Questions for my dying father.

Bob and JM 1962

“Hi Daddy,” I said cheerfully. “How are you feeling?”

“No good,” he said, firmly but quietly. He sounded far away and tired, which he was. “No good” came out sounding like one word . . . nogood . . . as if enunciation of separate words was a chore. It was the same answer he’d given me the last few days in a row. Why I kept asking is a bit of a mystery. He’s 93. He’s dying of kidney and brain cancer. He’s in hospice and hasn’t eaten in nearly a month. Do I expect him to suddenly report he’s feeling better?

“I have a question for you” I said confidently, as if I had rehearsed. Truth is, I had, sort of. Mentally at least.

“I want to know about your wives.”

“What?” he asked. He sounded astonished or possibly just confused. Like maybe he thought the phone wasn’t working properly. Or maybe his brain wasn’t. Cancer does weird things.

“Your wives. I want to know about them. You never talk about them.” My heart was pounding.

“Oh Joan-Maire,” he said, his voice and his precious little stamina trailing off. “You’re asking me to remember things. ”

***

I remember things, but the problem for me now that my father is dying is that I don’t remember enough. I don’t know enough. For years, I didn’t hear enough or see enough and I don’t know the stories. Like any writer, stories are precious to me, the jewels of my life and my connection to my family and it feels like there simply aren’t enough stories about my father to knit me to him. After 52 years, he’s like a ghost. I see him out of the corner of my eye but I can’t really know him.

***

One recent evening I told Mr. Mom in tears that I couldn’t even begin to write an obituary or a eulogy for my father. I took great care with my mother’s, but here I am at the end of my father’s life and I don’t know basic facts like where he was born, where he worked, the dates of his service in WWII, who he was married to. How had I failed to gather this kind of information all these years?

“Listen, honey” Mr. Mom said, trying to comfort me. “Think about it. We’ve been married 23 years and in all those years he’s never once talked about himself.  In the times I’ve been around him, he might say ‘Isn’t it great the Saints won the game?’ or he might tell you about a horse he bet on, but he’s never said one word about himself. You know how your father is.”

My husband’s sweet attempt at absolution calmed me, but I vowed to ask my father a different question each day during my phone call to him. I started with the wives because, why not?

***

It’s a family secret how many times my father has been married. Most bets are on seven, but those who know for sure (his parents, his sister) are dead. Growing up I knew it was a lot but my mother and my paternal grandmother never talked about it for obvious reasons. Of all the things that bothered me about my family when I was young, his marriages wasn’t one of them. I didn’t know the word unconventional back then but I  knew he was, and in some silly, school-girlish, unexplainable way, it made him a kind of folk hero in my eyes. Everybody knew Bob marched to his own drummer.

Once long ago — I don’t remember when or the exact circumstances of the conversation — my mother told me Daddy wasn’t honest with her about his past marriages. She said not long after they married, my grandfather pulled her aside and said “I don’t know what Bob told you, but you’re wife number X.” For the life of me, I don’t remember if my mother told me the real number or demurred, as she often did on the topic of my father, but it drives me crazy that I don’t now know. Why did I ask so few questions when I was in the best position to do so?

***

On the fourth day of the long week I spent getting him settled into the nursing home, arranging hospice, and disposing of his personal possessions according to his handwritten instructions, he looked at me and sighed and said “This is no way to die.” I wasn’t sure what to say but he quickly added “Everybody should die like your aunt,” referring to his sister who got out of bed one morning about six years ago and simply keeled over. I was standing beside his hospital bed, leaning on the railing, looking at his bald head and his pale skin and his still-sparkly eyes and thinking how far this scenario was from what I had imagined would be his end. “I know Daddy,” I offered. “But I, for one, am glad you’re here with me today.” His eyes watered, betraying emotion I had never before seen in him and he looked straight into my eyes and smiled. “You’re a good Daddy,” I said, my voice cracking, as I leaned over, kissed him on the lips, and closed my eyes just long enough to hold back my tears and think it’s too bad he couldn’t drift away that very second.

