’t matter once that bond was formed. Auntie Jazz became a surrogate. No one made her do it. I’m quite sure she didn’t get paid to do it…but she opened her home and heart to that baby.

About eight years after Vera had come to help out her brother-in-laws’ brood, she spent a morning preparing a Thanksgiving meal for the clan and at some point – took off her apron, dusted the flour from her hands and she and her brother-in-law went down to city hall and officially tied the knot. It was another four years or so until they had a daughter of their own to add to and complete the blended crew of three boys and two girls.

Old Eli passed away somewhere in there, the bachelor brothers in and out – one was always in…Guy Jennings Harris. He was one of the most colorful characters from my childhood as the youngest of 14 grandkids. Tattoos on both arms – one a huge Naval anchor…he smoked like they did in the 50’s – just like on Mad Men…there was always a cloud hovering around his head and a freestanding ashtray like a mini cocktail table within an arm’s reach. The most fun was when he’d light a cigarette and let you “try” to blow out the match. God help me if I got in front of the TV when he was watching Gun Smoke. I asked Dad where Guy worked “No where!” was his quick answer…then I’d remembered – he was a bookie. “Legend” has it there were some shoeboxes stuffed with money found in his room after his death. My mind colors that even more knowing the kinds of activities in the Chicago area in the 1920’s and 30’s. I wonder if he paid room and board?

Vera’s house was pretty much a no nonsense kinda place. I don’t remember sleep overs (there was no more room!) but I remember family gatherings on the holidays throughout the year and we’d be a group numbering over 25 piled in around one table in the dining room and one stretched out in the basement for the kids. And to me – it all evokes the warmest of memories.

I don’t know how old I was when I realized that Grandma was really my dad’s aunt and I had never known the twist about Auntie Jazz till recently. That fascinated me – a stranger taking in this baby boy to almost raise him as her own – to help out another hard working woman – who had stepped into her sister’s shoes and got the job done. But in the end Vera was their “mom” and when Granddad, later in life had a stroke….the dining room table was taken out and replaced by a hospital bed. I think it was six years that she cared for his motionless body day and night. My dad would go over to the house on his way to work each day to give him a shave. I don’t doubt that a huge measure of my ability to respond and react in hospital settings had to do being around Granddad and talking to him like “normal” even though his vocal chords could barely eek out a sound. You don’t have to be afraid of quadraplegics in hospital beds.

And I grew up knowing that my dad was a serious blood donor. He has a fairly rare blood type and I knew that it was a monthly ritual. It wasn’t till talking to his younger sister the other day that it all came full circle – Auntie Jazz needed blood for some reason later in life…and my dad’s blood became a lifeline for her. When my father found out they were charging her for blood – he threatened to quit giving and a quick policy change involved an arrangement that Billy’s blood to Auntie Jazzy was always free.

Mismashed family it was – even knowing that there were mumblings of Auntie Jazzy wanting to adopt my dad as her own…it left a DNA imprint deep on my dad’s soul. My childhood home became home for people who’s parents were in other places…some just stayed weeks – others, a lifetime. My folks’ hearts had both been stretched big by the circumstances of their own lives…both motherless at young ages, they became parents to more than their biological children. My mom still tells people she had 11 children.

My parents’ generosity of spirit, rarely in expensive, extravegant showy ways, just quiet, practical honest love and a way of making their home a refuge for anybody who needed a place came from them learning to receive the kindness of strangers themselves. The Auntie Jazzys and Auntie Veras in our world today are still out there – quietly doing what women do best – picking up the slack, stepping in where there is need and nurturing other people’s kids. So even though my dad would never espouse squat about chakras or chi (but here he’d turn the phrase and say “no but I’ll take some tea”) – he said “what goes around comes around” – and call it what it is…karma.