Secrets and Slurs: When kid lit ain’t child’s play

“Mrs. Lennox,” says the young officer in a trembling voice, “you ought to have gone to the hills two weeks ago.”

 “Oh I know I ought,” she cried. “I only stayed to go to that silly dinner party. What a fool I was!”

This passage is one of countless times “The Secret Garden” reminds us that Mary Lennox’s mom was a fun, frivolous, gorgeous, pitiful excuse of a parent. About Daddy Lennox we learn nothing. Being a colonial officer in India seems to get one off the hook for child neglect – which is what was happening to Mary all her life up to that cholera epidemic that left her orphaned. In the nursery. With a snake.

“This is sad,” my daughter interrupts. I promise her that the saddest bits of the book would soon be over. If she was too sad or too bored, I say, we can stop.

She appears to be the opposite. Take the aforementioned exchange between Mrs. Lenox and the young officer.

“What do they mean ‘go to the hills?’” daughter asks.

I explain to her that the hills are “hill stations,” where the climate cools as the elevation soars, and where mosquitoes and attendant diseases fear to tread. I remind her of our own trip to the hills, 28 hours in Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu State, elevation 2,200+ meters.

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A brush with Kodaikanal wild life.

Family Tourism & Colonialism

Turns out, Mrs. Lennox really did miss out. Kodaikanal is overrun with tourists and natural beauty, verdant commercialism and glorious displays of green (the forests) and grey (the mists). Monkeys, too. The streets are narrow and steep, rows of veg restaurants and chocolatiers and ice cream counters and craftspeople making some of the most beautiful things I saw that entire trip. Life there is cooler. Saris are topped with knit caps, shawls and sweaters.

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Nature’s bounty served up roadside in Kodaikanal.

Scenery that day included the Kodaikanal International School – and here is where reading “The Secret Garden” became this unexpected hybrid of history lesson and trivia showdown. Not far from Kodai’s Tibetan Market are the grounds of the International School. Just walking past the iron gate and peering into the brick buildings and emerald grounds of the school leaves the impression that you’re brushing up against academic opulence and exellence, crossed with the visual appeal of Hogwarts.

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A photo from the Kodaikanal International School website.

I asked my uncle about the school. “Is it expensive? Is it good?” He answers promptly and positively to both. Back in the States, I looked up more information on the school. It was built in the early 20th century to accommodate the children of missionaries who could not weather the heat and illness of lower-elevation India. Later, in the 1970s, the Kodaikanal International School became India’s first International Baccalaureate-certified school.

So it was a great way to connect Mrs. Lennox’s vague comment “Oh the hills!” to our sight-seeing in Kodai.

But any reader understands that Colonial literature – even the children’s variety – can’t keep its worst secrets for long.

Soon my daughter is asking more questions.

“Why didn’t Mary live with her ayah’s family in India?”

“Why didn’t Mary stay in India because she already spoke Hindi, probably, so she would do okay in school there?”

“Why didn’t an Indian family adopt her?”

All of the above were harder to explain – even to a well-traveled bilingual kid. I tried it briefly and vaguely, getting across the notion that countries don’t colonize in order to learn and to cultivate the cultures of another. We talked about “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” about why English schoolchildren in India were educated in English – not Hindi, about how this explains the prevalence of the English language in India today. About why an ayah could never adopt an English girl in 1910. About why ayahs and servants did not have names in books like “The Secret Garden.”

Frances Hodgson Burnett: Not a Little Princess

Then I dug around a bit about Frances Hodgson Burnett – doing some unofficial, hodge-podgey research across a few sites. What was she like, writing about English girls rescued from cholera, despondent but debonair uncles and Sara Crewe, the poor little rich girl of “The Little Princess?” If I remember right, there were ties to Indian diamond mines and colonial opulence in that novel, too. And I had loved it.

Well, Frances Hodgson Burnett struck it rich herself, born into privilege in Manchester as she was. She lost some of the family wealth as a very young child with a suddenly widowed mother and many siblings. As a teenager she and the family emigrate to the U.S. on the invitation of a brother who owns a dry goods store in Knoxville. But they arrive in Knoxville in 1865 – the end of the Civil War. From Manchester to Knoxville, anyone who made any money on American cotton economy isn’t making it any more.