***

Since I have so few stories of my father to tell, I go over and over them in my head. Perhaps my favorite is from my wedding day. As you know, my name is Joan-Marie. Joan is my mother’s mother and Marie is my father’s mother. My entire life I went by Joan, unless you were family or happened to be in the company of my father, who was prone to correcting you if you dared abridge it or made the mistake of choosing some abominable variation like Joanie. As we rehearsed our vows in front of the wedding party, the minister — who we didn’t know because we had a destination wedding with rent-a-clergy — kept calling me Joan. At one point, I stopped him and said “Will you please call me Joan-Marie? Please, out of respect for my father.” I hadn’t planned it and I don’t even know why I said it, except it seemed strange to be in the company of my parents and to be called something other than Joan-Marie on my wedding day. My dad shot me a look. It was a millisecond of pure love and gratitude amidst a whirlwind weekend but I knew we were connected in that moment no matter how many years we had been apart.

***

My second favorite story about my father doesn’t even involve him. My mother and my paternal grandmother and I had gone on a Sunday drive, as we often did during my childhood. The day had turned out to be a wild goose chase. We were looking for a landmark we never found and had gotten lost more than once. On the way home, we were all three sitting in the front seat of my mother’s car and I had my head on my grandmother’s lap and my feet on my mother’s lap. We were hungry and my mother suggested we stop for a hamburger.  “No!” I said adamantly and sat up straight. “Take me someplace nice. Someplace like Daddy would. I want to go to a restaurant with atmosphere.”

I was maybe 11 years old. I didn’t really know what the word atmosphere meant, but I recognized it when I saw it. My father had taken me to places with chandeliers and starched white tablecloths and lobster dinners in places like New Orleans and New York. I barely remembered it but I knew he had treated me to the kind of high class establishments he favored. I might be stuck in the boonies with my mother and grandmother, but I wanted them to know I knew the difference.

They laughed and laughed at me and I suppose they already knew I was my father’s child.

***

As I was sorting through my father’s belongings, I ran across an envelope of assorted papers and photographs. Among the photographs was the one at the beginning of this post. I’d never seen it and don’t recognize the surroundings, but I recognized my grandmother’s writing on the back: “Robert and Joan-Marie, August 24, 1965.”

Among the stack of papers were letters he wrote to his parents while stationed in Italy and North Africa during the war. One was a will he typed and signed in case he was killed as a 20-year-old soldier. I was staying with my cousin who lives near my father’s nursing home and after we went to bed, I stayed up late into the night reading my father’s correspondence. Many were signed “Your loving son, Robert.” It was the first and only glimpse I’d ever had into the young man he used to be. I recognized his refined and polite prose but not the affection, the humor, the warmth, the thoughtful reflection so evident in his letters. I cried myself to sleep that night, grateful for the carefully preserved history I had in my possession and sorrowful for the one-dimensional father of my memory.

***

“Never live close to your kinfolk,” my dad used to say.  I heard him say it a number of times and never asked why he felt that way. I suspect it was, at least in part, because he was a heavy drinker and an unrepentant gambler and book-maker and his kinfolk disapproved, as did his ex wives and his youngest daughter. His philosophy probably made his world a little less complicated in one sense because for most of my life, I saw him very infrequently. The flip side to that coin is that my father’s meager presence made him almost a mythical figure in my childhood. He was a kind of Santa Clause, a jolly gift giver who showed up on special occasions only, drunk and generous.  His drinking deeply hurt his sister and his mother, whose disapproval of my father’s lifestyle was a constant. My mother married three alcoholics in a row, so she said nothing, and later, one of the things I most admired about my mother was that even with all the reasons she could have counted to badmouth him, she always managed to take the high road. In the last years of her life, she grew close to him. She did his laundry and took him dinner and chided me when she thought I should call him more often.

***

The subject of calling him is a sore spot, so who better to bring it up than my mother? When Kate was a baby, my father had what I refer to as a mental breakdown. He was later diagnosed as bi-polar, which explained a lot, but at the time he was acting nonsensically and several members of my family were worried. At one point, I felt he was a danger to himself so I contacted the authorities and he was detained for three days. We went to court and he convinced the judge he should be released. He was deeply wounded by my intervention and we didn’t speak for years. I rationalized it was his choice to stay away but truth be told it was at least as much mine. I figured he’d gotten by all those years without his family meddling in his affairs and told myself to keep my distance, which was easy enough given his oft-stated philosophy. Eventually, he started calling again, and once he even called to chide me himself for my infrequent contact. In the most unkind moment I ever shared with my father, I told him I was doing the best I could to raise my children and that I was sorry to disappoint him. And then I added “You know, Daddy, when I was 10 and wondered where in the hell you were, I never once asked why you didn’t call me more.” It was a terribly cruel postscript to a painful phone call and I’ve always regretted it.