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Frances Hodgson Burnett in another photo I didn’t take.

A teenager still, Burnett starts writing more than she ever had before. In a cabin she shares with family she churns out stories and novels so prodigiously that within a few years the 19-year-old is supporting her family. American dreaming, indeed.

Lots of other things happen to her. Suitors, marriages, stage adaptations, best sellers, two years in Paris with her doctor husband, the loss of her teenaged son to tuberculosis. A divorce and disastrous remarriage to an actor who is ten years younger.

None of these things are things I tell my daughter. She seems unperturbed after my first bumbling attempt at “Colonialism 101 for First Graders.” By chapter three it is all about the moors. What do they look like? What is heather? Are they still there?

I think about switching to a much-abridged version of “Wuthering Heights” by way of explanation. I don’t. Heathcliff is such an asshole sometimes. Maybe in middle school we can talk about the dangers of falling in love on the English moors. For now, we look up pictures of them on the Internet.

 From Frances to Francine Nolan

But wait! There’s more. Six months ago I bought my third copy of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” My mom bought me my first when I was 11 or so. Maybe ten. I read it every summer after that. Francie! If you know her, you love her. The way she studied and odd-jobbed herself across Williamsburg and adored her drunk of a dad and completely understood her mom loved her, but not nearly as much as she loved Francie’s younger brother. She took it all in and wondered and worried and wrote. She boards the Wolverine train and goes to college.

But the book is gritty. It’s about being poor and Irish and Catholic and being welcomed or pitied or hated for all of it, while holding on/shaking off  the perverse privilege of judging others who are more poor than you, or Jewish or Italian. Remember the unwed Italian girl and her steady diet of non-Italian food? Out pops a positively German-Irish-looking baby and the whole family is relieved.

I thought about not giving that book and its turn of the century biases and slurs to my 11-year-old. Or not reading, ever, “The Little Princess” to my daughter. Maybe they won’t ever want to read either. This seems highly likely.

Secrets in Books: Share Them

But secrets belong in gardens, slurs belong on bookshelves, and of course they need to be explored and weeded out and put in their proper place. America just celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. We took the kids to see a play and movie based on 42’s life. In both instances, words were not minced. A boy in the row behind us whispers: “Is it okay to say the n-word like that?”

Jackie Robinson, no. 42.

Jackie Robinson, no. 42.

At intermission of the play “Jackie and Me,” playgoers got to meet and to talk with a man who played for the Negro League Chicago American Giants and nearly made it to the MLB Chicago Cubs in 1955, before injury ended his pitching career when he was still a teenager. My eldest could not believe this. He was stunned, his cheeks deepened red, when he asked Dennis Bose Biddle: “Did you know Jackie Robinson?”

“Yes, he opened the door for me. I asked him if he ever felt like quitting. ‘Every Day,’ is what he told me. But he stayed on.”

So stay the books. And I’ve added to the collection between my childhood and my kids.’ Certainly, important titles remain missing. Suggestions are welcome.

“A Young People’s History of the United States.” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” “Living Up the Street.” “The Little Princess.” “The Little Prince.” “Jackie and Me.” “The Diary of Anne Frank.” “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “Going to Meet the Man.”

Some are for now and some are for later. Some entertain and some inform. Most do both. Some make you feel like you’d be a hero in the French Resistance, certain you’d be an abolitionist among southerners, a Freedom Rider among fear-mongerers. The best books, I think, make you really uncomfortable when they make you ask of yourself: “But really, would I really be any of those things? Living then with the raw material I am today, would I have had the courage?”

All these books should be shared. I can’t tell my kids they have to read them. But the books will be there. Just in case. In the meantime, at bedtime, my daughter trades in “The Secret Garden” for “The Diary of  Wimpy Kid.” This will take time.

Code Red, she said

734554_10151441014672177_28942575_nNope, I don’t think it’s any coincidence whatsoever that the same week we learn the details of Adam Lanza’s bedroom arsenal, teachers organized a practice “Code Red” drill in my children’s K-5 school.

It’s a damned reminder – we needed more? – that even as the U.S. Congress backs away, quickly and quietly, from bans on assault-weapons and high-capacity magazines, we can’t let them.

My daughter talked about the Code Red casually, at first.

“Mom, we had one at school today.”

“One what?” I ask.

“One Code Red Drill.”

I know what this is, but I play it off like I don’t. I want to hear her most authentic description of what this means, how a Code Red unfolds.

“It’s where we practice being safe if a robber or another kind of bad person comes into our school.”

How sweet and age-appropriate that she thinks one of the worst things that could happen to her school is a “robber.” How very Brothers Grimm of her. How wrong.

I ask her what they do, how they do it. She says they hide in the classroom and lock the door. Teachers remind the kids – in two languages – to be quiet. Then they wait. I think, for my daughter, this is the hardest part.

“Mom, me and my teachers were scared because upstairs,” she pauses here for a moment; she is a verbal child: “We heard people moving.”

I don’t think her teachers were scared. They knew this was practice. But the need to identify must be strong in these situations, especially when you’re young and you’re not with your family and somewhere in the back of your mind you know, as my daughter does, that robbers are not a child’s worst nightmare. She continues to relay the events in her own words.

“Yeah, and somebody, they tried our doorknob. They were checking. But they shouldn’t have done that. Nobody should be walking around during a Code Red.”

“Probably,” I say, “they were just making sure everybody followed all the Code Red safety rules. In a practice Code Red, you have to walk around and make sure all those important safety rules are being followed.”

“But what if it was real, mom?”

I glance in the rear-view window. The boys are in their usual bookworm pose, bent over paperbacks. But her eyes are round and brown, focused on me, waiting for an answer.

“It wasn’t real, Child. These things barely happen. Once every 20 years, maybe. And people, like your teachers, work very hard to keep things as safe as possible.”

I tell her that we practiced fire drills and tornado drills every year of my K-12 life. I never saw either one of them. I do not tell her there have been 31 school shootings in America since 1999.

Things get quiet in the middle row of my minivan. I’m lost in my head. I’ve said too much, she knows too much, I’m terrified, I blew this, my heart’s beating faster, I’m confused. Mostly I’m sad. A second later, it’s clear that my daughter, at least, remains thoughtful and on topic.

“Well mom, I don’t think anyone would do that to our school, because I think people know public schools are very important.”

You know that I did not tell her Sandy Hook Elementary was a public school. That in our home state of Wisconsin, public schools have been defunded to the point of poverty. I would never tell her the nasty, racist, grossly ignorant and inaccurate things people write about me – or anyone in my town – when we write a pro-public school op-ed.

“Right,” and this time my smile is real. “Lots of people know how important all our schools are. But you know that public schools are my favorite.”

In Sandy Hook there was an art teacher, a music room, a gym teacher, classroom teachers and, we know, an incredibly brave, bold and brilliant, fast thinking principal in the building that day. I do not know know what the child to teacher ratio in their school was that day. But it’s clear to us that every adult in that school was an absolute hero, that they all came together to save every single life they could. That they paid with their own lives – six of them.

Sandy Hook sounds like a well-funded public school. Thank God. Every adult in the building was needed that day. Every day. But especially on Dec. 14, 2012.

My kids’ school is not a well-funded school. But it’s vibrant and multicultural and successful. My three kids have never received formal music instruction there. The full-time art teacher was budget-cutted out two years ago. Language, math and writing emphases, and a reputation for one of the strongest and most stable teacher corps in our area are enough to keep us there. Maybe we can find room for music elsewhere in their lives.

My kids’ public school is very important to me. So is gun control. So are the Second Amendment and all the other amendments – some more than others. But 1,000+ rounds in a boy’s bedroom, an arsenal in his Honda Civic, 20 children and six teachers dead, armed guards in every school when states like mine tell us we can’t afford to keep our teachers? That math is not fuzzy, it is devastating.

To quit: Chutney or CrossFit?

Let’s not get into this whole manufactured conversation about how I’ve “been-so-busy-doing [insert thing(s) I have not really been doing here].” I have been fabulous and fabulously busy, but I can’t show you an enviable got-done list to prove it. There was the time I went to the gym. At least six times in 20 days, and this does not even take into account the nine times in 2013 that I have showed up to Cream City CrossFit to humiliate myself alongside — like lying on the floor in a puddle of sweat and “I can’t do this anymore!” — a bunch of 20-year-old CrossFit athletes. They all wear makeup and tattoos and are in badass shape. Also they are nice.