***

If you ask about my father to anyone who knows him, the first thing you’ll hear is that he’s smart. He’s also well-spoken. Meticulous. Demanding. Magnanimous. Opinionated. Precise. Generous. Grand. Infuriating. Optimistic. Calculating. Mercurial. Dictatorial. I saw all these sides of his personality and more, and now I wonder why it was so hard to know something more of him than his moods.

On a day he was adjusting to the nursing home and frustrated with me, he reminded me sternly “I’m still calling the shots!”

Later when I told Mr. Mom, he said “You gotta hand it to him, Joan. Bob has always called the shots. He’s lived life on his own terms and I admire him for that.”

***

I’ve traveled to Oklahoma twice since I learned my father has terminal brain cancer. On one visit he was lying down, in pain but uncharacteristically chatty. We were talking about our shared passion — a good meal — and he said “You know what my favorite steak is? It’s . . .”

He trailed off and I could tell he was searching for a name.

“A ribeye?” I said.

“Yes, a ribeye! I love a good ribeye steak!”

“Me too, Daddy,” I said. “It used to be my favorite steak before I became a vegetarian.”

“What’s your favorite steak now?” he asked.

The irony was lost on him and I laughed out loud, delighted by the humor of the moment and the fact that I knew the answer to a question about my father.

***

On another visit he was sitting up, quiet, and obviously in pain. He wiped his head and said, almost under his breath, “You know, sometimes I wonder what this life is all about.”

“Me too, Daddy, me too.” He dropped his chin to his chest and I said “Have you figured it out yet? I’d like to know.”

He paused for a long time then whispered “I think we’re just here to take care of one another.”

I figure we have. In our own ways. Maybe not the storybook way, maybe not the best way, but in a way uniquely ours, in a place strangely more intimate and more lovely than I ever imagined as a possible destination for Robert and Joan-Marie.

An Easter story.

Dear Friends,

It’s Easter morning and I am up early, drinking coffee and contemplating the day ahead of me. At my age, Easter isn’t what it used to be when I dressed my children in pastels and we hunted for eggs and ate chocolate until our tongues turned a creamy shade of brown. I’m a mother who no longer marks her life in the change of the seasons but in the change of family gatherings and rituals. Now that both Kate and Parker have flown the nest, they can’t always make it home for every holiday, major or minor, so I’m recalibrating what it means to celebrate Easter without my chicks ’round the table. Instead of dying eggs or preparing an elaborate family meal, I spent Easter Eve cooking for a new family that moved nearby. They’re vegans and, having transitioned to a vegetarian diet several months ago, I know how difficult it can be for a family on-the-go to find healthy, meatless meal options in our community. Cooking for others is a small act of neighborliness that perked up what has otherwise been a melancholy weekend.

For me, for now, Easter represents the last holiday I spent with my mother before she died. I still miss her so much it sometimes takes my breath away, and this time of year my mind often turns to our last Easter together. In April 2010, Mom was frail and I knew it, but as I contemplated the spring and summer ahead of me, I had no idea she’d succumb to her final illness on Independence Day and die before Labor Day. I remember in vivid detail the meal I prepared (of course I do!) and her utter delight in my menu and my table. She talked about how talented she thought I was and she said my lemon meringue pie was so good it was “outrageous.”

Mom had asked me earlier in that week if I would consider inviting my sister to my Easter meal. Without much consideration, I quickly declined. Mom came to my house anyway — she wanted so badly to spend Easter with Kate and Parker even if I couldn’t find it in my heart to include my sister, P. For the life of me I can’t now explain why I was so thoughtless. It’s a regret I’ll carry with me forever.

The one thing that cheers me from being too plaintive on what is arguably the most optimistic of all holidays is that I recently had lunch with P. I traveled to Oklahoma to celebrate Kate’s birthday last month and, while there, visited my sister. When Momastery published this post that I wrote about my relationship with my sister, a few commenters asked what became of Kate’s planned visit to P’s house. (P cancelled, saying she wasn’t feeling well.) Another asked about the nature of my relationship with P now. (It’s still complicated but improving.)