You know how complicated this can make things: Your inferiority + their niceness + their great makeup=bitter mom blogger.

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I get chatty at 14:25.

Then there was the time I took three pieces of artwork to the framing gallery to get framed. Another time I wrote a press release one long Sunday afternoon. Ben Affleck won his second Oscar. I wrote a page or three of brochures. My husband went to D.C. twice and California once. I spent a day at the State Capitol.

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Reason no. 312 why I’ve been blogging less: “The Michael Jackson Experience.”

So I’ve been making mostly pancakes with sugar, chocolate, maple syrup and real butter for the kids. Plus bacon. Sorry, paleo. It’s you.

But I used to be a quitter. Giving up on things before they got too hard or too boring, or something else captured my fleeting fancy. So, Chutney Challenged readers, I will not quit you. But CrossFit? Maybe.

Happy Valentine’s Dal

In my husband’s family there are many cooks. My MIL is one of them. My aunt-in-law is another. She lives in suburban Columbus and if you ever are lucky enough to be invited there for a meal, please clear your calendar. Over the course of four to five hours so much food will be presented to you — from frothy hand-whipped coffees and gently fried, spiced chicken to vegetarian nachos and omelets. If you’re from Senegal, there might be lamb. If you’re my husband, you love her rotli dal bhath shaak. If your child is a picky eater, there will be fresh steamed green beans prepared instantly, instead of making that poor child eat shaak. Tins of cookies are in the house somewhere. Ice cream is in the freezer. Everything is made in real time, while you are there. Please clear your calendar.

I can’t even remember what Indian delicacies kaki makes because I always am overwhelmed by the multinational feasts she prepares. And usually I am so worn out by the 8-10 hour drive from Milwaukee to Columbus that I do not pay a damn bit of attention to how the food is made. Sorry. I said damn. It’ll happen again.

Those football lentils in my hand transform into a low-fat, high-fiber, vitamin and protein-rich stew in just 30 minutes.

Those football lentils in my hand transform into a low-fat, high-fiber, vitamin and protein-rich stew in just 30 minutes.

Meet My Cousin

Thank goodness for her daughter,  beloved cousin and blogger Foodie Brooklyn Mom. She is slowly going through her mom’s mental archive of recipes and translating them into written form for those of us who lack a certain ability to read minds and memorize forty years of cooking at this point in our brain’s slow deterioration toward middle age. You may recall an earlier conversation about chutney, how I was feeling unimpressed by the cilantro-dominant blends I was putting together in my kitchen. I wanted to add mint and see what this could do for the green. My cousin had posted a recipe that features a simple 2:1 cilantro to mint ratio and a few other ingredients. I have modified it slightly, and it’s working out great. Allergic friends reading this recipe, I don’t always use the tree nuts. Like when you come over.

Tonight I dashed out to the Best Foods with my daughter in crime to buy some lentils and try another of my cousin’s recipes: dal and rice. It’s a staple. In South Asia its popularity permeates borders. Sri Lanka, north and south India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal: everywhere they eat dal. “Dal” is the basic word for lentil, of which there are many kinds. What you eat with the lentil (vegetables, rice or roti?) is influenced by where in South Asia you’re eating. We’re Gujarati, so it’s rice and dal.

Lentils Red Football

I panicked for a moment in the aisle of lentils. The recipe said “red lentils,” but did that mean split or whole? After a few missteps with mustard seed, I now think that unless the recipe says “crushed,” you buy crushable ingredients in their whole form. Delightfully, this meant walking out of the store with a bag of masoor dal, discreetly parenthesized on the package as “LENTILS RED FOOTBALL.” From now on it’s Football Dal to me. Despite a lapse in planning that left me without any coriander seeds, the recipe turned out okay. Good, even, although I may bump up the spice from two chilies to three and amplify the ginger/garlic blend. But Valentine’s Dal was a bust for the rest of the family.

Football dal & rice with garnish. Mansoor is the lentil's proper name.

Football dal & rice with garnish. Masoor is the lentil’s proper name.

“Not all kids like Indian food,” said the Indian kid who had helped me pick out chilies just 90 minutes earlier.

“I don’t like dal, but it definitely smells like Indian food in here,” said my husband.

I expect little in the way of responsiveness-to-new-foods from my sons, and they delivered. They said: nothing.

I’m the best mom ever

We ended the evening with some marathon Valentine making. Glue, cue tips, posterboard, fiber paper, sharpies, regular and textured scissors. It was ON. Twenty-five valentines later my daughter said: “You’re the best mom ever.” I know she meant this barely and briefly. Tomorrow I will be the  ______ who won’t let her wear a striped rugby shirt on top of a striped polo shirt with Packer sweat pants. But at 8:41 p.m. I was the best mom ever. And I made Football Dal and rice.

For dessert we made Valentines. Be mine?

For dessert we made Valentines. Be mine?

An Obit Writer and an Essayist Walk Into a Church…

Yesterday I stepped into church, Catholic Church, for the first time in about a year.

I still do the holy water, the genuflection and the kneeling. I will always love the Nicene Creed. I don’t take Communion. So, walking in I do the holy water and proceed down the aisle. I get only a few steps before a man, whom I’ve never seen before, stops me.

“I read what you wrote in the paper. Very nice.”

One can respond to this a few different ways:

  • “Thanks. Who are you?”
  • “Thanks.” (elegant, multipurposefully appropriate, offensive only when sarcastic)
  • “Who are you?” (no)
  • “Thanks. What are you talking about?”
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One time I made cupcakes and it was 2 a.m. before I realized I had exhausted my supply of cupcake papers.

I went with a variation on Option D. “Oh,” I say. “The cupcakes piece?”

He looks at me blankly for a minute, like cupcakes have evolved from this anyone-can-bake-it party staple into a mystery of faith. “Cupcakes? Hmm…”

“No,” is what he actually says. “The obituary.”

I had to laugh, because to me the paid death notices in the newspaper all follow the same, fact-based, minimally creative format. They’re expensive to run, so understandably most death-notice writers go with the bare minimum: Insert name here, date there, wrap it up with visitation and donation information. When I wrote my grandfather’s obit last week, I never thought of it as an act of writing.

Anyway, I thanked the gentleman who turned out to be the undertaker. I explained that I had written something else “about cupcakes” a few weeks ago, so I wasn’t sure which piece he meant.

Thirty minutes later, my aunt arrives with her husband, John.

“My mother showed me the piece you wrote in the paper,” John says after a round of hugs and condolences.

“The obituary,” is my succinct, all-knowing reply.

“No, it was the piece about your, well, about schools.” John gets a little vague for a moment and I know why and I’m used to it. He is talking about the cupcakes.

We laugh as I recount my talk with the undertaker. If anyone had mentioned my “pancakes” post during yesterday’s funeral, the confusion would have thickened like a stack of buttermilk flapjacks in the logging-camp kitchen. Been thinking about loggers lately – the result of some low-grade family research I’ve been doing to prep for my grandfather’s funeral.

Writing advice

So here is what I’ve learned – about writing, not logging:

  • If you want to write a great obit: do the basics; modify an adjective like “loving” with an unexpected but accurate adjective like “brusque”; add one or two sentences of character description for warmth and flavor. For Grandpa Tom, we went with: “For years he took a daily cup of coffee at the old McDonald’s restaurant on Packard Avenue.” Poetry that ain’t, but it’s a humanizing moment and proof that “small stuff” can reveal one’s character.
  • If you want to write a memorable essay, give it a quirky title. Trust me, I’ve written some snoozers. Folks might forget the content, might disagree with the content, dislike your tone or perspective, but they will remember you wrote something somewhere if the title sticks. And they’ll mention it! So many people have mentioned “cupcakes” to me in the last few weeks that my next piece, no matter what it’s about, will have “eclair” in the title. Or chutney!

Gratitude and Grandpas: A ‘Thank You’ Note

Years before I ever started to blog I taught two weeks of blog writing to college freshmen and sophomores. They could blog about anything, but they didn’t. Their collective range of self-selected topics was fairly narrow: “The O.C.” a Fox primetime soap starring that guy with the eyebrows like midnight’s caterpillars, weight loss, weight gain, the beginning/end of a relationship, high school.