I had texted P a few days before my trip to ask if she would join Kate and me for lunch. She gladly accepted but then called a few hours before to beg off, saying she felt bad because she didn’t have a birthday gift for Kate and she didn’t have any nice clothes to wear. I encouraged her to come anyway. I told  her Kate didn’t care about gifts and neither of us cared how she looks. For the life of me I can’t now explain why I possessed benevolence on that day and so few others.

P decided to join us and surprised both Kate and me. She looked well, relatively speaking. (I had braced for the worst after hearing her say she looked terrible.) She was upbeat and funny and generous. Often, her conversation can be hard to follow but, on that day, she was mostly cogent. She was kind and I responded in turn. I can only think Mom had something to do with that. And I can only wish Mom had been present, but then in so many ways she was, moving our hearts even if she couldn’t sit at our table.

P gave Kate a small grocery bag filled with trinkets from her home, a sweet if makeshift birthday gift from a woman who has little to share these days. Because we were going to see my father later, she pulled an old photo from her purse to show us. The photo was of my father and me on a hotel patio. I didn’t recognize the occasion but my father later explained we were on a trip to New Orleans, his favorite destination. I also didn’t much recognize the long-haired young girl dressed in purple. Sometimes when I see old photos, or hear my family tell stories about us, it’s as if I am a victim of amnesia and while I can clearly see I’m the girl in the photo, I don’t know her.  So much of my childhood is lost to memory — a result, I think, of trying to forget the people and their addictions that threatened to swallow me.

When I think of the Easter story, though, I can’t help but contemplate the notion of redemption as it’s played out in my life. I can’t help but think of the resilience of families, even as circumstances threaten to shred any semblance of kinship. I think about how fragile the ties are that bind, and yet still bind. I think about two “half” sisters with different fathers whose mother desperately sought to knit them together and who must have died thinking she had failed at the task dearest to her heart. I think about deliverance, not from evil, but from dissolution, from each other and from God, which is surely as injurious to the soul.

I think about P. And me. And our next lunch.

With gratitude {for sisters and second chances},

Joan, who wishes you Easter blessings in abundance

photo

Oh Tannenbaum.

Dear friends,

I bought a Christmas tree on Sunday. For most people this would not be remarkable; for me, however, it represents my first tree purchase in more than a decade.

I’m notoriously cheap when it comes to some things. Food is not one of them. Certain other necessary items such as fashionable clothing and shoes and purses are also not among the things I scrimp on. Nor are Christmas gifts.

But holiday decorations — I’m always looking for 80% off or better. Which explains why I only buy lights and wrapping paper and such on the day after Christmas and why our family used the same faux Christmas tree for as long as everybody can remember.

When we left Oklahoma 18 months ago, our not-so-gently-used Christmas tree had long passed its expiration date so we tossed it rather than pack it. The problem was, once we settled into our new home I couldn’t find a tree I considered suitable for our thoroughly modern home.

Maybe I was homesick. Maybe I was too sentimental to unpack all my careworn ornaments and hang them on a new tree in a place that didn’t yet feel like home. Or, maybe, as I claimed, a traditional tree would look silly in my contemporary living area. Whatever the reason, I decided to make my own “modern” tree. (It was a cinch. Mr. Mom cut a tree branch and I spray painted it, strung a bit of tinsel and lights, and hung a few tree-themed ornaments.)

At the time, I thought it was Charlie-Brown cool and funky, my own little art installation. Holiday visitors to our home said they liked it, but I secretly wondered if they were just being polite.

See what you think:

Anyway, this year I just couldn’t get revved up to create another funky tree. Even though Kate is off to college and there’s no way I could ever talk Parker or Mr. Mom into helping me decorate a traditional tree, I was itching to pull out all my beloved ornaments collected since my childhood and throughout my kids’ school years.

For me, Christmas is about cherished memories and my memories, for better or worse, are inexplicably tied to my ornaments. There’s the ones I made in grade school and gave to my mother. There’s the ones I sold to raise money for my high school cheerleading squad. There’s the ones given to me in college by my sorority sisters. There’s the ones hand-painted and given to me by a family friend. There’s several given to me by coworkers over the years. There’s the ones collected for my children, who were allowed to select their favorite Disney characters and Barbie dolls.  There’s a slew of “Baby’s First Christmas” and 2nd, and 3rd, and so on, for both Kate and Parker. And then there’s the ones Kate and Parker made in grade school out of dough or Popsicle sticks and beads. There’s far too many to fit on a single tree, but that’s part of the fun, rotating the display each year.