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In retrospect, that’s a rich range. It covers a lot during a time of life when, for lots of folks, things are really starting to happen. Why was I getting cynical and condescending on all these aspiring PR execs and Rolling-Stone exposé-writer wannabes? Was it the typos? Was I not seeing the forest because all the dangling modifiers and gratuitous caps were getting in the way? Well, typos were on the grading scale. They had to be addressed. Every classroom is a rainforest when you’re teaching early-college students how to write.

“Can we just deduct five points from anyone who writes about eating too much, not eating enough, or a blog about Milwaukee’s best restaurants?” I one day joked.

“Or dead grandpas,” my colleague typed back in our email exchange.

Reality check. Today I am a soccer-mom whose singular literary contribution is a late-night blog where I talk about food and dead grandpas. What am I doing here? And what’s your excuse?

Thanks for your thoughts, your time

Actually, what I am trying to say is “thank you.” From my mom who wrote me a sweet, “I’m practically a Democrat now”* response to “National Pancake Day,” to my husband who promoted that post on his facebook page and quadrupled my total readership in a couple hours, to diaryofacorporatewife.com, a faraway friend who offered me condolences and a reblog — people I know, plus a few who I don’t, have said real nice things about my grandpa and my writing. This is meaningful and motivating during what has turned out to be an exhausting and emotionally fraught week in ways that I so. did not. expect. Stories for another time? Maybe…

Now, about the chutney

Tonight I had hunger pangs for bhel puri, but any chaat would have done. Something in-your-face fresh and colored like a rainbow and tasting like the chaos and character of Mumbai — at its best, of course — is what I wanted.

This reminded me. Chutney Challenged. This is a food blog and I need to get back to it, simmering with renewed focus and adventure once life settles down just a bit. To all who followed me here seeking Milwaukee’s answer to Padma Lakshmi: do be patient. There may be no chutney right now, but I remain challenged. Very much. Always, I promise. And the chutney will come again. I promise.

*That’s really not at all what my mom said, but what she said was very kind, very loving, indeed.

When FMLA Met National Pancake Day

Both my parents lost their mothers young. My mom’s mom passed when she was four; my dad’s mom passed when he was a 21-year-old newlywed. Both grandfathers remarried, but after 34 years it’s clear that the most grandparent I’ve ever had is my dad’s dad. Lushly coiffed at 85, prickly but funny, deeply literate but verbally brief and matter of fact, brusque but devoted, that would be Grandpa Tom.

He’s only ever asked me for one thing. On Saturday. After a lifetime of his evasive and economical brand of affection, I was happy and focused in my desire to deliver the goods he had asked me for three times: a photograph of me, my husband and kids with Bill Clinton.

Of course this is the picture.

Of course this is the picture.

Don’t Forget

“Don’t forget that picture, Angie.” Really, the man can go one year without getting personal on you, so his insistence on something so sentimental really struck me. By the time he had asked, though, his hands were cramping badly and his fingers were beginning to curl together like small, ivory-tipped claws. Watching him eat a cup of orange sherbet, I wanted so many times to grab the plastic spoon from under his clenched thumb and feed him myself: deftly and fast, no drips or ice chips to navigate on my watch. I didn’t.

So as I prepared to leave his ICU room in the hospital where he– widowed two years at age 51– had presented my mom with a dozen peach roses on the day I was born, I asked how he wanted the picture. His fingers couldn’t manipulate a framed photo safely, and I wasn’t sure he could see the photo if I tacked it on the wall.

“How do you want the picture, grandpa?” I asked.

An economical conversationalist nearly always, he answered without hesitation: “Maybe in an envelope. So it doesn’t get wet. You know.”

And I do know. It’s been snowing abundantly and beautifully in Milwaukee this week and being in the ICU is messy business.

The picture could have been ready the next day, Sunday. We just had to print it at Walgreen’s, right from my husband’s laptop. I would place the order just after dinner, then put the kids to bed, then go to Walgreen’s, then drive the 20 minutes to the hospital.

But I didn’t. I was exhausted, the snow was falling again, the kids were rattled from a busy weekend of family, friends, iPods, indoor soccer. My dad, the second-born of my grandfather’s three sons, called. He explained how disoriented my grandfather was as he decelerated from a reasonably healthy and independent old age to full-system failure after three days in ICU. I gratefully accepted my dad’s gentle encouragement to stay home, get rest, avoid seeing my agitated, elegant grandfather restrained and sedated in his hospital bed.

Monday passed as Mondays do. Kids in school, I’m at work, husband’s in D.C. I had nearly forgotten about Grandpa Tom until my mom facebooked me at 10:30 p.m. My grandfather was doing worse as his condition cascaded from stubborn pneumonia down toward his bladder and kidneys. Lucidity was random and fleeting, but he had asked about me.

I called my husband. He dispatched the Bill Clinton photo file to Walgreen’s from D.C. I messaged my manager. Tomorrow, more than 24 hours after “Don’t forget, Angie,” I would deliver that picture.

FMLA me ASAP

On Feb. 5, 2013, I rose after four hours of sleep. I turned on NPR and made breakfast as my first child groaned himself out of bed and creaked his way down the stairs. I don’t know what story was on. I heard just two sentences of it: “The single thing Bill Clinton is thanked for most, he says, is the Family Medical Leave Act. When people stop him in the airport, or on the campaign trail…” I gasped. My father continues to work full time though he’s now nearly 60. His job can be painfully physical. But he does it even now, sometimes six days per week. Since my grandfather’s sudden hospitalization last week, my dad has been using FMLA.

I got the kids to school. I drove home, stopped at the Walgreen’s. “I loved him as president,” the photo manager tells me as she rings up my order for two prints and slides me an extra cardboard envelope. “Thanks,” I smile. “I liked him, too.”

The hospital is 15 minutes away. Before I even reach Grandpa Tom’s room, my dad and uncle tell me that my grandfather is beyond recovery at this point. We are a small family, but within minutes nearly all of us are there. Both my brothers, my dad, my eldest uncle and his wife, my mom.

Most of what happens next is my family’s story, belonging to all of us. The rest of them are more private than me. By a lot. I show Grandpa Mac the picture through his barely-open blue eyes. I feel silly and showy talking about Bill Clinton, how he’s kept off his weight with a vegan diet. I explain how we saw him stumping for Obama at UW-Green Bay in October 2012. My family doesn’t really like Bill Clinton, and I’m phrasing this conservatively. But they love me and they love Grandpa Tom and he asked and, my goodness, what else should I say? It’s all he’s ever asked me for.

Within minutes my brother assumes control. He’s a priest and he’s there to administer Last Rites, Extreme Unction. Just two days ago my grandfather had told my Fr. Brother to call the Archdiocese. “Those Communion wafers are so dry. It got stuck in my throat.” Fr. Brother and I both laughed at that, and at Grandpa’s suggestion that whiskey be offered to ease Christ’s body down the throats of the sick and suffering.

The Rites give those moments in the room momentum and meaning. One passage is a litany of names, all of them saints, that my brother recites to Grandpa Tom: “Perpetua, Joseph, Augustine, Felicity, Mary, Francis.” I feel certain my grandfather is trying to remove his breathing mask and I start to say this, shattering the list, before I remember that these are not just words I’m interrupting. These are Last Rites. My grandfather’s stirring eases as Fr. Brother places his hands on Grandpa’s head of black and grey hair. His waving arms still. My mother says “Look,” in a hushed voice, but we don’t really need to. We sense and see his stillness, instantly.

National Pancake Day

Ninety minutes later I am sitting at IHOP with my brothers and the girlfriend of the one who is not Fr. Brother. George is our server and he tells us that today, Feb. 5, 2013, is National Pancake Day. Short stacks are free for everyone. “I can’t believe Grandpa Tom died on National Pancake Day,” I say, mostly because I did not know National Pancake Day existed.

We place our orders. George leaves. Fr. Brother asks me what I was saying during Last Rites. “I couldn’t understand you,” he says, looking relaxed and almost ready to laugh. “Were you saying it was too long?”

Of course not, I explain. I apologize for the interruption, explain that I should not have said anything. I feel like I’ve been exposed for being briefly, awkwardly intolerant, disrespectful. I don’t think Fr. Brother sees it that way at all, however. I hope not.

We talk about books and movies. Grandpa and our parents. National Pancake Day. FMLA  and Last Rites are behind us for now. I know more about both after this week. I won’t forget.

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