So I broke down and bought a new tree. I decided to give it a run in the den, where the furniture and colors are far more traditional and where a tree overloaded with homespun ornaments won’t look so out of place. I think I’ll spend Saturday decorating the new tree and playing Christmas carols and walking down memory lane and probably even getting weepy, but what’s the Christmas season without a few tears, nostalgic or otherwise?

With gratitude {for a lifetime of Christmas memories packed away in tissue paper},

Joan, who invites you to tell me about your Christmas tree and favorite ornaments because she’s convinced she can’t be the only woman who knows and treasures the origin of every single ornament in her stash

Communion.

Dear friends,

As I was falling asleep Friday night, Mr. Mom rubbed my back and asked me what I was thinking about.

“About tomorrow,” I said. “About how excited I am to try my new recipes.”

“That’s funny,” he said, trailing off for a moment “ . . . how happy it makes you to cook.”

“Not really,” I replied. “I’m just like my mom. The funny thing is I never even saw it coming.”

Colleen was a cook by necessity. A mother of four with nary a reliable man in her life, she had plenty of mouths to feed, including her parents, who she took in during their later years, as well as cousins and uncles and neighbors and anybody who needed a place to stay and a home-cooked meal.

When I was very young, she owned a diner named for her only son. Not long before she died, she told me how much she enjoyed her work there. Creating daily specials like chicken and noodles were a particular pleasure she said, even though the hours were long and the work was exhausting for a sole proprietor.

Other than when she made cheesecake and baklava, I never saw her use a recipe. She left behind no cookbooks, no recipe box, no trace of the unadorned but nourishing meals she cooked over the years.

For most of the years I can recall, she cooked in a tiny apartment kitchen – about 8’ X 8’, with every square inch of countertop and wall space filled. I never thought about it at the time, but I suppose her petite domain was efficient, if crowded. She never complained, never longed out loud for something more spacious or better equipped. And plenty a day she cooked for 20 or 30 or more people from that sliver of a kitchen – then carried cardboard box after cardboard box of food to the nearby “community building” for the large gatherings she always seemed to be hosting there.

Nobody left Colleen’s table hungry. If she thought four would be on hand for supper, she’d cook for eight.  You never know when a fellow might want an extra pork chop, she’d say.  And holiday meals – well, those were occasions that demanded extensive menus and days worth of effort. In addition to the cooking, there was always loads of dishes to be washed by hand since she didn’t have the luxury of a dishwasher (electric or otherwise).

Besides, she wasn’t about to trust her “good china” to anyone but her own hands. Her Noritake service for 12 had been shipped all the way from Japan, a gift from her son who visited there while on leave during a tour of duty in Vietnam.  In all the years I saw her cook – and all the special meals I saw her serve on her treasured china – she never chipped or broke a single piece.

I can remember seeing her stand in the kitchen, hands on hips, paused between steps, thinking, as she moved from the stove to the refrigerator and back. Her cooking was instinctive more than trained. But she knew she wasn’t an innovator. She stuck to the meals she knew best – hearty, simple, typically Southern-style dishes that would stick to your ribs and make tasty leftovers. (Fried potato cakes made for breakfast from leftover mashed potatoes were my favorite.)

I can remember seeing her at the table, enjoying the food as much as she enjoyed serving it. She never rushed through meals. She knew they were sacred. She liked to talk – to laugh – at the table. She communed, and perhaps that’s what stuck with me most.

Colleen never once put a bouquet of flowers on the table. There was never room anyway because she typically fed a table full of folks with an array of serving dishes full to the brim — fried potatoes, gravy, corn, green beans, meatloaf, biscuits, food she could whip up on a dime.

The linens and flowers and elaborate place settings you see on my table delighted her, even though it wasn’t Colleen’s style. “Your tables are always so pretty,” she’d say every time she came to my house for a meal.

I wish I would have told her that china doesn’t make the table – love does, the joy of cooking does – and I got it all from her.

With gratitude {for love learned at the table},

Joan, who can’t remember a happier Saturday than yesterday

Traces.

Dear friends,

Not long ago I was helping Mr. Mom clean house and, as I dusted the family photos around my desk, I lingered on the tiniest one — a black and white photo not much bigger than a postage stamp in a pink frame.

The young woman in the photo is both achingly familiar and long lost to me. In my mind’s eye, she is who I am. In the mirror, only traces of her remain.

I thought about my mother — about how much I miss her, about how I have stacks of photos of her at about age 5 right up until her death a little more than a year ago. And, yet, when I think of my mother, I instantly visualize her as she looked in her early 40s. The photos I have of her from that era are the ones that most say “Mom” to me.

Perhaps it is because that’s the age she moved us “home.”  I was 10 and my mother was 43 and she moved us from the city in which she had always lived to the place I call my hometown. I lived there until I went away for college; she eventually left, too, a few years later. But the pull of the place was so strong I moved back to my hometown 25 years later — with a husband and two kids and a passel of pets in tow. And, somehow, I think the way my mother looked when she moved us to that town — that town that became my true north — is how my mother will always appear in my memory.

I wonder how my children will think of me when I’m gone. Surely, it won’t be as the young woman in the pink frame that they never knew. The photo was taken in my mid-20s. I was unmarried. Shy, but confident enough to smile at a photographer. Happy, at having just presided over a successful professional conference (thus, the banquet table). Full of hope for my relationship with Mr. Mom and all that I dreamed a future family would bring.

I wonder — will my children think of me as the young mother of toddlers, a brunette usually sporting a pony-tail and who was perpetually harried? Or will they think of the mother of their middle-school years, the thinner red-head who dressed a little more stylishly but was no less harried thanks to graduate school? Or will they think of the mother I am now, the one who uprooted them from the town they loved growing up in as much as I did, but who was in search of a distinctly unharried, integrated life and who insisted they come along for the ride? Or will they remember me as a mother I am yet to become, who neither of us really knows yet but is somewhere to be found within the woman in my mind’s eye?

What will they say is the essence of the mother they remember, the one they loved and hated, clung to and pushed away, idolized and vilified?

Perhaps it is a fool’s chore to ponder these questions, but I can’t help myself. Mothers must pine for immortality because we raise children and look longingly into their eyes for traces of ourselves.  Do we glimpse the best of ourselves or the worst? An amalgam of contradictions as confounding as our own?

Truly, I hope they remember a bit of my mother in me. After all, the woman in my mind’s eye is but a derivation of the mother I remember, the kind I strive to be, one so loved her absence is felt every day despite her frailties and failures, one whose heart spilled over with love for her children and the promise of their children.

One who reached toward every day with the knowledge the day is never enough and yet all there is to be a mother.

With gratitude {for today},

Joan, who knows missing her mother this much is a kind of a gift

Take me back to Tulsa.

Dear friends,

Source: Wikipedia

I’m spending 24 hours in the land of my birth.  (In the words of Leon Russell, I’m in home sweet Oklahoma). I’ve made a whirlwind trip to Tulsa to help a friend celebrate a new job.

I’m making the most of my 24 hours: first I made a stop to see one of my dearest friends. She was the Matron of Honor in my wedding and I wouldn’t think of coming to Tulsa without popping in to see A.  It was a short stop, but we had time for a long hug, a glass of wine, and an hour of conversation.

Then I spent a long dinner with a group of former colleagues celebrating the transition of a member of our group. Ten of us got to together to toast C’s new job (and new pregnancy) and tell our favorite war stories from our memorable years together as a team.

Next, I stayed up late talking to another friend, catching up on all that has happened in J’s universe since I left town.

Saturday morning, I’m having two breakfasts with more friends, one early and one late, then I’m off to lunch with another dear friend that I’ve known since 5th grade.

Are you catching a theme here? It may only be 24 hours, but I’m luxuriating in friendship with women I’ve known forever it seems. It’s a much-needed dose of hearty laughter, warm hugs, and shared memories with a cadre of women who mean the world to me.  I can’t think of a better way to kick off February.

With gratitude {for dear friends who welcomed me home with open arms},

Joan, who, no matter where she lives, will always think the Tulsa skyline is the prettiest

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